Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part Five)

UnknownA common view, at least within many evangelical circles, is that a “culture” cannot be changed. Before I proceed to argue against this view let me define my terms just a bit.

I am using the word “culture” as it has evolved in English usage through the social sciences. It came to refer, in the 20th century, to a central concept within anthropology that encompassed the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” has two meanings:

  1. The evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively.
  2. The distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.

It is this second use that I have in mind in my title for this series of blogs. Can a seminary, such as Westminster in Philadelphia, experience a significant cultural change that would make it look, feel and function like a different institution?

How could the institutional culture at Westminster Theological Seminary be truly changed? How could the present members of the board, of the administration and on the current faculty change the culture of this institution that they work within? I obviously have my doubts that a seminary can be radically altered (unless there is some kind of spiritual renewal) but I want to take what I believe to be a “best practice” stab at a more positive way forward. This way is rooted in what I call, in the book that I am currently writing, “the spirituality of love.”

  1. People at Westminster, at least in the past, have been some of my close friends. These friends have often felt trapped in a community that is continually being torn apart by conflict. This cultural reality of conflict at Westminster is, to my mind, beyond serious doubt. There has been decades of conflict at WTS that has created a deep climate of suspicion. On both sides people feel wronged and misunderstood. Many ask: “Where is the school going and what does this mean for me personally?” The only way to answer this type of question is to underscore that we share a common commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and then work out what this means relationally! Regardless of our theological disagreements, we remain one in Him. When this is truly embraced we can then move toward each other openly rather than against one another privately. This requires a common commitment to “speaking the truth in love.” It also requires that the faculty, administration and trustees sow seeds of trust and friendship by intentionally adopting responses that are consciously rooted in agape. This will require hard work, the kind of hard work that few are willing to put into such a process until they believe it is essential for their life together. Seminaries are all notoriously weak at this very point since they are focused on doctrine and teaching, not on loving and living in deep community. (I know one or two magnificent exceptions to this general observation.) To give you but one example from Westminster I present the following illustration from my own visits to the campus and my knowledge about how things work at WTS. The chapel and spiritual life at Westminster have never been a strong center in this community, at least for many, many years. I observed this the very first time I was on campus, long before I knew about the history or culture of the school. Westminster felt like a collection of academic buildings with an exceptionally bright faculty and a steady diet of theology. The students were not easy to talk to in my coming and going. I lodged in Machen Hall and sought out students and I found again and again Westminster students were young people with good minds but they often lacked a high RQ (Relational Quotient). Often they were distant, even non-relationally curious about people different from them.
  2. My friends at Westminster, both past and present, believe that a positive vision of the school’s future is possible but not where the type of conflict that create winners and losers continues. The Westminster climate is highly political. Questions such as the following prevail in conversations: “Why can’t we get this right?” “What is my future here?” “Why can’t we resolve our problems?” “Why should we talk to one another as friends?” All of this evokes frustration, despair and negativity. Finally, a fatigue of spirit impacts everything. You can only embrace a “warrior spirit” for so long without finally creating an unhappy place both to live and to teach.
  3. Westminster can only move beyond these present trials by admitting that its past has been deeply troubled and a great deal needs to be put right now. There is a time for institutional leaders to admit the mistakes of the past with deep humiliation and to ask for forgiveness. (Consider how Pope John Paul II responded to the Jews in the latter period of his papacy.) Leaders at Westminster could do this by cultivating a growing desire to reflect on their historical patterns and perspectives, the very kinds of issues that got them into this place. Then they could seek a new direction within the dialogue of love and mutual respect. The very term politics is not evil in itself. Plato and Aristotle used the term to describe an ideal polis, meaning an ideal city or community as a whole. Seminaries will become, in one way or another, a kind of polis. I suggest that the central political issues at Westminster can only be solved by admitting that politics is a definite part of this seminary culture. Then the leaders must recognize that politics are way too important to be done without adopting and following healthy rules of personal engagement. Simply put, Westminster, needs hope for positive change. The late Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, said: “The possibility of loving our neighbor in a crescendo of charity; from interpersonal love to an ever greater love towards the polis” is the only way to change cultures. I believe she was right. This direction would require members of the board to spend time with faculty members so that they could develop deep friendships. It would also mean that administrators would need to spend lots of time sharing meals and coffee with faculty members. And professors need to spend real time with students outside the classroom. It would mean that faculty members must open their doors and focus on love for the other rather than on their private studies and professional academic writing. This will prove to be especially difficult since the faculty at WTS does not instinctively feel drawn to do this kind of hard work, at least historically. (Several seminaries have adopted some of these basic principles but within evangelicalism this approach is quite uncommon.)
  4. Westminster, including faculty past and present, can renew their polis but only if they are willing to make a sincere effort to stop the professional damage control and then seek to create a public life that is “for everyone and by everyone.” This means participation and it invites divine grace. The human tendency is to justify skepticism, especially by those who have left the school. Among those who are still in leadership the tendency, now more than ever, will be to embrace triumph. What is needed is a radical vision of love, a vision that doesn’t just talk about love but one that makes it an institutional and personal priority. If the “love of others” dominates a seminary then there will be almost nothing for a lawyer to do. Look at an institution and if you see a lawyer continually involved in how decisions are made and written about then there is likely to be a culture which already has some very serious problems. When this is the case something is quite seriously wrong. Again, this is all too true in many seminaries across America. (I am not suggesting that there is never a time for a legal counsel but simply that a litigious presence and spirit should be very unusual, never normal.)

Tomorrow: Part Six

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