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‘Princeton Seminary is just on fire right now’

President Jonathan Lee Walton is the guest on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton is the president of Princeton Theological Seminary (Photo courtesy of Princeton Seminary)

LOUISVILLE — When the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, the host of “Leading Theologically,” receives an email from Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton, there’s generally a “One Luv” typed in above Walton’s signature.

“Why’s that?” Hinson-Hasty asked Walton during last week’s edition, which can be heard here.

“It does not come from the late, great Bob Marley,” Walton said. Rather, the phrase Walton has adopted comes from the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the longtime president of Walton’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and a mentor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1957, Mays published “Seeking to be Christian in Race Relations.”

“He has a chapter he starts off with, ‘The love of God and the love of mankind is one love,’” Walton said. “The love of God and the love of humanity — that’s one love. How can we say we love a God whom we’ve never seen and not love those we walk beside each and every day?”’

“That is what it means to live the Christian life for Benjamin Mays, and that’s what it means for me,” Walton said. He renders it “luv” because “I’m a GenXer of the hip-hop generation,” Walton told Hinson-Hasty. “I added the ‘luv’ just to add a little flair.”

Hinson-Hasty asked Walton a question made famous by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman: “What makes you come alive, because what the world needs are people who are coming alive?”

It’s “being an educator, and we can do that in multiple roles,” Walton said. “I’m just glad to be part of this learning community, where we are architects of knowledge and artisans of wisdom. We are helping our students and one another expand knowledge and ways of knowing.”

Once students enroll at Princeton Seminary, “it’s not a three-year proposition. It’s a 30- or 40-year relationship with this learning community,” Walton said. He’s found that five or 10 years removed from a seminary education, “it’s time to retool. It’s time to re-equip. By 20 years out, the vocabulary has changed, and the categories have changed. We want to make sure Princeton Seminary is known as a place where people can come to retool, to re-equip, to be spiritually revived and intellectually inspired to be able to meet the demands of the age.”

“That’s what it means for us to be a learning community for life,” Walton said.

He said the Seminary’s “dynamic and brilliant and diverse faculty are bringing their competencies to bear to speak to the pressing moments of our times, things like climate change — what do we owe the Earth? How should we think of these things theologically? How can we pull from the wisdom of the ages? This is who we are trying to lean into and forever be.”

A year-old Master of Theology and Ecology program, which is based at the Seminary’s unique Farminary, has seen “a great, enthusiastic response,” Walton said, because “it speaks to the moral concerns and questions today’s learners are asking. Does God have a word? Is there anything the church has to say about the environment and ecological sustainability?”

“At Princeton Seminary, we said that God does have a word. God has not spoken a final word on these ethical matters. As my former biblical studies teacher, [the Rev. Dr.] Brian Blount taught us when I was in school at Princeton Seminary, a final word is a dead word. God is indeed still speaking.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

“That’ll preach right there,” Hinson-Hasty said.

In theological education, “Maybe we’ve been a little distracted asking the wrong questions or lamenting the wrong things — the decline of the mainline church or how we are going to get people back in the pews,” Walton said. “We also know that diseases of despair are on the rise. We know that depression, alienation, suicide and adolescent mental health” have reached “a state of emergency.”

“As communities of faith, I do believe there is an urgency to speak to these pressing demands and needs of our time,” Walton said. “That comes through the Gospel offering an alternative view of society. We have spent the last two generations scorching the earth, in a way, where we placed a market-based morality of efficiency and profit margin that we’ve privileged at all cost. It’s gotten us a generation that’s alienated and increasingly disaffiliated. How can we offer a vision of a banquet table where seats are shared, not earned? How can we offer a vision of a community — even a learning community — where the doors swing wide open, and we mean it when we talk about ‘whosoever will’?”

“We know in a knowledge-based economy we can engage people we couldn’t engage 20 years ago” through hybrid programs, Walton said. Another recent addition is the Seminary’s Master of Arts and Theology program. The first track, on justice and public life, is designed “to help us think about the question of what it means to be good” by “equipping professionals of faith with theological tools in history and biblical criticism to apply their faith in responsible ways to their professions.” The inaugural cohort includes a pastor, several university officials, a federal judge, and people who work in nonprofits and international development. “These are professionals who are committed to learning more about their faith and see theological education as the great tool and resource for that,” Walton said.

“Princeton Seminary is just on fire right now,” Walton said. “Eyes have not seen, and ears have not heard what God has in store for this community, because of the community that constitutes it.”

“We know it’s going to be complicated. We know there will be struggles and challenges ahead,” Walton said. “But we walk by faith, and we continue to follow our faith as we seek better understanding for the pressing time.”

Walton offered Hinson-Hasty and viewers the benediction he often says on Sunday mornings.

“Life is short, and time is filled with swift transition. So, we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this thing called life with us. So, let’s be swift to love. Let’s make haste to be kind. Let’s be quick to compliment and slow to criticize.

“Let’s love ourselves, because loving ourselves is a precondition for loving our neighbor. If we do these things, we might begin to approximate what it means to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before our God. Amen.”

Watch previous editions of “Leading Theologically” here.

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