Glocal Theological Education Issues and Concerns From One Person’s Point of View


This talk was originally delivered at the Convocation of Lutheran Teaching Theologians in St. Paul, Minnesota August 4 2014.  Dr. Baker has graciously allowed us to publish it here.



[1]          Good evening sisters and brothers in Christ, companions in God’s mission, colleagues in theological education.  I greet you with these three designations:  sisters and brothers in Christ; companions in God’s mission; and colleagues in theological education, because one alone is neither appropriate nor sufficient.  While you are colleagues in theological education, who you are is more than your vocational calling.  As important as theological education is, to both the church of Jesus Christ, and to me personally, theological education is not the end all, or be all, of our life as Christian disciples.  Theological education exists to serve God’s people, in God’s mission, in, to, and for the sake of God’s world.  This evening I bring you greetings from the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton; from the Executive Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Dr. Rafael Malpica Padilla; from the Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Asia Pacific Desk, Rev. Dr. Franklin Ishida; and from literally millions of your colleagues in mission around God’s world.  Thank you for inviting me to participate with you at this Convocation of Lutheran Teaching Theologians.

[2]          For those who are interested, I will give you a brief introduction to who I am.  My name is Phillip Baker.  Most people call me Phil.  My current ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is that of being the ELCA Asia Pacific Regional Representative for Theological Education and Church Relations.  I currently live in Medan, Indonesia, the capital city of North Sumatra.  I have been an ordained pastor of this church for forty-six years.  I am also a retired seminary professor.  The last part of my ministry in theological education was at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.  I served as a parish pastor in Iowa, Minnesota, California, and South Carolina.  I taught in both the United States and overseas. 

[3]          For a little time this evening, I would like to focus on what I have titled, “Glocal Theological Education Issues and Concerns from One Person’s Point of View.”  At the very beginning let me make it explicitly clear.  The presentation is my point of view.  I do not speak for anyone else, not the Global Mission Unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; not the Director of the Asia Pacific Desk; not for anyone other than Phil Baker.  Furthermore, I speak primarily from the perspective of living and working in the Asia Pacific Region for the past twelve years, which includes six years of part time teaching in the region, and six years as the regional representative.  I do not, and I cannot speak for people who live and work in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or anywhere else.  The last thing I want to make explicit is that this presentation is not an academic research presentation.  This presentation is a reflection growing out of my experience in the Asia Pacific Region, and some of the things I have read in an attempt to respond faithfully to issues and concerns raised by people of the Asia Pacific Region.  Although, for the most part, the presentation grows out of a specific area of the world, the issues and concerns are applicable to other areas, including the United States.  For the sake of this presentation I focus on three specific issues and/or concerns:  (1) Social, Political, and Religious Context. (2) Ways of teaching and learning. (3) Possible Interconnections.

Social, Political, and Religious Context

[4]          Context may seem self-evident.  Yet, it needs to be addressed as an important, and inescapable component in the doing and the living of theology.  This has been especially true in Lutheran Christian theology.  We can neither forget, nor make light of how the social, political, and religious context of sixteenth century Germany set the foundations for the Reformers.  This was true for The Augsburg Confession of 1530; The Smalcald Articles of 1537; and The Formula of Concord of 1577.  Each of these writings grew out of specific social, political, and religious contexts.  The same is true today.

[5]          Theologians, whether from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Palestine, or from wherever they come are impacted on, and influenced by, the questions and issues being raised in specific contexts.  The social, political, and religious context out of which your graduate students come will often guide the kinds of questions they ask, and the kind of research topics on which they want to write their dissertation.  There are at least two questions about this we need to clarify, and to answer for ourselves.  First, are we open to students focusing on issues which grow out of their specific social, political, and religious contexts?  Second, are we prepared to guide them as they do their theological reflections, whether it be biblical, systematic, or pastoral?  It was teaching in Nigeria which opened me to the realization of how important context is to the doing and articulation of theology.  I admit that, in spite of having a PhD in systematic theology, I was not always prepared for the questions which students raised from their specific context.

[6]          A student followed me out of the systematic theology class one day.  He put his hand into mine.  We walked across campus with our fingers were intertwined.  As we walked, the student said, “Dr. Baker.  I just have to ask you a question.”  I encouraged him to continue.  Then he asked a question which totally caught me off guard.  It was a question having significant contextual concern, but for which nothing in my studies or parish ministry had prepared me to answer.  The student asked, “Dr. Baker.  After I have had contact with my wife, do I need to wash my hands before I read the Bible?”  Never before then, nor since then, has anyone asked that question of me in the United States.  Nevertheless, in the context of Northern Nigeria it was a serious theological question which called for serious theological reflection.

[7]          Another event which happened in Nigeria clearly reflected how contextual the doing of theology, and especially the kinds of illustrations we use, is.  The seminary in which I taught was an interdenominational theological school.  Each week the students had a required class in denominational instruction.  One particular year I used a small booklet which had been written for women in the former American Lutheran Church.  The students would take turns reading a paragraph, or two.  We would then discuss what had been read.  One day, as a student read, I started to laugh.  The student stopped reading, perhaps wondering if he had said something wrong, or if he had mispronounced a word.  I told the class I would tell them why I laughed after I asked them a question.  In the section which had been read the author used the illustration of putting mustard on a hot dog.  In the United States people would quickly grasp the meaning of the illustration.  I asked the students about what came to their mind when they heard “putting mustard on a hot dog.”  They told me they thought of a four legged animal, panting because it was hot, and someone trying to put mustard on the animal.  This illustrates the importance of context.

[8]          When we think of the social, political and religious context of North America, what comes to mind?  We might think of how 70+% of the people in the United States consider themselves Christian.  We might think of the Bible-Belt in the Southern tier of states.  We might think of the so-called “none” zone on the Pacific coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California.  We might think of the increasing number of people who say that they are spiritual, but not religious.  These are but a few of the contexts out of which the students come to study with you.  It is the context for which you try to prepare students for ministry.  What about in the Asia Pacific Region?  What are some of the social, political, and religious contextual issues which impact and influence the kinds of questions students from the region may ask?

[9]          The first thing to be said about the religious context is that the Christian faith is a minority religion in all of the countries in the region, with the exceptions of the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.  The statistics for the Philippines indicate about 93% of the population is Christian.  Papua New Guinea is about 83% Christian.  In the other countries in which the ELCA has partners, the Christian faith is a minority religion surrounded by other major world religions:  Buddhism; Hinduism; Islam; Taoism; folk religion; traditional religions.  What does it mean to be a religious minority?  What kind of questions might students from the region ask?  What are the kinds of issues on which they may want to focus their research and writing?  Are theologians in the United States willing, able, and equipped to guide the students in their research and writing?  Are theologians in the United States willing and able to humbly admit to the student that the student may be more knowledgeable and well versed than the one who is guiding them?  Are theologians in the United States willing and able to humbly say to the student that they, the professors, have as much to learn, maybe more to learn from the student, than the student has to learn from them?

[10]        The second thing to be said, is about the social and political context from which some of your students may come.  It is a context of political, economic, and social instability.  I have told people that I live in a politically unstable country, and work in a socially and politically unstable region.  You need only think of Myanmar, or what we once called Burma, which has just come out of military dictatorship, and wrestles with the new freedom it begins to experience.  You need only think of Cambodia, and both the Pol Pot regime and the current instability.  You need only think of the Korean Peninsula, with the ongoing “saber rattling” between North and South Korea.  You need only think of Malaysia, and the use of tear gas on demonstrators two years ago in Kuala Lumpur who demonstrated for clean and fair elections.  You need only think of Thailand which has had thirty coup attempts since 1912, and twelve “successful” coup d’états since 1932.  You may have read the Editorial Board article written about Thailand in the 19 July 2014, of the “Washington Post.” I quote only a little of the article,

Democracy’s vital signs are fading fast in Thailand, three months after 

its 12th coup d’état.

Hundreds of academics, politicians, and pro-democracy activists have been arrested and temporarily detained since May. …State officials have been purged from office.  Protests, including readings of George Orwell’s “1984” and outdoor picnics in solidarity with prisoners, have been banned. …

Fear, unlike anything seen in the past few decades, has descended on what was once Southeast Asia’s model democracy.

(The Washington Post, 19 July 2014)

[11]        Political and social instability is the context in which I live.  Political and social instability is the context out of which many of your students come, whether they come from Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, and increasingly in the United States.  What are the kinds of issues the students might be interested in exploring in their biblical, systematic, and pastoral graduate work?  Are the theologians in the United States willing, able, and equipped to guide those who come from the context of social and political instability?

[12]        I cannot overemphasize the importance of context for the doing and the living out of theology.  If among realtors the emphasis is on location, location, location, I would say the emphasis for theologians needs to be on context, context, and context.  I turn now to the second section of this presentation.

Ways of Teaching and Ways of Learning

[13]        In reality an aspect of context, one might say a subset of context, is the differenct ways of teaching, and ways of learning.  The ways of teaching, and the ways of learning are important enough in, and of, themselves to consider them more specifically.  Even for those who teach in the United States, it is important to understand the differences in ways of teaching and the ways of learning here.  It is of crucial and critical importantance to understand the differences in the ways of teaching and the ways of learning when it comes to the cross-cultural situation.  Understanding the differences between the ways of teaching and the ways of learning will lessen the level of frustration, the potential of conflict, as well as, reduce misunderstanding between you and the students who come to study with you from the global scene.

[14]        In the United States, most students come to the seminary with at least a first degree.  They have at least a minimal introduction to philosophy and the humanities.  Students in the United States come to seminary to earn a second degree, sometimes a Master of Arts in Religion, sometimes a Master of Divinity.  In addition, most of the students who come to seminary in the United States have grown up in, and have been educated in, an educational system which for forty to fifty years has placed great emphasis on critical thinking and reflection.  From before preschool, through elementary school, secondary school, and university, students have not only been allowed to challenge and question—they have been encouraged to be critical of almost anything and anyone.  This may, however, be changing in the context of the United States.  The newer emphasis in the United States education system seems to be on teaching and learning in relation to tests.  Slowly, it seems, critical thinking may be taking a back seat, or end up having no seat at all in education.  Only time will tell.  Whatever happens, though, it will impact and influence how you teach, and how the students learn.

[15]        In contrast to the context of the United States, in most of the Asia Pacific Region, many, if not most, of the students come to theological college to earn a first degree, not a second degree.  Many come directly after secondary school graduation.  For five to seven years these students will complete course work in biblical studies, systematic theology, and pastoralia.  The expectation is that they will memorize what the lecturer has taught in class, and what the author has written in a textbook.  Further, the expectation is that they will be able to give back to the lecturer what has been said, and what was written in the book.  In some places the extent of the student’s exposure to critical and reflective thinking is limited to whatever critical and reflective thinking the lecturer has done and demonstrated.  The student’s work on the first degree is largely memorization.  When the students begin to work on their second degree they are exposed to more critical thinking and reflection, but even here, it is only within certain boundaries.

[16]        Add to this the almost god-like quality the lecturer has, and sometimes exhibits.  Their words, and their actions are almost above questioning.  After all, what does the student know?  Very little.  That is why they are in class.  The lecturer knows everything.  The student knows nothing.  I know students in some schools in the region who, when they questioned the lecturer, were reprimanded, and were reminded that their place as students was to accept what was told to them.  It is to be noted, however, this is not simply a difference of educational level.  It is a completely different cultural, philosophical, and educational construct.  Those who know Confucianism will recognize this immediately. 

[17]        Take a student from such a teaching and learning environment and bring them into a classroom in one of the seminaries in the United States.  While you do expect the students to learn the fundamentals of a discipline, you also expect that they will be able to critically reflect on what they are reading, and what they hear.  Yet, many of the students from other cultures, even though they may have earned a second degree, may not really know how to do critical reflection, as you may want and expect them to be able to do.  Unless, and until we realize this, as well as address is, we will inadvertently set the students up to fail, and ourselves up for frustration.

[18]        Add to all of this, the reality is that for students coming from the global scene, many, maybe most, do not think and process in English.  English is not their first language.  I am fully aware that students who are admitted to your programs have to score a particular level on the TOEFL examination.  Nevertheless, in all likelihood, they do not think in English.  They will hear your words coded in English, and they will decode it in their native language, for example Bahasa Indonesia.  What they decode may, or may not be what you meant by what you said.  Not long ago I faced with this reality in Indonesia.  In Bahasa Indonesia there is a phrase which is “Tidak apa-apa.”  Literally that phrase means “No what-what.”  Literally that phrase does not make any logical sense.  What it means though is “No problem.”  Further, in some languages what you say in English may not be able to be translated in any equivalent way in their language.  Many times, the best we can hope for is what in some disciplines is called dynamic equivalent.  Not long ago this came home to me in a very forceful way.

[19]        I was in a particular country in the Asia Pacific Region.  All of us around the table were speaking in English.  However, English was not the first language for all of us.  I was trying to explain the ELCA’s understanding of mission as accompaniment.  That is, the idea of mission as walking with others.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to make the concept of walking with others understood.  If finally dawned on me.  In the language of most people around the table, there is no preposition with.  I had to figure out ways in which I could speak in English about accompaniment which could be decoded and understood in their mother tongue.  This was not the other person’s problem to deal with.  It was my problem to try and solve.

[20]        While the students who come to you may not have the critical, analytical skills we seek, they have something more, and of equal importance.  The students come with a living experience, and with the theological learning from within their various contexts.  Honor those contexts.  Some of these students come from the context in which the Christian faith has been lived for hundreds of years.  Some of them come to you from churches with millions of members.  For example, in North Sumatra, where I live, there are more baptized Lutheran Christians there than there are in the United States.  Further, we dare not forget that the Christian faith went to India long before it went to Germany.  Tradition says St. Thomas went to India in 52AD.  There is fairly well documented mission work in the 4th century.  The Roman Catholic mission work started in the 1320s.  Protestant mission work was started by Ziegenbalz and Pluetschau in 1705.  William Carey went to India in 1793. 

[21]        In his book, Faith in the Face of the Empire:  The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Mitri Raheb refers to the contrast between the Western academic model which and a non-Western approach to the doing and living of theology.  Raheb writes,

…this book is not “less scientific” for not having been developed in a Western academic setting with Western methodology; I would argue that it is “more scientific” because it is based on lengthy and measured observation on the ground in Palestine.  Observation is the mother of science.  Observation helps us identify patterns or logical facts even if we feel that things are utterly illogical and unpredictable.

[22]        A bit later Raheb writes about his journey from the Western model to how he now does Theology.  He writes,

I now realize, I was dancing to the rhythm of European organ music and theology.  I wanted to who that I had mastered the tools of European methodologies, and I tried to utilize them to defend my case as a Palestinian Christian. …After a long journey in and through Anglo-Saxon theology, I sense that I have finally landed in the Middle East, where I belong.


[23]        A bit later Raheb quotes R. S. Sugirtharajah, who writes even more pointed words,


…mainstream scholarship is insular and obsessed with its own fixed and rigid Eurocentric questions. . .On the whole, current biblical scholarship has generated artificial needs and convoluted the biblical histories, complicated textual reconstruction and led its readers astray from the true needs and wants of people.

[24]        The third, and last concern and issue I want to lift up before us tonight is what I call possible interconnections.

Possible Interconnections

[25]        As you look at the seminary where you teach, does the seminary have any connections and/or interconnections with seminaries beyond the United States?  What kind of connections, or interconnections do you have?

[26]        When I went to teach at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 1996, I read in the catalog that Southern Seminary had two overseas connections.  One of these connections was with Tumani University Makumira in Tanzania.  The other connection was with Lutheran School of Theology in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil.  According to the Southern catalog students from Southern could go to either of these seminaries for a term, and up to one year, and receive credit at Southern, as long as they also fulfilled the requirements of Southern Seminary.  When I checked further about this, I discovered it was only an agreement on paper.  As far as I could determine, up until that time no student had gone to either seminary for either a term, or for longer. 

[27]        What kind of connections and interconnections does your institution have with others?  If you have a connection or interconnection with another seminary, is it more than simply on paper?  There are other outstanding theological institutions in other parts of the world who use English as the medium of instruction, for example:  Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute in Chennai, India; United Theological College in Bangalore, India; Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong; and Trinity Theological College in Singapore.  There are lecturers on these faculties who are either from the United States, or who studied in the United States, and know what is expected by schools here.  There are outstanding schools in Africa and Latin America as well.  Students who would go to one of these schools will have an exposure to other ways of doing theology, other theologians, and other religions that they will never be able to acquire in a more experiential way.

[28]        One of the books I often had on the list of required books for the course I taught in Missiology was Diana Eck’s book, A New Religious America:  How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.  One of the ways by which students from the United States can learn more about other religions is for them to live and study in a context where the Christian faith is a minority.  They can learn firsthand the struggles of the Dalit and Adivasi in India.  They can learn firsthand why people want to be, and remain, “unbaptized Christians.”  They can learn firsthand the struggles people have for freedom and full humanity in places like Cambodia and Myanmar.  They can learn firsthand what it means to evangelize in context where evangelization is outlawed, or severely limited.

[29]        What about you, as professors of theology?  Do you know the difference, or differences and teach your students about the difference between Latin American Liberation Theology, and Liberation Theology written in the context of Palestine; the difference, or differences between Minjung theology of Korea and Dalit theology of India?  When it comes to theology written in other parts of the world, have you read theologians like Arata Miyamato and his work, Embodied Cross:  Intercontextual Readings of Theologia Crucis; Mitri Raheb’s book, Faith in the Face of Empire:  The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes; Asian Theology on the Way:  Christianity, Culture, and Context, edited by Peniel Rajkumar; or Yung’s book, Mangoes or Bananas?  The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology?  There are many books written by theologians from around the world which can help us in theological thinking in the context of the United States.  One only need to check on to find many of these books.  The students from the United States will find them interesting and challenging.  You as theological educators might find them challenging and thought provoking.  In addition to reading theology written by theologians in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Palestine, I would invite you to come and spend time with them on your next sabbatical.  You can be with internationally recognized scholars from other parts of the world, and gain experiential, firsthand knowledge of their work as you dialogue with them, as you live with them in their context.  This has the potential of bringing new insights to your work as theologians in the context of the United States.  Let me lift up one more possible way of interconnecting with theological colleges and theological colleagues around the world.

[30]        One of the challenges faced by some of the overseas theological colleges and colleagues is brought about by the ministry of education in some countries.  All of the theological colleges with which I work have some kind of accreditation, just like here.  The theological colleges in India are often related to the Senate of Serampore.  Theological colleges in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia are related to the Association of Theological Education in Southeast Asia.  However, the ministry of education in some countries do not recognize the degrees, especially the doctoral degrees, granted through schools related to Association of Theological Education in Southeast Asia.  These ministries of education insist that only those doctoral degrees earned from a theological college which also has accreditation by a secular accrediting body will be recognized.  There is no problem with schools here in the United States.  Theological seminaries here not only have ATS accreditation.  They also have a regional secular accreditation.  Students from Indonesia and Thailand, who have earned their doctoral degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong will not have their doctorates recognized, even though it has been granted by an internationally recognized school.  In order to meet that challenge, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong is now offering students the opportunity to have a doctoral degree granted through affiliation with University of Erlangen.  The quality and level of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong is equal to any institution in the United States.  Is it possible that colleges, universities, and/or seminaries in the United States develop a similar relationship with theological colleges elsewhere in the world?


[31]        Sisters and brothers in Christ, companions in God’s mission, colleagues in theological education:  You have been very patient listeners to some of my reflections on “Glocal Theological Issues and Concerns from One Person’s Point of View.”  Thank you for your kindness and presence.  Theological Education, which is your work and mine, is an awesome responsibility.  Most of the time it is also an invigorating challenge.  I thank you for all you do in theological education, whether for students who come to you from the United States, or who come to you from thousands of miles away from this land. 

[32]        In closing I would like to put before us a challenge.  The challenge is not simply put before you.  The challenge is also put before me. The challenge does not come from me.  The challenge comes from a little book I have been reading entitled, Cross-Shaped Leadership:  On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice, by Rev. Dr. John Bernsten.  On pages four and five, Bernsten lists six facets of cross-shaped leadership.  Four of the six facets are applicable to those of us in theological education.  These four are:

“…cross-shaped leadership is not only about taking an initiative but also about receiving the initiative of others – the divine Other and the others of the world. …”

“…humility marks cross-shaped leadership. …”

“…cross-shaped leaders are focused on people before ideas, answers, or master plans.  They are listeners and questioners before they are visionaries or seers. …”

“…humor is a sign of our need for grace.  Cross-shaped leaders take themselves less seriously, because they take God’s grace more seriously. …”

(p.5f. Cross-Shaped Leadership:  On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice)

[33]        I pray that our theology, our teaching, our life, and our ministry be cross-shaped.  May we be marked with the cross of Christ, not only in our baptism, but in the way we live our life as theological educators.  I pray we be open to receive, not only from God, and others like us, but also to receive from those far different from us, many of whom will not have as much formal education as it has been our privilege to receive.  I pray that our lives be marked by humility, not only in relationship to God, but in relationship to the students who are entrusted to our care.  I pray we be listeners and questioners, listening to the cries and concerns of those whose context is significantly different than ours.  I pray we be focused more on people, their needs and concerns, than we are on ourselves.  Last, I pray we never take ourselves too seriously; that we retain, or if need be recover, a sense of humor, all the while taking God more seriously, to the end that God’s name is glorified, and God’s rule a reality in our hearts and lives, and throughout God’s world.


Rev. Phillip Baker, Ph.D. is currently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Asia Pacific Regional Representative For Theological Education and Church Relations.  He has served as a parish pastor as well as a seminary professor.


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