Saturday, November 03, 2007

Theological Education in the Bahamas, Part V

This is the fifth and final installment of a five part series that previously appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing between February and August 2006. A more in-depth theological treatment of this topic can be found in the upcoming edition of the American Baptist Quarterly.


By now, it should be clear that one of the biggest challenges in Bahamian theological education is equipping the Bahamian church to overcome its history of dependence on British and American missionaries. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, missiologists Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson responded to the growing problems of dependency on the mission field by developing a strategy for the indigenization of national churches. This strategy, known as the three-self formula, advocated that missionaries establish churches that would become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. Largely ignored at first, it wasn’t until after World War II that changing dynamics at home and abroad forced western missionaries to take the three-self formula more seriously. During this time, many Bahamian churches experienced profound transformation as they were gradually weaned from their historical dependency on the finances, leadership, and personnel provided by British and American mission societies. While many vestiges of dependency still remain in the Bahamian church, most have achieved a significant degree of self-sufficiency in the past generation. Nevertheless, nearly all churches in the Bahamas still find themselves to be theologically dependent on the United States, a phenomenon that is evidenced by the widespread proliferation of American evangelical books, movies, and television personalities throughout the country. Given that such theological dependency is hardly unique to the Bahamas, it is no surprise that twentieth-century missiologists have found it necessary to expand the classic three-self formula to include a fourth-self, self-theologizing.

In the Bahamas, self-theologizing basically refers to the efforts of Bahamians to do theology—that is, critically reflect on Christian faith and practice—from the perspective of their own unique cultural context. In Part II of this series, I discussed how Bahamianizing the theological curriculum at Atlantic College has given our students the initial tools that they need to begin the task of self-theologizing. Likewise, subsequent newsletters have shown how the ongoing Bahamianization of the curriculum has provided our students with the theological framework and ministry strategies needed to effectively confront the challenges of business as usual in the Bahamian church. Yet, as I have noted earlier, these attempts at the Bahamianization of the curriculum have been hindered by our inability to introduce students to an already existing body of theological works authored by Bahamian theologians. Consequently, if we are to equip the Bahamian church to overcome its theological dependency on the United States, we must recognize that the task of self-theologizing cannot be limited to simply preparing our students to THINK theologically. Rather, it must go a step further and prepare our students to PRODUCE theology. Then, once they have begun to articulate their own distinctly Bahamian theology, we hope that this theological reflection will eventually contribute to the development of our theological curriculum. But because we believe that the most insightful and practical theological reflection is derived from one’s long term involvement in frontline ministry, we understand that our students may not reach this level of self-theologizing until many years after they have graduated from our program. With this in mind, what can we do now to train our students for a job that may not yield any tangible results for the next ten, fifteen, or twenty years?

One of the ways in which we are encouraging self-theologizing is by introducing our students the legacy of theological thought that is already an integral part of the Bahamas’ traditional oral culture. Unlike the Eurocentric theologies of the west, which are embodied in the writings of great theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the theology of black Bahamians has been preserved in the traditional oral culture of their African ancestors. When large numbers of Bahamian slaves and freed blacks began converting to Protestant Christianity in the late eighteenth century, illiterate black preachers became the primary means by which Bible stories and teachings were disseminated throughout the Afro-Bahamian community. Eventually, the Bible came to influence all aspects of the Bahamas’ traditional oral culture, including folktales, proverbs, and music. But regardless of the medium through which biblical teachings were communicated, the Bible became the primary lens through which black Bahamians interpreted the world of slavery in which they lived, questioned it, and envisioned alternatives to that world. Though little, if any, of this incipient theology ever ended up in writing, a rich and vibrant oral tradition has insured that the social and religious values therein have been handed down from one generation to the next, many of which continue to shape the ethos and ethics of Bahamian religion to this day.

Even with the advent of widespread literacy by the latter part of the twentieth century, Bahamian theological reflection continues to be a largely oral endeavor. While the preaching and political speeches shaped by the black radicalism of the 1960s and 70s signify the height of this oral tradition in recent times, members of the Bahamas Christian Council and pastors of prominent local churches continue to use their pulpits to speak—albeit in a less revolutionary fashion—to the pressing moral issues in the life of the nation today. That being said, a number of important exceptions to this longstanding tradition of oral theology have also emerged in the twentieth century. A growing number of pastors and laypersons, for example, regularly write theologically insightful columns for the religious sections of Nassau’s major daily newspapers. Likewise, it is increasingly common to see self-published religious works by Bahamian authors on the shelves of local bookshops. Finally, a handful of Bahamian scholars have begun to give serious consideration to the oral (and increasingly written) theological heritage that I have described above. So to the extent that traditional Bahamian oral culture has been preserved, these scholars are slowly but surely reconstructing the theological understanding that has shaped Bahamian Christianity. More importantly, they are looking to the rich theological legacy rooted in their own history and culture, rather than that of Europe and North America, as a resource for formulating a distinctly Bahamian theology in the present.

While such efforts are making an important contribution towards the task of self-theologizing, they have yet to produce an academic theologian who has undertaken the work of systematizing Bahamian theological thinking into a formal written treatise. Ideally, some of our students at Atlantic College will eventually fill this void by pursuing advanced graduate studies, becoming professional theologians, and dedicating their careers to writing and publishing tomes on Bahamian theology. The reality, however, is that most of our students have no interest in becoming professional theologians and, instead, plan to become pastors, administrators, counselors, teachers, and lay leaders, performing the routine duties of church ministry. Thus, when we speak of equipping our students for the task of self-theologizing, we dare not limit ourselves to the narrow objective of preparing academic theologians, though we hope that some will ultimately choose that vocation. Instead, we are primarily concerned with the much broader objective of training our students to become pastor-theologians who will lead their congregations in critical theological reflection so that they can effectively respond to the pressing spiritual and social concerns faced by the contemporary Bahamian church.

The role of pastor-theologian is not new to the Bahamian preacher, having been a fundamental part of the job description since the days of slavery. What is new is our attempt to be intentional about preparing students to undertake this role, rather than allowing them to fill it haphazardly. By providing students with the tools they need to intentionally root their theological reflection in the realities of their own culture and ministry practice, we hope to dissuade them from the more common habit of uncritically borrowing theological concepts and ministry strategies from abroad. So if we succeed at equipping our students to self-theologize, then we anticipate that most of our students—in their capacity as pastor-theologians—will go on to make important contributions to the Bahamas’ oral theological tradition and, hopefully, to the growing body of written theological reflection as well. Better yet, perhaps even a student or two will actually be inspired to write a comprehensive systematic Bahamian theology. And once we reach that point—the point at which our students have begun to contribute a distinctly Bahamian perspective to the existing corpus of theological literature—we will have come full circle. The published writings of our former students will have become the basis for reading assignments, lectures, and class discussions for our future students, thus bringing the Bahamianization of the theological curriculum to completion.

Part I: Why is Bahamian theological education important?
Part II: Bahamianization of the Theological Curriculum
Part III: Finding Alternatives to Business as Usual in the Church
Part IV: Recovering the Tradition of Black Radicalism in Bahamian Religion

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