Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How's it like after two years in a theological college?

I noticed a significant change in my disposition towards academic studies as a whole and the discipline theology itself. I notice this change by re-reading the past posts archived in this blog.

There are posts that I have written to which I now disagree with. Then there are those that I feel embarrass when reading them again. Then there are some that I feel angry with myself to have written them back then. In fact I noticed a shift in my blogging pattern too. I notice that the shift subtly took place late last year, in my third semester (I'm going to the fifth semester now).

One particular subject that I've learned to appreciate more is the importance to understand the Church. Since the last semester, I began to capitalize the word 'Church' whenever I use it (unless I'm referring it to the name of an organization or when I quote from others).

My Protestant background has not been placing much significance in this area. It is admissible that local Protestant Churches in general do not have a robust theological understanding of the Church. The practice of the Christian faith has always emphasize on individual's spirituality which is often a sacralized form of individualism.

To give an example of what I mean: It is common in the Protestant community to champion the pursuit of the Kingdom of God without asking where's the place of the invisible Church in this pursuit?

Protestants often speak of the Church as 'community' and 'fellowship', two words that are not incorrect by themselves as description of the Church. However, these words dissociate the visible/physical Churches from the invisible Church too easily.

The invisible Church is the theological concreteness of the physical Church where Sunday services and all other Church-related activities are held. If the physical Churches are the architectural product, the invisible Church is the blueprint.

The absence of robust ecclesiology has caused Churches to function merely like any other corporation with their vision statement, mission statement, goals and strategy planning to sustain themselves for the sake of sustaining themselves.

The issue is not that Churches should not operate like a corporation but to continuously inquire with their Master not only what is their role but also how should they function and what is their status at this point in history.

Being in the council of a local influential Christian network and participating in many other informal activities among the educated class of the society, I'm privileged to meet many influential Christians in high positions.

And by 'high', it often means all the way up there. Take for example, I just met a director of one of Asia's leading financial institutions over the weekend and talked about marketplace theology. At the end of our conversation, he invited me to do some research in that area with a group which he is part of.

Everyone that I met through these gatherings are very fervent God-loving Christians. Each one's life is filled with stories and theological struggle that are very encouraging and honorable.

Nonetheless, I find that many of them hold suspicion towards the Churches and pastors for various reasons. The most common ones are (1) the pastors are irrelevant to marketplace and the secular world, (2) academic theologians have lost touch with the real world, and (3) seminaries and Churches are teaching non-practical things.

Some of them make that point by sharing the story that Martin Luther locked his Church's door from Monday to Saturday as a symbol to tell his congregation to live their faith as Christians not only in the Church during Sunday service, but in their workplace during the weekdays.

And often these laities do not share their suspicion with pastors and academic theologians out of pleasantry and courtesy, or simply have not cross their mind to raise this issue when they meet.

One may attribute the cause of this suspicion to the individual's expectation of the Churches. And the cause of this expectation lies, may I suggest, in the lack of robust understanding of the invisible Church.

The exposure to ecclesiology guides me to approach this disparity between the Churches, the non-Church/para-Church organization, and the seminary. It has to do with how one answer the question: where is the place of the invisible Church in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God?

As how John Calvin in his quoted Cyprian of Carthage:

"I shall begin then, with the church, into the bosom of which God is pleased to gather his children, not only so that they may be nourished by her assistance and ministry while they are infancts and children, but also so that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and reach the goal of faith. "For what God has joined together, no one shall divie." (Mark 10.9). For those to whom God is Father, the church shall also be their mother."
(Quoted in Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction [Singapore: Blackwell, Fifth Edition 2011], p. 383. The italic is added to indicate the quotation of Cyprian of Carthage. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge [USA: Hendrickson, 2008], p. 672.)

To even hint on a possible answer requires an essay with length and depth that a blog post cannot afford to provide (or perhaps just my incapability to produce such post). However, this is just to point out a particular subject that marks a significant shift in my two years of theological studies.

Regarding how this shift took place, I have to acknowledge the course that I took under Daniel Koh on ethics. Through the course, I was introduced to two important books that the class used: Malcolm Brown's 'Tensions in Christian Ethics: An Introduction' and Samuel Wells' and Ben Quash's 'Introducing Christian Ethics'.

The course requires us to submit a 10-pages essay either on the debate on capital punishment or the relation between moral formation and the Christian community. I chose to write on the latter. And it was through my research for this essay (which largely following the trails pointed out in the two mentioned books) that the shift was made.

At the end of the essay, I learned that ecclesiology enables a more coherent perspective on the relation between the individual Christian and other spaces in this world like the state, other religions, corporation, intra-Church communities and para-Church organizations.

How's it like after two years of theological study?

I find myself appreciating nuance more in studies, conversation as well as perception. I also find myself to have developed deeper admiration for the faculty members at Trinity Theological College for their works which unfortunately are often not known among the local Christian community.

Many laities and local pastors have the impression that local academic theologians are not relevant, but I wonder if that is because they are not expose to their work?

Laities prefer to read books or websites from the west and pay very little attention to those from one's own context and then suspect the local theologians are not doing anything 'practical' or 'relevant'. This is of course not the fault of the laities (nor the academicians). This is just what it is at this point in time, where the local atmosphere is still very much entrenched with its post-colonial history and present experience of globalization.

Nonetheless, the laities and pastors shouldn't be too quick to judge the local theologians as insipid. Likewise, the laities shouldn't hastily see the pastors as irrelevant. Each person has his/her professional demands to meet and various responsibilities to look into.

Living in the college allows me to witness some aspects of the life of local theologians and the works that they have been doing that others don't usually see. Participating in many Christian gatherings among the educated class in the society allows me to understand their expectation and desire for the Kingdom of God that pastors usually are not able to attend to. Being around with pastors and pastors-to-be afford me to know firsthand the straining expectation that are expected from them and the limitation that they have which they seldom talk about and laities are not really interested or have the time to know.

The laities, pastors, and academic theologians are all creatures of the invisible Church. In this case, the first step to reconcile each group to one another is to re-learn what does it mean by Church?

Be open to learn and see before passing judgement is an important lesson that I've picked up.

1 comment:

blogpastor said...

Thanks for sharing about this change, Sze Zeng.