Terence Nichols believed in the power of conversation between Christians and Muslims, calling such dialogue “our last, best hope against a state of more or less permanent war.”
But the University of St. Thomas professor also believed in religion conversing with science. In Christianity considered alongside cosmology. In a life filled with books and hammers.
“He built bridges with not only members of other faiths but also other intellectual disciplines,” said his son, Peter Nichols. “That stems from his breadth of interests.”
Nichols, who founded the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at St. Thomas, died April 12, more than a year after his cancer was diagnosed. He was 73.
Born in Edina, a young Nichols was fascinated by chemistry. He often told stories about “experiments in his basement that nearly brought the house down,” said Michael Hollerich, a fellow theology professor at St. Thomas.
He studied chemistry at Harvard University for a few years but finished his degree at the University of Minnesota in 1966, majoring in humanities. For more than a decade, he owned a commercial roofing and waterproofing business. He and his wife, Mabel, also ran a St. Paul shop called Coat of Many Colors.
But his intellectual side “could not be neglected for very long,” Peter Nichols said. In 1982, he enrolled in graduate school, studying theology at Marquette University and regularly traveling back to Minnesota by motorcycle. Upon earning his doctorate in 1988, he joined the theology faculty at St. Thomas, later becoming department chairman.
Nichols taught one of the St. Paul university’s first courses on Christianity and world religions and introduced its first classes on theology and science and theology and the environment, according to St. Thomas.
“I walked into his office one night to find him with a calculus textbook,” Hollerich recalled in his eulogy, “because he thought he needed to get up to speed in math in order to talk to people from the science side.”
He wrote three books on “radically different topics,” Hollerich said. The shelves of the library in the octagonal house he designed and built on 8 acres in Cottage Grove were stuffed with volumes across a range of disciplines, Peter Nichols said. “And of course, he had to build additional shelves in other rooms of the house.”
Running into Nichols in the hall, “you would never get small talk,” Hollerich said. Instead, he’d tell you about what he was reading.
“He had, from the beginning, an interest in theology that was not abstracted or in disjunction from the natural world around us,” Hollerich said. “There was an intense realism to his religious faith.”
Nichols founded the Dialogue Center in 2007 and codirected it with fellow faculty member Adil Ozdemir. “The dialogue flows from the belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” according to the center’s website. Nichols often traveled internationally to pursue interfaith dialogue with Muslim colleagues and students, Ozdemir said.
During a discussion in Turkey two years ago, Nichols pulled out his Bible, then a copy of the Qur’an, recalled Bernard Brady, department chairman, in a 2012 newsletter. Nichols read a verse from each.
Bible: “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Qur’an: “All those who believe — the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians — all those who believe in God and the last day, and do what is good — will have their reward with their Lord.”
It was “a stunning moment,” Brady wrote.
At his funeral last week, three Christian and three Muslim friends were pallbearers.
In addition to Mabel and Peter, Nichols’ survivors include his sister, Gaydon Peck, daughters Michele Cella and Theresa Nichols and a grandson.