Chris Horn, a student of mine from the early 1980s and now Director of the Writers’ Group in the University of South Carolina’s office of Communications and Public Affairs, has recently written an article about my several decades of teaching at USC, the second article in so many years. I’m deeply grateful to Chris for his kindness and thoughtfulness, though I fear that both pieces are overly generous! As far as I can tell, I was simply in the right place at the right time and in front of the right group of students, and blessed—most importantly—with the guidance and protection of God.
I’ve decided to share the articles with the readers of Anamnēsis, not (again) because I think I’m somehow especially deserving of praise, but rather as a way of thanking publicly both the departmental colleagues who hired me and strongly supported my work during my first years in the classroom and the students who began taking, and continued to take, my classes and whose enthusiasm made nearly every day a joy.
The first of Mr Horn’s articles appeared online on May 29th of last year, just before a retirement party planned and hosted by my wonderful wife. Here’s the link, but I’m also pasting the text below:
Religious studies professor contemplates a lesson in dying
Religious studies professor James Cutsinger has wrestled with life’s deep questions of sin, faith and suffering, pondering the existence of God and the meaning of life with thousands of students over the course of nearly four decades at the University of South Carolina.
James Cutsinger taught in religious studies at USC for 37 years, retiring after a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. His wife, Carol, retired last year after 19 years as a staff member at USC Aiken.
Now, at age 65, Cutsinger is facing a final exam of sorts — the test of his own theological insights in the face of a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Cutsinger, who joined the university faculty in 1980 and officially retired this semester, says coming to terms with the grim diagnosis has confirmed his convictions.
“I’m ready to verify what I think I know,” he says. “I’ve been praying, pondering, teaching and speculating about this stuff for over 40 years. It’s going to be interesting to find out how it all works.
“I guess some people have crises of faith — but that’s not me at all. It’s all gotten more certain and deep, not more doubtful or shallow.”
Cutsinger began teaching at Carolina in 1980 at age 27, fresh out of a doctoral program at Harvard. Except for a year of sabbatical, he taught every semester through spring 2017, winning many teaching accolades including the prestigious Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year award. “I had no intention of retiring,” he says. “I had 37 years, and I was going for 50. I would never get tired of teaching.”
But the onset of a paralyzed vocal chord late last May led to a diagnosis of lung cancer, quite a surprise for someone who had never smoked. His wife, Carol, retired as an administrative assistant at USC Aiken just before his diagnosis. The past year has been difficult with several health crises, but after chemotherapy and radiation, Cutsinger’s health has stabilized for now and the prospect of a new immunotherapy trial offers some measure of hope.
In the meantime, many of Cutsinger’s former students have reached out to their former professor and mentor, and he has responded with a monthly email communique that chronicles his health and spiritual state. The emails, some of them quite lengthy, have become an extension of the classroom lectern, giving Cutsinger a platform to continue engaging former students and friends about the deep questions of life, whether mortal or eternal.
Most of the 4,000 or so students who took his courses and seminars over the years remember his contemplative nature and intellectually rigorous approach to any topic. Death, it seems, is no exception.
“I’ve already bought my coffin, which is a very good memento mori. Do you know that Latin expression? It literally means ‘remember to die,’ but it comes by extension to mean, ‘remember, you will die,’” he says.
“I’m not looking forward to the dying process, but the passageway itself is going to be exhilarating, interesting, fascinating, especially for someone like me who studies religion, and not just in the way of someone collecting stamps or coins. The reason I chose this profession was so that I could think about what I had already existentially internalized.”
Last spring, Mr Horn approached me about the possibility of writing a second article, this time focused on my continuing interaction with a number of former students, some of whom had become aware of my cancer only after reading his first piece online. One student in particular, Will Pearce, had contacted Chris, got my email address, and written me to share his own experience with a life-threatening illness. And this in turn led Chris to ponder the question of why I have continued to hear from—and so much enjoy discussing things with—students from as long ago as 1980, my first year in the profession. Hence, this second, longer article, written for publication in the USC alumni magazine, The Carolinian. The piece was posted online, in a slightly abbreviated form, on December 2nd; hardcopy of the magazine itself (including the full article) will begin circulating next week. Again I’ll give you the link, but also paste the text below:
PROFESSOR HELPED STUDENTS FIND THE LIGHT WITHIN
Students reflect on professor emeritus who never stopped teaching them
From the start, Will Pearce’s career in corporate finance law has flourished. He’s had stopovers in New York and London and now works in the Bay Area of California, where he made partner in his firm.
But the 2002 Honors College graduate isn’t just a number-crunching lawyer. He focused on religion and philosophy at the University of South Carolina before earning a dual degree in religion and law at Emory. That underpinning proved vital when he underwent a radical brain tumor surgery in 2017 that few survive. Slowly recovering and reflecting on what life had dealt him, Pearce reached out to James Cutsinger, his favorite religious studies professor and mentor at USC.
“I shot him an email to let him know that in the decade or so since we last saw each other life had been hard, but I fought through with some of the inspiration he gave me in class,” Pearce says. “I wanted to let Dr. Cutsinger know that some of the things he had taught me years ago had helped me.”
It’s a familiar refrain in academia—former students reconnecting with professors—and it has replayed innumerable times for Cutsinger, who taught thousands of students over the course of 37 years. But this time was different. Pearce learned that Cutsinger had gone through his own struggles with serious illness, having recently retired following a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Despite the grim news, Pearce found his professor, affectionately known by many as “The Gray-bearded Pilgrim,” to be as steady and resolute as ever.
“It wasn’t just being successful in the world that caused me to reach back out to him,” Pearce says. “His inspiration had kept me going in law school, and I got the great jobs I wanted because his inspiration pushed me ahead. He gave me the strength to fight through a brain tumor that was supposed to kill me. It’s an inspiration that has lasted more than 15 years beyond college.”
Not many professors inspire that kind of tribute. Some we forget and others are scarcely remembered. The taskmasters held us to high standards and perhaps earned respect for the knowledge they instilled. But inspiring? Only a select few reach that pedestal, even as they maintained lofty expectations and, through wit, charm, charisma or some other secret sauce, earned our enduring devotion.
Teaching religious studies undoubtedly contributed to some of Cutsinger’s deep connections with students as they tackled such heady topics as faith, suffering and the existence of God.
“People in that typical age range of 18 to 22 are often trying to figure out what in the world is going on, what the meaning of life is,” Cutsinger says. “I don’t think they get answers to those questions from most philosophy and religious studies professors, who are a little skittish about talking too much about Meaning with a capital ‘M’ in the classroom.
Employing the Socratic method in his teaching, James Cutsinger inspired students for 37 years as they tackled such heady topics as faith, suffering and the existence of God.
“I never did pussyfoot around and say, ‘Some people say this, and some people say that.’ I’m an absolutist, not a relativist. I would always say instead, ‘This is what I know, or at least believe, to be true.’ And it seems I was able to do that in a non-threatening, inviting way. Somehow, I was able to share the joy I have in big ideas, and people picked up on that.”
From the beginning of his career in 1980, when Cutsinger was a 27-year-old assistant professor, students started hanging out with him. With some, he mixed conversation and basketball, playing one-on-one on the courts around the corner from his office in Rutledge. Hoops sessions were less frequent as his knees got older, but the conversations were forever new, sometimes with whole groups of students gathering in his office after class.
Some sought him out well past graduation. Judy Lui, who earned bachelor’s and medical degrees in 1988 and 1992, respectively, took several courses with Cutsinger as an undergrad, the first of which “opened the door to another world I had never known before.” In medical school, her former professor became a sounding board as she wrestled with various ethical questions and moral dilemmas associated with her chosen field. “He helped me to think through death and the soul and the body — and that became part of my med school education.”
Bradley Studemeyer, a 2014 religious studies graduate who began law school at USC this fall, says Cutsinger never dodged students’ questions or tried to talk over their heads, but he was always trying to bring them to a broader view.
“The fact that he was able to take all religious traditions seriously, to take them at their word and try to understand why they believed it and whether it was worth believing yourself—there’s just something incredibly engaging about that that you don’t get in other disciplines,” he says.
Cutsinger’s personal faith lies unshakably in Orthodox Christianity, with a strong leaning toward its mystical elements, but students of other faiths—Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and generic spiritual seekers—joined the list of those who stayed in touch after graduation.
“In the university classroom, I always took a perennialist approach, the idea being that Truth with a capital ‘T’ has been expressed and re-expressed over time in a variety of spiritual dialects,” he says. “A common analogy I liked to use with college kids is that God is at the top of a mountain, while various world religions represent divergent starting points at the base, following different paths of ascent, but coming closer to each other as they approach the summit.”
Scott Murray, a 1994 Honors College graduate who took several of Cutsinger’s courses, says there was something ever deeper at work in those class sessions, a nearly palpable sense among the students that this professor wanted them to reach higher, push harder and excel.
“What made the deepest impression right off the bat was how seriously he took his time with students in the classroom. It wasn’t something he took for granted,” says Murray, who has worked abroad for years, most recently as a tonal wood buyer for guitar manufacturing in India.
“He took very seriously the students who were understanding the material and who obviously gravitated toward it. But he also took seriously the student who had an honest or perhaps an even less than honest objection to something that was being said. He responded with equal discipline of mind and attitude toward everyone. He would take an inordinate amount of time to help one student understand something that I suspected 90 percent of the others understood quite well.”
Jordan Bissell, one of Cutsinger’s graduate students from a decade ago, remembers getting back the first paper with his professor’s edits. “It was marked with so much red ink that you could have mistaken it for a spilled bottle of ketchup,” says Bissell, now an academic adviser at Indiana University. “And yet attached to it was nearly a page of typed commentary from Dr. C, encouraging me and also noting where my ideas were incoherent or underdeveloped.”
It’s true that Cutsinger made student writing a focus and didn’t hesitate to uncap his red pen. To cure their writing deficiencies—or at least reduce the severity of the most serious illnesses—he produced “A Breviary of English Usage,” a 15-page guide to clearer writing that he distributed at the beginning of every semester. But better writing wasn’t the only outcome of his efforts.
“Far more precious than any skills he helped impart, James made me realize the connection between ideas and life, between what one studied and how one lived, between knowledge and virtue,” says Wade Kolb, a 2000 history graduate.
While Cutsinger devoted himself to teaching in and out of the classroom—and was recognized with the university’s highest teaching awards—he poured himself into scholarship nearly every summer, writing and editing 14 books over the course of his career. “That was almost serendipity, really. I never had to go in search of a publisher; acquisition editors often came looking for the books,” he says. Senior stars in his field, like Huston Smith, became close friends and were generous in offering their support to a fledgling academic. Several of Cutsinger’s titles, including Advice to the Serious Seeker, explored the teachings of Frithjof Schuon, a 20th-century Swiss philosopher.
Eric Cox Merkt, one of Cutsinger’s first students in 1981 and now a senior lecturer at the American University of Iraq, was introduced by Cutsinger to Schuon and other authorities on traditional metaphysics and comparative mysticism. Those studies widened Merkt’s vision, and he ultimately forged a friendship of nearly 40 years with his former professor. “I never ‘lost’ anything in my studies with Professor Cutsinger, but I found the goodness of my insights confirmed and expanded, comprehended into something ‘more,’ something truer, more comprehensive, and consequently more beautiful,” he says.
As word of Cutsinger’s illness has spread, former students who haven’t been in touch in years have reconnected. Many traveled long distances to attend a retirement event in his honor last year in Aiken, South Carolina, trading good-natured quips about the professor who profoundly influenced so many.
“Through him, I came to understand that whatever conclusions one reaches regarding the riddle of life or who one is as a human have profound implications for how one acts in the world and how one treats others,” says Kolb, who graduated 19 years ago.
“James did not convey [this] in a clever lecture or a probing question or a comment in the margin of an essay. He conveyed it instead through the self-effacing gift of himself, given generously to generations of students who know him as a friend, and as the one who helped them find the light within themselves.”
I’m deeply indebted to Chris Horn for his kindness—and for the time and energy it took in pulling together these overly flattering comments! I’m particularly grateful for the line with which he chose to end the piece and which became part of his title, a line which, to my way of thinking, is a much more sober and accurate formulation. For truly: all any teacher is—all I really was, at least on the days I was “on”—is a catalyst.
As for me, I can think of no better way of ending this post than by underscoring my gratitude to God for giving me so rewarding an opportunity: a “career” that was truly a calling, a “job” that was really a joy.