Beloved professor Cliff Edwards, a founder of VCU’s religious studies program, retires after 45 years

July 20, 2020

clifford edwards in his office

When Cliff Edwards, Ph.D., arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1975, his first task was to design the university’s religion major, focusing on the world’s religious traditions from a global perspective.

“I wrote up such a curriculum, and put a strong emphasis not on the popular Bible type program of the 1970s, but on the variety of Asian religions and their place in global perspective in world culture, thought and the arts,” said Edwards, who, prior to joining VCU’s faculty, earned his doctorate in comparative religions at Northwestern University, and had studied at The East-West Center in Hawaii, at a Zen monastery in Japan, at the University of Strasbourg in France, at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, and at the Hebrew Union School of Bible and Archaeology in Jerusalem.

The Board of Visitors went on to enthusiastically approve Edwards’ plan. Now, after having served as a professor in that program for 45 years, Edwards is preparing to retire at the end of this month.

Edwards, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has been beloved by VCU students for decades, teaching Bible as Literature, Zen Buddhism, and a variety of courses in religion and the arts.

He is also a prolific scholar and author on religion and art, writing two books on Japanese haiku and several on the spiritual journey of Vincent Van Gogh.

“By the 1980s, I had turned my attention almost entirely to creativity and the arts as revealed in the life and work of Van Gogh,” Edwards said. “So in 1989, I published ‘Van Gogh and God,’ and in the following years ‘The Shoes of Van Gogh,’ ‘Mystery of the Night Cafe,’ and ‘Van Gogh’s Ghost Paintings.’”

Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and Edwards was dealing with radiation treatments for cancer, he decided to write one last Van Gogh book, “Van Gogh's Second Gift.”

“It will be published in August and focuses on his letters and the letter sketches he drew,” Edwards said.

The book, published by Broadleaf Books, explores “Van Gogh’s second gift — the surprising written works of Van Gogh in letters to his brother, fellow artists, and friends,” according to the publisher. “Edwards illuminates Van Gogh's vision and creative process for readers as a way of living and creating more deeply.”

"The variety and energy of our students made every class session a challenge and an inspiration. Further, those teaching at VCU have amazed me by their dedication and their creativity. I often walked the halls just to listen in on their lectures and conversations with students."

Edwards was the first professor named the Powell-Edwards Distinguished Professor of Religion and the Arts at VCU.

“Marcia Powell, who made that professorship possible, was an older student of mine who loved VCU and helped me in my teaching and research well into her 90s,” he said.

Asked about the highlights from his career at VCU, Edwards said that just about every day stood out as exceptional.

“The variety and energy of our students made every class session a challenge and an inspiration,” he said. “Further, those teaching at VCU have amazed me by their dedication and their creativity. I often walked the halls just to listen in on their lectures and conversations with students. My own conversations with fellow teachers have tested my own work and led to wonderful new ways of viewing life and art and friendship.”

Most mornings on campus, Edwards could be found at James Branch Cabell Library in a chair with a cup of coffee and a pile of books to inspire him before entering the classroom.

“Who could ask for a better way to open a day, seeing the VCU community arriving each morning, and doing it over one of the collection’s great books?” he said.

Another highlight, he said, was an annual poetry reading organized by poet Gary Sange, associate professor emeritus in the Department of English, at which Edwards and Elizabeth Canfield, Ph.D., an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, would read their poetry in “a kind of conversation” with the poems of Sange.

Edwards never consciously set out on a specific career path; he wanted to study everything.

“My career has been like an unruly river snaking this way and that, for better or worse,” he said. “Early on I read all the works of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish doctor who survived Auschwitz, and I went to visit him at his clinic in Austria. He welcomed me and had me researching and writing articles for his journal on existential analysis or ‘logotherapy’ and its relation to Zen practices.”

Through a “Great Religions Fund” fellowship, Edwards spent a year at the Daitokuji Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan.. His time in Japan inspired him to study the role of Japanese art in the development of the art of Van Gogh, and soon he found himself deep in the letters and paintings of Van Gogh.

His research and writing are not done, however.

“In view of my cancer, my entering my 89th year of life, and COVID threats, I have now begun a book on themes that have entered my lectures at VCU more and more, the meaning and role of aging and death in our lives,” he said. “So if my move to Gainesville, Florida, in September allows it, I hope to work seriously on a book dealing with end-of-life issues, rolling my interests in Zen, Van Gogh’s art, logotherapy and more, into a final volume.”

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs