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Winsomeness in the negative world

Christians should be kind, but also realize that kindness won’t stop accusations of hate

Robert P. George and Cornel West speak at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 26, 2018. Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Winsomeness in the negative world
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It looked like an April’s Fools’ joke. It had to be. On April 1 a Princeton University student reported in a student newspaper that a social club recently changed its visitors’ policy as a result of a particular lunch guest. That guest was Robert George, distinguished Princeton professor, prominent conservative, close friend and traveling debate-partner of Cornel West, who is also a top-tier gentleman. His mere presence, it was claimed, “caught [members] off guard,” jeopardized the “inclusive environment” of the group, and deeply upset a constituency within the club.

We are left to read between the lines to discern what about Prof. George was so upsetting for these students. One would have to suppose it wasn’t his friendship with Prof. West or his polite demeanor. The narrator of these events suggests the reason relates to Prof. George’s criticisms of “left-wing ideological convictions.” Thus, this “inclusive” space was compelled to exclude a distinguished guest due to his conservative views.

This whole affair serves as a symbolic reminder of “negative world” realities. In contemporary North America, publicly affirming traditional Christian moral teachings that would have been mostly innocuous just 15 years ago is now likely to get you labeled as antisocial, as a threat to the general welfare. According to our post-Christian neighbors, such persons must be pushed to the periphery of polite society. Their views are deemed not only bigoted and backwards, but unsafe. You can be as respectable, kind, and winsome as Robert George, and you will still be declared off-limits.

This isn’t the first time the town of Princeton served up such a pointed negative-world indicator. In 2017, winsome pastor-theologian par excellence Tim Keller was slated to receive an award for excellence in public theology from an institution related to Princeton Theological Seminary. Virulent protestation from students and alumni erupted due to his church’s traditional views on the ordination of women and sexual ethics. As a result, the award was rescinded.

What is most impressive about both of these figures who faced unreasonable opposition at Princeton is how they kept their composure and persisted in Christian character. Some people have mistaken my analyses of winsomeness as suggesting that we need to abandon Biblical commands and Christian character in these difficult times. These accusers accuse me of instrumentalizing virtue—as if I am suggesting that when virtue becomes ineffective for the attainment of tangible goods, then it should be discarded. Not true. No context repeals the Biblical imperatives to love our neighbor, treat others with respect, and so forth. However, I know from my years in ministry and more broadly in various evangelical circles that many have assumed that if we are winsome enough we will gain a hearing from non-believing audiences.

The claim is that such persons will see that we are reasonable, that we aren’t crazy and hateful like many have been led to believe. They will then be open to our message.

If we assume that being winsome will win a favorable hearing, then heated opposition will tempt us to doubt Christian moral teaching.

Most people are not ready to be perceived as unloving, hateful, and a menace to society. But that is what, in many circles, publicly affirming traditional moral teaching will get you.

You are most likely not going to out-winsome Tim Keller and Robert George; and even they received such hostility. You will not winsome your way out of similar pressures. Again, this doesn’t mean we should abandon the Biblical imperatives and Christian virtues. However, what I am proposing is that we need to give more attention to helping people prepare themselves for such pushback in ways that recent eras did not require.

The point in all of this is not to arouse anxiety about potential hostility or resentment about personal exclusion from elite spaces. Rather, my concern is primarily focused on two areas: Christian conviction and societal welfare.

First, if Christians are overly concerned with how they are received by others, then, if we encounter regular pushback, it will be tempting to think, no matter how nice we have been, that we are in the wrong. If we assume that being winsome will win a favorable hearing, then heated opposition will tempt us to doubt Christian moral teaching.

Second, we should be concerned about the broader social impact of such unreasonable hostility as exhibited in these two events at Princeton. These spaces are forming the new crop of elites who will disproportionately shape American society. If such leaders cannot stomach the presence of those with whom they disagree, we are heading for an increasingly intolerant common life. And this intolerance is targeted. What it cannot tolerate are traditional moral teachings that are primarily affirmed and defended by conservative Christian individuals, churches, and organizations. This intolerance and rejection of the moral realities enshrined in traditional Christianity will affect all of us.

These students will leave these elite spaces and lead throughout society. Rejecting Christian moral teaching, or even a willingness to engage or be in the vicinity of others who hold to it, does not bode well. It is no laughing matter, and the joke will be on all of us.

James R. Wood

James R. Wood  is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. He is also a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, co-host of the Civitas podcast produced by the Theopolis Institute, and former associate editor at First Things.

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