Theological Education in an Era of Globalization: Some Critical Issues

[1]                This essay is a critical appraisal of theology and theological education in an era of globalization and its implications for the preparation of leaders for the church in North America.  I approach the topic from the perspective of a theological educator and former academic dean who has taught in theological institutions in Asia and the United States. As a former executive in the Department of Theological Studies, at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, I have had the privilege of getting acquainted with challenges facing theological education in seminaries and institutions from around the world in different cultural contexts.  I draw on those experiences to reflect about theological education in today’s globalized world.   I am aware that the effects of globalization may have different implications in secular (religious) education in colleges and universities but the critical issues I raise may be relevant to them as well.    

Preliminary Observations

[2]                First, the theme implicitly or explicitly assumes the phenomenon of “globalization” affecting societies and cultures around the world. What this phenomenon means, how it is defined, the structural, cultural and economic effects of it on societies, positively or negatively, in different geographical regions of the world is the subject of scholarly debate and analysis in many disciplines, including theology.[1] I will limit myself to some broad remarks on the subject and skip over much of the debate surrounding globalization since, I presume, most of us are familiar with it. What has become increasingly clear to us is that the globalization has contributed to a heightened awareness of global interconnectedness and the globalization of knowledge. What  the implications of our knowledge of globalization are for theological education is my primary focus.

[3]                Second, it is unavoidable that in an essay of this nature one has to make certain generalizations. As we all know that all generalizations are false! I will be using certain general categories, such as “global North”, “global South,” “Western,” “non-Western,” etc., for analytical purposes only in order to differentiate or point out certain perspectival differences. I am quite aware that my employment of such binary or polarized approach is not only problematic but also loses its discursive effectiveness in an interconnected world and may seem counter to the basic thrust of this essay. I want to acknowledge this problem and the limitations of this approach at the outset.

World Cup and American Exceptionalism

[4]                I began reflecting on this presentation while watching the World Cup Soccer or “Football,” as it is known around the world, in July 2014.  It dawned on me that if there is a unique symbol of globalization, it is football! Some 200 plus nations are members of FIFA and the World Cup is the largest televised event ever, globally watched in real time! The game is a unique expression of global solidarity, friendship and interconnectivity.  The growing popularity of soccer in the United States, surprisingly, drew the ire of a political columnist.  Ann Coulter, a right-wing columnist, wrote an online piece attacking soccer saying that its acceptance represents a “moral decay.”  Soccer is a foreign game, wrote the columnist, embracing it means accepting the metric system or the socialized health care as universal. Its appeal to disproportionately young and immigrant populations, especially in “Blue States” undermines “American exceptionalism,” decrying  that we are becoming like the rest of the world![2]

[5]                I cite this provocative critique of soccer to illustrate that awareness of global interconnectedness, mutual interdependence through modern means of transportation, communication, social media, new technologies, the growing influence a capitalist economy, consumeristic culture around the world, and the phenomenon of the globalization of World Religions are self-evident, provoking tensions and conflicts in most societies. While there are good reasons to celebrate the shrinking of our world into a global village bringing with it enrichment of cultures and the globalization of knowledge and sensitivity to the diversity of cultures and worldviews, there are also equally good reasons to fear the negative effects of this phenomenon. Positively speaking, globalization has deepened our awareness of and sensitivity to the interdependence of people and societies around the world. Negatively, it contributes to the homogenization of cultures by repressing local and cultural identities, erosion of social and cultural values and exacerbating nationalism, tribalism, ethnic and interreligious conflicts.

[6]                Christian theologians are aware that the church too has played a major role in this process, both as an agent in and a product of globalization through its missionary engagement around the world, especially in the modern era. The growing expansion of Christianity world-wide, especially in the Evangelical and Pentecostal manifestations, is part and parcel of this new phenomenon. The intensification of the globalization process in recent decade however has forced us to rethink our engagement with this reality with respect to theology and theological education. Robert Schreiter, years ago, wrote about “global flows” and “local logics” and identified four global flows: liberation, feminism, ecology and human rights.[3] These four flows, in his view, are important global/universal concerns that transcend geographical and cultural boundaries. To this list, I would add interreligious/inter-cultural engagement as another important theme that has emerged as an universal issue.

[7]                The global flows identified above are gradually being woven into theological reflections and literature produced in recent years. In addition, theologians in the West have begun to pay attention to theologies emerging from non-Western cultures in light of the demographic shifting of the Christian concentration to the Southern hemisphere. The disestablishment of Christianity in Europe and the gradual decline of allegiance to the Christian faith in North America are some factors that have forced theologians to look at World Christianity for insights and inspiration.  The assumption of self-sufficiency of Western theological reflection has been radically questioned by theologies emerging from the global South. Theological texts, especially in constructive theology, lack credibility these days if they don’t recognize the shifting Christian demographics or fail to engage with theologies emerging from the majority world. Thanks to the conversations on globalization and theological education initiated by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) beginning in 1980’s,[4]  theological curriculum too has begun to reflect the changing face and perception of “Christianities” from around the world and the need to form and educate leaders who are prepared to face a globalized context. Most theological schools and colleges these days offer courses in World Christianity, World Religions, interfaith dialogue and other elective courses in contextual, ethnic specific, postmodern and post-colonial theologies. The cultural, ethnic, racial and national diversity encountered in classrooms in North America has also forced theological educators to engage with wider global perspectives.

[8]                In adopting a new strategic direction on global awareness and engagement, ATS recently noted: “Western theological education cannot think of its own scholarly work as sufficient at this time without engagement in the scholarship and strategies for theological education in the majority world, nor can it assume that it is a good steward of its significant resources and educational practices without making them available in appropriate ways in the broader efforts of world Christianity.” [5] This recognition that global realities significantly impact theological education in North America has enormous implications for theological schools in North America.  Theological schools, especially those with an international faculty or students, in varying degrees have already begun to rethink their curriculum in the face of global realities.  While incremental changes are afoot there are some significant issues that still need to be addressed if theological education in North America is responsive to global realities.  I would like to articulate five interrelated issues for our consideration.

The Latin Captivity of the Church

[9]                One my professors in India often spoke about the “Latin captivity” of the church, echoing Luther’s “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” He of course came from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and had good reasons to voice his protest. That phrase perhaps best captures the state of theology in the globalized world. Both theology and theological education, notwithstanding our newly developed global awareness, invariably privilege European and Euro-American traditions over other theological perspectives.  This is true not only in North America but also in the majority world or the global South. A vast amount of theological literature produced, published, promoted and archived in the world comes from Europe and North America and exported to other countries. All most all scholars who write or edit books on “World Christianity,”  “global theology” or missiology reside in the global North and their writings are often filtered through Western epistemic frameworks. Only a small number of writers from the majority world are widely known in the West, few are able to get their works published in the West and their voices and contributions are often introduced and mediated by white scholars. The exception being the works of Latin American liberation theologians published in English in the United States. The dominance of Western scholarship in theological literature tends to skew an authentic global engagement. Theological knowledge or knowledge production in academic theology continues to be concentrated in Europe and North America. This imbalance in the availability of theological resources is a significant barrier for global engagement in theology and theological education.

[10]            Excellence in theological education in most parts of the global South is also influenced by the accrediting standards and best practices originating in North America or England. An unintended consequence is that educational values and standards from the global North are often exported to the global South and seldom in the opposite direction. The clamor to obtain Western accredited degrees in the global South has led to extension education sites in Central America, Asia and Africa by North American Evangelical institutions. Having served as a Commissioner for Accreditation in the ATS, I have often protested against this growing invasion of North American theological institutions in other parts of the world for undermining the authority of regional accrediting agencies and context based education. Distant education programs offered through Western intuitions may indeed serve a need in places where theological education is unavailable or scarce but in places like India where there are more than 350 seminaries, American seminaries invading with their online offerings baffles me. One cannot help but think of it as a new form of theological colonialism! 

[11]            I must also note that while partnership arrangements between theological institutions between the North and the South have the potential to contribute reciprocal learnings, the imbalance in economic resources makes it often one-way way traffic, from the North to the South, except for a limited number of transnational exchanges of students and faculty. The popularity of travel seminars and other exposure programs (“Christian tourism”) in recent decades has been helpful in broadening the horizons of understanding for students and faculty in the West (not necessarily for the hosting countries and institutions.) I am skeptical, however, whether such programs significantly transform the seeing and reading of global realities and the construction of new theological discourses and interpretation of texts from alternate perspectives. 

Epistemic Colonialism

[12]            Asian American post-colonial feminist theologian, Kwok Pui-lan, has coined the phrase “epistemic colonialism” as a characteristic of much of Western theological scholarship.  Scholars in West still harbor assumptions that “western” theology is normative and represents the “universal,” while all other theologies—African, Asian, Black, Hispanic, and so forth, are contextual, perspectival and limited.[6] The way theology has been taught and transmitted in the past but also even at the beginning of the third millennium has paid insufficient attention to theological diversity in our world nor is it inclusive. The hidden assumptions of most Western theologies, not to mention denominational or confessional theologies, marginalize voices and theologies from other cultural contexts.  Theological voices from non-Western contexts are often suppressed as being “contextual,” meaning relevant only to that context and not elsewhere, as a way to undermine the credibility, if not the legitimacy, of such interpretations!

[13]            While most of us, if not all of us, would acknowledge that all theological reflections are contextual and yet the way we teach and write about theology tends to imply that our particular understanding of theology is applicable to all people and at all times.  Justo Gonzalez, in an oft quoted passage from his book Mañana, laments that one of the fallacies of traditional Western philosophy and theology is the confusion of the universal with dominance.

“North American male theology is taken to be basic, normative, universal theology, to which then women, other minorities, and people from the younger churches may add their footnotes. What is said in Manila is relevant for the Philippines. What is said in Tübingen, Oxford or Yale is relevant for the entire church. White theologians do general theology, black theologians do black theology. Male theologians do general theology; female theologians do theology determined by their sex. Such a notion of “universality” based on the present unjust distribution of power is unacceptable to the new theology. If the nature of truth is…both in its historical concreteness and in its connection with orthopraxis, if follows that every valid theology must acknowledge its particularity and its connection with the struggles and vested interest in which it is involved. A theology that refuses to do this and that leaps to facile claims of universal validity will have no place in the postreformation church of the twenty first century.”[7]

[14]            Most male white theologians are acutely aware of the hidden claims to “universality” and the limitations of their theological production and many have tried to rectify it by adding a few paragraphs or a chapter on theologies from other cultural contexts at the end of their book or insert a few names or footnotes to make it look more inclusive. References to theologies from the non-western world are often included in theological texts, I sometimes think, not because they offer valuable insights but for their ornamental value! Anyone wanting to do theology in a global context today must acknowledge the fallacy of the “universal,” and critically evaluate post-enlightenment preference for constructing grand “global” narratives and consciously move in the direction of an intercultural dialogical engagement attentive to the voices, agendas, testimonies and contrary experiences of people from other parts of the world. This dialogical engagement, I hasten to add, is neither a rejection of the inherited theological/confessional traditions nor does it imply the primacy of the “indigenous,” “contextual” or “local” over against theological articulations from traditional centers of theological inquiry in the West.  I also do not mean to imply that we should now reverse or replace Western universalizing claims to theological knowledge with non-Western systems and perspectives as a form of “post-colonial revenge.”   Global theology today calls for a “new universality,” not in the modernist sense, but in the sense of a “new catholicity,” to use Robert Schreiter’s phrase, that draws on the diversity, richness and plurality of theological perspectives emerging from the church around the world.

Rethinking the Nature of Theological Scholarship

[15]            Theological scholarship is seldom free from cultural bias.  Nonetheless, scholars tend to operate with the notion that their interpretations of texts transcend cultural limitations.  In the area of Biblical studies, for instance, there is the operating notion that all the critical tools that we use in Western biblical interpretation are value free or neutral. When we encounter non-Western biblical interpretations, we tend to label them as hermeneutical or contextual application of the Bible rather than strict Biblical Studies.  For Western scholars, Biblical Studies refer to courses in historical criticism, literary criticism, social scientific criticism, rhetorical criticism, etc., in short, the worlds behind the text. Biblical hermeneutics, on the other hand explores the worlds in front of the text. The distinction between Biblical Studies and Biblical Hermeneutics is widely acknowledged in theological and  Biblical studies.  And yet, making a distinction between the two as two distinct endeavors seems problematic. There is long history of cultural hermeneutics being assumed and rendered invisible under the guise of historical critical studies. This is not to deny that the interpretation of the Christian tradition inescapably involves use of certain analytic methods in dealing with biblical and historical texts, but the notion of scholarly “objectivity” in interpreting texts and the importance of particular methods in Biblical Studies originated in the Western academies is the normative way to study Biblical texts is questionable.

[16]            The point is that we continue to harbor the notion of scholarship as generic learning reduced to a set of abstract principles or methods without any reference to cultural contexts. It is based on particular assumptions about critical inquiry, scholarly objectivity and dependence on rules and methods of interpretation in Biblical and theological studies. The interaction between text and context is now recognized by most interpreters ever since Gadamer wrote about the fusion of horizons in Truth and Method. A binary or dualistic thinking however is still entrenched in modern Biblical scholarship and critiqued by many non-Western scholars. Interpreters, as is obvious to most of us, are not disembodied persons, they inhabit particular social, political and cultural space and are never free from historical and cultural conditioning. Recognition of this reality will lead theological scholarship in the global context to be increasingly hermeneutical, not in the sense of application of particular rules and methods of interpretation, but reading from the perspective of one’s lived experience. The Biblical Studies guild, it seems to me, has been less receptive to global perspectives, although in the AAR/SBL there is now a proliferation of program groups offering contextual and postcolonial perspectives in reading texts suggesting a change is in the offing and a recognition that there is more than one way of faithful reading of scriptures.

[17]            In theological institutions there is some tension, if not outright resistance to alternate readings of Biblical texts or methods of exegesis in our curriculums. What most curriculums attempt to resolve this is to separate, “required” and “elective” courses, the former focusing on traditional methods of interpretation and the latter more perspectival exegesis and interpretation (feminist, womanist, Black, etc.).  Revisiting the structure and assumptions of our theological curricula in all theological disciplines would reveal to what degree it reflects our global awareness, whose voices does a school hear or ignore in its course offerings, who determines what to include and exclude some courses from being required, what texts are assigned, etc.  These questions may raise the issue of academic freedom in relation to scholarly accountability to the community, an issue that requires further consideration.

Scholarship of Praxis 

[18]            In the contexts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is now a widespread acceptance of the notion that the purpose of scholarship is not so much about acquisition of new information but rather a profound recognition that learnings arise from the life of communities and their lived experiences. The primary focus of scholarship is not abstract theorizing about the meaning of God and the gospel in particular cultural contexts but a search for justice, liberation and human transformation in the face various forms of oppression and human suffering in the world.  A major insight of the Latin American liberation theology in this regard is the reframing of the theological task as a “critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the Word”[8] The new way of doing theology emerging in the global South with an emphasis on Christian praxis, the call to act in opposition to structures of injustice in society and the importance of theology being accountable to the communities it serves is something that classical and modern Western theologies have long ignored. To whom theology is addressed and who are the beneficiaries of theological reflection is a persistent question among theologians of the global South as well as in the global North. If theology is concerned about human transformation then it should include people, especially the poor, marginalized, “forgotten,” “dalit,” the “non-people,” women and those crushed by dominant cultures. Accepting the presence of these people in our society as partners in theological reflection will lead to new theological agendas, priorities and forms of theological inquiry. Curriculum theories in North America too have begun to rethink that the objective of education from information to formation to transformation of society.

[19]            It may be appropriate here to make a parenthetical comment that the language of “praxis,” “orthopraxis,” “action,” “liberation” and “human transformation” found in the theologies of the global South appear suspicious to Lutheran ears.  Lutherans generally continue to frame their theological self-understanding in the framework of Medieval and Reformation world-views and their theological engagement with contemporary social, political and cultural realities seldom goes beyond that framework, especially in theological education.  Loyalty to the received tradition is so strongly entrenched that the culturally (and religiously) circumscribed character of the received traditions is ignored or seldom questioned.  In this regard Lutheran theologians from the global South too have found it difficult to breakout out of the confessional hegemony.  The end result is that confessional theology is uncritically imposed or translated to cultural contexts that do not necessarily share the cultural assumptions of the Reformation traditions.

[20]            The contemporary turn to the context and praxis based theological reflection in the majority world has meant that the disciplines that the traditional interlocutors of theology are no longer confined to the disciplines of Western philosophy, history, literary or textual inquiry.  In the global South, partners in theological reflection now include the disciplines of social sciences, politics, economics, cultural, postcolonial, subaltern studies and the like. As a result, even history, especially the history of Christianity as presented in standard books is under severe scrutiny. So called discipline of “missiology,” which traditionally meant the history of Western missions, missionaries and mission societies in establishing churches in the global South, is now renamed as “World Christianity,” or “Global Christianity.”  The role of indigenous Christians, often ignored in mission histories is now beginning to be recognized and texts are rewritten from the perspective of people’s history.

[21]            The scholarship of praxis includes truthful description of the contributions and the lived experiences of indigenous converts to the Christian faith in the global South. History of Christianity or Church History as taught in Western educational institutions tend to focus on primarily the Western history of the church, from the early church to Augustine to Luther’s Reformation and then on to North America. Church history, East of Antioch, seldom makes it into the syllabus of history of Christianity courses, let alone the history of churches in Africa and Latin America.  Such a truncated view of Christian history is problematic if we were to take our global context seriously.  The rapid expansion of Christianity in the global South today warrants a new look at our understanding of Christian history in its global dimensions.

Religious and Cultural Identity in a Global Context

[22]            It hardly needs to be said that in a globalized world migration, mobility and constant border crossing of people across regions and cultures is an everyday reality. In many respects it involves dislocation of people, not only in a geographical sense but also, more importantly, in a cultural sense. People’s identities, affiliations, socio-political and cultural allegiances are increasingly redefined or rearticulated.  This is not simply an issue for new immigrants to the Western societies but also for those of us who have been exposed to or influenced by ideas and world views through the media, global travels, modern communication technologies, and through cross cultural and interreligious encounters.  We have entered into an era where people are opting for multiple belonging, acquiring multiple identities, hybrid identities or “in-between” identities in an ever-increasing manner.  The emerging multi-cultural consciousness and inter-religious sensitivity has already begun to impact on theology and theological education.

[23]            The globalization of religions, for instance, has exposed us to depth and riches of other religious traditions and influencing people’s religious preferences. We are aware of the critical questions posed by the emergent situation of religious and cultural pluralism in our midst and its implications for our inherited religious and cultural self-understanding. In religiously pluralistic contexts, Christian theological articulations cannot continue to remain “self-referential,” that is to draw exclusively on the resources of our canons, creeds and community. The assumed “self-sufficiency” of traditional sources of theological reflection has now come under increased pressure in an age of pluralism.  The public accountability of all our theological reflections and assertions now demands cognizance of alternative beliefs and worldviews in society. All “self-legitimizing” claims of religious superiority are today radically questioned in the context or religious and cultural pluralism.  The adequacy and relevance of Christian theology will now be tested less by internal discussions of people of Christian allegiance than by critical questions raised by those outside of the faith. It was inconceivable in the past that Christian theological reflection include resources from other faiths but today a “cross-referential” and dialogical engagement has not only become unavoidable but also an imperative.

[24]            As Western societies become increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious our approach to ministerial training will need to undergo change.  Already our classrooms are increasingly becoming multicultural, multiracial, multi-denominational, trans-national, and in some theological institutions even multi-religious, raising critical questions about the adequacy and effectiveness of theological curriculum and pedagogy.  According to a recent global survey of theological education, theological institutions in North America are better at transmitting the historical traditions of the church than helping students develop the skills and competencies to navigate complex realities of our globalized world.[9]  I should mention in passing that the so called “practical” disciplines in our institutions are by and large dependent on Western cultural and psychological assumptions and have not sufficiently taken cognizance of cultural and religious diversity in our midst. The implications of multicultural perspectives in teaching pastoral care, counseling, Christian education, patterns of ministry, etc., needs more attention.

[25]            In the non-Western world too the issue of cultural and religious identity has become a serious issue given the effects of globalization on societies, exacerbating tribal and inter-religious conflicts. As much as theologians in the global South want to draw on contextual, indigenous or cultural materials and resources for doing theology over against Western “universalist” modes of theological discourse, they too have to grapple with the question of their Christian identity in relation to the larger Christian tradition. It is no longer possible to create a simple contextualization program for theological education in any one situation. Just about every culture now is in tension with a global, Western influenced culture and a local culture. So the critical question is what are the common points of reference or unifying factors within all forms of theological reflections and research emerging from diverse contexts in a globalized world?  How may we articulate a coherent and relevant theology that affirms the unity or the constants that bind Christians across the globe despite the diversity of cultural contexts in which we are located, the diversity of resources we employ in theological reflection, differences in modes and methods of theologizing and the demands that theological reflection be attentive to socio- economic and religious realities that divide the world?

[26]            Questions such as these, although not new, force us to rethink that the divide between the global North and the global South, the local versus global or the universal versus particular become problematic due to growing interconnectedness that we are experiencing in today’s world. A binary and dualistic mode of understanding our contemporary realities and the ongoing geographical and cultural border crossing makes theological reflection complex and ambiguous. In conclusion, theology and theological education in a global context, at the very least, demands that we engage in dialogue and collaboration with theologies and scholarships emerging from diverse contexts and contextual experiences. It is only, to cite Ephesians 4, “together with all the saints” we will understand and appreciate the height, depth, length and breadth of the love of God. Acknowledging that we are embedded in our context makes it a necessity that we participate in a wider community of scholarship and globalization of our world makes it possible.

Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar​ is Luther D. Reed Professor, Systematic Theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. 

[1] Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity, Theology between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1997); Craig Ott & Harold A. Netland,eds. Globalizing Theology, Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity (Grand Rapids, Baker Academics, 2007); Robert Evans and David Roozen, eds., The Globalization of Theological Education, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1993).

[3] Robert Schreiter, The New Catholicity, pp. 15-27.

[4] Published in four issues of ATS publication, Theological Education (1986-93)

[5] ATS, Colloquy Online, April 2014

[6] See, American Academy of Religion program unit on “Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World,” Some of my observations are drawn from presentations and discussions at the AAR program named above.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, Mañana, Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p 52

[8] Gustavo Guiterrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev ed., (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1998) 11).

[9] ATS Colloquy Online, April 2014

© January 2015
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 15, Issue 1