Babylonian Captivity revisited

Babylonian captivity revisited

Thirty years ago, Lesslie Newbigin described the relationship between theological education and higher education as the Babylonian captivity of the first by the second.

Since then, higher education has continued to change and has probably become the most globalised of all man’s activities. This has moved the goalposts and made an assessment of his interpretation urgent. Structures, attitudes, degrees, quality assurance, and how value is apportioned, are now all defined similarly in every country in the world. Theological Education at its higher levels just about everywhere fits within this global HE patterning for better or worse.

There is a contextualisation argument for this to be accepted as wise and useful. Even Jesus contextualised his educational methodology into that of the Rabbi for his time and place, since this was the dominant educational pattern for the society in which he taught. If the HE package is now the dominant educational pattern globally, maybe this is where we should be.

Yet, nowadays, just because of globalisation, there is surely no simple contextualisation left in the world. In theological education we now deal with a dual contextualisation, trying to be relevant and useful for the local situation and to be part of the connected global situation at the same time. It is not so much that we have ignored contextualisation but are dramatically prioritising global contextualisation over local contextualisation when they are in conflict.

What is more, contextualisation, locally or globally, is not a blank cheque, it contains a judgment on the context and even a denial of acceptance of parts of a context in the light of the Word of God and the intentions of the contextualisation.  Jesus was not content to simply contextualise either, but modified the Rabbi pattern to suit his agenda and objectives, in a number of important ways.

What are the consequences of our present Babylonian priority?

Firstly, we have not sufficiently remembered that theological education is to be done by the church for the church and is thus a faith and commitment-based enterprise.  The requirements of the secular university driven academy and the requirements of the Church of God are difficult to reconcile today, as a number of studies have shown, and this tension is rarely sufficiently acknowledged.

Secondly, we have often made the goal of theological education not so much the formation of the student as the conferring on them of status by degrees, so they will have influence in their society and ecclesiastical situation.

Thirdly, we have, in developing countries, generally imposed attitudes and ways of studying truth on our students because that is the way excellence, individual attainment, critical judgment, academic style, research quality and many other issues are defined globally. This, even though these are often alien to the culture and by no means simply the best way to use the mind in any culture.

Fourthly, we have devalued those students who cannot perform well within the patterns of global academia but have a fruitful ministry for God. Rarely are the academic high fliers in our systems the most used by God, rather the most humble and dedicated. This does not contradict the important need of the church for academic high fliers also.

What is the answer? If there is one, it is complicated! It does not mean a denial of either global or local contextualisation but a renewal of our fundamentals. It resides partly in the need for theological education to grow integrated students, alive to the need to be academic, spiritual and ministerial in equal importance as God has gifted them. It will be developed by emphasising, at the highest academic level, those degrees which are heavy on reflective practice for most, and confine the studying for Doctorates and Masters courses of a more purely theoretical nature to those students, immensely valuable but relatively few, who will teach and interact with society in a more dominantly academic way. It will mean listening to wise people in the church who are less concerned with status as with godliness and mission.

The Babylonian captivity did eventually end for Israel. Maybe theological education will one day return to its own land again and be at peace.


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3 Comments on “Babylonian Captivity revisited”

  1. Scott Cunningham Says:

    Thanks, Graham. It might be helpful to think about two spheres of contextualization. Since the seminary is a hybrid of church and academy, there are also two spheres of contextualization – that of the church and that of the academy. And, then, as you do, recognize that within EACH of these spheres, because of the pervasiveness of globalization, there is both a local contextualization and a global contextualization.

    So, you might think of a quadrant with the four squares being:

    Local church, local academy
    Local church, global academy
    Global church, local academy
    Global church, global academy

    Of course, rather than four separate squares, there is rather a spectrum, so that you move from local to global along the two different axes.

  2. perryshaw Says:

    Very timely Graham.
    We must not forget that the academy in the Majority world in general has itself suffered from the Babylonian Captivity of the western academy, with the exportation of western standards as the basis for global assessment of quality. A few brave writers have pointed to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) culturally imperialist attitudes of the western academy, but these bleatings generally fall on deaf ears.
    Some years ago I led a faculty training retreat for an influential theological college in East Africa. One of the sessions revolved around culture and learning, and I began by presenting some of Nisbett’s research on how East Asians and westerners process information differently. I asked the faculty whether they related to either the East Asian or the western patterns of thought described by Nisbett, or whether they have a totally different way of processing information. The answer was unanimously that they resonated strongly with the East Asian patterns. I continued, “The theological education at your school is largely structured and delivered on a western pattern, and this is also the structure of the whole schooling and university system in your country. Is the educational methodology that you have experienced for years therefore contextually irrelevant?” Smiles all around the table. Finally one of the more articulate black faculty members spoke up, “It is like having schizophrenia. We live in two worlds – one is the world of life with its strong communal networks and its embrace of both/and rather than either/or. And then we enter into this box called school which has no connection to the rest of our lives but which we need to get ahead in life. Yes, we have been influenced by this box, but if we are to speak meaningfully to our ministry context we have to leave that box far behind us in the villages and towns where we serve.”
    In light of the missional focus of the global church I long to see the global Christian academy move beyond the Babylonian captivity. Part of this probably needs to come with the encouragement and promotion by the western Christian academy for alternate models that better resonate with local patterns of thinking and practice.

  3. KiwiAllan Says:

    Thanks for your wisdom, Graham. I’m glad to see this arising from your own present Majority World experience.

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