I’VE DONE IT MYSELF — dragged the nine members of the confirmation class to a Saturday presbytery meeting so that 13-year olds could witness first-hand the felicities of Presbyterian governance in action. But, at points in rather too many presbytery meetings, I’ve wondered whether I should be exposing impressionable young minds to this. You know what I mean: tangled passive-aggressive procedural wrangling, thinly-disguised barbs directed at the other side of the aisle, the same people grandstanding at the mic for the fourth time, red-faced anger veiled in righteousness, substitute motions prefaced by confessions that “I really don’t know much about this, but I move … .”
The more immediate question, however, is this: “Are you sure you want to bring your confirmation class to the 221st General Assembly?” Would what they see and hear at committee meetings or on the floor of plenary sessions undergird or weaken fledgling adolescent faith? The issues confronting this assembly promise to be as challenging, indeed as contentious, as any faced in years. What we decide will matter (although perhaps not quite as much as some combatants are wont to believe). But how we decide — our manner and our manners in deciding — may matter as much as what we decide. There have been the predictable calls for “civility,” a virtue to be sure, but a civic virtue more than a theological one.
An eloquent open letter from the faculty of Austin Seminary calls for something higher — forbearance. Forbearance is a biblical virtue, one that suggests not only patience in the face of animus and enmity, but a virtue that also implies the confessing of a certain intellectual humility. That is to say, you strive to wrap even your fondest convictions in an acknowledgment that no matter how firmly you think you’re right, you could be wrong.
The late Johan Christiaan Beker, for many years a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, was a riveting classroom lecturer, especially when the subject was the Apostle Paul. Paul was his specialty, and Beker had famously passionate perspectives. By the end of a lecture, Beker had often ascended into a veritable paroxysm of academic passion. He paced the dais in his Stuart Hall classroom, his Dutch accent thickening as he became more and more animated about some question of Pauline scholarship. He was convinced of his convictions, and often rhetorically lacerated scholars who stubbornly held to what were (to Beker) patently absurd notions. He waved his arms and jabbed his index finger this way and that; his voice rose; his face reddened.
More than once, this performance was suddenly interrupted by the loud bell punctuating class sessions in Stuart Hall. I recall several occasions when, as that bell drew Beker back to earth from the heights of impassioned argument, he looked out at the class and said in an even voice, “Then again, this may be all wrong.” Actually, he usually made that confession in stronger and generally scatological language, but the point was clear. “I am right about this, but … ” Forbearance implies just that. It’s not merely patience with those who disagree with your convictions, it’s also the wrapping of your fondest political and intellectual certainties in some humility. I think that the members of any confirmation class visiting General Assembly would find their faith braced should they witness debate tempered with forbearance and humility.
MICHAEL LINDVALL is pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City.