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Who needs the UMC cross and flame when you can have one big, fuzzy mix of everything? (Photo credit: Oklahoma Conference of Churches)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

Officials at Claremont School of Theology are considering removing the cross from the seminary’s chapel for the sake of making the space more appropriate for Jain, Buddhist, and Islamic religious services.

Claremont is one of the United Methodist Church’s 13 official seminaries, which receive generous financial support from the denomination’s Ministerial Education Fund (MEF), which is in turn funded by the undesignated gifts to United Methodist offering plates around the United States.  In 2012, Claremont received over $344,000 from The United Methodist church through MEF.  In 2011, it received over $524,000.  This decline likely reflects a new 2008 policy linking church funding to numbers of United Methodist students at a seminary.

After recently facing some financial challenges, the seminary decided to more or less literally sell itself for $50 million to a large donor who helped transform it from a Christian seminary into Claremont Lincoln University, devoted to jointly training Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Jain clergy. In celebrating the move, Claremont President Jerry Campbell bizarrely declared that Christians who seek to obey Christ’s command to evangelize non-Christians have “an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.”

Defenders of this controversial move have claimed that the new institution will operate as a consortium of distinct training institutions, one faithful to each of these religions, with the part that is the UMC-affiliated Christian seminary staying fully Christian, and somehow becoming clearer about its Christian commitment.

But last month in Las Vegas, at the “Lead” conference for young-adult ministry leaders, it was revealed that the old Christian seminary is effectively supporting the institutions dedicated to the propagation of non-Christian religions. Meagan Harris, an admissions official at Claremont School of Theology (which was supposed to have remained the Christian part of the university), confessed that her school has opened up its property for use by the other religious groups, effectively devoting the resources of the Christian part of the consortium to propping up the others, rather than simply leaving it up to each non-Christian institution to be entirely built and funded by supporters from its own religious constituency. As part of this “hospitality,” Claremont has chosen to share its own chapel with the Jains, Buddhists, and Muslims.

But it is challenging for leaders in these non-Christian religions to conduct their services in a space prominently featuring a cross, which represents a gospel which they reject. So the seminary is now considering ostensibly how to accommodate non-Christian sensitivities. The Claremont official claimed that perhaps “the best way to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and take up our cross may be to take down the cross” from the seminary chapel, lest it violate Claremont’s bedrock commitment to religious pluralism.

Harris lamented that “[t]he cross has been wielded in ways that have been violent” as well as “exclusionary.” The Claremont representative admitted, “I do have some issues with the cross,” which appeared to run deeper than only lament over the history of people mistreating others in the name of Christianity. Perhaps Harris has been influenced by radical feminist theology professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, who argues against the divinity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ but still teaches at the supposedly Christian part of the Claremont-Lincoln consortium.

Harris did say that she appreciates ways in which the cross has been “taken up by liberation theologians” and liked it as a symbol of “the guy who got the crap beat out of him for saying what he believed in.” But the Claremont official’s words were rather telling. No mention of Christ’s dying for our sins. And in true pluralistic, post-modern form, Christ’s teachings were framed not as objectively, universally True, but rather merely as some beliefs that that he personally held, just as the diverse religious adherents of Claremont Lincoln’s multi-faith cafeteria each have their own personal beliefs. In a similar vein, when pressed, Harris said that if it were up to her (which it is not), she would leave the cross in the formerly Christian chapel, but would find a way to ensure that non-Christians would not be offended by it, such as by even-handedly bringing in symbols of other faiths.

Certainly, the church needs honestly and humbly to address our collective sins, both in the present and throughout church history, of which there are many. While the history of conflict between Christians and adherents of other faiths is hardly as one-sided as many Western liberals fantasize, we must be sensitive to these legacies of pain as we relate to our Jewish, Muslim, and other neighbors today. Improving interfaith relations, even apart from evangelism, is a worthwhile social goal in itself. And it is essential for Christians to take care to avoid unnecessarily offending people, through our own sin or clumsiness, in ways which hurt the spread of the gospel.

But the internal dilemma of Claremont officials over what to do with their now embarrassing sanctuary cross is emblematic of a widespread, often sub-conscious delusion in the church world: that it is actually possible to be so sensitive and skillful in how we “wear our Christian identity” that we can remain truly Christian while the content of our faith offends no one.

I vividly remember how as a non-Christian, nothing in the New Testament offended me more deeply and emotionally than its very clear teaching that I (along with every other human being, of every religious and cultural background) was a depraved sinner who deserved to be sent to Hell, and for whom lasting hope could never be found in my own self-reliant merit, but rather only in the blood of He who died for my sins. I floundered in vain seeking an authentic, biblically honest form of Christianity in which I could avoid such realities as original sin, Hell, and the mutual exclusivity of the central teachings of Christianity vs. those of other religions, such as Islam’s fierce rejection of Christ’s divinity and Hinduism’s polytheism. It would never have been possible for someone as prideful as me to have ever converted if God had not supernaturally drawn me to that point.

For centuries, Christians in other cultures have faced fierce, often violent opposition from those asking why we could not just treat our commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ as just one of many equally valid religious options available. After all, insisting that “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” sounds, in the words of the Claremont representative, rather “exclusionary.”

The Apostle Paul was perfectly well aware of such challenges when, while ministering in a far more religiously diverse context than modern North America, he recognized that, inevitably, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”  And yet he was famously “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

When Claremont officials follow an essentially Unitarian Universalist paradigm of limiting proclamation of Christ crucified for the sake of accommodating worldviews that, at their heart, reject core Christian beliefs, is the main issue really “hospitality,” or the temptation to be embarrassed by the inherently, unavoidably offensive message of the cross?

Is the New Testament picture of love for our neighbors who are perishing more consistent with humbly, compassionately, and energetically seeking to invite all people into the salvation uniquely available in Christ, or with following Claremont’s president in quietly leaving them to perish, thus protecting ourselves from political incorrectness, social discomfort, and potentially very costly sacrifice?

[Note: within two days of our posting this article, Claremont School of Theology issued this statement in response. To read my response to the seminary, click here.]