There appears to be a new trend in academia — invite a guest, bestow an honor and then publicly renege on the honor at the first whiff of controversy.
The consequence of this approach is usually public humiliation for the honoree and an even-greater media kerfuffle than caused by announcing the award in the first place.
For higher education institutions that pride themselves on "free thought," it sure increasingly seems that "thought" can be bought by the highest-bidding alumnus who calls to complain.
Indeed, the latest instance of higher education's troubling moral equivocation took place in a rather unexpected locale — the Princeton Theological Seminary. After announcing that the Rev. Timothy Keller would receive the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness, one of the school's most prestigious lectureships, the seminary received blowback because of Keller's traditional views on marriage and female ordination.
This week, the seminary decided to withdraw the honor, while still inviting Keller to speak. The president of Princeton Theological Seminary, Craig Barnes, announced his reversal, stating that honoring Keller may "imply an endorsement" of his views.
While I doggedly defend the Princeton Theological Seminary's right to define its own faith parameters and award whomever it chooses, stigmatizing traditional Christian theology on marriage is a march that even the Supreme Court of the United States' ruling on gay marriage was unable to muster.
"Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises," the court wrote in Obergefell v. Hodges, "neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here."
There is, of course, now blowback against the blowback.
In the wake of the ballyhoo, Religious News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt thoughtfully wrote:
"I've had the pleasure of being with Tim Keller on two occasions. Each time, I recognized areas where his theology and mine did not align. But I also walked away feeling I had been in the presence of someone who was eminently reasonable, thoughtful, kind. Tim Keller is no extremist. He is no misogynist. He is no bigot. He is not hateful. Anyone who has paid attention to his Manhattan ministry can attest to this."
Merritt concludes: "If Christians like Tim Keller are unworthy of honor and deserve to be marginalized, American Christianity is in serious trouble."
Yet traditional theological beliefs are increasingly disparaged even within the very halls where diverse theological perspectives are said to be preached, discussed and debated. The nation's religious seminaries should be repositories of moral courage, resisting craven capitulation to whatever seems politically expedient. But the Princeton Theological Seminary's decision shows a sad kind of capriciousness, deciding one day that the Rev. Keller is worthy of great honor, but on the very next that he is not.
During this ordeal the Rev. Keller hasn't changed.
Regardless of honors, the Rev. Keller will remain one of America's most renowned Christian apologists and thinkers. Not only did he write perhaps the most important best-selling defense of contemporary Christianity, "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism," but he's successfully led a vibrant cluster of Redeemer Presbyterian churches in New York City.
Last month the 66-year-old Keller announced his retirement, although he plans to continue working with "Redeemer City to City," which "recruits, trains, coaches and funds leaders who start gospel movements in cities" across the country. It is about this initiative that the Rev. Keller plans to speak at the Princeton Seminary (even though an award is no longer part of the deal).
But being a man of the cloth, the Rev. Keller cannot be too upset. After all, he's well acquainted with the Christian teaching that "blessed are the persecuted." Christ taught, theirs is "the kingdom of heaven." It's no Princeton Seminary award, but I'm confident the Rev. Keller will make do.