Thursday, January 21, 2016

Systematic Theology? In Africa? Really?

In one of the ironies of my life, I’m getting ready to walk into a classroom of eager Kenyan undergraduates and give the first lecture of my new Systematic Theology III class.  It’s the same course I taught last term, but I am not complaining.  Seven of the nine classes I am teaching this term are new-to-me.  I’m grateful to have a class that I don’t have to start from scratch to teach.  But back to the irony.

Adolf von Harnack

This course I’m teaching, replete with my Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology textbook, would be simply normal in a conservative theological college setting in the US, especially one that was more or less ‘reformed’ and ‘evangelical’.  I am, however, ensconced in the Kenya Highlands, teaching a class of Kenyans and South Sudanese who also happen to be Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Orthodox, along with a healthy dash of Pentecostals. This is now the fourth African (two in Ethiopia and two in Kenya) theological college that has asked me to teach Systematic Theology.  And all of the other Christian schools offering diploma, Bachelors, Masters and PhD programs for Christians preparing for ministry, in both of these countries at least, require their students to take Systematic Theology.



The great problem in all this is that Systematic Theology is a Western project.  The current academic concept grew out of the Enlightenment optimism that human reason could envelop and categorize all knowledge, including religious knowledge.  This of course built on Reformation attempts to re-calibrate Christianity without anything remotely smacking of Roman Catholicism.  And this ambitious effort was preceded by equally ambitious attempts to translate Christian theology into Aristotelian categories (see Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae, for example).  But with Reformation scholars like John Calvin came an entirely new attempt to work through the Bible alone and determine from the Bible alone (as opposed to the Bible + the Catholic Magisterium and Catholic Church Tradition) the doctrines that defined Christianity.  This became the quest of subsequent generations of Protestant theologians, who endeavored systematically to determine what the Bible teaches about any topic pertaining to the Christian faith.

Friederich Schleiermacher

This quest hit a jarring speedbump with the advent of both the Enlightenment and the subsequent reaction called Modernism.  And while Modernist skepticism influenced ‘liberal’ European and American theologians to question the trustworthiness of the Christian Scriptures, the more conservative theologians felt they had good reasons to believe that a theological summary of what the Bible teaches was still both possible, worthwhile and, in fact, necessary.

Harvey Cox

And now a slight detour.  The Wikipedia definition of Systematic Theology includes the following statement: ‘Using biblical texts, it (Systematic Theology) attempts to compare and relate all of scripture and create a systematized statement on what the whole Bible says about particular issues.’[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systematic_theology] I normally don’t use or cite Wikipedia because its articles can be changed by anyone at any time and for who knows what ideological reason, and thus there is no guarantee that the information has been vetted or that it is without philosophical or religious bias.  However, what caught my eye was how many times this definition turned up on other websites having to do with systematic theology or academic programs offering degrees in systematic theology.  This sentence, or significant chunks of it, turned up again and again on these pages when they were defining ‘systematic theology,’ without attribution of course.  One cannot say for sure who was copying who (though one can guess…).  And I thought I had serious problems with students addicted to plagiarism and who insist on using Wikipedia as a legitimate academic source…  (Full disclosure.  I do use Wikipedia occasionally, but only as the first step, for dates or to give me ideas or references.  But not as a source of reliable, academic-level, peer-reviewed information).

Marcus Borg

Back to systematic theology.  I am more concerned about the conservative brand than those theologies produced by those motivated by more liberal assumptions, for the simple reason that most liberal systematic theologies are overmuch concerned to reflect the most up-to-date scholarship and criticism and philosophical trends and theological fashions. Which means these sometimes immense volumes of systematic theology are obsolete as soon as they are published.  They are quite effective at providing a mirror of the fashions and presuppositions and the latest theories that were current when it was written.  But the crowd that reads such books is more interested in the NEXT BEST THING and of surfing the NEXT BIG WAVE rather than chew over yesterday’s tired ideas.  This pattern of writing systematic theologies to reflect the liberal presuppositions of the day has been going on for two centuries.  One would think that someone in that camp would wake up one morning and realize, ‘Gosh, haven’t we done this before?  And we keep on doing it, again and again and again?  How bizarre.’  In other words, every ‘liberal’ systematic theology written in the 19th and 20th century is essentially irrelevant.  The only people who read them now are students whose professors want them to know something of the history of theological ideas.  But to read someone whose ideas have been so thoroughly debunked by the next generation and who are famous (or infamous) because of the controversy they caused in their day is nothing more than a waste of both current liberals’ and current conservatives’ time. Unless, of course, one really likes intellectual history; in which case reading liberal systematic theologies from the past 200 years provides a fascinating hike through the woods of the philosophical and cultural changes that have occurred in the West during these years.  But one must really like wandering through the woods…

Reinhold Niebuhr

‘In the West.’  All of that discussion, all of the conservative/liberal debates, the volumes piled on volumes of more theological jargon than one can shake a stick at – all of this has been a Western conversation about Western issues and concerns.  So imagine my shock when I was assigned several years ago by my dean to teach a masters-level course on ‘Modern Theology’ (by which was meant ‘Modern Western Theology’) to a classroom full of African students from 10 different African countries. In another irony, I tried and tried to figure out a way to make all this modern theology relevant to my students.  Ironic because that was the purpose that motivated these liberal theologians to theologize.  They were trying so hard to update Christianity, to make it relevant to the assumptions of the day.  Not a single one of them thought that they were destroying Christianity (the charge leveled at them by many Conservative theologians).  Instead most liberal theologians thought they were saving Christianity from the debacle of having its truth claims demolished by modernist interrogation. But once Jesus is no longer both human and divine (and may even be a figment of pious imaginations), once the Bible is shown to be mistaken again and again, once Christianity is discovered to be the triumph of the conservative bad-guy Catholic party over the good-guy liberal Gnostics, once the Biblical narrative is proven to be wholly fictitious – what’s left to rescue?  We are left with deeply felt religious feelings (Schleiermacher).  We are left with a moralistic religion of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (von Harnack).  We are left with a theological construct so brilliant that nobody still understands it or what it might mean (Tillich), except that to have Tillich on your shelf announces to anyone who cares (an admittedly small but terribly self-important circle) that one has intense liberal street cred.  (Just don’t ask anyone to explain him, and hope to God that nobody asks you the same.).  We are left with a mosaic of religion made of those pieces deemed appropriate and acceptable (idiosyncratically) by the theologian hard at work trying to make his/her construct hold together, which it never does.  Or at least it never survives the theologian, and sometimes fades into irrelevance even before the theologian is ushered from the field of play to meet the God about whom he/she had such grave doubts.  

Paul Tillich

But what relevance does any of this small Western drama have for Africa, for her thousands of denominations, for her half a billion Christians?  For centuries, theologians in the West played their intellectual and theological games as if they were the only show in town.  They pronounced and declared and decreed and pontificated as if their voice was the only voice worth hearing.  They published articles and books and lectured and guest-lectured and got ever higher academic positions and degrees and honorary degrees and gave prestigious lecture series and got lots of letters and titles after their names and assumed that by doing so they had achieved something.   But the West and its ‘center of the universe’ mentality no longer exists, mainly because the rest of the world is proving the West to be too small in its perspective.  Which means the philosophical and religious assumptions underpinning the totality of Western intellectual history and theological development has already been proven insufficient and thus irrelevant, by the simple fact that there is a ‘rest of the world’.  This, of course, will not go down well with the Brahmans that make up the Western philosophical and theological elite.  But the old model of theology was so ensconced in an ethnocentric, cultural-centric, academia-centric, male-centric model as to make it useful only if that was your world.  But that is no longer anybody’s world.  Even the fraught attempts by Western women or homosexual-rights advocates or other cause-oriented theologies to wrench academic theology out of its ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’ or ‘racist’ moorings so that it accommodates their more important issues, these efforts miss the same point as the theologies they are attempting to supplant and for the same reason.  The world of these ‘outrage theologians’ is even smaller than that of the 19th and 20th century liberals because the current cause-theologies revolve around addressing my grievances and my concerns. Too often masquerading as a concern for social justice, the outrage movement is the ultimate end of Western individualism, where the individual is given the right to rewrite theology itself to suit his own presuppositions or assuage her own indignation.  It is the anarchy of outrage, the tyranny of diversity, both of which assume the authority to demolish the beliefs and practices of anyone else if those beliefs and practices are deemed offensive by anyone.  But once this door is opened, history shows us again and again that the revolution will spiral out of control and will eat her own children.  Think French Revolution here.  Once one has gotten rid of every authority but one’s own, then there is nothing to stop the next even bigger, more wicked authority from picking up where one left off and sweeping one out of the way in the process.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The point being (here, at least), why would anyone here on my current continent think that this was a good thing, or relevant to reality here?  Why should anyone here be concerned about those things that currently vex the world of Western elites?  We have our own raft of problems over here, affecting many times more the number of people than those causes that so outrage people in the West.  And given the magnitude of the problems here, all of the shouting over there seems a bit self-serving.  That’s not to say there are not legitimate concerns and grievances.  But please, take a deep breath and get some perspective! 

Hans Kung

There aren’t many liberal systematic theologies written anymore, mainly because liberals have so rubbished the Bible as having any relevance or authority, that such theologies tend to be the equivalent of Rorschach tests, or of Linus and Charlie Brown looking up at the clouds – ‘I see a horse.’ ‘But I see a Lamborghini.’ And who’s to argue¸ as it doesn’t matter anyway.  They have sawed off the branch on which they were sitting.  And if anything can be said using the Bible as one’s jumping off point, it’s not a big step to then say that nothing can be said, at least that’s worth saying.  Such theology has made itself irrelevant to its intended audience (Christians).  And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that African Christians don’t rush out to buy and read any of their meticulously-researched pieces. We have better things to do with our time.  Which ultimately will spell the end of liberal theology.  If it won’t play here in Nairobi, it’s not going to play.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Louis Berkhof

Liberal systematic theology may have consigned itself to irrelevance.  But the conservative version, still taught with such vigor at all the major conservative seminaries in the West, and still imposed with vigor on all unsuspecting African students at conservative theological colleges in Africa, has its own array of self-inflicted issues that are leading it to the same end.  It’s just that nobody is listening.  In the past, conservative Christian theologians were too engaged in a life and death struggle with their liberal counterparts to pay any attention to any other possible problems, except the long-term perennial bogeyman or antichrist or whatever you want to call those pestiferous Roman Catholics.  And despite winsome popes and good-faith efforts to dialogue with those people on the part of some branches of Protestantism, everyone else remains dug in and heavily armed, much like the DMZ separating South Koreans from their crazy neighbors to the north.  It’s a difficult relationship that goes back almost exactly 500 years.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Back to the point.  Protestant systematic theology seems impressive enough, with its thick and heavy tomes, with the requirement at every seminary that every first year student plunge into some Evangelical theology guru’s Prolegomena, and then into the depths of the nature of God and the glories of cataphatic theology (as opposed to the ever questionable and dangerous apophatic theology…).  The Bible is the supreme and only stated guide, and the Reformation insistence that, if it can’t be proved from Scripture then it’s not something Christians are obligated to believe, is paraded like a confederate battle flag in South Carolina, or an orange anything in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Protestants have always tied everything to the Bible.  The Bible is the supreme authority.  Protestants look to nothing but Scripture as the ground of what they believe.  It’s all so clear.  So simple.  It began with Luther and his admirable efforts to disengage Christianity from the clutches of a corrupt Catholic system of authority that included Scripture, but also included the Magisterium of Papal authority, as well as Roman Catholic Church Tradition, which itself included all Papal pronouncements and all so-called ecumenical councils sponsored by Rome after the split with the Eastern Churches in 1054.  It’s from this strangle-hold of self-serving Roman Catholic authority that Luther wrested free with the phrase ‘Sola Scriptura’ or ‘Scripture alone’.  This was a fantastic and winning slogan, and it sent Luther’s friends and other wannabe reformers rushing back to the Bible to rebuild the faith and the Church after Luther’s verbal demolition of the foundations of Roman Catholic faith and practice in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1521) and other furious diatribes.  It was totally an inside job (Luther was an Augustinian monk and a professor of the Bible).  And it was a lit match that fell on dry tinder and then leapt quickly from the fire pit of theological dispute into the surrounding fields and forests, becoming a wildfire and then a conflagration that nobody could put out.

Charles Hodge

The problems with Luther’s strategy to free himself and the Church from the corrupting influence of Catholic authority were immediately apparent, but Protestants (as they came to be called) were too busy fighting first the Catholics and then with themselves to take note or to care.  The snag had to do with Luther’s own authority construct itself, namely, that the Bible as God’s Word is our supreme authority.  The great problem was that the Bible does not address issues directly.  The Bible is not a creed with precise definitions. The Bible is not a Book of Order with specific instructions about how to order worship or run churches.  Instead the Bible is narrative and story; there are gospels, histories, letters, a lot of poetry, and documents pertaining to Israel’s relationship with God, and for the really brave at heart, apocalypses.  There are enough authors and genres and styles to qualify for an encyclopedia (except the Bible is anything but, unfortunately, for those who want/need it to be), all of which means that there simply isn’t a straight line from picking up a translation of the Bible to a happy healthy Church.  The Bible isn’t uniformly clear.  And that means the Bible needs to be interpreted.  And herein lies the great problem for Protestants in general, and for Protestant systematic theology in particular.  All good Protestants agree that the Bible is the one and only authority for everything pertaining to Christianity.  But none of the same good Protestants can agree on how that authoritative Bible should be interpreted.

Charles Finney

Take the issue of baptism.  All good Protestants believe that Christians should be baptized.  But some believe that only new believing converts should be baptized, and others believe that infants of believers should be baptized.  Some believe baptism is valid only if one is immersed, others if water is poured over one’s head, others if water is merely sprinkled.  These differences are not inconsequential, and they have resulted in entire groups of Christians separating themselves from other Christians who are obviously less obedient to Christ, and forming entire new denominations of Protestants who wear the rightness of their cause in their name – in this case So-and–So Baptist Church.  In fact every name tells the story of some historic split, all in the name of our right interpretation of the Bible over and against your wrong interpretation.  If only the Bible were clear, all Protestants would agree.  And wouldn’t that be a miracle.

Roger Nicole (who taught me systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

What systematic theology does, at least in its conservative version, is codify all of these divisions.  Every theological issue is covered in the same way, namely rehearsing all the different ways people have come up with disagreeing over this particular issue, and then carefully explaining why my particular understanding is actually what the Bible is teaching and is therefore the right way.  Impressive arguments are augmented with even more impressive constellations of Bible proof texts.  But when I pick up an alternative systematic theology from one of those heretic Arminians (from the perspective of Reformed theologians, the guardians of the true faith), I discover that she has done the same thing, argued persuasively that her interpretation makes by far the best sense of the matter and then provided enough justifying Scripture to sink a battleship.  And who is right?  The one who shouts the loudest?   The one who blogs most snarkily?  This is done with the Trinity, with the role of women in the church, with Pentecostalism and tongues, with the whole spectrum of sexual issues, with sacraments/ordinances, with church government, with creationism, with inerrancy.  With such vast possibilities for disagreement, it sure gives Protestants a lot to talk about, and a lot of irreconcilable differences to divorce over.

James Inell Packer

What one very quickly discovers is that, for conservative Protestants and despite their insistent rhetoric, it’s not the Bible that is authoritative in matters of faith and practice, it’s one’s interpretation of the Bible that is authoritative.  500 years of Protestantism coupled by revivalism and now Pentecostalism have demonstrated rather clearly that we can make the Bible say what we need it to say, and we can ignore the Bible when we want to ignore it, even when it actually is speaking with persistence and clarity (um, ongoing racism in the United States, perhaps?).  And in this way, conservative systematic theologians are guilty of doing the very same thing with their theology as liberal systematic theologians – we are all using the Bible to recreate God in our own image and to make Christianity what we want it to be.  All of our fights are over our interpretations.  And our interpretations become the standards of orthodoxy.  And those who don’t line up are outside the pale and thus displeasing to God and thus, though it’s not polite to say so, heretics.  This happens so often that we hardly notice any more.  Protestants disagree and divide and disagree and divide, to the extent that there are now over 30,000 different denominations most of whom have justified their existence because they are right.  Ho hum.

Millard Erickson

Why can’t we see that this makes a mockery of rightness, of truth, of the Bible itself which we profess to uphold?  Systematic theology is the one place that puts all of these shortcomings on display.  It’s a catalogue of all that’s gone wrong with our Reformation.  The Genie left the bottle long ago and now we’re just living out the consequences.  Not only will things not get better, only worse, but conservative Protestantism is on the fast rail to irrelevance.  With so many versions all claiming to be true, at some point people are going to wake up and realize that the whole game is nothing more than a confidence trick.  If everybody is right, then nobody is right, right?  For all of our big theological words, we will all have been found serving our own agendas and furthering our own ends.  All for God’s greater glory, of course.  Hallelujah!

Thomas Oden

The problem is one of authority, and the Sola Scriptura solution favored by Protestants has been demonstrated again and again by our history to have a fatal flaw.  Evangelicals have long sought to control the argument and frame the issue as over the inerrancy of Scripture.  There are certainly liberals who contest that.  But my evangelical friends, by focusing on inerrancy, have missed the real monster that is consuming them.  It’s not the Bible that’s the problem, rather their interpretations, and their inability to decide what their authoritative Bible actually says.

Wayne Grudem

I was a Protestant for 50 years.  When I converted to Orthodoxy, leaders of both Protestant institutions in which I had served in Nairobi for years (one an Evangelical theological college, one a large Evangelical mission board) privately assured me that there was room for me in their institution.  Then it surfaced that concerns were raised in both institutions that if it became known that an Orthodox Christian was a member of the faculty or one of their missionaries, it would severely affect their ability to raise money.  I was fired in short order.  However, the official reason that was given to me was that was terminated because I, as an Orthodox Christian, could not subscribe to an Evangelical statement on the authority of Scripture because I also included Church Tradition as authoritative for Orthodox faith and practice (my efforts to explain that Orthodox Church Tradition is very different from Roman Catholic Church tradition made no difference).  So, good for them for upholding their Sola Scriptura standards.  But not so good for continuing to uphold a Protestantism that promotes not the authority of Scripture but the authority of private interpretation of Scripture, accountable to no one and responsible for the slow motion shattering of global Christianity .  It’s a hole of their own digging, and the only response I’ve seen anyone capable of is grabbing a shovel and digging some more.


So, that’s my job this term, to lead my students through systematic theology, to point out all the different ways theologians have disagreed about an entire grocery list of issues, and then to help them understand where their tradition stands and why.  And with humor, stories, some irony, and hopefully not too much snark, I’m trying quietly to bear witness that there is actually another way of doing things, a way that doesn’t end in irrelevance or a fragmented Church.  The original Church of the apostles and church fathers and mothers is still in our midst (and it isn’t that very large ecclesiastical institution based in Rome).  In fact it’s not a Western church, nor has it been caught up in the Western need to categorize and systematize.  It’s worship is not a reflection of contemporary culture, but comes into God’s presence the same way Christians have always done all the way back to the time when Jesus and his followers attended liturgy at the synagogue.   We are decidedly not ‘seeker sensitive’.  We are not interested in anyone being comfortable; rather we welcome you to join us in repentance, in picking up our cross, in following Jesus.  Lord knows we have our issues.  But all of us know that we are sinners and that we need a Savior.  Our churches are therefore not museums for displaying how holy we are, but rather we are a hospital for those of us who are sick and know we need a Savior, where we are connected with the Great Physician and where we receive the medicine of salvation in the Sacraments. We haven’t always agreed.  And we are not always pretty.  But we also haven’t taken God’s clear plate glass window and shattered it into thousands of pieces, either.


We Orthodox do theology, but since the Bible does not present itself as a catalogue or dictionary of belief we don’t use it as such.  We read the Bible during our ‘quiet times’ and hear it read at every service, but we read it through the lens of the Apostles and the great Fathers of the early church, and the traditions that the Church lovingly preserved from them.  It is too often forgotten that the apostles were responsible for Tradition in two streams, one that was written which eventually the Church acknowledged as Scripture, and the other that was spoken by the apostles as they went about their apostolic ministries and remembered by the Church as the oral tradition.  The apostle Paul himself acknowledges both in his letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 2:15).  The Church through a long process decided what would be authoritative in terms of the written Tradition, and the Church through the same process held on to the oral Tradition.  Interestingly, through that entire process, though Christians could fight like cats over any number of concerns, the issue of Tradition, both oral and written, was never fought over.  It was simply the water in which Christian fish swam in.  Certainly what should be included in the circle of authoritative Tradition was contested.  But the reality of the circle was never in doubt.


So I’m teaching systematic theology.  And I’m teaching bright, eager African students.  I will do my best to teach the content of the course.  Teaching the content is the easy part.  Helping my students grasp the Western nature of systematic theology and what African identities and African perspectives contribute to the discussion is slightly more daunting.  Connecting my students to the reality to which that content so imperfectly points is the real challenge before me.  Welcome to theological education.

Post Script
You will, I'm sure, have noticed that all of the systematic theologians pictured above are white guys from Europe and North America.  There are many more I could have posted.  But there are very few systematic theologians who are women or African, Asian, African American or Hispanic.  I wonder why?  Plenty of theology has been generated by people who are not male or caucasian, but not systematic theology. There are a few exceptions.  One which comes to mind is African Christian Theology by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop.  Kunhiyop makes a vigorous argument in his introduction that his book should be considered a genuinely African systematic theology.  But to be honest, it reads like a standard American Evangelical text that follows standard western categories and answers western intellectual questions but which also uses African examples.  African Christian Theology is thus an exception that ends up proving the rule.  Kunhiyop has mastered western Evangelical theology and sought to transplant it back into African soil.  'Evangelical Theology for Africa' might be a more honest title.  One way or another, it follows the Western model of assuming that Western answers are what everyone else needs.  Never mind they haven't worked in the West.  The emperor may have no clothes on, but we must simply avert our eyes and carry on.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Five Years Orthodox – Some Backstory



Five years ago today, on Saturday morning, January 8, 2011, I was baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church of Kenya by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios.  It had been a fraught fourteen year process, beginning while I was in the midst of my PhD studies in Cambridge.  I was, of course, a Protestant at the time.  And not just a Protestant, but had been a Presbyterian pastor since 1989.  And I was pursuing doctoral studies so that I could help train the new generation of leaders in the burgeoning Evangelical and Pentecostal movement in Africa.  My friendship with an Orthodox priest and his wife introduced me to the new world of Orthodox Christianity.  I was fascinated.  And the more I learned, the more I asked myself, ‘Why hasn’t anybody told me about this?’  I was so compelled by what I was learning that I felt I wanted to become Orthodox then and there.  But my sense of obligation to my donors and my inability to figure out a way to draw my family along with me (my wife was uninterested and unsympathetic) held me back and worked to keep my on track to become a Protestant missionary.

I moved with my family to Ethiopia in 2000.  I taught at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, a joint venture of the two largest Protestant movements in Ethiopia, the Mekane Yesus Church (Lutheran and Presbyterian) and the Kale Heywet Church (SIM).  In 2004 I was asked to become the senior pastor of the International Evangelical Church, Ethiopia’s largest English-language congregation.  It was a church that drew from the international community and the community of internationalized Ethiopians.  I had a ministry staff of fourteen, and we often had 1600 in attendance at our two English languages services, as well as more than 100 at a French language service and close to that at a Korean service.  I felt we were doing well and received much positive feedback.  However, in a takeover fomented by some disgruntled  elders, one of my staff members was unfairly targeted and treated very badly and forced to resign.  When I went to her defense, the same barrage of false accusations was directed at me.  When it became obvious that for reasons never made clear to me I had no support from my fellow elders (including one of my mission colleagues, who I thought was a friend), I chose not to fight or cling to my position, but to walk away.  It was my first real experience of ugly church politics and I was stung, disoriented and hurt..  But what was even worse was how immediately I became a disappeared man.  Earlier that fall I had been celebrated by many in the congregation for my preaching.  Many had professed excitement at the vision for outreach in the expat community that I and my team had been leading our congregation into.  And then nothing.  No one called.  No one came to see if I was ok.  Word reached me that the chairman of the board of elders was making statements in public that the ‘former pastor’ was ‘mentally ill’.  Nobody stood up to defend me, no one stood up to speak truth against the dissembling and untruths that were being spoken by men (and they were men) that should have known better  - except for one man who was appalled, who tried to do what he could but who was marginalized by the people who held ‘power’.

To say that I was undone by this experience would be almost to understate the impact all this had on me, my understanding of my calling and my self-esteem.  It was a nightmare and I kept hoping I would wake up and find things back to what passed for normal.  Instead I found myself immersed in a dysfunctional mission culture where the response tended to be, ‘Oh too bad.  Buck up!  Trust in the Lord!  He’s got good things in store for you!’  Easy to say.  Hell to live through.  I was struck by how many people (usually mission colleagues) later came to tell me their own church horror stories, about pastor relatives or friends being tossed out on this pretext or that, on boards of elders gone rogue, on this scandal or that scandal.  I think the idea was that this was supposed to encourage me with the thought: ‘So you think you have it bad!?’  Gee, thanks.  To be honest, I really didn’t feel much like comparing my experience with anyone else’s.  All I knew was that I couldn’t believe that this sort of thing could happen to anyone, much less me; I couldn’t believe that ‘Christians’ could treat other Christians in such a way; I was appalled at the abuse my colleague had endured at the hands of elders; I couldn’t believe that ‘Christians’ could lie with such impunity, and that other ‘Christians’ who knew the truth, or at least knew the characters of those involved could say nothing.  And I couldn’t believe all those people in my congregation who told me repeatedly what a wonderful preacher I was and what a wonderful pastor I was suddenly went off line as if I no longer existed.  I felt hurt. I felt disoriented. I felt gutted.  But bottom line, I felt betrayed.  This was playing itself out in 2007/2008.

I mention this because my being forced out was an important part in my becoming Orthodox.  By this time I had already spent ten years reading about Orthodoxy and praying Orthodox prayers and wrestling with an Eastern theological perspective and trying to get my mind around an Orthodox understanding of Church and sacraments.  But until 2007, there had been nothing in my experience that might make me disaffected with my place in the Protestant/Evangelical world.  Indeed my experiences as a pastor in Presbyterian congregations had until then been overwhelmingly positive.  I was having increasing issues with my long-held Reformed Theology, but my church contexts had been for the most part encouraging. Nevertheless, my experience in Ethiopia gave me pause and made me think.  I experienced first-hand what happens when a group of people make themselves their own authority and then justify what they’ve done by piously taping Scripture verses to the deed.  My elders were a law unto themselves.  As an ‘independent’ church, there was no recourse I could call on – no bishop, no presbytery, no one who might engage with the situation and knock heads and restore some sense of sanity to a congregation whose board of elders had gone rogue.  And yet, I still felt too much loyalty towards my denomination, my tradition, even my mission to consider becoming Orthodox.  Even given what I had gone through, I felt that converting would be too costly.  But I was thinking about it.

In 2008, in the wake of my church debacle, our youngest daughter finished high school and my wife received a job offer for her ‘dream job’ in Nairobi.  And I was not feeling any desire to continue being the invisible man of Addis Ababa.  It was a good time to move.  So after 8 years in Ethiopia, we made the shift to Kenya.  My wife was given a position at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (now Africa International University).  I was given an adjunct’s position.  We were given a small house with a wonderful garden, and we inherited the previous occupants’ sweet but very large Rottweiler/lab who went by the name Rambo.  With no church responsibilities, I used the opportunity to start visiting an Orthodox church.  I also started attending with my wife a Pentecostal church that some of our friends had recommended.  On the outside, things were going well.  On the inside, however, not so much.  Without going into detail, I’ll simply say that I was not coping well with all that had happen and realized I needed help, and took steps to get it.  Turns out the turmoil of Ethiopia was turning up much more about me and the way I dealt with conflict and the way I coped with challenges than I ever dreamed.  But the process of identifying these issues and doing the hard work of changing took on a life of its own and lead in directions that would eventually lead to the worst upheaval of my life.

My difficult marriage affected my decision to become Orthodox, just as my decision to become Orthodox affected my marriage.  But I am still too close to those events not to sound defensive or self-serving in my account.  I have written about it, just not for public consumption. 

I made the decision to become Orthodox in the summer of 2010 during more than a month of intense inner wrestling.  I didn't want to become an Orthodox Christian just because I thought it was something avant garde to do, or just because I was unhappy about this experience or that theological position.  I needed to know that this was not just my idea, but that God, somehow, was in the middle of it.  During the Divine Liturgy at Church, while the congregation was going up to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, and I was feeling powerfully the desire to be with them, I was also telling myself - 'You can't do this.  You can't convert.  It will be too costly.  You will lose too much.'

To distract myself from the interior fight, I looked up at an icon of Christ and decided to try to translate the modern Greek inscription on the open Gospel book that the Lord Jesus was holding.  Working my way slowly through the stylized script, I read: 'If anyone wishes to come after me and be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.'  I suddenly knew in my heart that He was speaking this to me.  He was calling me to follow Him, regardless of the cost, to follow Him into the Church.  And that's what I determined to do, right then, right there.

I knew that the choice to become Orthodox would cause turbulence.  After initial encouraging conversations with the leadership of the graduate school where I taught and my mission agency, I was hopeful that they might see having an Orthodox layperson on their team as an asset.  But in both cases, after receiving rather fraught complaints about how accepting an Orthodox Christian as a faculty member or a mission team member would affect fundraising, I was shown the door by both organizations rather abruptly.  So I began looking for a new position.  To my great relief, I was offered an adjunct position at St. Paul’s University.  And after six months, I was taken on as a Senior Lecturer in Theology and History.  I was welcomed at St. Paul’s with open arms.

After just a year as Senior Lecturer, I went home for what I thought would be a brief mission furlough.  The brief mission furlough turned out to be a 2 ½ year leave of absence in an unsuccessful attempt to work through some family issues,ending in the destruction of my marriage.  During those long, disorienting months, I was adopted by a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that was near where I was living.  This Church turned out to be God’s oasis in the midst of a fierce wilderness.  And when a new door opened for me to return to St. Paul’s as well as the Orthodox seminary in Kenya, my American parish gave sacrificially and became one of the main means God used to make my return possible.

So to my own amazement, I'm back in Nairobi.  Five years after my baptism and chrismation, I'm still teaching bachelors and masters and PhD students at St. Paul's University.  And now I am also a member of the teaching staff at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi.  After having thought that my missionary career was dead, and my teaching career was dead, and my Christian ministry career was dead, I now found myself part of a Church that takes resurrection seriously.  To say I am here by the grace of God is not just pious claptrap; it's my daily experience of reality.  And now if only God's grace would in His mercy touch those other broken parts of my life, as well as those people I love so much but who are beyond me now.
..
There is always a backstory to the big events of our lives.  And I’ve gone into some detail about one of the major events in my life that pushed me further in an Orthodox direction as an example of just how complicated these things usually are.  Rarely are there straight lines in life.  To be honest, I am not where I thought I would be, had you asked me twenty years ago what I thought God would do with my life. But I am very much where I need to be.  And for that, five years on, I am grateful.

Receiving the Eucharist after my baptism

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Something From Nothing


I have gotten rather used to this.  Having taught for fifteen years in various higher education institutions in both Ethiopia and Kenya, I’ve come to expect (based on experience) that there will be at least one course that I’m supposed to teach that I have either not taught before (or even taken before) or that at some point during the week before the new term starts I’m informed that I’m actually not meant to teach the course I’ve been asked to teach but another one (which may or may not be one I’ve ever taught before).  My blood pressure used to go up at this point in the year, wondering how I was ever going to come up with the new course along with the 4+ others on my plate to teach.  Now I’ve come to realize that this is just the way things are, and that all of my colleagues are going through the same set of unnatural yoga positions as we all try to prepare for a new term.


So it comes as no surprise that this coming term is proving no exception.  About two weeks ago I was assigned to teach a course for our Masters program, a ‘modular’ intensive course that packs half a semester (20 hours of class time) into two weeks now and two weeks later.  The course was called ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’.  I confess to not having a clue as to what that meant.  Fortunately, one of my colleagues had taught it before and was interested in trading the course he had been assigned, ‘Theology and Society’, with mine.  Given that I was having difficulty figuring out what to do with ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’, I gladly gave it up and took custody of ‘Theology and Society’.


During this time, our university shut down for the holidays and won’t reopen until January 4.  This has been a problem because now I couldn’t go to the proper office and get ahold of a course description to see how this course has been taught before.  Moreover, with no library available, I couldn’t track down what if any resources might be available for me, much less my students, to figure out what ‘Theology and Society’ might be about.  So I have been left to my own devices, which is never an optimum outcome.


Searching online for other variations of ‘Theology and Society’ that have been offered at other institutions around the world, I made the rather alarming discovery that this is not a course that has been taught.  I found one Masters program at one college in ‘Theology and Society’.  But in terms of relevant books and articles that might serve as an introduction to (me and) my students, um, nothing.  Instead, I found several unhelpfully vague descriptions of how theology ought to engage in society (all in that sickly interdenominational theology-speak that manages to string together a lot of important-sounding words that actually mean nothing).  I walked away from my searches more convinced than ever that if this is the best we Christians can do in our engagement with the real world in which we find ourselves, no wonder we are marginalized and in trouble.


I then came up with the brilliant idea of sending an email to all my theology faculty colleagues asking their help to come up with a course description (an idea that would have been even more brilliant had I come up with it two weeks ago).  To my delight, one of my colleagues came through.  I now have the official course description.  But, Lord have mercy, I don’t think one could try and make a course description more unhelpful.

Let me see if I can explain.  The course purpose reads thusly:

To critically evaluate religious ideas and motivations which underlie the social, religious and cultural phenomena of public life, as well as examine how theology interacts with issues of contemporary concerns with special reference to how faith influences such issues and in turn how the issues impact theological orientation and education.

OK, I think I get what this purpose is trying to say.  But it is not being said with much clarity, nor is it making me want to jump up and sign up for such a life-changing educational opportunity.


The course content actually reads like Frankenstein’s monster:

Definitions (introductory matters); Theology and other disciplines (especially philosophy and science); place and task of theology; Social Justice and empowerment; faith and public policy; power and politics; place of faith in contemporary society; church and state relations; theories and practice in doctrines; God and public morality; ecclesial structures (African church governments); pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization

Yes and let’s just throw in ‘pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization’ for good measure.  It reminds me of the gobbledygook I often-times come across coming out of institutions of a particular theological persuasion that, cut adrift from any meaningful engagement with historical Christianity, seem to delight in turning recognizable Christianity on its head using language that sounds so utterly profound but on examination is simply vapid.

Substitute 'course description' for 'sermon'

The last ‘Oh Jeez’ from my perusal of my upcoming course’s course description was a look at its course bibliography.  The required reading is as follows:

Stott, John; Issues Facing Christianity Today: A Major Appraisal of contemporary Social and Moral Questions, London: Marshall Morgan and Scott 1984.
Pool, Jeff B., Ed. Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1991.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like John Stott and benefitted greatly from reading his exegetical works.  But this work by Stott (who BTW died a number of years ago and who presumably is no longer interested in engaging theologically with society) came out in 1984 – 1984! I was not long out of university and a staff-member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1984.  My 27 year old daughter was not yet born in 1984.   A lot of water has gone under my bridge since then in my life, and I can only assume that the same is true for the rest of global society. As to Mr. Pool’s book, I have no reason to doubt that it is a worthy contribution to the discussion, but it’s a discussion that was taking place in 1991, not 2016.  In the remaining 9 texts in the recommended reading section of my course description, the most recent is from 2005.  The rest are from the 1980s and 90s.  The course (as I understand it) is meant to be about theology today, not historical theology.


I used to think I was facing challenges as a teacher of theology in what is one of the better Christian universities in Kenya, and that the problem was somehow me and my shortcomings as a teacher.  But now I’m realizing that we, my fellow faculty, indeed my entire institution, are the ones together facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges.  It is a difficult thing to teach, even when you have a classroom full of resources and a library that’s up to date.  But when one doesn’t have the stuff or the resources or the books or the articles and has just oneself and maybe a laptop – I hope you can get the picture of what a challenge education, much less higher education, is in such a context.


So this is my task – come up with a Masters-level course, by Monday.  And then teach 20 hours of it during the first two weeks of January.  All the while picking back up with my 5 courses at the diploma-level seminary which starts back up on Monday as well.


Ok, writing a blog about this hasn’t helped me make any progress in redesigning a course on ‘Theology and Society’, but talking about it has certainly been therapeutic.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Night of Nativity - A Poem by St. Ephraim the Syrian and a Selection of Nativity Icons




On the Night of Nativity

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us!
Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten.  This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences!  Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. 

On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of Godhead!

St. Ephraim the Syrian
(circa 306-373)



Nativity Icons


Eastern Orthodox iconography uses a multi-layered method of painting that has been described as beginning with the non-being of darkness and moving into the light of life.  Icons are 'theology in color' and 'windows into eternity'.  And given their role over centuries in parish churches and monasteries throughout the world, they have also played the part of a 'picture Bible' for those who could not read the words of the Scriptures for themselves.

Eastern Orthodox icons of the Nativity are busy.  They depict the entire story of the Nativity in multiple scenes.  But there are details that will surprise.  First of all, Mary gives birth to the incarnate Son of God in a cave.  And secondly, the manger where Christ sleeps looks suspiciously like a tomb or coffin, and His swaddling clothes like a burial shroud.  This is no accident, as the icon intends to call to mind, even with this portrayal of the Son of God's entry into human history, the events leading up to the end of His earthly life, along with his death and burial, and His subsequent resurrection from another similar cave.

Other details to look for include the animals, often an ox and a donkey, worshipping their Maker. Their presence indicates the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, 'The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people do not understand Me.' (Isaiah 1:3)  Another scene shows one or two women helping the Virgin by bathing the infant Jesus.  Angels announce His birth to shepherds with their sheep.  In some icons, kings from the East are on their way to present their gifts.  And in almost all of them  there is the curious depiction of Joseph who looks despondent (who is, after all, having to experience all of this upheaval by faith) and who is being addressed by a bent old man who is in fact the devil tempting Joseph to despair.



1497, from St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption, Russia










Nativity Cave as Tomb detail





















An Ethiopian Icon





Very Busy.  Including the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, among other scenes.










An Ethiopian Icon





A Coptic (Egyptian) icon

Monday, December 14, 2015

Not As It Seems – The Scandal of the Incarnation

The human ways of exerting power and compelling conformity have been everywhere on display this year.  Whether it’s ISIS and its clones enforcing by sheer brutality their vision of Islamic society, or the noisy multitude of outraged racial, gender and alternative sexuality crusades using their own brands of shaming and intimidation to force on the rest of us their vision of how things should be, it seems our recognizably Western and Christian way of life is being challenged from without and within as never before.

And yet even a superficial survey of history shows that both religion and culture are fragile things.  The only constant is that things change.  I grew up in what I thought was ‘Christian America’.  I now find myself part of an American society that bears more resemblance to the hostile pluralism of the Roman empire than the Christendom of medieval Western Europe.

Despite my assertion above, one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the human addiction to power.  And whether it’s the Ming dynasty in China or Sennacherib of Assyria, or Ezana of Axum, or the great Khans of the Mongol Golden Horde, or Charlemagne, or the great Popes of the High Middle Ages, or the British Empire on which the sun never set, or the attempts, still in living memory, to impose murderous ideologies by Hitler and Stalin and the leaders of Japan, attempts thwarted only by the most massive effusion of human blood ever seen.  It would seem that power and force constitutes the only universal human language; these are the levers towards which everyone aspires.  Such a thesis is rather easy to demonstrate in the global halls of power.  But even in our own personal worlds, the dance too often is all about power and control, even when it is passed off by another name.

It is not surprising that our theology tends to view God through the lens of our own experience, our own perspective, our own preferred ideologies.  The ‘Fundamentalist’ thundering from the pulpit about a God who hates sin and hates sinners and who seems all too eager to send the unrepentant straight to hell is telling his/her listeners much more about himself/herself than about the God he/she professes to speak about.  But the ‘Liberal’ who preaches inclusivity and a God that happily affirms and celebrates everything countercultural one might wish to do is just as guilty of channeling cultural assumptions and agendas as the Fundamentalist is, albeit to different ends.  Both have recreated Jesus in their own image. Both appropriate their ‘Jesus’ to give credence to their own cultural presuppositions.  Neither is listening to the Jesus who actually is. 

Our leaders are not the only ones guilty of misappropriation.  Even at the personal level, there is often a profound disconnect between profession and behavior. For example, a person who professes to be a ‘Christian’, who is even considered a somebody by others may also at the same time employ rage, anger and abuse as one’s preferred method of maintaining power and control in one’s relationships.  The term found in the gospels that refers to this sort of behavior is simply hypocrisy. 

We seem to be prone to this confusion, addicted to power and control, even Christians.  We can only be grateful that God chose not to follow our example and fix what is wrong in this world and in our lives by force, compulsion and control.  Instead he comes hidden in full view, as one of us, quietly carried to full time in the womb of a virgin girl. A human baby boy, and yet Immanuel.  A toddler learning how to eat and play, and yet God in the flesh.  A teenager learning his father’s carpentry skills, and yet the Creator of the world.  A young man supporting his widowed mother, and yet One of the Holy Trinity. A man embarking to call his fellow Jews to repentance, and yet the rightful Heir to David’s throne.  Teaching the multitudes what it meant to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart, and yet the very Word of God himself.  Despised and rejected by the leaders and people he came warn, and yet the Suffering Servant Isaiah foretold. Crucified and embracing death itself, and yet lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent that anyone who looks upon him may be saved.

None of this was obvious when it happened.  No trumpets.  No angels.  No public service announcements.  No advertising blitz.  All of this happened under the cloak of misunderstanding, of multiple attempts to appropriate Jesus for different agendas.  Even by his friends.  Some things never change.

It was the resurrection that transformed the perspective of Jesus’ followers.  It was the resurrection that convinced a growing circle of people that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  It was the resurrection that provided the lens through which to review Jesus’ life.  And it is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to see the incarnation, and begin to hear what Jesus is saying, and begin to see what Jesus is doing.  It is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to perceive how the incarnation changes everything.  Jesus is not captive to any interpretive ideology, Jesus is not enslaved by any cultural agenda.  Rather he draws us into his agenda, and acquaints us with his ideology.  When we insist on resisting, of pursuing our own agendas, of maintaining our own power and control, we end up creating our own religion that ends up merely using Jesus as a patron saint of our own views of what’s right or wrong, good or bad.

But as C.S. Lewis once said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of The Chronicles of Narnia, ‘He is not a tame lion.’  There is much nonsense and bullshit that goes on in the name of Christianity (and always has been).  But at some point, sooner or later, every single one of us will come face to face with Jesus Himself, and it will become irrefutably clear whether our knee has bowed to a golden calf of our own making or if we have submitted ourselves to His rightful rule over every aspect of our lives.  The mark of the latter is always repentance and self-giving love.  The mark of the former is always defensiveness, outrage, arguing, and self-justification.  A little self-examination now might save a whole lot of grief later.


The world’s way of power, intimidation, force, and manipulation often seems successful in the short-run.  But it has never accomplished what it promised.  The preferred modus operandi of so much of our world’s people is a cracked and dry cistern that holds no water. Our planet has been on the hamster wheel of futility since before history started keeping records.  The way of Jesus has also been littered with the wretched examples of men and women who have borrowed Jesus and Christianity for their own purposes.  But when men and women have seen Jesus for who he is and laid down their own pretensions, we become a beachhead of the very Kingdom of God right here in space and time, the ladder that connects heaven and earth

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent