Monthly Archives: March 2017

Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

Princeton Theological Seminary library.  Billy via Flickr.

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “We are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose. Continue reading

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The Worth of “Useless” Knowledge

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of science shows that curiosity, imaginative tinkering, dead-ends, randomness, and serendipity all play an outsized role in gaining insight into the natural world. The same can be said for the social sciences. Real insight into the human condition or our current predicament often comes in mysterious ways, and may involve as much rediscovery as discovery.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has written a companion essay for Princeton University Press’s republication of IAS founder Abraham Flexner’s famous article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Following in Flexner’s footsteps, Dijkgraaf makes an important case for the social and scientific value of “unobstructed curiosity” and the need to resist the growing pressure to prioritize “short-term goals” and direct all effort to “more immediate problems.”

While demands for accountability, usefulness, and specific “deliverables” of economic or social relevance differ in the natural and human sciences, they foster the same tendencies. From my experience in the social sciences, three such tendencies stand out, and each now has a life of its own. Continue reading

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Introducing the Spring Issue:
The Post-Modern Self

Untitled

Untitled by Didier Gaillard; private collection, Bridgeman images.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British author L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. But almost before Hartley’s words acquired the status of proverb, something curious happened. Thanks largely to the dizzying pace of change that technology has made almost routine, the present itself became a foreign country—alien, but in the most deceptive of ways. In this curious present, we discern only with difficulty how things that seem familiar and fixed are actually, upon closer investigation, strange and unsettled. One day, for example, we think the reality of “reality TV” is anything but real; the next day we discover that it most shockingly is—and maybe has been for much longer than we realized. If we have not quite arrived at Orwellian Newspeak, in which war is peace and love is hate, then we are somewhere not far off. In this here and now, where meanings and norms shift shapes right before our eyes, we are strangers in, and to, our own time.

That strangeness is in no respect more unsettling than in relation to the very selves we are becoming. Every individual self is unique, of course, but all selves are also inescapably shaped by beliefs, norms, ideals, and meanings that make up the totality of a specific culture at a specific time. Until now at least, those underlying and defining elements of a culture benefited from a certain stability—or at least the appearance of such amid what might be described, more precisely, as gradually changing continuity. In the increasingly alien present, however, the very character of our culture (some would even say our anti-culture) is the absence of such stability and continuity, both having been displaced by the discontinuous, disruptive, and destabilizing force of change, a force that is now celebrated, and even idolized, for its own sake.

So, then, what sort of selves are we becoming in this age that we call, for lack of a better word, post-modern? That is the question our contributors explore in  The Post-Modern Self, the theme of our spring issue.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

For subscribers, the complete issue is available now, whether in print or ePub form. In our thematic section, the essays include David Bosworth’s “Knowing Together: The Emergence of the Hive Mind,” Wilfred M. McClay’s “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Mary Townsend’s “The Walking Wounded,” and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s “The New Old Ways of Self-Help.” Our non-thematic essays range from Nadav Samin on jihadist fiction and Regina Mara Schwartz on love and justice to Chad Wellmon on the fate of general education. We also review a series of key recent titles in our book review section.

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