Respectfully diverse

July 10, 2012

What is it about theological educators that allows them to get along with civility and respect in spite of wide theological diversity? I attended the recent biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools and was impressed with the spirit of friendship there. Maybe it’s because ATS doesn’t attempt to come to consensus about divisive issues. ATS has even negotiated the choppy waters of gender diversity among member ecclesial bodies.

The ATS’s executive director, Daniel O. Aleshire, noted that of the more than 250 schools in ATS, about 40 percent are mainline Protestant, about 40 percent are evangelical and about 20 percent are Roman Catholic, with representation from Unitarian Universalists and Pentecostals as well. He explained that ATS maintains community by emphasizing practices that enhance community: “Get to know persons and relate to them as individuals.” He told about David Hubbard, former president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, and Vincent Cushing, head of the Washington Theological Union (Roman Catholic), who used to spend a weekend together annually to discuss their institutions’ challenges, and in the process became great friends.

ATS president Richard Mouw, head of Fuller Theological Seminary, has respect and credibility with both mainline and evangelical folks and has initiated conversations with Mormon leaders. Mouw presented the 2012 Award for Distinguished Service to Barbara Wheeler, director of the Center for Theological Education, who knows more about theological education across the theological and ecclesiastical spectrum than anyone I know. Wheeler has done important comparative research in mainline and evangelical seminaries. She is an unapologetic liberal Presbyterian and has built a friendship with Mouw, an eloquent, unapologetic evangelical. As I observed the laughter and lively conversation between these two and their spouses at the banquet table, I wished liberals and evangelicals in my denomination could experience something similar.

Fr. Shawn McKnight (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) reported on the increase in the number of Catholic seminary students, but added that it does not compensate for losses through retirement and death. Leith Anderson (National Association of Evangelicals) reported on the energy and vitality among evangelical schools and the steady growth in the evangelical community at large. Evangelicals, he said, were adjusting to a move from the periphery of American religion to the center.

I reported that the 12 schools related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are robust, healthy and led by some of the brightest and most faithful Presbyterians I know. But the traditional model of theological education—three or four years of study in a residential graduate school setting—is encountering new challenges. Student debt makes vocational choices difficult, and second-career students cannot pick up their families and move to a campus. We need creative thinking about how to provide mainline Protestant leaders for the future.

I added that my greatest fear is that we mainline churches seem to be mirroring the deep ideological divide in our nation. We all would benefit from the respect, civility and Christian charity are modeled by the ATS family.


Respectfully Diverse

John, you usually hit the nail on the head, and maybe you did on this piece, too. Yet, I would offer something different.

Civility, in some settings, is easy, but I wonder how deep it can go.

I just finished the Douthat article in the New York Times:

He offers up all the old canards of the evangelical dance on the so-called Ecumenical Protestant grave.

Perhaps a group of scholars can achieve some degree of civility and mutual respect, but does that rarified atmosphere offer hope for the church as a whole? Can it go any further? 

Over the years, I've watched Ecumenical Protestants bend over backward to prove their credentials to Evangelical Protestants, with little success. As long as they have numbers on their side, it's very difficult for them to see us with a kindly eye. In fact, as the Douthat article reveals, it's all about numbers. Big attendance proves truthfulness; small attendance proves heresy. End of case.

I've been reading Calvin on the Anabaptists, and for the first time, I've noted his refusal to be intimidated by their claims to be "abiding in the Word." He calls their claims, "tricks" and "equivocation." 

Today's evangelicals are clearly the descendants of Calvin's Anabaptists, and it's time, I think, for someone to call their bluff and make it clear that their claims are "tricks" and "equivocation." Evangelical creationism, reconstructionism, confusion about gender and race, denial of global warming, militarism and flag waving offer a view of life and faith radically different than that of Ecumenical Protestantism, and we should be surprised when American Christians are attracted to this these claims backed up with technology cart (2 Samuel 6.3) of pumping music and Matrix-type video.

Been reading the transcript of Auburn Seminary's response to Douthat's article:

As Diana Butler Bass says of Douthat - "He's just wrong."

Good food and fellowship helps us get to know one another,and we can laugh together, but in the end, our vision of the church, and probably of America, is very different. In Calvin's terms, Either infant baptism is valid, as a component of the Covenant, or the Anabaptist claim is valid. Both cannot be true.

After the table fellowship, I fear that the real divisions remain, and we honor the church and the truth, whatever that may be, if we enjoy the evening even as we remember that tomorrow we face a day's hard work.

Anyway, just a few thoughts.

Always appreciate of the Century.

Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor, Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA