Union Theological Seminary
Union Theological Seminary, 50 Years Later, My Musings
Early Saturday morning, the day following the awards ceremony in the refectory of Union Theological Seminary, on Broadway, surrounded by Riverside Church, Barnard College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Teacher's College Columbia, I lay restlessly in my bed. Maybe it was the traffic along Broadway outside the window of our hotel room in The Landmark Guest Rooms, in its previous incarnation known as Hastings Hall first floor. But just as likely it was the refrain running through my head: prophet, priest, and king. I first heard that phrase at UTS in 1953. It describes the threefold role of Jesus.
In our moment in seminary that refrain might better have been "professor, pastor, and president," a description not so much of Jesus as of those of us determined to be his professional disciples. I chafed at my secondary status, pastor; but, in fact, I was drawn to Union because of its preeminent status as a bastion of intellectual faith. I had won a Danforth Foundation Scholarship and thought I was on track for college teaching, which is what the Danforth was for. My future father-in-law intervened, persuaded me to pastor a church for a season, and I was hooked for life. Not so for the majority of my seminary classmates, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in academia. They arrived there in the post World War II years when many universities, private and public, instituted departments of religion and began to offer religion majors.
One of our number, Robert Atwood Spivey, taught at Williams and Florida State before being tapped for the presidency of Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg VA.
Somewhere between 1956 and 2006 Union restored the primary emphasis in the threefold refrain, but with a strongly anti-establishment twist typical of the turbulent 70's: PROPHET, priest, and KING-CHALLENGER. That emphasis persists to the present moment. At the Unitas Awards Ceremony (the night before my sleepless early morning) eight distinguished Alumni(ae) were celebrated. What distinguished them, according to the one consistent theme in their biographies, was their passion for social justice. Forgive this Critical Christian, please, for wondering if some of these square honorees were being squeezed into halo-shaped designs to meet the demands of an institution insistent on finding saints who spent their lives tearing down the walls of systemic evil.
When there was among the Class of 1956 a cadre of saints who spent their lives building up the foundations of faith. Ah, but what do I know, this priest restless in the morning?
Herewith are some other photos of the two days and nights of our sojourn within the cloistered stone walls of the Union quadrangle, along with reminisces and musings in legend beneath the photos, interspersed with additional comments.
Some of us did become priests/pastors for an entire career... and, from the looks of that number, did prosper, including one of the groomsmen at our wedding in 1955, Robert G. Long, missing from my view since 1956. His preaching robe, however, continued to remind me of his existence. He left it in my study in Brooklyn in the spring of our senior year at UTS. I moved it thence to Valley Stream, the label identification of "RGL" to this day evident in the study at Grace Church.
Presbyterians dominated the student body in ancient times, with Methodists a close second, followed by Congregationalists and Episcopalians, with a few stray Baptists and Lutherans thrown in. The faculty too was ecumenical. I was taught, among several professors, homiletics (preaching) by a Lutheran, Old Testament by an Episcopalian/Hugenot, church history by a Baptist, and New Testament by a Methodist.
The two days were, as you would expect of a preacher's celebration, spent listening to speakers. The keynoter, Marcus Borg, addressed the divide in American Christianity apparent to anyone who has been paying attention in this nation divided between red and blue. I said to Barbara at the conclusion of the first lecture, "I could have offered the same diagnosis and prescription." I said it not to disparage but to compliment Dr. Borg. His description of the "emerging church" sounded very much like the two I tried to lead during the past fifty years.
The other major presentation featured an organization named Picture the Homeless. Students presently at UTS had linked with the organization whose goal, if heard them correctly in the two hours they had, more or less, our attention, is to enable the homeless on the streets of New York City to visit the graves of their friends in Potter's Field on Hart Island just off City Island. Mayor Bloomberg and the financial system of the U. S. were targeted as the culprits in this conspiracy to prevent poor people from exercising their God-given right to grief. A New Testament scholar managed to put the rite of holy communion into an original context of poor homeless (Jesus and the Twelve?) people bonding, a well-established pattern in the first century of the common era. And to think that all these years I thought the Last Supper was a Passover seder!
Like I observed earlier, a passion for social justice reigns at UTS in the present moment; and it trumps all other considerations.
We (Barbara and I) did have time to visit familiar sights of earlier years... and reminisce:
Union completed the past academic year with a slight surplus in its budget. It was hard won. Columbia University, starved for space, has leased one third of the quadrangle and has taken responsibility for the library. The president of the board, a layman and former Rockefeller Student at the seminary, has the savvy and commitment to steer the school on a financially stable course. The question remains, however, whether or not professors of stature can be wooed to replace those who have retired. Nostalgia for alma mater makes me hope the seminary can recapture some of the glory it had in 1956 when two Time Magazine cover persons taught preachers and professors.