A brief reminiscence of Union Theological Seminary


I entered Union Theological Seminary in 1958 and graduated in 1961. My time there was mixed. While it was the top seminary around, I felt its courses were high schoolish with emphasis on memorizing and a lack of intellectual rigor. I think I was beginning to feel the same resistance to the suppositional and speculative nature of Christianity that I now feel explicitly. I was not impressed by its being the end of the Tillich-Niebuhr era at Union. I edited the seminary paper and closed out with a piece on the lack of community there that set the then-President on a bit of a tear. I made good friends. Notably Al Carmines who was a close friend all his life. Bob Helm became more of a friend when I later joined the church he and Al were pastors of - Trinity Presbyterian in NYC. The most important intellectual moment was hearing a lecture from H. Richard Niebuhr in which he skewered both neo-orthodoxy and liberalism and said he has no idea what was coming. With that I heartily agreed and it was years and many books later that I finally began to come to a theological understanding which I now seek to articulate. My current theology seems to appeal more to atheists than Christians.  My long term sense of Union is that it has aped the Christian liberal line with all of the hypocrisy that that entails. At the same time I have maintained a relationship with Union, lecturing there in earlier years and seeking in more recent times to make contact with successive Presidents. I  have failed miserably the last three attempts. A final note. When I worked at Austen Riggs Center following my time at Union I became privy to the files that recounted the inner life of the faculty in the 1950s and the suicide of a popular dean. It was a shocking indication of the moral lassitude that existed even in these sacred precincts. I discussed it with Erik Erikson at the time. My sense of things now as I look back at Union is that it continues to regard itself as the flower of progressive theology and deludes itself by refusing to confront the church and theology of which it is a part. That criticism has been consistent over time and it has grown in intensity.

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James H. Robinson's Influence on Me and Many Others

I met Jim Robinson in 1955 as a Williams College student. I went to work camps at the two camps he ran in Winchester, NH, and worked at Camp Rabbit Hollow during the summer of 1956. The experience was more major for me than anything previous. It made me fully committed to the inherent universalism I now believe we all possess. It made me color-blind. I never went through any liberal guilt or political correctness phase. I simply accepted people as people and that truth was validated by my relationships then and since then. The experience meant that, by a process of elimination, I was unable to avoid the conclusion that I should go on to Union Theological Seminary. I did not know Jim as pastor of the Church of the Master but as a man who had become one of the most influential persons ever on the college circuit, having the same effect on countless others as he had on me. I believe Jim did more for the civil rights movement than many who are properly celebrated today. He was a bridge figure.  My impressions of Jim's Church in Harlem were formed largely in recent years when I looked into its history. Jim came there as a Union Seminary graduate who was encouraged by Harry Emerson Fosdick to take on the revival of the parish. He succeeded and earned nationwide recognition as a preacher and pastor. My going to Williams was a major decision. Once there I was seriously alienated from the place. The move toward Jim and his way of other-centered service and justice appealed to me. I eventually resigned my fraternity and lived with the then-Williams chaplain Bill Coffin and his wide Eva Rubenstein. Their house was shot up by irate fraternity members. They narrowly missed Amy Coffin who had recently joined the family as their first child.

It can be said that these years at Williams confirmed the course I have been on since.

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ABBA SPEAKS to A Fearing World

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