2011- Big Tent: Seminary president invokes Calvin as model for how to ‘stay awake’ in fast-moving times

 INDIANAPOLIS – The task of Christians today, living in a time of wild change, may be “not to force that history forward. Our task is to stay awake.”

          Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary  in New York and an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, brought that message to the opening plenary of Big Tent 2011. Big Tent, being held June 30-July 2 in Indianapolis, is the jumbo-sized joint gathering of nine Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) conferences being held at one time, in one place, in the off-year between the denomination’s biennial General Assemblies.

So far 1,715 people have officially registered for Big Tent, with Presbyterians swarming the meeting rooms for workshops on a plethora of subjects – from the challenges of being a mostly white, mostly aging denomination in an atmosphere of increasing diversity to how local congregations can work effectively for global change.

Jones said her assignment was to talk about the “really, really, really big tent,” way beyond the PC(USA) – what Reformed theologian John Calvin called “that grand quotidian,” the cosmos spanning time and space. This moment in that cosmic history is a time of immense movement, she said, a time of “more weight and freight” than many, a period of change which some consider to be a new Reformation and which has parallels with Calvin’s environment 500 years ago.

Calvin, a native of France, ended up in Geneva in Switzerland, after being run out of his homeland because of his beliefs, Jones said. The city that became his new home was full of immigrants, people who had fled oppression, and also with the survivors of a plague that had killed a quarter of Europe’s population. Impoverished people sought refuge in a city with huge cathedrals, but no hospitals or soup kitchens.

There, Calvin’s writings were “shaped by the imagination of an immigrant, shaped by the imagination of a displaced person,” Jones said.

And Calvin’s environment was similar in some ways to today’s time. The printing press had just been developed, giving ordinary people access to books. Nations were being formed, with boundaries and rules being negotiated. A middle class was being born, tied to capitalism, transforming the feudal system.

Jones described it this way: New media; a global economy; trade agreements.

The challenge in such fast-moving times, she contends, is “not to find that one truth you can hold fast to” – holding tight to some sort of protective armor. “In the midst of chaos, it is an opening, an ever-widening embrace, that brings calm and direction,” she said.

Jones spoke of the dynamics of tension: of living into both collapse and expansion; of walking both inside a labyrinth and at the abyss; of living into the Reformed insistence that “human life is complex.”

The most important thing Calvin did was that “he stayed awake,” Jones said. “He refused to close his eyes. He kept going to the Scriptures and using those stories to keep his eyes open.”

At her own seminary, as a sign of that ongoing complexity, deferred maintenance means that “literally, the gargoyles are falling off of our facades” – the buildings are losing their faces. At the same time, “the doors are bursting open” with students who previously would not have come to seminary, with some who say they are spiritual but not religious, with Catholics and Pentecostals, Jews and Muslims all coming to study at a Protestant seminary.

“Let history roil through us,” Jones told these Presbyterians, gathered in what is proving a tumultuous time in the PC(USA) as well. “Be awake. Amen.”