Many of the staff of IBTSC are in Estonia for the European Baptist Federation Council and the IBTSC Annual General Meeting. At this meeting we were able to show a report of the recent promotion/graduation with PhD of Lee Spitzer an Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor of the American Baptist Churches.
On Wednesday 31st August 2016 we were pleased to hold a short graduation service at Baptist House to recognise the achievement of our students in the MA in Baptistic Histories and Theologies which we deliver as an approved partner with the University of Manchester. Here is Jelle Verbiest receiving formal recognition of his achievement of an MA with credit. It was good that members of his family, some other students, and staff – those who could getting dressed up for the occasion in their various academic gowns – could be present.
Other students were also recognised in their absence: Makoto Tokunda who also achieved a MA with credit and David Keane and Kofi Owusu-Ansah who received the Postgraduate Certificate.
The international nature of IBTSC is made clear in the fact that these four students represented the different countries of the Netherlands, Ghana, Japan, and the USA. Whereas the staff present came from Scotland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Canada and England (Czech Republic).
Been a lot going on. During the period 22 August till the 2nd of September we held an intensive teaching week for new and existing students enrolled on our MA programme or part thereof. Here are some of the faces of new and existing IBTSC students and Tim leading one of the units on Faith and Reason.
Today with colleagues I attended the opening of the academic year jointly hosted by the Theological Faculty of the Vrije Universiteit and the Protestant Theological University who work closely with one another. The theme upon which there were various papers and comments was: “Is God really disappearing from the Netherlands – and what would that mean for doing Theology”
This title was a response to the survey held every 10 years called “God in the Netherlands” and which focusses in particular upon the place and role of the Christian faith in the Netherlands.
Some of the reported results were:
“More than 68 percent of the Dutch say they do not follow a specific church, 25 percent are Christian, 5 percent are Muslim and 2 percent follow other non-Christian beliefs. Almost a quarter of the population are atheists, compared to 14 percent in 2006. 31 percent consider themselves spiritual, compared to 40 percent ten years ago. And the people who believe in some form of higher power fell from 36 percent in 2006 to 28 percent this year. More than half of Dutch never pray” see NL Times.
Possible responses to the question of what this means for “theology”.
Such decline is a sign of the end times.
The issue is that the nature of religion is changing and we have to look elsewhere for God’s presence, theologians have to listen.
The starting place for theology is not society at large but the Church which then bears witness to the world – not saying what society already has decided we should say, but saying that which will make sense only after it is said.
To be sure all of this is complex.
To start with the sort of “theology” which was being discussed was “formal” theology, that which theologians do rather than the theology of local congregations in words and actions.
In turn while the Church may be the starting place for doing theology, what does that actually mean, whose Church and where is such a Church. If this pushes us again back to the local and ,local congregations the question is simply begged – where are there congregations that are engaging with such issues through discussion and discernment?
With a sort of analytical synthesis on the various contributions by various people I offer:
We certainly live in times of complex change. Whether they are the “end times” is not within our knowledge and it is pointless to speculate.
If we wish to bear witness to and in society we certainly need to listen and look to hear and see where faith is to be found and God is to be found outside of the Church although we may need some prior perspective on what we mean by “God” and “God’s presence” unless we want simply to accept the post modern idea of a “soft power” or general “spirituality”. On the other hand we need to be open to the in breaking of the kingdom in “imaginative” and “creative” ways over which we do not have control.
The Church may indeed be the starting place for the doing of Christian theology in such a context but before seeking the “conversion” of society we may well indeed have to as “what sort of conversion” we need as people (as one speaker suggested) if we are going to be able to talk to one another and those beyond our “ranks” in a way that shows “faithful witness”.
What follows is one reflection on this:
IBTSC is not an international study centre because we are a national institution with international students which is the way the term is often used in Higher Education discourse. Rather, for us the term indicates something more complex than that. It represents the fact that we are a meeting place of students and supervisors who come from different countries, often researching in their own local situations but bringing their contextual work into conversation with others from different situations to offer a richer texture and perspective. The learning involves “transculturation” in that it does not simply go one way, from one dominant culture to another, but rather all involved in the dialogue both teach and learn through this interaction.
National identities remain important, difference is not denied or negated, such can be oppressive, but in so far as all our identities are constantly being made and remade the interaction is part of that process of making us somewhat more “international” than we would be without the experience. At the very least we become more informed about other contexts, at best we begin to understand the limits and the strengths of our own identity in relation to a wider picture of global humanity.
To be sure in all of this our faith offers us a common denominator but even our faith is culturally embodied and expressed so this becomes another place of international encounter: commonality, difference, and “(re)formation”. In these ways the learning at IBTSC takes place in a particular “ecosocial” environment (to borrow a phrase from Bill Green “Unfinished business: subjectivity and supervision”) where the international is explicit.
If as we sometimes claim believer’s baptism is the baptism into a new humanity which transcends national identity although finds expression in such national identities, IBTSC aspires to reflect something of the complexity of that reality in the international learning and teaching context we offer.
[The educational literature from which I drew and with which engaged in this blog post includes:
Green, B. (2005) Unfinished business: subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research & Development, Vol. 24 (2), pp. 151-163.
Manathunga, C. (2007) Intercultural Postgraduate Supervision: Ethnographic Journey’s of Identity and Power in Palfreyman, D. and McBride, D.L. (eds.) Learning and Teaching Across Culture in Higher Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Trahar, S. (ed.) (2011) The Doctorate: International Stories of the UK Experience, ESCalate. [Online]. Available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/8137.pdf [Accessed 4th July 2016].
Between Wednesday 29th June and Saturday 2nd of July the bi-annual meeting of the Confederation of European Baptist Schools took place in Elstal Germany hosted by the Theologische Hochschule Elstal. The theme of this particular conference was: In which way is our Baptist Movement linked to or in tension with the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century?
A number of shorter and longer papers were presented which allowed insight into the ways in which the events of the Reformation impacted various countries and contexts such as Spain and Italy and also the way in which various theological themes have been and can be interpreted. Some of these will be published in a future edition of IBTSC Baptistic Theologies.
A guided day trip to Lutherstadt Wittenberg offered a fascinating insight into the events associated with martin Luther.
The theme aside, as ever, those participating valued the opportunity for contact and conversations with others also involved in Baptist theological education in Europe and beyond and the hope of this years participants is that another event will be held in 2017.
As a UK passport holder and rector of an European institution set up post war as an ‘experiment in Christian internationalism’, I watched the unfolding referendum results in the UK with some dismay. Perhaps too much history makes me nervous when the common destiny of European countries is not formally linked even as I might be critical of EU bureaucracy. The uncertainty which this decision has created seems somewhat tangible in the UK if not in other countries of Europe. Both campaigns have unleashed expectations and created fractures that are likely to take some time to re-settle.
Perhaps one theological reflection on this is that all political structures and arrangements are provisional. I think that a recurring refrain in some sermons yesterday was to reassure people that God is still in control over the nations. Perhaps it is necessary and good to reaffirm this because people forget.
Yet, in my opinion, the above confession should not lead to mere acquiescence to political arrangements or even democratic decisions. (My personal thoughts on ‘accepting’ democratic decisions are found here).
In turn, it is also the case that people have to work out what the rule of God means for them not in the general affirmation but in the socio-political practicality and perceptions of their contexts. The practicalities and perceptions as a consequence of the Brexit decision will be different for different people be they EU members living in the UK, UK citizens living in the UK, UK citizens living in Europe, and citizens of EU countries who may be impacted by a referendum decision in which they had no participation. It is in these contextual realities, practicalities, and attendant perceptions that Christian witness will either be faithful or unfaithful.
At a recent ‘future’s week’ discussion concerning IBTSC the staff felt very much that IBTSC should continue to be an internationally focused ‘baptist’ institution with an intentionally European perspective. Such a European perspective is not naive in that it takes seriously the identities of different nations and understands that Europe can be conceptualised in more ways than in terms of EU political arrangements. Indeed the ‘Europe’ of EBF and IBTS(C) has always been broad and inclusive rather than exclusive. To put this differently, from the beginning the concern of this institution has been to offer something pan-national in a global world to inform Christian witness in the local, national, and international. This has been done through its diverse staff, students, and theological perspectives. I am not sure whether or not that task seems more complex today. It does, however, seem no less important, and once again somewhat urgent.