Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Theologian's calling and the context of local theological scene

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My previous post is a reflection based on my two years observation of the context in Singapore (and in lesser degree Malaysia) as a pastoral staff who tries very hard to remain connected with the academic theological scene. Here are three things that I have observed.

1. The High-Calling of 'Pastor-Theologian'
I have met fellow Christian workers who seem to believe that 'pastor-theologian' is achievable. After more than two years of trying to keep myself immerse in pastoral ministry as well as theological academy, I begin to lower down my optimism.

A regular full-time pastoral staff simply doesn't have the bandwith to keep up with academic theology while wholly giving in to pastoral ministry, not to mention the tedious task of bridging the two. The fact that John Piper, Timothy Keller, and Tom Wright cannot do it (in my view), what makes me think that I can?
 
2.The High-Calling of Theologian
For the past two years, I have met a few young people who told me that they want to study theology not because they want to be equipped for pastoral ministry but because they felt being called to serve in the academia or be a theological lecturer. I can very much identify with them because I was like them.

I enrolled into theological college purely out of my interest in theology. I didn't know what will I do after graduation. When I started my theological education, I wasn't ready to go into pastoral ministry nor expecting myself to do so. In my final semester, I talked to a few theologians, including the principal of the college, about my desire to go for further study so that I can be a theologian. Basically, there wasn't such opportunity open at that time. Or perhaps, I wasn't a suitable candidate even if there was.

In retrospect, I realized that it was probably truer that I wasn't a suitable candidate. I didn't know what exactly is the vocation of a theologian. It took me some time to discover that being passionate in reading, thinking, writing, and arguing for certain ideas about God is not a theologian's vocation. Unfortunately, this mistaken idea of a theologian's calling is pervasive due to the widely read kind of popular-level theological literatures which are usually oversimplified polemic crafted in the context of "modernist/postmodernist conservative versus liberal". For an example of a good local theological work, check out Trinity Theological College's theologian Tan Loe-Joo's recent article in the New Blackfriars, which is made freely available for now.

Rather, a theologian's calling is to articulate and express his/her love for God and people through his/her teaching and research topic, academic presentation at theological conferences, and publication in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. This means that when people read your academic paper or sit through your lecture, they don't only learn theological ideas, but also through your work sense your own love for God and people and thus inspired to love God and people. This demands much more than intellectual capability. It is the giving of one's whole self in making one's love for God and people in academically visible ways. It's practising theological-pastoring.

Interacting with academic theology as a pastoral staff has made me more aware of the kind of pastoral care that people need and what kind of academic theological literatures can help them. Many academic theological works out there do not meet much of the need of local regular believers. Certain instinct and judgement can only be gained from pastoral ministry.

Therefore I think that the notion "You are a theologian because you have some ideas about God" is an insult to theological vocation. In the art scene, you are not an artist just because you have a degree or postgraduate degree in the arts. Only the renowned ones are callled artist. This perspective of theologian's high-calling may help young people who aspire to be theological teacher to get a glimpse of what they should actually work towards.

3. Organic Unity of Local Theological Scene
Local theological schools are very different from state-funded secular universities' divinity or religious study faculty in other countries. Theological institutions in Singapore have very intimate link with local churches. I think this is the same with Malaysian ones.

Some denominations and churches only recognize graduates from certain theological school. Therefore funds needed to sustain the schools come mainly from the denominations and affiliated churches. Many of the lecturers are financially supported by their own churches and friends. Hence, theologians in this part of the world need to have very close working relationship and deep level of trust with their own church. 

For this reason,  renegade theologian can hardly find a place here. I know a few people who have completed their theological degree at established theological schools out of their passion for theology and desire to teach theology. Yet they are now too busy with their work (for very practical reason), and hardly able to pursue their ambition further. Even if they manage to get their doctorate, they would have difficulty looking for a teaching post in local theological institutions as they don't have a denomination or church to support them. 

Therefore, the local theological scene is very much a communal enterprise. A theologian discovers his/her vocation within a community, commissioned to study from the community, and then research and teach with the support of the community. #youngpeoplewhoaspiretobetheologians, take note of this.

So my previous post wasn't written with negative experience of serving in church. On the contrary, I've learnt much from the two years as a pastoral staff. My church leaders and colleagues have expanded my theological horizon. The congregation has deepened my appreciation for pastoral care and theology. The post was a reflection of the theological scene here.

3 comments:

reasonable said...

"Rather, a theologian's calling is to articulate and express his/her love for God and people through his/her teaching and research topic, academic presentation at theological conferences, and publication in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. This means that when people read your academic paper or sit through your lecture, they don't only learn theological ideas, but also through your work sense your own love for God and people and thus inspired to love God and people."

While the quoted text above gives a possible explanation of what a theologian is, perhaps it is not the only correct version of what a theologian is. Perhaps other differing definitions and explanations of "theologian" could not be ruled out as wrong, such as defining it in a way that does not require one to be a Christian/monotheist.

Tremonti said...

Hey, I haven't been visiting your blog and even blogging as well...then I read this piece and it's a good reflection I have to say. I wanted to continue my theological studies with teaching in seminary as the logical route but that was not the case. I'm in my third year in the ministry...and I just love what you said here

"Therefore, the local theological scene is very much a communal enterprise. A theologian discovers his/her vocation within a community, commissioned to study from the community, and then research and teach with the support of the community. #youngpeoplewhoaspiretobetheologians, take note of this."

Couldn't agree more.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Tremonti,

Indeed, haven't see your blogosphere's presence in a while. Trust that you and family had a good Christmas. :)