When we think about theological education in a country like Lebanon, we are forced to think differently from the way that seminary education has traditionally been understood in Europe or North America. In many seminaries around the world, both in the west and sadly also in the Middle East, students are still primarily taught how to interpret the biblical text largely for preaching purposes. They may also take a couple of counseling courses and some classes in pastoral ministry. They may be offered a limited number of courses in missiology, but often in the form of electives that students can opt out of. This reflects an older mentality, where the seminary views itself as operating at the service of ‘Christendom’ – a society where Christianity is dominant and where the church often lives with a triumphalistic mindset. A large proportion of seminaries, however, have become increasingly aware of functioning in a post-Christian world. So long as the seminary operated in a context where Christianity represented the majority, leadership formation consisted primarily in the development of leaders for the church’s ‘priestly’ ministries. Increasingly, however, as the world has gone ‘post-Christian,’ with Christianity functioning as a minority, leadership formation has consisted in preparing leaders for the ‘prophetic’ ministries of the church.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom took place within the first three hundred years after the rise of Islam – sometime during the tenth century – by which date Christian population numbers had dropped down to just about 50%. The church of Christendom has long faded away from the memory of the MENA Church. I would argue that in seminaries that are conscious of their ‘prophetic’ role, whether in the MENA or outside of it, theological education consists in a process of ‘deconstruction,’ ‘paradigm shifting,’ and the ‘reconstruction’ of an alternative consciousness. In the next few paragraphs, I will reflect on what this process means practically for the ‘prophetically-inclined’ seminary of the MENA region.
Deminoritization: deconstructing the normative discourse about Eastern Christians
A primary responsibility of faculty in MENA seminaries is to deconstruct a normative discourse of self-perception as minority among their students. Having grown up, to a large extent, as part of small communities of believers living in the midst of majority Muslim societies, Christians in the MENA region tend to develop instincts of self-protection at best, and in many cases unhealthy instincts of survival. If seminary faculties are not intentional about countering such tendencies, their students will use the new knowledge they acquire at seminary to rationalize further, biblically and theologically, exclusivist worldviews with a false sense of heroism, as minorities living in hostile contexts.
So when we teach in the MENA seminary, we have the responsibility to ‘deminoritize’ our students’ self-perception. The representation of God’s people as a faithful remnant is of course common in the Old Testament. But our focus in studying the biblical narrative will need to be on a remnant which is redeemed for the purpose of blessing the nations, rather than a faithful remnant struggling to preserve its righteousness in a hostile world. From a New Testament perspective, the former more faithfully reflects the redemptive grace of God than does the latter, with its focus on the righteousness of the remnant. Our purpose needs to be the development of a church which is open and well integrated in society.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which, when laid down in the soil and allowed to die, germinates and grows into a large tree or bush that can offer shelter and spice to societies in need of both.
Shaping a holistic paradigm: deradicalizing perceptions of the ‘other’
Once the dominant narrative of an ‘oppressed minority’ has been challenged, our responsibility to our students is then to help deradicalize their perception of the ‘other.’ This too, of course, is a great challenge that we face. The radical perception of Islam among our students was not born from a vacuum. Christians in the MENA region have often witnessed the marginalization of their co-religionists and the unequal opportunities faced by their elders in the workplace. They are witnesses to various manifestations of violence, such as the burning down of churches and rioting masses against their powerless communities, often fomented by conspicuously silent governments.
When we teach Islam at a MENA seminary, a key component of our work should be to foster a community that can be an open and active witness in MENA societies, by emphasizing the diversity ever-present in the varied manifestations of Islam. It is easy, naturally, to fall prey to the dominant discourse and to sing to the tune of mounting suspicion towards Islam globally. But the ultimate cost of such an approach will be the reaffirmation of a powerless community of the ‘redeemed,’ struggling to stay alive in a hostile environment. By deradicalizing the dominant discourse, on the other hand, and by helping our students acquire a more holistic understanding of the ‘other,’ we are forming Christian leaders thoroughly convinced of their constructive role in transforming society. The church then becomes a crucial and indispensable component of the community’s sociological makeup, rather than an oppressed minority on its way to extinction.
Developing an ‘alternative consciousness’: reconstructing the role of the community of faith as transformer of society
Having deconstructed the dominant narrative of an ‘oppressed minority,’ and having journeyed with our students through a paradigm shift from a narrow to a more holistic perception of society, our role as seminary educators is to contribute to the reconstruction of an ‘alternative consciousness’ in our students. Seminary graduates need to be able to perceive their mainstream Muslim neighbors as potential partners in the betterment of society, rather than as an oppressive majority seeking to repress them. Their imagination needs to be liberated to the point where they can see themselves as an active part of a transformed future, rather than as the passive victims of a decaying present and as an extension of a desolate past. If our graduates don’t come out of seminary with a dynamic vision of their role as leaders of a redeemed faith community, called to building peace amidst conflict, then Christ’s call for his church to be the salt and light of society will be lost for the next generation. If they do not lead communities reconciled with God and with themselves, then they will miss the opportunity to be agents of reconciliation between their societies and God, and between their societies’ various constituents.
To expand this vision to a broader level, I would like to suggest that this formative process of deconstruction, paradigm shifting, and reconstruction, may work as the new blueprint for seminaries globally who view their task as essentially ‘prophetic.’ Too often the seminary’s role has been the deconstruction of a perceived infantile understanding of God to a more complex understanding, through a journey of faith crisis. But I would argue that such a mandate, which takes place primarily at the intellectual level, is largely self-serving. The church as the community of the redeemed in Christ is called out of the world (the root meaning of ekklesia in Greek) not to serve and maintain itself, but to come back and serve society and God’s mission in the world. The church outside of MENA, that has been used to occupying the position of majority in society, is going through a major crisis, it would seem to me, as it increasingly morphs into a minority community. This levels the playing field, and the church now globally needs to learn carefully what it means to live in a post-Christian world. Salt, this seemingly insignificant condiment, is what gives taste to food. Light, this mysterious source of life in natural darkness is not meant to be hidden under a veil. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which, when laid down in the soil and allowed to die, germinates and grows into a large tree or bush that can offer shelter and spice to societies in need of both. Seminaries globally will need to play a major role in graduating students with this new sense of purpose, if the church is to continue as God’s transforming agent in a world often without purpose.
This article was originally posted on the IMES blog for Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and is used by permission. You can read the original article here.