Sunday, November 12, 2006

Is Yale Religion Liberal Religion?

The current issue of the Yale alumni magazine has an unusual cover story: "The New Evangelists: Yale Divinity School and the Future of Protestantism." This is the first extensive treatment of the Divinity School that I can recall in the alumni magazine in the twenty years since I graduated. Indeed, much of the university regards the existence of the Div School as a curiosity and a relic, not central to the university's mission today. There was even a serious attempt to abolish the school in the '90s, by a president now happily departed (he also tried to kill the sociology department – clearly a misguided individual).

This story, by Warren Goldstein '73, '83PhD, an historian and biographer of William Sloane Coffin, is about the renewal of YDS. What struck me about the story was the fact that the author, and most of those interviewed for it, took it for granted that the mission of Yale Divinity School was to serve liberal religion. Goldstein's framework was that the decline of mainline Protestantism and the decline of Yale Divinity School went hand in hand. The Protestant "establishment" of old no longer rules, and its leading seminaries have taken a long time to adjust to that fact. Goldstein reads the decline of the establishment as the decline of liberalism.

This is a familiar argument, and yet on second thought it seems peculiar. In what other context would we take it for granted that the Establishment was liberal, much less "progressive," a term that Goldstein also uses?

The Protestant Establishment, at its height, was not defined by its liberal religion. It was defined by its traditional religion, applied to guiding, if not running, a modern society. As I see it, the mainline lost its way and began its decline when it lost confidence that that traditional faith could guide a modern society, and cast about instead for a modern faith.

Yale Divinity School was not created to serve liberal religion. It was created to train ministers of God in a learned faith – a learned, old-fashioned, biblical faith. When I was a student there, I thought that was the strongest part of the school, learned from teachers such as Margaret Farley, Paul Holmer, and Brevard Childs. The revival of YDS does not depend on a revival of liberalism, but on a revival of religion.


SPorcupine said...

A sad article, but there's a potent one to compete with it. Check out Michael Gerson's piece in Newsweek: When Gerson wrote speeches for President Bush, he commanded my attention, and he still does. He argues in the new piece that evangelicals really are developing a new politics, informed both by biblical thinking and by engagement with the church in the "Global South."

Two quotes to lure you in:

• "A politically progressive evangelicalism is not an innovation, it is a revival; not a fresh track in the snow, but a rutted path of American history."

• "When it speaks, a new evangelicalism should be distinctive for its tone as well. The goal is not only to stand for Christianity's moral teachings but to emulate the manner of its Founder, who showed that kindness is not weakness, and had more tenderness for moral outcasts than for moral hypocrites."

Gerson also suggest specific issues where a new "social gospel" is emerging, and how new policy developments could become possible.

Yale's version sound far too much like
In Gerson's version, it's not about adapting theology to suit politics. Gerson's version sounds like changing political thinking to be biblically faithful. Which version has a chance of being "salt and light" in the world? It doesn't take a degree from Yale to figure that one out.

SPorcupine said...

In the comment above, half a sentence got lost.

I wrote "Yale's version sounds far too much like..."

The complete thought was "Yale's version sounds farr too much like adapting theology to support progressive politics."

Quotidian Grace said...

Dang! You beat me to it! I was planning to write about this article next week--my husband and daughter Portia are both Yale graduates and had shared the article with me, saying it would be a good subject for the blog.

I haven't read it yet, but when I finish it, I'll post my thoughts on it.

Reformed Catholic said...

Great thoughts ... I hope a letter to the editor is to follow !

Talleyrand said...

Your comment that the rest of the university regards the Div school as a relic reminded me of a conversation with an administration & management school graduate a few years ago. He said, "Say what you want about the Div school, but they've got the best party at Yale." He was referring to the waltz, of course.

Gruntled said...

Does the waltz have a theology? I expect it does, especially in its heyday. Any thoughts, ye cosmopolitans?

Talleyrand said...

Rejoicing in the goodness of creation?

Anonymous said...

Hmm...looks like I caught this thread too late. I was interested in your comments, because it did seem like they were painting the Div school as on a progressive renewal mission. I think this is a good thing.

But remember, both a good part of the current student body, as well as a number of the professors, are evangelical in their leanings. It is not an easy conversation to get going between "progressives" and "evangelicals", but an important one, and Yale Divinity may just be the place to do it.

Chris Wogaman, Div' 05

Gruntled said...

The Yale Alumni Magazine recently asked if they might use all or some of this blog as a letter to the editor. I am looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and what further comments my remarks yield.