Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Fear of the Unknown Sequel : The Business of Christian Education XLI

Exploring a new territory can be terrifying for many people.  Proper anticipation and quick response are required in order to handle the pressure of the unknown.  Our comfort zone is in the things that we know, or in the things that we can control.  To enter an unknown territory is somewhat equal to letting go of our control.  So, our natural instinct usually is to go back to what we know, no matter how bad the situation that we know is.  The Bible gives a vivid example about this.  When Israel left Egypt and entered the wilderness and started experiencing things foreign to their way of life, they demanded to go back to Egypt.  Life in Egypt was not necessarily better than life in the desert but that they knew what it was like in Egypt that prompted them to choose slavery in Egypt over freedom in the desert.  Therefore they rejected and dishonored Yahweh by their fear of the unknown.

With such instinct we have a strong tendency to avoid unknown territory and stay in whatever we know.  Christian educational institutions are not exempt of this.  Seminaries in particular are among the last to explore the unknown.  Not only that seminaries fear to venture the new territory, but also they fear that they might commit theological fallacies.  The easiest route to avoid facing their fear is by discouraging
creativity.  With creativity hindered, tradition stands unchallenged, for innovation dies together with the withering of creativity.  One of the main failures of the Confucian tradition is on its heavy reliance on the old.  Confucius discouraged creativity for fear of instability.  Thus China suffered the death of innovation.  Every generation was forced to conform to the old way of life and thus the culture regressed.  The peak of the regress of the Chinese culture was when China decided to close their door from the world.  They thought that their own tradition was sufficient and intended to preserve the grand tradition they had from being polluted by innovation.  For hundreds of years China dwelled in their old tradition without knowing that the world had surpassed China’s high culture.  So when they opened their door they were shocked that the world had changed into a world they had no knowledge about at all.  China became the largest primitive country among modern western and Japanese civilizations.  All that happened because creativity was discouraged in order to preserve tradition.

The same thing will happen to Christian educational institutions if they do not learn from history.  The balance between preserving tradition and encouraging innovation must be achieved if Christian educational institutions do not wish to be left behind.  Christianity in Europe is aging very rapidly because of the lack of innovation.  Furthermore, the conclusion that Christianity is dying in Europe is not an exaggeration.  The secular world innovates tirelessly in order to survive.  But Christianity in Europe no longer knows how to innovate.  Moreover, Christianity in Europe no longer knows what to innovate.  Is this syndrome also happening in the US, Canada, or in the entire western world?  It seems like it is.  The faster the change in the secular world the stronger the desire of the Christian world to preserve tradition (in order to stay pure and orthodox).  Fear drives Christianity.  They fear that they will be overrun by the secular world.  The bad news is that Christian educational institutions have been overrun by the secular world.  James Tunstead Burchaell in his book “The Dying of the Light” points out that what used to be the ivory tower of Christian formal education, such as Harvard University or Yale University, has now been converted to secular universities.  The light of Christianity in the formal education sector has been dimming slowly but sure.  Tradition without innovation kills Christian education.

How can Christian formal education find innovation?  Academic institution is well known as the birthplace of innovation.  One of the main purposes of academic institution is knowledge discovery through innovation.  It is unimaginable, therefore, if Christian academic institutions discourage creativity.  We all also know that innovation is mostly the domain of the younger generation.  Younger generation is fearless.  By nature young people tend to want to break free from tradition.  Instinctively, young people tend to challenge tradition with their new perspective.  And generally young people are drawn to new things.  A huge amount of energy is usually needed in order to quench the fire in the heart of the young.  Imagine how much energy will be used up in order to keep the young in the tradition and from innovation.  Doing so only wastes energy and time.  Innovation and creativity must not be discouraged.  Academic professors must learn how to guide their students to channel their creativity and being in innovation while at the same time preserving the most important tradition.  One of the keys is in knowing what is fundamental and what is contextual in the tradition.  Considering all in the tradition as fundamental will only suffocate innovation.

Older people generally are wiser than younger people.  Because younger people are less wise they fear less.  On the flip side, because older people are wiser they fear more.  The young chooses to venture into the unknown territory because it’s the only thing the old has no control.  The young wants to break away from the control of the old by fearlessly venturing into the unknown territory.  The old fears the prospect of being lost in the unknown and thus hugs tradition very strongly.  Creative challenges from the young are often slammed by being unorthodox.  Thus creativity is suffocated.  The old prefers stability at the expense of development and growth.  Consequently, almost always innovation in the Christian world is at least one generation too late.  The young, because they can’t do anything about it, must wait until the old generation passes away in order to start their own creative endeavor.  Compared to the secular world, Christianity is moving very slowly.  The secular world is moving at the pace of yearly innovation.

Now, as we have known, seminaries are very reluctant to swing the pendulum to innovation.  The keeping of tradition is the norm.  This is because seminaries deal with the word of God.  Keeping the truth and establishing the kind of interpretation of the word of God that is objective and unshaken is every professor’s task.  Innovation comes second after the preservation of tradition.  However, what often happens is that there is not enough time and energy to pursue innovation.  After preserving tradition for a long time, innovation can be regarded as vice.  Challenging tradition becomes not virtuous.  With this culture nurtured in seminaries, teaching and learning consequently follow along.  Teaching is consequently designed to preserve tradition.  Learning is considered successful when students learn to keep tradition.  There is no trace of innovation in either teaching or learning.  There is no new ways of looking at the Biblical texts without the fear of being labeled as unorthodox.  Conformity is the main thrust of the teaching and learning process in this case.  So, in a sense, seminarians study in seminaries learning the way of life of the old and conforming their minds to the old paradigm.  While secular educational institutions encourage their students to discover new understanding and perspective, find breakthrough in any way possible, pursue fresh ideas, and transform the old paradigm with the new one.

Seminary education does not need to be as slow as what we currently have.  Preserving orthodoxy can be done in a much faster pace that is conducive to the discovery of new perspectives.  The soundness of the interpretation of God’s word must be kept.  This we can’t compromise.  However, why dismiss a perspective that is neither unbiblical nor heretical.  It is much better to value different perspectives and creative angles of looking at biblical texts, than to throw them away just because they are not the same with what commonly known.  Venturing into unknown territories should be encouraged.  Creative biblical interpretation must become the platform of seminary education.  A lot of disciplines intersect with theology.  Fresh look at theology through different angles might just be the route for seminary education to catch up with the world’s pace.  New perspective in theology through different contexts and cultural backgrounds might also be the vehicle to bring about creative biblical interpretation.  I do not mean for other disciplines to dictate theology, but what I mean is that those different disciplines, contexts, and cultures might inform theology and enrich our understanding of the word of God.  Dismissing those differences will only isolate theology from the real world.  If we do such thing, we might have just alienated theology from the world and thus renders it irrelevant to the real life.  And we all know that alienating theology from the world does not do good to anyone.  Not only it does no good to anyone, it also is not faithful to the word of God.  We are to transform the world with the word of God.  How can we transform the world with God’s word if we isolate theology from the very thing we ought to transform?

God’s word must penetrate every sphere of life, of the world.  And for sure we won’t be able to do so if our educational institutions banish the only route to make the penetration possible.  The fear of the unknown should not be allowed to reign in our seminaries.  Professors and students alike should brace themselves to start journeying into the unknown territory.  Much like the mission work by missionaries, where they bravely march into uncharted jungles, new islands unknown to the modern world, cultures strangely different than the civilization they know, and people who consider them coming from a different world.  Venturing into a creative imagination of biblical interpretation must be explored bravely.  Teaching and learning process must be designed in such a way so that creative approach to the Bible can be mastered.  Young and old generations may work together hand in hand in order to bring both tradition and innovation to construct a beautiful masterpiece in theology.

We must remember that the Pharisees at the time of Jesus militantly preserved the tradition.  But Jesus was not impressed with their fervor.  Jesus rebuked them strongly because the tradition they kept was humans and at the expense of God’s law.  Christian educational institutions must be careful not to slip into the same pit the Pharisees fell into 2000 years ago.  Allowing creative minds to flourish in the seminaries might just be the answer to preventing the fall.  Seminary education should not fear the unknown.  They should venture into it and claim it for Christ.  Soli Deo Gloria!

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