Loss of the Theological Middle
My friend Jose Morales shared on Facebook the post written by Phillips Theological Seminary president, Gary Peluso-Verdend. The piece is titled "Confessions of a Seminary President." The essay as a whole is well worth reading, for it speaks of the challenges presented to seminary education today, but I wanted to address the first confession, in which he points out the loss of the theological middle,
The middle is gone. When I was in seminary as a student (1977-81), there was most definitely a theological middle. The 1980s and the creation of The Christian Right had not happened yet. Professors could call themselves “evangelical liberals” and that was not an oxymoronic appellation. Even when I came to Phillips in 1993, there was something of a theological middle. Today, not so much. The culture has divided out like wars within religions (the churches have drunk the same Kool-Aid), with orthodoxies being re-asserted or invented in order to create a boundary and sometimes division between Us and Them.
My best guess is that Gary is about three (or so) years older than me. He started seminary the year I started my sophomore year of college, and we received our Ph.D.s (from different schools) the same year. So, his journey has paralleled mine, though I've spent the bulk of my vocational life in the parish and he in theological education.
He notes that we have lost the theological middle. As with every other area of life, we seem to have moved to polar opposites. He notes that once one could refer to one's self as an "evangelical liberal" and that this would not be considered an "oxymoronic appellation." That maybe true, but there are those of us who would rather be bridge builders than wall builders. That means living in the somewhat messy arena of the middle. Gary received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, an institution that is usually considered a hotbed of theological liberalism. I received my Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, a flagship evangelical school. My theology has moved more to the left over the years, and my social views even further left, but I mourn the loss of the middle, if it is truly lost. There is wisdom to gain from folks all along the theological spectrum. We have to read carefully, and know that not everything is worth keeping, but let's not write each other off. I value my education from Fuller, even if I might not be able to fully ascribe to its statement of faith (for the most part I can, but I might have to nuance a bit). I also value I've learned from folks on the liberal side of the ledger. So, maybe it's time to reclaim the appellation of "liberal evangelical or "evangelical liberal" for the good of the church and of humanity!