Readers, please accept this invitation to communicate with “Soundings,” either to react to articles in this issue of In Trust or to comment on other issues of concern to leaders in theological education. Feel free to be provocative, but do limit your letters to a maximum of 350 words. All letters are subject to editing. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
This is just a note to express appreciation for the fact that you do not immediately drop from your mailing list board members when they become “former board members.”
I was a seminarian in the early 1950s, later a seminary faculty member, still later a seminary president, and most recently, a seminary trustee. While as a “retiree” I am no longer directly involved in theological education, my interest in theological education is still substantial. Thus, In Trust is a visitor I appreciate.
Boone, North Carolina
Raymond Bost is a former board member of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries.
The “Global South”
During a drought in an African country where people were used to entreating God and the spirits of the land to send rain, I felt moved to invite the congregation I then served to pray as a body for rain in their parched fields. A good number of us did that, with incense and crucifix, on a most futile-appearing Sunday afternoon after church. Some watched from their doorways, wondering about the spirits. Later that afternoon, a cloud like Elijah’s, the size of a hand, formed overhead, then grew to cover the sky, then offered the first rain in weeks.
As Andrew Walls so eloquently elaborates in his article “Theology Is Moving South” (New Year 2003), Christianity in the Global South has a startling and revelatory vitality that today is recovering roots of God’s covenant with Israel and the dynamism of the Christian movement. The border between natural and supernatural is crossed daily, often to the embarrassment not only of Enlightenment-bound Westerners but also of African, Asian, and Latin American academics.
Sometimes I am asked, “Do you really think God sent the rain?” Or, when I describe how members of the African Apostolic Church of Johane Marange test their own spiritual centeredness by walking barefoot on huge nighttime bonfires, people ask, “Do you really think that’s the Holy Spirit?” Or what do I think of spirit mediums who speak in the voices of the departed “living dead”? Or of the fairly pentecostal Dalit Christian converts in Jammu and Kashmir who have just dedicated a new church building?
I’ve experienced Christ in unique and authentic ways with African, Asian, and Latin American Christians whose worship is very different from mine and whose theologies I struggle to apprehend. In the power of that spiritual encounter, how can I dismiss the worldviews through which the Christic meeting comes? Non-Western Christian expressions are no more, and no less, “culturally conditioned” or “anthropologically interesting” than my own. Indeed, my spirituality and theology have been marked indelibly by sisters and brothers around the world.
Recently, a group of 20-something Episcopalians debriefing from their one-year missions abroad spoke of their experiences as “mission epiphanies.” Epiphany encapsulates the revelation that Walls highlights, and its direction is the incarnation of Christ’s gospel in diverse human cultures.
The implications for theological education are enormous, and Walls sketches them with his customary incisiveness. Western theological academies must learn deeply from epiphanies in the Global South. Not only must we include these in our curricula, but we must invite southern Christians to help transform our perspectives, pedagogies and structures. Only so will it be worth southern Christians’ while to share the
theological enterprise with us.
Beginnings are happening. Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and my own school are designing a consultation devoted precisely to how the theological disciplines in North America can learn from southern Christianity. The Global Anglicanism Project is researching how local communities throughout the Anglican Communion build community, build leaders, enact mission, and form identity. These kinds of efforts must move to the center of our institutional agendas.
Among Walls’s many insights in this article, “mutual possession” is the concept that most arrests my attention. It is not that southern Christianity has a monopoly on vitality and revelation. It is rather that every Christianity is partial without the incarnation of other Christianities. Whereas in 1203, it was understandable that English Christianity knew little of and so could learn little from the ancient and living Christianity in Kerala, India, in 2003 there is no excuse. As the inter-Christian conversation expands, every Christianity becomes a mutual possession. Most fundamentally, of course, the gospel itself is our mutual possession. The vessels in which we treasure it are richly multicultural as well as earthen.
As one of many mentored by Andrew Walls over the years in the fields of Christian history, African Christianity, and missiology, I give thanks for how he is now synthesizing his insights into their implications for theological education. All of us in seminaries need to heed him.
Titus Presler is dean and president of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He is author of “Transfigured Night: Mission and Culture in Zimbabwe’s Vigil Movement” (University of South Africa Press, 1999), and “Horizons of Mission” (Cowley, 2001). His major mission experiences have been in Zimbabwe and India.