Buddhism, Claremont Lincoln University, Claremont School of Theology, Claudia Pearce, Duane Bidwell, evangelism, Institute on Religion and Democracy, interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Jerry Campbell, John Lomperis, Meagan Harris, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Unitarian Universalism, United Methodist, United Methodist Church
by John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
On Saturday, we posted an article of mine reporting on how Claremont School of Theology (CST), which has long received generous funding from United Methodist offering plates, was considering removing the cross from its chapel for the sake of making it more accommodating to Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain religious services.
On Monday, we were contacted by Ms. Claudia Pearce, CST’s Director of Media Relations, who asserted that my article was “full of factual errors” and asked us to post a statement she submitted in response. For the sake of respectful and open dialogue, we agreed to her request.
Despite the Claremont PR official’s rather strong accusation, her statement ends up basically confirming what I wrote while failing to identify any of the “factual errors” of which my article was allegedly full.
The Claremont statement disputes my writing that “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.” Call it what you will, but the undisputed facts remain that the seminary’s leadership chose to agree to a financial transaction in which they fundamentally transformed the institution’s identity (from a freestanding Christian seminary into a multi-faith clergy-training university which includes CST) to conform to the wishes of a certain donor couple who paid $50 million to make this happen.
The Claremont statement takes issue with my reporting that CST 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.” But then the Claremont statement goes on to confirm that, indeed, CST has now devoted its own “physical facilities,” including but not limited to the seminary chapel, to joint use with the institutions promoting several non-Christian “religious and ethical traditions.” Some of the biggest logistical and financial hurdles to starting a completely new academic institution are purchasing new property and constructing new buildings. Thus, CST’s converting its physical resources (rather than distinct new properties of the “separately incorporated entity” of Claremont Lincoln University) into shared space is a rather significant, trouble-saving boost to the new non-Christian religious education institutions, even if they are charged some rent. While this new arrangement may financially benefit CST, that alone is hardly sufficient to make it “a win-win.”
The Claremont statement claims that the anti-evangelism quote from President Campbell “was taken out of context,” and was only narrowly saying that within Claremont Lincoln University, Christians should not “try to evangelize” non-Christians. Temporarily leaving aside the question of making a formerly Christian seminary become a “no evangelism allowed” zone, my article simply referred to a United Methodist Reporter article that reporting the following: “And Christians who feel they need to evangelize persons of other faiths have ‘an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus,’ Dr. Campbell added.” Note the lack of any qualifiers in Dr. Campbell’s reported statement broadly opposing evangelism toward adherents of other faiths. If Claremont’s PR department would like to state clearly that the United Methodist Reporter article is somehow misleading, or if Dr. Campbell would like to issue a statement clarifying that he is in fact committed to the Great Commission as a continuing obligation for all followers of Jesus—even when it results in Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and others leaving their former religions—we would be happy to report that. However, neither seems likely, given how in the nearly three years since the United Methodist Reporter article was published and the Campbell quote was widely shared and publicly decried in UMC circles, I have not observed Claremont’s PR department or anyone else ever disputing the quote’s accuracy as a broad reflection of Campbell’s and CST’s values for interfaith relations.
Meanwhile, the Claremont statement confirms that the seminary is indeed transforming its formerly Christian chapel into a space that treats Christianity and other religions more or less equally. Since CST’s representative in Las Vegas reported that the seminary was considering simply “tak[ing] down the cross,” the news that “[t]he Christian cross is and will continue to be a part of CST’s worship space” is apparently a rather recent decision. But whether the cross is included alongside symbols of other faiths or is somehow physically altered for the sake of being wheeled in and out of the sanctuary to conform to whatever the religion of the hour may be, the result is the same: the cross is relativized while a space consecrated for Christian worship is routinely taken over for the proclamation and practice of alternative religions which, in their core teachings, fundamentally deny the message of the cross.
Perhaps the heart of the matter is highlighted by the Claremont statement’s claim that “CST has, indeed, remained proudly Methodist and Christian.” But such descriptors as “Christian” or “Methodist” are meaningless, and therefore useless, if they encompass whatever any individual who claims them wants them to mean. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church is at least formally committed to certain rather clear doctrinal boundaries. Meanwhile, despite CST’s professed Christianity, it is the place within the Claremont Lincoln consortium in which students get to learn spiritual care and counseling from an avowed “practitioner of vipassana (insight meditation) in the [atheistic] Theravada Buddhist tradition” and theology from an eco-feminist 9/11 “truther” who openly endorses Islamic critiques of belief in the Trinity. Furthermore, CST now offers a Certificate in Muslim Education for imams. While the seminary also offers classes in Christian evangelism and mission (as the Claremont statement notes), this is because of a firm requirement from CST’s sponsoring denomination. Aside from this externally imposed requirement, there seems to be no principled way in which Claremont’s treatment of Christianity in relation to other faiths differs from that of the post-Christian, radically relativistic Unitarian Universalist Association.
I invite all who are interested to read both, judge for themselves where the truth lies, and if they wish, share their thoughts in the comments below.