Speaking of Theological Radicalism

While I’m on the subject of theological liberalism, I might as well summon to view a greatest hit from the 1980s.  I had nearly forgotten than once upon a time, I wrote a series of reviews of college catalogues as though they were regular books, for the original incarnation of the Claremont Review of Books.  The very first one I ever did was the catalogue for the School of Theology at Claremont, the graduate school loosely affiliated with the Methodist Church, which, like the Episcopal Church, is steadily losing members.  A sample from this 1983 piece, entitled “Demonology?”:

The STC [School of Theology at Claremont] curriculum gives indications, both subtle and jarring, of the pervasive influence of radical modern philosophy. The goals of the Ethics curriculum include learning “the critical use of the social sciences in social ethics and the ethical criticism of social, economic, and political institutions and processes.” The course descriptions belie no recognition of the question once considered the preeminent concern of ethics: How should one live? Instead, the courses all stress “social ethics” and “ethical dimensions of global responsibility.” The Sermon on the Mount is studied for the “relevance” of its “absolutistic aspects” to “political goals.” The Ecumenics courses are designed “to help [students] avoid provincialism in their understand­ing of world Christianity.” The Ecumenics curriculum consists of two courses on Jewish history, two courses on liberation theology, and a course called “International Development and the World Mission of the Church.”

Well, as you might imagine, the STC was not amused.  Here’s the letter to the editor from the school’s communications director in the next issue, and my reply.

School of Theology or Demonology?

To the Editor:

Mr. Hayward, in his review of the School of Theology catalogue [December, 1983], did catch some of the spirit of theological education at this School. We are anti-racist; we are anti-sexist; and we do think that students should think for themselves. For that reason, we believe that students should be introduced to the various theological movements, including those that are emerging from Christians in the Black community, the Asian community, and the Latin American communities. If one is to have some understanding of the world in which one is to do ministry, these are important movements to know.

Mr. Hayward, in his effort to introduce our program, did overlook some important aspects of what we do. Every student is required to have a course in History of Western Thought, which is a survey of major Western philosophical traditions in their historical settings. Furthermore, every student is required to take a course which is a survey of early Christian history, medieval Christian history and Reformation church history, with an emphasis on the history of worship in the ministry (page 40). In addition to that, students are intro­duced to religion in America. Furthermore, Mr. Hayward overlooked the fact that we do have courses which introduce students to persons earlier than Augustine. There is a course on Aquinas (page 40), for example; but then perhaps Mr. Hayward is not thoroughly familiar with major theologians.

Mr. Hayward also apparently did not see any of the courses which are offered in the various arts of ministry, including preaching, counseling, and Christian education.

It might also be interesting to your readers to know that we are one of the few Protestant semi­naries in the country which require students to participate in spiritual growth groups, in which they reflect together with faculty leadership on their personal relationship to God. It also might be of interest to some readers to know that the School requires every student in the Master of Divinity program to complete at least four courses in Bible, plus an additional course in relating the Bible to preaching.

We hope that you will print these additions to Mr. Hayward’s review, so that prospective students who avidly read your pages might have a clearer picture of what we have to offer.

Incidentally, at the School of Theology we do not use the term “Christian Marxist.” In fact, none of our faculty has taught courses on Christianity and Marxism. The course to which Mr. Hayward refers was offered by a visiting professor, and on occasion, through the generosity of Claremont McKenna College, we have been able to enroll our students in a course taught by one of their faculty members on Christianity and Marxism. We think that such courses are important, since Marxism does represent the major challenge to Christianity in many parts of the world. We think that students should know about it so that they are not naive when they encounter competing ideologies.

Finally, we do indeed encourage students to develop their own theological positions. We do not now believe, nor have we ever believed, that a seminary should try to control the thinking of its students. For that bit of advertising, we thank Mr. Hayward.

– George C. Whipple, Ph.D.

Assistant to the President for Communications

School of Theology at Claremont


Steven Hayward replies:

Dr. Whipple’s letter is most disappointing. He goes to great pains to state once again STC’s opposition to racism and sexism, but this should go without saying at all, unless one is trying to promote oneself as “trendier than thou,” to borrow Paul Seabury’s phrase. Dr. Whipple goes on to defend the inclusion of liberation theology, Black theology, Asian theology, and feminist theology by saying that one must have understanding of these “important movements.” This is true enough, just as it is true that a medical student must learn about venereal disease if he is to treat it. “Whatever else a hospital ought to do,” Florence Nightingale remarked, “it ought not to spread disease.”

Dr. Whipple fails to explain if he approves or disapproves of these “important movements,” whether STC is propagating them or combating them, spreading disease or fighting it. From the catalogue one could conclude that STC is enthusiastic about these trends.

Dr. Whipple upbraids me for not being “thor­oughly familiar with major theologians” and reminds us that there are courses on persons “earlier than Augustine.” “There is,” he writes, “a course on Aquinas, for example.” I always thought that Augustine came much earlier than Aquinas, but then perhaps Dr. Whipple is not thoroughly familiar with chronology.

Dr. Whipple also tries to deny the political radicalism of the STC curriculum by disavowing the course on Christianity and Marxism. But the course, TH442, is listed in successive catalogues, not just the 1984-85 catalogue, which would certainly lead one to conclude that the course had a permanent place in the curriculum, visiting pro­fessor or not. And notwithstanding Dr. Whipple’s disclaimer that STC does not use the term “Christian Marxist,” it is obvious to the most casual examiner that the agenda of “Liberation Theology”-so comprehensively included in the STC curriculum-is, in fact, the fusion of Christianity and Marxism.

But most importantly, Dr. Whipple fails to respond to the most serious of my charges, which I reiterate: By all the indices available in its catalogue and in the views expressed in its public forums (such as the recent visit by Hans Kung), the STC is an auxiliary to liberal and radical secular trends. I am glad to see that Dr. Whipple acknowledges Marxism as “the major challenge to Christianity in . . . the world,” but it is far from evident how the STC curriculum equips students to meet this challenge. Whitehead’s process philosophy-which is merely a more flamboyant historicism-is cer­tainly no answer.

The church, as Chesterton remarked, “is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his own age.” No number of Bible courses or church history courses will suffice for anything if one is captive to the raging biases of his own time. When the spiritual order capitulates to the temporal order, it compromises its basic integrity.

The Methodist Church, of which STC is an affiliate, is in steep decline, and if George Gallup’s figures are to be believed, it is in danger of ceasing to exist altogether. The STC is helpless to do anything about it because it leads the decline.

There’s a contemporary footnote to all of this.  As I noted in the original review, the STC was the pre-eminent home of “process theology,” which was very trendy among left-leaning, neo-atheist theologians at the time, and may well still be today.  Here’s how I described it in the original piece:

One should not ignore the fame of the School of Theology at Claremont as the home of process theology and of its two leading theorists, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin. Process theology can be described as the natural philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead warmed over lightly with a Christian gloss. In process thought, God is not the Creator, nor is He understood as the Supreme Being, or even the “prime mover” of Aristotle. (Neither is He to be understood as a “He,” if one is to avoid “sexism.”) Instead, all actual beings or entities, including God, are the outcome of “creative processes” that are continuously synthesizing and resynthesizing new “unities.” Though this process has no discernible end, process theology speaks confidently of the “evolution” and “progress” of man toward perfection and unity with God. This naturally entails a wholesale reordering of the historic doctrines of Christology, redemption, and eschatology. Is it surprising that process theology is known in some circles as John Cobb’s con job?

David Ray Nutjob

So here’s the footnote: David Ray Griffin, one of the leaders in the process theology circle mentioned in my review, is nowadays one of the pre-eminent 9/11 truthers, arguing that it was an inside job planned and executed by the Bush Administration.  In fact he’s known as the “dean of 9/11 studies.”  So we can see where that process led.


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