Friday, January 6, 2012

Reflections on theological training (Part 1): Why bother?

In recent years a number of people have expressed to me their interest in pursuing theological training. It is great to hear their journey and desire to study the Scripture and theology. Our conversations have prompted me to think about sharing my thoughts on theological training in a series of blog posts.

In this first post I want to ask the critical question: Why bother? That is, if theological training does not help us to embody Christ's life, death and resurrection in real life, then why bother?

I don't have the last word on this. But I will share a few thoughts. It may help if I share my own story. I came to faith when I was a teenager. I always wanted to serve God, and was always active in my local church. But it was more than 10 years later that I felt a strong sense of call to go into ministry. After a lot of prayers with my wife, I decided to leave my career to go to a Bible college to study. The good thing about having been a Christian for so long was that I had had the time to (1) read the Bible over 10 times before studying theology; (2) have a good experience in serving in local churches; and (3) have a solid non-church-related work experience.

But before I finished my theological training, I was asked to join the pastoral team of my church. And in a few years I was ordained. Life was really tough at the time. Ministry was hard work, and emotionally draining. We had little money. My wife had to work full-time. I also had to work part-time outside the church for extra income. At the same time, I taught as a tutor in my Bible College. In addition, I continued with my own theological studies, and started an MPhil, in which I engaged in serious research in Biblical Studies. The hectic lifestyle eventually took its toll, and I resigned from ministry to concentrate on my studies.

In the meantime I did more part-time work while I finished my research degree. The subsequent years were more part-time and full-time non-church-related work. I found it a valuable experience to be in the real world again after years of theological training and pastoral ministry. I viewed my work differently, for my studies in the Scripture had helped me to understand better the world that God created.

Years later God gave me a new job to work in an overseas relief and development Christian organisation. Soon I started my PhD on Biblical Studies as a part-time student, while continued to work part-time in that organisation. I am now half way through my PhD. I am not sure whether I am smart enough to finish it. But I will give it my best shot.

So much for my story. But as you can see, in all these years I have had the opportunity to engage in the real world in one way or another. I get to see people from all walks of life, including people from different faiths. I get to talk with them and listen to their cry. And at the same time I engage in theological training. This has been a very enriching experience. I find myself engaging in the Scripture and the real world at the same time. It is not just about theories, or merely about "what works in practice". It is about critiquing the world and its culture with the Scripture, and at the same time allowing real life stories to enrich my own understanding of the Bible.

All that said, I am not suggesting that everyone should do the same thing. There is nothing wrong to take a few years off to engage in full-time theological training. Some may study for one year, simply to consolidate their faith. Others may do two years simply to study the Scripture, but with no intention to become a minister. For some others, it may turn out to be many years of academic studies, if God intends them to teach at seminaries. What I am trying to say is that one should always endeavour to embody the gospel in real life - that is, where people are. We need to hear the stories of the poor and the rich, the unlearned and the educated. We need to get to know people from different cultures, and appreciate what God is doing in their lives, even though we have very different life experiences. We need to identify with the poor and needy, and stand in solidarity with the marginalised and disadvantaged.

My own experience is that I can never be prefect when it comes to these things. But it has been a profoundly enriching experience. The Scripture comes alive when we engage with real people in the real world. If we do theological studies for the sake of study alone, why bother?

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