Peter Homans, religious scholar who examined the transformative power of loss in psychology, 1930-2009

Calmetta Coleman
Director of Communications for Civic EngagementUniversity Communications

University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Peter Homans died Saturday, May 30 at a nursing home in Evanston. Homans, 78, had been suffering from the effects of a recent stroke.

Homans, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Religious Studies in the Divinity School, is best known for his groundbreaking work on the relationship between religion and psychology in the process of mourning. Homans concentrated his teaching and writing on the histories, theories, and practices of mental and spiritual healing, especially on their roots in religious traditions.

Homans was the author of three books: Theology After Freud, Jung in Context and most notably, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis. All of his works reflect a lifelong interest in the important place of cultural and religious symbols in the psychological life of the individual and the sociological life of a society. Homans was "especially concerned about loss and mourning as sources of individual and cultural transformation," said his daughter, Jennifer A. Homans.

Homans also studied the symbolic and psychological aspects of contemporary cultures, and he spoke and wrote extensively on the ways that breakdowns in social certainties and regularities in society call forth a need for "meaning making" in order to restore cohesion. His last book is an edited collection, Symbolic Loss: the Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century's End."

Homans was born in New York City and received his undergraduate education in the humanities at Princeton University before earning a Bachelor of Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1964.

Homans taught social science and the history of religion at the University of Chicago from 1965 until his retirement in 2001. Rick Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, said of Homan, "For over three decades, Peter Homans was a distinguished teacher and advisor to students at the Divinity School and in the University, and a leading thinker about psychology as a-if not the-decisive cultural expression of the 20th century."

He also remembered Homans as a scholar who thought not only deeply, but broadly. "Whether in conversation or print, Peter was invariably meticulous and considered, yet he did so in a way that asked very large questions," Rosengarten said.

A deeply caring and considerate teacher, Homans engaged generations of students with his cross-disciplinary approach. His research ranged from psychology to religion and from the humanities to social science and medicine. Homans' daughter described her father as always "quietly encouraging and sympathetic to individuals and research approaches that departed from the ordinary."

He is survived by his wife, Celia; three daughters, Jennifer, Patricia and Elizabeth; as well as six grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a memorial service for Homans in late June at Bond Chapel. For more information and condolences to the family, please contact Jennifer Homans at jah20@nyu.edu.