I began, in yesterday’s post, to offer my ideas about how a “spirituality of love” could transform the landscape of an institution such as Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS). Westminster is a school that has been known for internal controversy as much as almost any such conservative seminary that I know in the United States. WTS has had a major impact on many graduates and has clearly done a great deal of good, especially in terms of its high level of academic accomplishment. Yet the seminary has always struggled, so it seems to me as a long time friend, to become a community of love. It has been embroiled in controversy after controversy among members of the faculty, administration and (even) students for several decades or more.
What I propose could be applied to many seminaries as well as other kinds of institutions. This is why I have given this series the title that I have above. Today I add four new points to what I began proposing yesterday on how radical love could transform the seminary.
- Westminster could make it a priority to practice the communication skills of love. Keep love central, regardless of the disagreement and the intensity of a debate. “Above all, maintain constant love for one another” (1 Peter 4:8). We all struggle to allow a spirit of love to prevail in our relationships, especially when we are part of an institution like a seminary. Our means of communication are changing before our eyes. We now have media-based communication in things like blogs. Blogs can break down the boundaries of opinion journalism, which have a generally noble history. Anyone with a link to the Internet can freely say whatever they want. Previously excluded voices can now contribute to the exchange of basic opinions and ideas. In many ways this is a great positive. It allows the light to shine on people and their actions in ways that create deeper accountability. But there are downsides to this technology. Such conversations can all too quickly breakdown trust and provide simplistic and easy answers that people decide to accept based upon which side they have adopted in a disagreement. We then reinforce our own opinions by closely aligning ourselves with our friends. Says my friend Amy Uelmen, of Georgetown Law School, we create “an echo chamber” that “makes it difficult to broaden our personal horizons to take in alternative perspectives” (Five Steps to Positive Political Dialogue (Hyde Park, New York: New City press, 2014, 19). One of the dangers in this context, says Uelmen, is that we text or type as if we were face-to-face talking to one another. But we are not. We cannot see facial expressions, hurt, pain or joy. I wonder if we would “say” what we do if we had to say it face-to-face. I am not saying that we should end social media, not at all. I am no saint here and thus I have not learned to use this new communication network entirely well. I find that it often breaks down relationships rather than heals and restores them. We have to always work to do better.
- One of the most important points I have learned from the Focolare about the “spirituality of love” is that we must always love Jesus in the other. God is present in all our communication. We tend to get caught up in the world of the instant and miss the person right next door. In this case, the faculty member a few doors down from my office is out of sight. Real conversations with real people open new horizons and cause me to notice what I previously missed. Another principle of the “spirituality of love” is to “share other’s joy or pain.” What if this spirit had prevailed in everything that had happened, and is still happening, at an institution like Westminster Seminary? Seriously. I really mean this and I am not being naive I think. The least we can all do is to practice the “spirituality of love.” This love says, “I will always show love, even to my enemy.” If this brother down the hall is my theological opponent, and even if I think that he is teaching what I believe to be error, then how does that allow me to deal with him as a political person to be removed rather than as a brother to be loved? This goes for every side in the Westminster debate and for all similar controversies. Among Reformed Christians this alone would temper and alter the way divisions take place so routinely. If this was practiced I believe a wide variety of our personal and institutional actions would radically change. Another principle of “the spirituality of love” is to ask this question: “Am I the first to love?” What if every single person, in or out of Westminster, asked and lived out this simple, but profound, question? Is love my first choice in all my responses and views?
- One of the hardest things to do in a seminary culture is to strive for compromise. The word compromise is dirty to many. It is argued that an institution with a doctrinal statement and mission must be faithful to this statement and their mission. While I agree with this argument I have found it one that is very hard to practice. Without some compromise there is no basis for relationship at all. If you are married you know what I mean. Can a school close its eyes to the corrosive effects of power and not be harmed? Can it maintain high standards and still practice love? If the choice must be made then opt for love first. Ask, “What is the fullest expression of love that we can have here?” I submit that this is not bad theology. Quite the opposite. There are some things we must never do, such as lie or mislead. But working in a seminary context is not simply about telling the truth, or about teaching the truth in the system we have adopted. It is first about creating a community where learners and teachers can be trained at the feet of the One who is all-love. Most issues are not about good and bad but about discerning how to proceed and how to respond to one another. The interplay between the two positions on hermeneutics at Westminster could have been worked out very differently. What if a dialogue of love had been created and openness was the result. Amy Uelmen says “the interplay between . . . two positions can be compared to a team of hikers in which one group is focused on the compass, which gives an accurate but fairly general sense of direction. Another is focused on a topographic map, and has carefully marked out the paths that have been closed due to rockslides or other obstacles” (Five Steps, 32). Amy says that there are times when a certain layer of distrust sneaks into the conversation. This is what has happened at Westminster. There is a profound sense in which I think everyone agrees with this analysis. The conversation, says Uelmen, would then take this form: ‘’The topographical crowd does not want to robe across this rock pile because they really do not want to travel westward and are trying to find every possible way to slow up our journey.’ Or, ‘The compass-obsessed want to force us across this rock because, in their heart of hearts, they really do not care about the weaker hikers and want to weed them out of our group.’” What is the solution to this predicament? Somehow we must adopt a new agreement rooted in radical love that honors and prefers the other. The issue is trust and when trust is broken we must stop what we are doing and work at rebuilding it. Institutions will rarely do this until they have dynamic leadership that is humble and willing to face the past, present and future with an open heart aimed at preferring others over self. Will this be done at Westminster? I have no idea but humanly I doubt it. Could it be done? I am praying it will be and that Christ will be glorified in the process. Then lives can be healed and the school can chart a new and more effective course while it also remains faithful to its distinctive calling to prepare ministers for the conservative Reformed churches it serves.
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An interesting post John that I not only agree with, but need to parse.
Sociologists say that all religions have four things in common: (1) theology/vision: what is said about god; (2) ethics: the way the individuals in the group treat one another; (3) liturgy; the way the group interacts with god; (4) spirituality: the way the individual interacts with god.
In my humble opinion, after being at WTS for four years, I can tell you that the concept of “spirituality” is absent from the institution. The institution is not concerned with spirituality, with the individual practice. It’s not taught, it’s not reflected on, and it’s certainly not central to the institutional mission. They are concerned, however, with argumentation, exegesis, and languages. Therefore, for WTS to apply a “spirituality of love,” as you suggest, presupposes their need to grow in their understanding of the individual’s relationship with God in Christ, not to mention their need to grow in their understanding of love.
Matthew Paul Buccheri…well said, as this statement applies to many of our institutions and churches
Yes Matthew Paul Buccheri, better said than I said air actually. Thank you very much. The witness of former students here is powerful.
My impression of WTS (and many other seminaries, denominations, congregations, individuals who self-identify with Christianity) over the years has been that, too often, “It” has been about Faith in the Correct Propositions, rather than Faith in a Person. (NOT that The Propositions of the Faith are unimportant, but subsidiary) What I have called “Relationship Praxis” seems often to be just missing or conspicuously marginalized. Just sayin’..
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Tom Kushman, you are right on from what I’ve observed firsthand in seminaries as I travel to them all across the U.S. and Canada.
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I know very little of the specifics but I know that there have also been some nasty divisions and/or doctrinal fights at Westminster Sem. in California, where I go to use the library fairly often (but seldom talk to people and, if so, not about such matters). I don’t know if the culture there mimics that of Westminster (East) or not, but my guess is that some of the same dynamic does carry over… whether by history of by institutional connection.
Again, I’m not much “into” what goes on there, but am somewhat aware of publications by some of their profs, one in particular, and I don’t know of any of them that deal with spirituality or with the primacy of love in our communities and relationships.
And although I now differ on many points of theology with Evangelicals, I certainly welcome an applaud a focus such as you are presenting here, John. I see it as moving people back toward the core of what Jesus came to teach and demonstrate.