Soul-searching at Princeton Theological Seminary

(RNS) Tim Keller gave his lecture, did not get his award and returned to his famous Presbyterian church in New York with his theological ideas intact. Where does that leave the mainline seminary that hosted this controversy?

The Rev. Tim Keller speaks at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., on April 6, 2017.  Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary

PRINCETON, N.J. (RNS) After news emerged that Princeton Theological Seminary intended to honor Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, people were outraged.

How could an institution committed to full inclusion of women and LGBT people in ministry give a prize — and $10,000 — to someone who very publicly wasn’t? Indeed, how could the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s flagship graduate school honor a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination founded partly in opposition to the PCUSA’s decision to ordain women?

Then we learned Keller wouldn’t get the prize. Again, people were outraged. How could an institution committed to academic freedom silence Keller? What kind of “Christians” were these, backtracking on honoring a true man of God?

Lost amid these social-media-fueled caricatures was the on-campus reality. Seminary president Craig Barnes constantly heard a refrain: “I wonder if I really belong here.” Initially, it came from women and LGBT students.

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“They said that by making this award, we were affirming women and LGBTQ folks not being ordained,” Barnes says. “Then we started getting it from the other side. It was evangelical students saying, ‘I wonder if I really belong here.’”

A few points of clarification: Barnes didn’t pick Keller; a committee that includes no seminary representatives chose Keller as this year’s recipient of the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life – named after a famous Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian. That selection process was the consequence of a large, unfortunate, poorly structured donation years ago.

Nor did the on-campus protesters ask that the prize be rescinded or Keller’s lecture be canceled; “we understood,” said second-year student Zac Calvo, who helped draft the main protest letter, “how stuck between a rock and a hard place Barnes was.” And according to Barnes, Keller himself suggested a course change: “We decided it was too much a distraction. He said, ‘Why don’t we set aside the prize?’

“I just wish this seminary had done a better job than we did,” Barnes says. “I thought there would be a good debate. But it hasn’t been a good debate. Everybody’s edgy. People are worried about inclusion — right and left. There’s been so much hurt, so much fear. I underestimated the emotional power of this.”

Diversity vexes PTS

Full disclosure: I’m no objective bystander. I’m gay. I’ve heard Tim Keller preach many times; I’ve liked and learned from it. I was once a conservative evangelical, but no longer. I’m a Princeton student (M.Div., first-year — and, no, I don’t know if I’m going to be a pastor).

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken with more than three dozen members of the seminary community — mostly students — about the Keller/Kuyper fiasco. The name “Tim Keller,” which many previously didn’t know at all or well, was rarely mentioned.

Indeed, this entire episode wasn’t really about Keller. It was about the challenge of being a diverse community and our desire for belonging. Is feeling unwelcome the same as not belonging? Does having your beliefs questioned threaten one’s sense of belonging as much as having your identity doubted or devalued?

People take advantage of nice weather and lounge in front of Miller Chapel, left, at Princeton Theological Seminary on April 11, 2017. A Preach-In was hosted at Miller Chapel before the Rev. Tim Keller spoke on campus in Princeton, N.J. RNS photo by Jeff Chu

“We all want our story to be important,” said Ashley Hamel, a first-year student from Texas. “We don’t necessarily know how to hold that in one hand and have an open hand for the story of another and have those woven into community.”

Diversity vexes PTS. It’s a 205-year-old symbol of white American mainline Protestantism where earlier, fierce battles over fundamentalism and scriptural interpretation were fought. That legacy no doubt contributed to blowing this campus-speaker controversy up.

Yet only 28 percent of its students now come from the PCUSA, evangelicals and Pentecostals are vocal and visible on campus, and at least a third of students are nonwhite.

“This enormous challenge of having students from diverse backgrounds has increased,” said associate professor of theology Nancy Duff. “It’s much easier to teach a group of students who come from the same denomination and all think the same way.”

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To say that students are included doesn’t make it so. About a decade ago, LGBT students still didn’t feel safe coming out here; many of us remain flattened into our sexualities. While recruiting has boosted the numbers of nonwhite students, social life is often segregated, many of us don’t see our theologies represented amid the reams of texts by dead German men, and it sometimes feels as if we have to prove we belong. The unrepentant dominance of “theobrogians” in some of our classrooms reminds us that just because women can be ordained doesn’t mean they won’t get mansplained; sexism is a resilient beast.

I sought biblical wisdom from a biblical studies professor, knowing that you can always count on getting at least five relevant stories from Scripture when you ask for just one.

From the selection proffered by Old Testament associate professor Jacqueline Lapsley, the standout was the tale of the daughters of Zelophehad, from the the Book of Numbers. As the Israelites wandered the wilderness, Zelophehad, a father of five daughters and no sons, died. Those daughters pondered their promised life in the Promised Land; would they inherit their father’s share?

“You have the law, which says these women can’t inherit, and the women come and say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem right to us!’” Lapsley explained. “And Moses says, ‘Oh! OK. I need to take this to God.’ The story suggests we need to engage in discernment. And then the law is changed — the law, even within the Old Testament, is not static; it’s dynamic. And the women’s voices are heard. They were on the outside, they were vulnerable, but their voices were heard.”

There’s a postscript. “Some who write on this story don’t want to talk about what happens in Numbers 36, when the women being able to inherit gets mitigated somewhat,” Lapsley said. “There is a concern from other voices in the community — some men in the tribes — that if the women marry outside the tribe, the land also goes. So there’s a whole back-and-forth about those concerns and trying to adjudicate within the community. It’s rounds of listening and rounds of response — and that’s part of community life, too: compromise.”

Keller’s call to listen

On the night of the lecture, Keller showed up as the nice guy that nearly everyone expected him to be. His talk, less polished than his typical Sunday sermon, zipped serviceably through “seven ways to have missionary encounters in Western culture,” building on the work of 20th-century British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin.

READ: Princeton seminary reverses decision to honor Redeemer’s Tim Keller

A well-mannered guest, Keller criticized his own family more than his hosts, repeatedly citing evangelicals’ flaws. When he critiqued the mainline (for overemphasizing the gospel’s horizontal, social axis at the expense of the vertical and salvific), he did so winsomely, saying, “Let me just for a moment dump on the mainline — it won’t be long.”

Roughly 600 people attend a lecture by the Rev. Tim Keller at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., on April 6, 2017. Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary

Keller discouraged his audience from hearing hidden messages, saying he’d written his talk well before controversy erupted. Still, one suggestion, about sharing a countercultural gospel, seemed relevant and resonant: “You can’t disagree with somebody by just beating them from the outside,” he said. “You have to come into their framework. You critique them from inside their own framework; you don’t critique them for not having your framework.”

He called us to empathy and listening, without which one can’t have the necessary data to critique a framework. And he urged deeper relationship and mutual respect, without which one can’t have the trust for difficult dialogue. (I reached out to Keller to see if he wanted to speak further but received no response.)

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This is a point I want my community to hear. Perhaps it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize an institution, but PTS is more skilled at preaching than listening. (We study the former, not the latter.) It’s introverted and often unfriendly. (I, too, am introverted and often unfriendly, so I could be projecting, but I don’t think I’m far off.)

Even our architecture reflects awkwardness and inhospitality: The stairs in Stuart Hall, our main classroom building, feel too steep; the introvert-hating dining-hall layout steals your appetite; the paved paths crossing the quad are angled a few degrees off where most people need to go.

Barnes told me he wants to call a town hall meeting to discuss what the Keller kerfuffle has stirred. I’m not sure a town hall would do anything but reinforce existing power dynamics. Nor do we have adequate trust — the foundation on which a successful town hall must be constructed.

Instead, I wonder whether we might gather with others who think, worship or theologize differently. We need to eat together, to share stories, to pray together. Could we wrestle collectively with the tension between seeking justice and drawing blood? Or what grace could look like here? Don’t we tend to extend favor only to those we deem worthy? That’s not grace at all.

The hard work of relationship

We contain within each of us both sinner and saint. Trouble comes when we see only the sinners in our neighbors and only the saints in ourselves.

“When I look at somebody who I know doesn’t match up theologically, do I still see them as part of the body of Christ, or do I wish they were the estranged sibling who would just go away because they’re messing things up?” asked the Rev. Leanne Ketcham, an M.Div. senior and ordained Wesleyan minister. “We don’t know how to say hard things graciously. We don’t know how to receive hard things graciously. We don’t believe the best about each other.”

Especially when we gather in large groups, it feels damn near impossible to believe the best. The world — and Reinhold Niebuhr — tells us to expect and suspect the worst. Situations like these stir our skepticism and, often, the lingering pain of old — or not-so-old — wounds.

But in small groups, we’ve constructed beautiful conversations, rooted in the hard work of relationship. Two days before Keller’s lecture, I had coffee with Cameron Brooks, a first-year student who describes Keller as “really formative in my life of faith.”

The Princeton Theological Seminary Library contains the Kuyper Collection, the most complete collection of Kuyper-related materials in North America, on the campus in Princeton, N.J., on April 11, 2017. RNS photo by Jeff Chu

Brooks and I met during orientation, when we stood next to each other for the incoming class’s group photo. We’ve had several long conversations since, hopscotching through politics, church unity, writing, my husband, his wife, the things of life. A self-described conservative, he came to PTS from South Dakota; a child of the coasts, I hate the labels, but I’d admit to being on the conservative side of liberal.

Brooks expected hostility at PTS. Those first weeks, “I had my guard up at all times because I was on the lookout for heresy,” he said. As his guard came down, his sightlines opened up: “PTS helped me see that as a person of privilege, my duty as a follower of Jesus is to be humble. What that looks like for me is to read people I wouldn’t normally read, talk to people I haven’t talked to much in the past, and not just engage with but love people who are different than me. PTS has helped me realize that the gospel requires this. Even if humility is really, really uncomfortable, it’s the way of Jesus.”

We’ve never discussed gay marriage or ordination, though I could probably guess his positions. What I know for sure is that Brooks is slow to speak and quick to smile, kind and generous. I’m less sure why we decided to trust one another a bit, and then a bit more. But I remember talking, the first time we had coffee, about how difficult it is to make new friends, about the exhilaration of rising hopes and the lockstep fear of being hurt.

READ: Why Princeton’s snub of Tim Keller should outrage progressives

Maybe solidarity blossomed in shared vulnerability. Certainly there’s value in breaking bread together. Maybe in baking bread, too: When Brooks and his wife had me over for dinner last month, we talked some about this Keller controversy and agreed that we didn’t recognize PTS as described in the media. Then they sent me home with a loaf of homemade sourdough to share with my husband, who hadn’t been able to join us this time.

How humility might help

“The conversations that happen in the aftermath of this have to be rooted in the sure knowledge of God’s love for every single person,” Slats Toole told me. “That is something that is easy for both sides to lose sight of. We treat each other much better and give each other more grace when we keep that in the forefront.”

Toole, a 2016 PTS graduate who identifies as transgender and gender-nonbinary, participated in a Preach-In organized ahead of Keller’s lecture to amplify LGBT and female voices. Toole preached on the complexity of God’s vision for creation, including Isaiah 11’s “unnatural” images of the wolf and the lamb living together and the leopard lying down with the baby goat.

“We humans are so limited and God is so vast — how could any one of us even pretend to understand?” Toole preached. “God’s reality is broader than human imagination, let alone human definition.”

The outside world has already shifted to its next outrage. But PTS could choose to find in the pain of this episode the potential for deeper conversation. It won’t be easy. People may sometimes need to step away — to take deep breaths, rest, pray. (I’m surprised that this Christian community’s members haven’t more often called one another to prayer.) The capable will need to carry more weight, with patient love and rampant humility.

Humility might help us see how the attempt to honor Keller felt like dishonor to those long marginalized by the church. Humility might help us understand how we try to outshout or ignore voices who disagree with us theologically. Humility might help us resist the temptation to rank our suffering ahead of others’.

Perhaps it will surprise both liberals and conservatives to hear that PTS’ liberals and conservatives end up sounding much the same.

“We are a flawed community trying to live this life faithfully for Jesus,” said first-year student Mariana Thomas. “Do we mess up? Absolutely. Is there grace in that and for that? Absolutely.”

Amen and amen.

(Jeff Chu is a journalist, seminarian and author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America”)

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