The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

By now, everyone has heard about the ruckus that took place at Middlebury College in Vermont when conservative scholar Charles Murray came for a discussion.  It is a very disturbing story and seems to point to  coarsening culture where different viewpoints bring out fear instead of tolerance and questioning.

One of the most interesting voices that arose during the aftermath is Alison Stenger, a professor at Middlebury, a self described liberal and the liasion to Murray during his time on campus.  While she was trying to protect Murray from the protestors, she was yanked and thrown to the ground resulting in concussion and a neck injury.  Writing in the New York Times, she saw the event as a microcosm of a larger problem:

In the days after the violence, some have spun this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, our coddled youth or intolerant liberalism. Those analyses are incomplete.

Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.

It used to be that our culture was one where ideas were brought up and debated. But increasingly, we are becoming less tolerant of any view that deviates from what we consider the norm. As Fred Bauer writes in the National Review essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” denying those deemed racist or sexist the right to speak is becoming the norm.

And this behavior seems to be making its way to the church.  Recently, Princeton Seminary invited Tim Keller to the campus to recieve an award.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  But Princeton is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant body while Tim Keller is a minister from the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Protestant body.  Keller is know in church planting and evangelistic circles for his planting of a PCA church in New York that has become a megachurch, with locations throughout the Big Apple.

But there are problems.  The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative body that doesn’t ordain women and has what could be called “traditional” views on marriage and sexuality.   The PC(USA) allows for women clergy and within the last 10 years, allowed gays and lesbians to be pastors.

I tend to think it is a good thing that Princeton is reaching beyond its liberal comfort zones to welcome and honor a fellow Christian with whom they might disagree with on some issues.

But the reaction to Keller receiving this award has been one of shock and anger.  Alumni from Princeton Seminary are appalled that it would even consider granting Keller an aware because of his views on ordaining women.This is what Presbyterian pastor Traci Smith has to say about this:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

Another blogger and Presbyterian pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, goes even further. She doesn’t get why Princeton would give an award and the space to talk to someone who support complementarianism which she believes supports the abuse of women:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complimentarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Now let me be clear: I support the ordination of women. I am not a complementarian. That said, I don’t think that means that people who are complementarians or are against the ordination of women should be banned from a seminary. Because if we start not welcoming people because of differing views, that make us no better than when conservatives do the same thing.

And yes, I’m pretty sure Keller thinks homosexuality is a sin.  But I’m not offended by that or fearful- it’s one person’s viewpoint and having him come to give a speech doesn’t threaten the rights of gays and lesbians.

This is part of a disturbing trend that I am seeing among the Left and within Progressive Christianity- the tendency to not listen to dissenting views.  The views themselves are deemed harmful to people and some believe that progressive churches shouldn’t allow those with views like opposing the ordination to even set foot on a seminary campus to give a speech.

We live in an age that is far more tribal.  People draw sharp lines to demarcate who is in and who is out.  We sit afraid that someone will say something that we don’t agree with and will reign down havoc along with the end of all that is fair and good.

People are (rightly) offended when Donald Trump talks about building a wall on our southern border, but he is simply showing what is going on in American society these days; the erection of walls to protect us from those who are different than us.  We can’t really say boo to Trump for building a wall when Americans are doing that with their friends and neighbors.  Trump’s wall is just a symptom of a larger problem.

I would like to believe that we can learn to trust each other and be willing to open ourselves up to alternate views that might make us uncomfortable.  But I think we are heading towards a new Dark Age where Christian belief in loving our neighbor or our enemy is being set aside for something far more harsher. It is an age where we might even believe that conservative Christians aren’t even real Christians.

It used to be common among more progressive Christians to hear talk about the need “to stay at the table” or to work on healing the bonds of community.  There was a belief that people of differing opinions need to stay engaged with each other and that even those who had the “losing” view were part of the community. Such language seems absent these days. Maybe it was because of some of the great sucesses that we have seen in the area of gay rights.  Maybe people started to think that it wasn’t necessary to bridge differences.

Seminaries like other institutions of higher learning should be places where we have our beliefs challenged and where we learn that the other side is just as human as we are.  But academia has become a place where only certain views are tolerated.

What bothers me more and more is that Progressive churches are becoming places that are more Progressive than they are Christian.  Like Charles Murray, there are things about Keller that I disagree with.  But we should be more willing to welcome a fellow Christian and listen to what he has to say and offer our own views.  He needs to hear other views on the role gays and women in the church, but you don’t learn that by trying to bar someone from campus because their views don’t match yours.

Seminary President Craig Barnes is doing his best to be honest to where Princeton stands on gay inclusion and women’s ordination, but he is also taking a stand against a kind of censorship.

It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

As I said before, as a gay man, there is always a bit of apprehension around those who might see what I do as a sin. But I am reminded that we follow the One who allowed himself to be vulnerable to suffer for the salvation of the world. If Jesus can do that, we can sit and listen to those we might disagree with. Because God is with us and has been through this before.

That is, if we have the grace to take a step in faith.

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One thought on “The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

  1. Really helpful. Dennis. I’ve a similar feeling about “repressive tolerance” for a while now and you put it into words for really clearly. Thank you!

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