Theological Education: 1st World & 3rd World Creative Dialogue

Dwight N. Hopkins
The 2003 GTU Convocation Address


Dwight N. Hopkins is associate professor of theology at the Divinity School at University of Chicago. He has an M.Div., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and a second Ph.D. from University of Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Hopkins is a constructive theologian working in the areas of contemporary models of theology, theology from the Enlightenment to the present, black theology, and liberation theologies. He is interested in multidisciplinary approaches to the academic study of religious thought, especially cultural, political, economic, and interpretive methods. A few of his numerous authored, edited, and co-edited books are Loving the Body: Eroticism and Black Religion (2004); Theological Anthropology: Debates, Concepts, and Construction (in process); Global Voices for Gender Justice (2003); Heart and Head: Black Theology-Past, Present, and Future (2002); Down, Up and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (1999); and Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (1999). He is also an ordained American Baptist minister.

He delivered this address at the GTU Convocation on September 17, 2003.


It is an honor to speak before you this afternoon. It is always a pleasure to share in conversation with colleagues and friends who are engaged in crucial matters that pertain both to the heart and head. From the perspective of academic studies throughout the United States, rarely do we come together to have a fruitful engagement about the nature of beliefs among a plurality of different peoples, cultures, faiths, and institutions. The GTU is uniquely situated for such a conversation and engagement.

I have fond memories of theological education and the Bay Area. I lived in Oakland, California for eight years. During that period, I held a joint appointment in the Religious Studies department and the Ethnic Studies program at Santa Clara University. At the same time, I was also adjunct professor of theology at the Pacific School of Religion. I recall being involved in area three meetings and having lively discussions in the Pacific Coast Theological Society. I also have fond memories of the many interreligious, interfaith, ecumenical, and diverse cultural conversations. And so, when I received an invitation to share some thoughts during this year’s convocation, I quickly gave a positive response and indicated that the title of my remarks would be “Theological Education: 1st World and 3rd World Creative Dialogue.”

One of the most exciting challenges for theological education at the beginning of the 21st century consists of at least two important concerns. One concern deals with the increasing reality of the global context of all that we think, believe, and do. Some have termed this issue a question of globalization, or internationalized multiculturalism, or postcolonialism, or the radical shift to a single, imperial superpower, or Christian witness within an increasing plurality of world religions. In this macro context, the second issue confronts the puzzling problematic or dynamic interplay between particularity and universality. Stated differently, how does theological education attend to and respect the particularity of various expressions of faith and spirituality while, at the same time, discern how particularity adds to the universal conversation among multiple communities of faith and spirituality. In a word, there can be a healthy relationship between the local and the international, or the particular and the universal. And this has implications for the nature of theological education today. I argue that some of these implications can be grasped by facilitating a dialogue between those living in the First World country of the United States and those living in the Third World (or so-called developing nations).

The Pan-African Seminar of Religious Scholars on Religion and Poverty

To help foster a dialogue around these two concerns of the global and the particular, I would like to share with you an ongoing theological project which I am a part of. The project is called the Pan-African Seminar of Religious Scholars on Religion and Poverty. It is a five year process. Our focus is on the inextricable ties between spirituality and materiality, that is to say, religion and poverty. We are constituted by delegates representing Brazil, Canada, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, and the United States. Each year, during the month of July, we meet in different global venues. We first met in Ghana, then Kenya, next South Africa, this year in Jamaica, and the United States will host our gathering in the summer of 2004. Delegates commit themselves to an ongoing yearly interaction of debate over poverty and religion. The final product will be one and possibly two volumes of essays produced by the group. The books will be published simultaneously in different regions of the world so that people in the Third World will be able to buy cheaper copies since their local presses will do the publishing.

Since the inauguration of our meetings (which is really like a traveling international seminar), members have linked the notions of religion and poverty in their local situation to a comparative analysis of religion and poverty in other countries. The delegates include women and men; and we represent a large segment of the Protestant denominations with one Roman Catholic priest, one Islamist, and one humanist. However, many of the delegates are knowledgeable of African indigenous religions, which is pre-Christian, and African Independent Churches, which combine and mix together African religions with Christianity. Thus, though highly accenting Christianity, there are experts on Islam, indigenous faiths, humanism, Rastafarianism, and syncretism. Delegates are professors, academic administrators, pastors, and lay persons. Our academic specialties are interdisciplinary, with solid input from the social sciences.

An innovative indication of the holistic commitment to theological education at the beginning of the 21st century is reflected in the fact that we travel with our spouses, significant others, and our children. This, in itself, is a new way to do theology. Moreover, these non-official participants pay for their own expenses. Furthermore, we are all committed to ongoing conversations in between our July sessions. We do this by bi-lateral and multi-lateral projects such as joint essays and co-editing books; by speaking on the progress of the project in different global locations; by teaching courses on the subject matter; and by maintaining regular conversations on diverse intellectual issues throughout the year. What we are discovering is that honest, critical, and creative theological education develops by forging life long conversational partners among First World and Third World educators, pastors, and lay people. Even our spouses, significant others, and children are forming their own independent relations with their counterparts in different countries.

In this century, it seems to me, to do theology as if the United States is the only or most dominant social location of theological education is an incomplete strategy. Of course, those in the First World do have a lot to contribute and they bring their unique voices to the table. Theological scholars in the United States have a long tradition and highly sophisticated investigation of what is often termed God-talk and inter-religious conversation. And so when the First World participates in dialogue with the Third World, the First World interlocutors bring their full selves to the table. Still, our educational processes are so much more enriched by participating in the multiple ways that theological studies unfold in the disparate institutions and communities throughout the world. Such a dynamic interaction forces U.S. intellectuals

  1. to clarify the taken-for-granted theological definitions,
  2. to question their usual audiences,
  3. to bring to the surface the unspoken American presuppositions (which we all never speak about but become extremely clear in a long term conversational commitment on an international scale),
  4. to hear and experience new ways of doing theological education, to realize that theological studies is taking a risk with the given faiths and spiritual traditions in a changing cultural context, and
  5. to really perceive how all of our theological teaching and writing are subjective statements that achieve their universal significance when put to the test of non-Americans throughout the world.
  6. Our local theological education in the United States is forever linked to the global processes in comparable communities of faith in the developing world. Yet, it is a linkage that would be greatly enhanced if we have prioritized our conversation around a specific theme of spirituality and materiality or religion and poverty.

Presentation of Papers

Around this theme, members of the Pan African Seminar of Religious Scholars have chosen a process of theological development which, among other things, pursues two approaches. The first approach is for each member of the group to present her or his paper every July during the annual gatherings. Here, the author draws on his or her own local theological experience and offers this up for international critique. Indeed, each year as the group has gotten to know its members better, sometimes the intellectual critiques have become quite sharp and quite insightful. The annual ritual of meeting in a traveling global seminar as well as bilateral communications throughout the year have enabled delegates to trust sharing their full voices while risking to speak directly to the strengths and weaknesses of another person’s theological argument. In a word, the goal of our individual papers is to link particular theological perspectives to the specific insights learned in the country visited in the previous year. So, for instance, if the group visited Kenya the previous year and is now meeting in Ghana, then the paper presented at the Ghana meeting has to incorporate theological insights from the previous visit to Kenya. Thus, in a cumulative fashion, each of the final essays will draw on theological lessons from all of the countries visited. The paper’s production is really the creation of an ongoing critical and constructive dialogue challenged by those from different denominations, different genders, different countries, different ethnic groups, different religions, different regions of the world, different standards of living, different technological abilities, different language groups, different faiths, and, in certain instance, different understandings of Christianity.

A sampling of paper topics exhibits the results of this first approach of ongoing discussion around each essay’s focus. Some paper themes are the following: “an ethical analysis of poverty among African peoples throughout the diaspora”; “poverty alleviation and religion in Kenya”; “poverty in Togo and the ambiguous role of Christianity”; “the informal economy in South Africa and the religion of global capital”; “the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing impact on religion and poverty in Ghana”; “Feminisation of poverty in Jamaica and the church’s response”; “Caribbean issues and the African American response”; “an examination of religion and poverty in Nigeria: a human rights approach”; “liberation talk and aesthetics as black religion’s response to poverty – a humanist analysis”; “religion, poverty, and Islam”; “the African indigenous church offers rituals of empowerment to combat poverty”; “the struggle against poverty and senseless death, a Kenyan perspective”; and “Christian koinonia as one solution to globalization in Pan African societies”. And so theology is in fact our best understanding in a given context and at a given time. At the same time, theology opens itself up to and is improved by ongoing collegial critique and affirmation from an international arena. While this macro interchange is taking place, each delegate, in between July meetings, is also testing out his or her ideas in his or her own local country. In this regard, the production and content of the theological essays draw together the local and the global, the particular and the universal.

Seminar Structure

The second approach to theological development is the daily structure of our July meetings. The point here is to emphasize how theological studies can be a creative and holistic possibility. For instance, most days during the seminar follow certain rituals and schedules. Before breakfast, many of the delegates participate in joint physical exercises, from walking, jogging, swimming, or activity in an exercise room. And as one can imagine, a host of topics are discussed at these times – such as politics, religion, family, current events, culture, and, of course, the papers of the delegates. After exercise, the entire group has breakfast together, which includes spouses, significant others, and children. Then a brief break. Next comes the regular morning lecturers represented by academics, government officials, ngo (non government organizations) heads, community leaders, and church leaders. These resource people are given ample time to present their views and ample time is allowed for question and answers. An important fact about the lecturers is that throughout the seminar different experts are invited to give divergent and competing positions on a similar topic. A brief break leads into lunch; oftentimes the morning lecturer remains for a common meal. The lunch gives way to the regular afternoon ritual which is a field trip to locations of poverty; thus the group experiences daily exposures to poverty situations. The delegates usually visit places of poverty that have self-help initiatives supported or run by a Christian organization. Here, one gets to see theological development in practical application. Returning from the immersion trip, the group has another break back at their living quarters, before dinner. A break after dinner leads into the regular evening gathering. Each evening, two delegates present the progress of their essays and engage in lively conversations with the rest of the group. A social hour closes out the day’s activities before everyone retires to their rooms. And on the weekends we attend various types of religious services. This particular 1st World - 3rd World theological process can offer some important insights.

Insights from the Pan-African Seminar

First, theological education at the dawn of the 21st century has to take seriously the realities of the peoples who occupy the majority of the world. Millions of these peoples, but not the majority, are Christians. Inevitably, as we engage our Christian brothers and sisters in their various countries, we will be drawn into other peoples of faith and spirituality and the other great religions of the world. So one of the first lessons we might learn is that global Christian partnerships as well as global inter-religious connections must move away from a posture of simply converting people to one’s faith or converting those of one’s faith to one’s narrow interpretation of a common faith. No, what is needed is an orientation where we in the 1st world participate as equals with the rest of the global family. This in itself would be a radical shift because inherent to American culture is an unexamined arrogance and sense that the United States is the best country in the world, which by default suggests the rest of the entire world is inferior to North America. This orientation and cultural life style too often permeates the Church and its educators’ approach in conversations with the Third World.

Second, theological education needs to accent more an interdisciplinary methodology in line with interdisciplinary academic partners. I would argue that for the majority of the Third World, religious educators begin with a social analysis of their families, communities, countries, and regions of the world. They do not start with an idea or the history of an idea removed from the prior reality of their social locations. In other words, because all theologies emerge from the particular social situation of the theologian advancing the theological education, then one needs a host of non-theological disciplines to help unravel how religion or faith operates in a complex, particular and messy social location. One could clearly claim that political economy as well as psychology are needed partners for the theological field.

Third, theological education has to become more and more a public enterprise. I think, unfortunately in the U.S. tradition, theological education stresses an individual journey or something that is mainly, if not only, accountable to a small group of 8000 people at the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Yes, I do agree that that is one public. But there are other publics calling for accountability. If theological education is about the relation between “theos” and “logos”, then “theos” “logos” concern all of creation. Put differently, I believe that there are additional important publics needing the input of theological education – such publics as the church, the wider civic society, and, because the United States is the sole imperialist super power in the world, there is the public of the Third World.

Fourth, as we seek to have critical and self-critical conversation with the public of the Third World, it is important to devise ways of forging ongoing, structured, and accountable ties with those in the Third World. This is important from an obvious point of view of numbers. Although we in the United States are in an environment that fosters the belief that theology comes out of Europe and North America, if we re-orient ourselves, we will discover the vast numbers of theological educators in the developing world. But, in addition to the sheer numbers, we will also encounter the intellectual quality of their written production in the academic study of religions. One of the main reasons U.S. and European theology dominant the world is because U.S. publishers block the global distribution of the many local publishers in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands.

Fifth, the biblical example of Jesus, it seems to me, shows an individual who traveled the highways and byways affirming, critiquing, and relating to diverse peoples and communities in the world as Jesus and his community knew the world to be. Jesus advanced theological education by linking the particular with the global (in what he considered by the world of his day).

Finally, when the 1st World (especially the U.S.A.) forges ongoing ties with the majority of the world, one might discover that the global issue for theological education is not terrorism but poverty, both material and spiritual poverty. This in turn might even help refocus our eyes on the pressing issue of poverty within the 50 states of the U.S. itself.

Theological Education and Poverty

What does it mean for theological education in the 21st century to exist in this day and age when the church, other communities of faith, and we theological educators have not protested 87 billion dollars of our tax money going towards the largest redistribution of wealth in the history of the United States of North America? We have been silent. My brothers and sisters, we must bring our full voices, our traditions, our histories and our spiritualities fully to the table of the international conversation, particularly with those in the third world or “three-fourths world.” We cannot escape the relationship between theological education and poverty. Some of the things we talk about in our books and classrooms would be tempered by the reality of how presidents and deans of theological institutions in the third world have problems simply getting their e-mail messages to us! People in the developing world are struggling just to fight to get a crumb from a goat that is struggling for the same crumb. These are people who were educated at Oxford, Cambridge, the GTU, Harvard, University of Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Emory, and Duke. Then they go back home and hear that the U.S. government is are spending a billion dollars a week to occupy brown people in Afghanistan and Iraq! It makes me weep to hear those people struggling theologically with those issues.

The GTU and its “New Paradigm for Theological Education”

I submit to you that perhaps the only theological institution in the 50 states of the North America that is uniquely situated to advance a new paradigm for theological education in the 21st century is the GTU. With your many schools; your centers of Buddhist and Jewish studies; your location on the Pacific Rim, and in California, with the vast numbers of churches and other religions in this Bay Area. Please remember the mission, the resources, the social location, and the innovative potential that the Graduate Theological Union has. I feel pleased to present my paradigm and others’ paradigm on doing theological education for the 21st century here for the first time at this institution, because you can do it—if you will.

Thank you. God bless.

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