Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World

Kwok Pui-lan, Episcopal Divinity School

Kwok Pui-LanKwok Pui-lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and the 2011 president of the American Academy of Religion. Her recent books are Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, coauthored with Joerg Rieger (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) and Anglican Women on Church and Mission (Church Publishing, 2013).

 

 


Last summer, eighteen faculty, staff, and students of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, participated in a travel study seminar to visit churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations in China. We visited the seminaries at Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing and discussed the vision and challenges of theological education with the faculty and students. We were delighted to find out that some of the seminaries used books written by our faculty members. Visiting professors from Europe and North America have taught at seminaries in China, while several Chinese faculty members are pursuing advanced degrees abroad.

Through travel abroad seminars, short-term immersions, faculty and student exchanges, visiting appointments, and institutional partnerships, many divinity schools and seminaries in North America have established relationships with theological schools in other parts of the world. Some schools also have cross-cultural competency requirements. These developments have taken place in the larger conversation of globalization and theological education since the 1980s.1 In 1999, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in the United States and Canada adopted its "Guidelines for Evaluating Globalization in Commission Schools."

With Christian demographics shifting to the Global South, many theological educators recognize the need to broaden their students’ horizons and educate future leaders of faith communities who will be prepared to lead in a globalized world. Yet a closer look at the theological curriculum at many schools clearly indicates that the European and Euro-American traditions are privileged over others. Despite the increasing diversity among our students and in Christian congregations, the teaching of theology has not changed to catch up with the new global situation.

For example, a review of the eighteen syllabi posted in the Syllabus Project of the Wabash Center and the AAR in the category Theology (Christian) shows that except for the course on “Jesus across Cultures,” the other syllabi indicate: (1) there is little emphasis on the global nature of theology and the growing body of literature on the subject, (2) the majority of required texts are written by white European and Euro-American male theologians, (3) no required text or, at best, one required text is by a theologian outside North America, usually from Latin America, such as Gustavo Gutierrez or Leonardo Boff, and (4) there is minimal acknowledgment of the contribution of the work of racial and ethnic minority scholars in  North America.

In order to address how the teaching of theology needs to change, Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago, William Dyrness of Fuller Theological Seminary, and I have brought together a small group of theologians and scholars representing the Catholic, Protestant Mainline, and Evangelical traditions for a series of dialogues, partially funded by the Wabash Center. The group organized a workshop on “Teaching Theology in the Globalized and Transnational World” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2013, which drew over 100 participants including a significant number of international attendees. This was the first time, in my memory, that the AAR has had such a lively discussion on the teaching of theology across denominational, national, racial, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. The papers from the workshop and from other contributors will be published as a book by Baylor University Press. The group has also set up a blog at http://teachingtheology.blogspot.com.

Challenges and Concerns

In our discussion, we identified several important challenges and concerns of teaching theology in a global context:

  • Epistemic colonialism Many people still harbor the hidden assumption that “western” theology is normative and represents the “universal,” while other theologies—African, Asian, Latin American, black, feminist, womanist, Latino/a, queer, and so forth—are local or contextual, perspectival, and limited. Even though postcolonial studies have significantly influenced the humanities and social sciences, the field of theology is very slow in adopting some of its insights.
     
  • Knowledge production and circulation According to UNESCO, there were 292,000 new titles and editions of books published in the US in 2011, compared to 26,300 in Argentina in 2012, and 3,800 in Pakistan in 2012. The number of religious titles in the US far outnumbers that of other countries. Even though Christian demographics have shifted to the Global South, the production of academic theology is still concentrated in Europe and North America. Theological books from other parts of the world are not readily available in the North American market.
     
  • Theology from the global South through western eyes The majority of books on “global theology,” “theology in global dialogue,” or “theology in a global context,” are written or edited by white scholars in Europe and North America, filtered through their epistemological frameworks. Many people consult the works of Philip Jenkins if they want to know something about global Christianity, despite the fact that his work has been criticized by Peter C. Phan, Lamin Sanneh, and me, among others. Only a tiny number of authors from the Global South are known to the wider academic world, and their voices are often introduced or mediated by their white colleagues.
     
  • Difficulties of cross-cultural understanding – Even though theological voices from the Global South have been made available, cross-cultural understanding is demanding and difficult. William Dyrness writes that much of western Christianity has been shaped by the “liberal self,” such that the primary focus of religion is the individual. But this is not the experience shared by many people in other parts of the world and their churches are untouched by this liberal self. The Enlightenment, he argues, which has determined western people’s attitude toward truth or knowledge, does not exist for many people.2 Thus, it is challenging, for example, to understand or engage in dialogue with African notions of gods and spirits.
     
  • Students as native informants The traditional, residential model of theological education has become so expensive that it has become a luxury for poorer and racial and ethnic minority students. Even when international students and racial and ethnic minority students end up in our classrooms, their experiences are largely ignored. In the worst scenario, they are treated as “authentic” representatives of their culture and asked to serve as “native informants” to help educate their white American teachers and students. White students do not take responsibility or initiative of learning international students’ cultures on their own.

Teaching to Change

In order to the address some of the challenges and concerns mentioned above, the group shared strategies and pedagogies they have used in their teaching. They have found Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress (1994) helpful to think through some of the issues in the classroom. Several members of the group have taught in different parts of the world and offered helpful insights in cross-cultural pedagogies. We need to rethink both the content and process in teaching theology with fresh eyes.

  • Recovering multiple traditions in Christianity – Since the beginning, Christianity was established as a pluralistic tradition and different schools of thought flourished in the first few centuries. Nowadays, many scholars teaching Christian thought focus solely on Christian thinkers in western Christianity, neglecting the theological development in the Church of the East and its influences all the way to India and China. We have to recover Christianity with its many cultural homes. As Tite Tiénou says, “The fact that Christianity is at home in a multiplicity of cultures, without being permanently wedded to any one of them, presents for Christians everywhere a unique opportunity for examining Christian identity and Christian theology" (2006, 38).
     
  • Teaching cross-culturally Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban-American scholar, has taught in Mexico and Indonesia, among other places. He speaks of himself as a “cross-dresser” between different constructions of identity and the power and privilege associated with being an American citizen. Even though he is an ethnic minority, his students outside of the US see him first as an American. He warns against the oppressed being complicit with oppression and the intra-oppression within marginalized communities. Dwight Hopkins shared his experience teaching a course on “Being Human” to a class of students from different nationalities in South Korea. He tried to create a classroom environment in which students could examine their own understanding of self and history in conversation with their foreign neighbors. The goal was not to impart privilege on one culture, but to promote reflection of one’s heritage and theological understanding.
     
  • Paying attention to the empty chair Those of us teaching in predominantly white schools need to be especially vigilant regarding the fact that our classroom does not reflect the majority of people in the world nor the changing racial composition in the US. As Cecilia González-Andrieu has said, we need to pay attention to the empty chair in the room. Faculties and students have to constantly ask, “What are the theological voices missing?” They need to make extra effort in exposing themselves to diverse theological frameworks and take creative steps in addressing epistemic colonialism and institutional racism.
     
  • Comparative mode of teaching Since we live in an interconnected and religiously pluralistic world, the teaching of theology must help equip students to be global citizens and bridge-builders among religious communities. The field of comparative theology has been developed to look at certain topics in two or more religious traditions from the perspective of a certain confession. Insights from other traditions can often illuminate our blind spots and lead us to ask new questions. The teaching of theology needs to break through the mono-cultural and mono-religious captivity.
     
  • Revamping the theological curriculum – Our theological curriculum needs serious reexamination within the context of the global world. Eleazar S. Fernandez describes a transnational theological curriculum and pedagogy as going beyond Eurocentic and binaristic assumptions, and as transcultural, interfaith-engaged, dialogical, interdisciplinary, and integrative (2011). Theological education must pay attention to the glocal—the dialectical relationship between the global and the local in order to prepare for tomorrow’s cosmopolitan citizens.

During the general discussion at the workshop, participants asked some critical questions. One participant raised a question concerning class and theological education. The assumptions and ethos of theological education, to a large extent, is shaped by middle-class culture. Working class students often find themselves alienated because they may not have the vocabulary and cultural competence to succeed in a theological setting. Most academic theology, whether written for the church, academia, or the public square, has been written by middle-class professionals.

Although Latin American liberation theology has talked a lot about class issues, its influences in the US have been curtailed because of the rise of neo-conservatives and the power of some right-winged religious leaders. But in recent years, several theologians have begun to address the issue of class more intentionally. For example, Joerg Rieger and I interviewed people who have participated in the Occupy movement to write Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Rieger also edited the newly released volume Theology, Religion, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Another participant wanted to know how people teaching outside the US look at the issue of teaching theology in a global and transnational world. Colleagues from other parts of the world live and work in social, cultural, and political contexts very different from those in the US. A Chinese professor teaching theology in Hong Kong, for example, would likely need to discuss the long history of Christianity in China and theological developments as China responded to imperialism, communism, and the recent da guo jue qi (rise of the big nation).  

I hope we will continue the conversation and bring more international participants into the dialogue. Our students who belong to the millennial generation have grown up in a world of the Internet, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media. They are the most globally connected generation we have taught. We have to create a learning environment that meets the challenges of an interconnected and transnational world.
 


1 The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada published four issues on globalization and theological education in its journal Theological Education from 1986–1993.

2 William A. Dyrness, “Why Don’t We Hear Much from the Global Church?” Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World, http://teachingtheology.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-dont-we-hear-much-from-global.html (accessed February 1, 2014).

 

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