In this, my final post about the culture and conflict at Westminster Theological Seminary (if you do not know what this is about then see my posts from last week) I offer some more thoughts about how a “spirituality of love” could transform the institution inside and out. I offer these points very sincerely and in hopes that some will hear me and act in faith to seek a better WTS.
- Amy Uelmen, in her aforementioned book, Positive Political Dialogue, says that the fourth step to a “spirituality of love” in political contexts is to “recognize suffering as a springboard to love.” The suffering that has transpired at Westminster Seminary is immense. I do not know the future of the school but I have to guess that this new controversy is not the end. Some may celebrate that they have “cleaned house.” I hope this is not the case. Will more bodies fall and more faculty leave, some for very different reasons than the Christotelic debates about hermeneutics? Amy Uelmen asks, working out of a “spirituality of love,” the following: “Do I think about the persons who are suffering because of these ‘issues’ with the same love that I hope to have for a wounded Jesus on the cross?” This questions takes you right into the heart of this spirituality I am writing about. “Is my perspective . . . grounded in an effort to love by entering into and living inside these wounds, and as much as possible, taking them on as my own” (40)? This type of question is not common to Reformed Christians. The reason may be that it sounds too Catholic. The simple fact is that it is both theologically and practically the right question. Jesus himself saw others as connected with himself, made room for their questions, pulled out of them what was positive even in the midst of very negative situations, and then built his response on the positive, not the negative. If you wonder where I got this then read John 8:3-11 carefully. Jesus did not equivocate on the requirements of the moral law. My Reformed friends would properly remind me of this point. But Jesus went much further than the law when he said, “Neither do I condemn her.” What is called for here is not moral outrage, or even courage, but a “personal encounter with the unconditional love of God that gave the woman the courage and strength to made a radical moral change in her life” (42). We can practice the presence of Christ in a community when we recognize suffering as a springboard to deep love.
- The last step I would submit to everyone connected to Westminster Seminary, past or present, is to seek for the building up of the polis of the seminary by constructive actions. The question for the seminary, and for its critics as well, is clear: “What can we do?” Those pushed out feel a loss of dignity and love even more than a loss of income and status. Some of those on the inside feel they have acted wisely and justly. What is needed is a new attitude that will “defrost” the public context through private and personal actions. I do not debate that there are real issues at Westminster. I have made it clear that I like the Christotelic way of reading the Scripture. But this is not what ultimately matters if love is the true goal and the health of the seminary community is a priority. Chaira Lubich spoke about the work of “political love.” She was referring to politics in the non-religious arena but the principles can be applied to a case like that of Westminster Seminary. In such a polis we work “to create and safeguard conditions which enable all other types of love to blossom . . . [we need] clear and reliable rules” (Five Steps, 56). I submit that ways of engaging in love need to be deeply considered by the remaining leaders and faculty at Westminster Seminary.
Wouldn’t it be a glorious day to read about how the Holy Spirit swept across this seminary community in Pennsylvania and old foes were welcomed into a healthy new conversation rooted in radical love where past hurts were healed and lives deeply changed through repentance? Wouldn’t it be a great day if the trustees sat down with various former members of the faculty and shared a meal, a time of prayer, a time of loving friendship and the pursuit of an entirely new polis?
Is my suggestion a “pipe dream?” I guess the answer is yes. But then I believe the teaching of Jesus cuts right across most of what we commonly do in conflicts. We defend our position, explain why we hold it and then walk away. I am suggesting something so radical that we would begin to do exactly the opposite. Even my friends who left Westminster would find this way difficult I have to believe since they would need to open their lives up to being hurt all over just to take the risk of pursuing their enemies in this radical love. I cannot say who should take the first step, though it would appear to me that the leaders of the institution are the logical first choice. But it takes only one person to pray and seek God and then respond in a whole new way. This new way could make a difference that transcends all the labels and debates.
I have experienced the pain and loss of institutional approval and compensation. I have also seen a ministry come down around me and some of my friends leave me. It hurts. It hurts very, very deeply. But I have slowly learned a new and better way: “The spirituality of love.” (I am on a journey thus I have in no way perfected this pursuit.) I encourage all my friends to seek this new way. It is really not that new since this is what our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe it culminates in Matthew 5:48, a text that I misunderstood as law (a law we could not fulfill) for all the years that I spent in the conservative Reformed world. The love that we are all called to perfect (mature) is the love of God our Father. This loves reaches down to those who hate him and curse him. This loves prompted Jesus to bless those who despised him. This love culminates in the death of Christ on the cross. This love alone can restore the blessings of a school like Westminster Seminary. If I am wrong then I welcome your helpful corrective words. Before God I have sought to do no harm. I seek only peace by the way of the cross. This way has not been tried and found wanting at WTS. I believe it has rarely been tried, especially inside of Christian institutions that are run like corporations rather than like Christ-like communities.
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Valuable, important points again, John. What I might add is that we can be almost certain (I say without knowing any of the specifics of the WTS controversies and actions taken, though I will probably now look into them) that theology IS indeed a good part of the “real issue”. However, not in the ways that any of the parties probably understand.
I will word this as cautiously as possible, so as not to oversimplify complex issues and processes: There are WAYS of thinking, perceiving things and then acting that do have some sequential and hierarchical arrangement. In general, the “higher” (or more developed, mature, wise) levels move toward connectedness (beyond mere tolerance) and ability at “perspective-taking” (relative to even one’s “enemy”, who might be considered apostate, or someone actually harboring ill-will). There is an ongoing broadening of one’s circle of inclusion. This we see particularly in Jesus and in Paul (despite his acrimony, at times, toward his opponents who I’m convinced were largely “The Twelve” Apostles). I presume the Christian-based exploration and exposition of such “stages of faith”, particularly by James Fowler, beginning in the 80s, has not been taken seriously by most traditionalist (or “conservative”) Christians because it calls them beyond what they see as “biblical” stances… and the growth steps can be challenging, as you allude to here!
This is how I mean that disputes such as this one are indeed theological (and “psychological”), but on a level not really grasped by most or perhaps all of the antagonists… mostly a different way of stating what you’ve already laid out.
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