Taking Theology to the Bazaar
Today (4th June, 2013) at Oriental Theological Seminary, Dimapur. Wonderful community there. Warm, highly trained, and motivated faculty; and students who can stay awake after lunch on a hot afternoon and ask questions.
I’m privileged to be here. I thank the OTS community, and particularly Dr. C. Cho-o for inviting me. I am humbled to think that I, a medical doctor of all people should be invited to interact with theological students on a topic which is not on health awareness or a topic related to my profession. But I’m also thrilled to think that in approaching me, the OTS has shown the importance of inter-disciplinary learning, a thing which I am very interested in. The different disciplines of learning are increasingly becoming specialised so that there is very few or no communication between the disciplines. So, people are learning more and more of less and less. In Medicine Sciences, a cardiologist knows so much about the human heart: the structure, function, pathology and their management. An Ophthalmologist knows all about the human eyes. But sadly we doctors many times fail to treat our patients as full human beings, much less to locate the patient to his/her physical and social environment. Patients are seen as biological machines which need fixing. Theology like-wise has many specialties like Applied Theology, Missiology, Systematic Theology, New Testament, Old Testament, and so on. Those who don’t have a doctorate in Applied Theology doesn’t mean that their specialty needs no application nor does it mean that those who do not specialise in Systematic Theology need not study in a systematic or organized manner. This may be an over-simplification of the specialties of Theological Studies but I hope that the point intended is made clear. This is what we may call the problem of over-specialization.
Interdisciplinary learning does not only mean that theological students need to know a little bit of sociology, literature, biology, current affairs, and psychology along with theological subjects. It is to learn how they are related and interconnected. It is not to know a little bit of this and that but to learn to make sense of the whole; to see the bigger picture of things. At the heart of all learning is a kind of interconnectedness: a harmony or a grand scheme of things. Underlying the various disciplines are common grounds like the search for truth, meaning, rationality, coherence, beauty, etc. You’ll agree with me that we do find God in unexpected places. Reading a book on Sociology written by a non-Christian author may enrich our Christian faith and devotion. Literature, we know cannot be interpreted like a science textbook, but a scientist can derive inspiration from a poet to motivate his/her scientific studies. Through scientific discovery, a scientist can break out into psalms of praise to God who created the universe.
And we do come across people who seem to contradict themselves. They may have a robust view on social justice but have a poor view on gender equality. They may be full of compassion for the poor in obedience to Christ, but only for the poor of their own tribesmen and not of immigrants, thereby compassion becomes selective and obedience to Christ comes into conflict with the other aspects of Jesus’ teaching. We have many Christians who are committed to the Bible but have erroneous views on science. They think that their faith is locked in battle with science. They think that evolutionary biology is opposed to Genesis 1 and 2; but they do not care to study what biological evolution actually mean nor do an in-depth study of what the author of Genesis is trying to say. There is no underlying coherence or harmony in such learning.
We want what we believe in our hearts to make sense to our heads. We want what makes sense in our heads to affirm what we believe in our hearts. Christ is the integrating centre of all learning. In him, all things hold together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven; Colossians Chapter 1. The analogy of one body with many parts as seen in 1 Cor. 12:12, Rom. 12:4, and Eph. 4: 16 fits very well into Christ being the integrating centre of all disciplines of learning. Whatever discipline we are engaged in, we are all parts of one body, and we all contribute towards the kingdom of God. If this is so, there are many disciplines that we need to appreciate better. There are many so-called ‘secular’ subjects where the name of Christ is not explicitly mentioned, but we need to see how they contribute their service to God and acknowledge the Lordship of Christ in their works. For example, a painting does not become Christian just because there is a small cross on one corner. But works of creativity and beauty reflects the nature of our God who created all things and made all things beautiful. Like-wise, how does a chemist in his laboratory, a barber in his shop, a night watchman on duty, serve God through their work and not simply because they go all go to church on Sundays? That is a very important question that we must consider.
Christian monasteries and seminaries were the centres of learning from where disciplines other than theology developed, for example modern science. During the medieval period, Theology was the ‘Queen of the sciences’. Alister McGrath in his book Christian Theology stated that in a typical medieval university, there was the lower faculty of Arts, and three higher faculties of Theology, Medicine, and Law. Those who graduate from Arts go on to pick one of the higher subjects. Theology commanded that much respect then. There was a tussle between the pursuit of academic theology and practice of Christian faith. There were people who try to bridge the two, like FDE Schleiermacher who said that it is ‘essential for the good of the church and the state that there be well educated clergy’. But till this day, we see a distinction that we may generally say that Protestants’ emphasis is on prayer, spirituality and practical aspects of the Christian faith, while the Catholics have a more robust academic storehouse of knowledge on the Christian faith. During the Enlightenment, Philosophy rose to importance as a pursuit for truth while theology and medicine got confined to things like ethics and health. McGrath cite two modern problems which pushed theology from its place of importance in the university, Secularism and Pluralism. Secularism tries to push Theology out of the university while Pluralism reduces theology to simply one of the many departments, say, Faculty of Religion. So, seminaries like OTS now become the centre of theological learning.
How do one balance between pursuit of academic knowledge of theology and practice of Christian knowledge? Such a question has the danger of creating division between the two. It can be mistaken that you are asked to choose one- ‘either’ Theory ‘or’ Practical - as if it is an ‘either-or’ question. The two are extremely important and one cannot do without the other. Theory and Praxis are inseparable.
Understanding of Christian theology as an academic pursuit or as personal study by lay people is extremely important. This is something that is so important that the importance cannot be overstated. Statements like ‘Theology is too important to be left to theologians’ or articles like ‘rescuing theology from theologians’ show that lay Christians have a stake in understanding theology which forms the basis of their Christian beliefs. How much more important it is then, that theological students know their subject matters well and thoroughly. Dislocation of Scripture verses from their context is a perennial problem that we face today, the clergy not spared. The Bible is not a collection of floating, timeless verses or magic bullets which when blank fired will hit the target every time. The Bible is rooted in a certain time in a certain place in the history of a certain people. So, it is important to locate the Scriptures to its historical settings with its peculiar peoples, culture, the political and social happenings of the times, so that we grasp what it meant to those for whom it was originally written. When we come to Scripture with our modern 21st century mind, to understand Scripture is not a walk in the park, as some would have us believe. There are many freelance preachers and teachers who preach or use the Bible as per one’s own whims and fancy without any context, background or foundation and their messages hover six fix above reality and never touching the ground. To use texts at will to suit our taste and agenda; to approach the Bible as a collection of proverbs or wise sayings to guide our lives, is to miss the story line, the plot of the grand purpose of God for his world.
On the other hand, to pursue theology as purely an academic discipline just like any other subject is a fault that Theologians and Christians can commit. The purpose of Christian theology is to inform Christian living. To be always lost somewhere in 1st Century Palestine, studying the background of the times of Jesus and various gospel manuscripts without caring to obey what Jesus commands is to miss out the central point, a case of ‘so near yet so far’.
Another aspect of missing the point is to not know how to relate the Scripture to the time we are living in. Unless we know what ails our world, how do we bring healing to it? It is of paramount importance that if we care to bring change to our world, we understand the condition that our world is in.
Let me therefore bring forward three recommendations which talk of one common thing; the topic in focus today: Taking theology to the Bazaar.
First, I would recommend the concepts of ‘Double Refusal’ and ‘Double Listening’ that John Stott talked about in his book ‘The Contemporary Christian’. Simply put, Double Refusal is a call to Christians to refuse the temptations to withdraw from or conform to the world. ‘This is our Father’s world’ that he dearly loved and cared for. We should not try to withdraw from it. However, we are also not to ‘conform to the patterns of this world’. Double Listening is listening both to the Word and the world, and working out how the Word can then be applied to the world.
‘We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathize with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it’.
We must listen to the Word. We must try to transport ourselves in time to the times of the Bible, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to give us discernment and a lot of help from Scholars and Theologians, so that we grow in the knowledge of the Word. But we must also listen to the Bazaar language of our people. What is the word in the street? What are people thinking? What are they saying? Through double listening, then we can learn how to apply the Word to the World.
Secondly, let me bring forward the analogy of bridge building. When you want to connect two landmasses divided by a river, you build a bridge. Between the academy and the bazaar, more than ever, we need bridge builders. The problem of overspecialization of disciplines which I alluded to at the beginning is this, that technical jargons are constructed for a discipline which excludes non-specialists from understanding the subject. This is how; specialists monopolize the knowledge of their specialty. In Theology too, many of the subject matters become inaccessible to the congregation. The clergy also consider it best not to preach certain aspects of the Christian doctrine and teachings lest the people fail to understand them. Here comes the importance of bridge building the burden of which lie mostly in the hands of the specialist. There is no theology which cannot be preached in the pulpit, if we learn how to do it. To suggest how that might be done, let us turn to the next and the last of the recommendations.
It is what Richard B. Hays, a New Testament Scholar calls in one of his lectures, ‘imaginative re-interpretation of Scripture’. In his book ‘Conversion of Imagination: Paul as interpreter of Israel’s Scripture’ Hays says that Paul was imaginatively interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He says that in reading the Old Testament, Paul had undergone a ‘conversion of the imagination’. A review of the book says that Paul read the Psalms christologically, his reading of the law became ‘revisionary interpretation’, and his teachings on ethics and church were influenced by the Old Testament. He was using Israel’s scripture (OT) but he was giving them new meanings through the lens of Christ’s resurrection.
When we look at Jesus himself, we have much to learn in using our imaginations to get our message across to people. When he had to deliver a ground breaking message which goes against the traditional understanding held by the people, he’d do so with a very simple day to day example, like, ‘a man was walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell among robbers’. Or he’d live out a simple example, like, chatting with a Samaritan woman. Such simple acts but having profound meaning and far reaching implication (a Jewish itinerant teacher talking to a promiscuous Samaritan lady) also has the mark of being very easy to understand by one and all, and not simply by people who are trained in the Law. That is something that we need to look at. If Jesus were here, he would have been familiar with readings on market capitalism, reductionism, religious pluralism, materialism, and individualism. But he might not have used those words if he were preaching to the man on the streets. He might have started with a story of a Naga lady driving from Kohima to Dimapur who fell among highway robbers belonging to a faction. A church reverend, a politician, and a 1st class contractor drove past her as she lie by the highway, looted and wounded by the robbers near the Patkai bridge. A migrant worker returning from Patkai took care of her and took her to the hospital. Or while preaching to the majority of Nagas who live in the villages, we may start a story as: Two men were walking down from Longleng to Yanching. As they walked along, they were discussing about the things which had been happening recently. A few months back, they heard that a solution might come before the February election for the long and confusing Naga political issue. Hope began to rise that finally a positive end might be at hand. The election itself was an interesting time when there was a faint hope that things might change for the better. But 3 months after, the same regime remains at the helm and the Naga issue drags its feet on. As the two men sat distraught in a resting shed by the road, a man came from behind and overheard their grumble. After hearing them out, the man remarked soberly, ‘friends, you have been looking for answers in the wrong places. It is not in wielding political power that lasting change will come’. And he began to explain all that has passed and offered hope and a whole new way to the problems that were disturbing them. At Yongphang junction the man excused himself to be going another way while the two proceeded on to their village. They were never the same again. The man had given them a totally fresh perspective, a new beginning to their lives. Their faces are not downcast anymore as they walked fast to tell their folks of what they’ve heard. They said to one another, ‘weren’t our hearts burning when the man spoke to us?’
So, if we care to listen, we will find fresh new ways to preach the gospel in a whole new way. The gospels are the same, but each generation has the challenge of interpreting the Scripture to the times in which they live. And if conversion to Christ is the conversion of our whole selves, it involves even the conversion of our imaginations.