‘On Becoming Wise Together: Learning and Leading in the City’
This book reframes traditional Euro-North American conceptions of theological education by reflecting critically on my lived experience as a British-born Chinese-North American woman, a family member, an immigrant, an urban theological educator, a maker, a gallery curator, a community gardener, a Girl Scout troop leader, and a scholar. It is not limited to the context of formal institutions recognized as places where theological education happens, nor the content of a seminary curriculum as philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher might have designed it in nineteenth-century Germany. It reimagines theological formation for the many together rather than the individual alone, and as happening in a wide range of times, spaces, and places.
I propose here that intercultural and communal understandings of theological teaching and learning suit the context of a complex and quickly changing urban world better than individualistic, rational Western habits of knowing. We are in the midst of a moment in which the reemergence of a model of collective wisdom is challenging the expert-knowledge approach that is bolstered by an information economy and capitalism. Traditional forms of theological education built out of a particular cultural and historical paradigm to educate individual, and usually male, ordained clergy are no longer relevant, accessible, nor sustainable; this is evidenced by multiple national studies on the decline of the North American church, diminishing student numbers, and increasing financial instability of theological institutions. The entire ecosystem of theological education is grappling with the need to reexamine systems and structures and innovate new “pathways to tomorrow.”
Now, how and where we come to know and with whom we come to know are as important as what we know. We are learning again how to learn. Rather than receiving inherited knowledge, we are expanding sources and means of understanding and being; we are living theology as a verb.
This collaborative approach to cultivating wisdom has some resonance with the early church. In Acts 1:12-14, when the apostles and others were sent back to Jerusalem to await direction after Christ’s return to heaven, they gathered together, prayed, and waited. The Pentecost was a spiritual and physically embodied event that included the sound “of a violent wind” that came from heaven and “tongues of fire” that came to rest on each of them. The filling of the Holy Spirit led to the powerful testimony of Christ’s reality and good news, in every language of those present.
From there, a crucial decision was made in Acts 15 after much discussion and discernment through the Holy Spirit, namely, that the church need not be culturally homogeneous. Rather, the church was for the Jew and the gentile. It was together that the church waited in order to become wise.
In our own contemporary time of uncertainty and unraveling, we too are waiting, waiting for the wisdom needed for this turbulent age. We as a world Christian church can come together around what Latina theologian Elizabeth Conde-Frazier calls la mesa. This is not simply to redistribute power and resources from a historical center to the margins (presuming there even is a legitimate center) and to confront a legacy of structural and systemic racism in institutions and communities. It is an opportunity to witness a rearrangement of locations, a remapping of plural centers of power and margins of possibility.
The late African American writer bell hooks describes the margin as “a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a ‘safe’ place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.” By embracing the tension of writing out of the margin, from who and where I am, this work performs an alternative, aesthetic, oppositional act of becoming, of creating space to see differently and make meaning. It is a book I write to remember, to rehearse, and to map out what God has done in places where I come from, where I have been, and where I am going with others, with my “community of resistance.” This is not simply nostalgia, as bell hooks points out; it is a “remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.” I take time to pause, reflect, and connect the dots of seemingly disparate stories that show how God is at work in my life.
In listening to and sharing stories of coming together around la mesa, we encounter the possibility to engage a complexity of kinds of knowledge and approaches to wisdom. Through such coming together as the diverse but unified body of Christ, we can enter a liminal space between what is familiar and what is unknown. This is true for theological education as it has been described, and for our world more broadly, in these times between the times.
The late Scottish missiologist Andrew F. Walls suggests that through such necessary coming together we are returning to an “Ephesian moment” in our day, a moment in which our global urban world reflects an even greater diversity than in the early days of the church of what it means to be “Christian.” The reality is that we need each other now more than ever. “The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only ‘together,’ not on our own, can we reach his full stature,” notes Walls. This reimagining and reorientation take the form of the church flourishing in its diversity and becoming God’s shalom together in the city as family, friends, learners, and leaders. God’s shalom is found in the reconciling of God’s creation to right relationships with God, self, the other, and the natural and spiritual realms.
If, as Walls suggests, “the purpose of theology is to make or clarify Christian choices,” and if this attempt to think in a Christian way comes from within particular contexts and cultures, and in interaction with the Bible, then we are asking new questions every day. We are converting the material of life toward Christ through this Spirit-informed creative process that involves thinking, feeling, and acting. Yet will the church in all its diversity “demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments, the interactive participation that is to be expected in a functioning body? … Will the body of Christ be realized or fractured in this new Ephesian moment?”
As it did in the early days of Acts when practices of radical hospitality challenged the intersectionally compounded boundaries of class, gender, law, and tradition, so today the physical and spiritual realization of the body of Christ has theological, social, and economic consequences. The implications are ever present in intensified moments of pandemic, protest, increased racism and violence, globalization, and climate change. The invitation is to embrace being a part of Christ’s body while moving with others toward completion. In this movement, we need the generative work of the Holy Spirit to take action in us.
Excerpted from “On Becoming Wise Together: Learning and Leading in the City,” by Maria Liu Wong ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
The entire ecosystem of theological education is grappling with the need to reexamine systems and structures and innovate new ‘pathways to tomorrow.’
When the seeds of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) were taking root in the 1990s in Canada, becoming an accredited graduate school seemed like a far-off goal. The group of Indigenous scholars began having conversations, which blossomed into an annual symposium, an academic journal and graduate curricula.
“But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point,” co-founder Terry LeBlanc said.
It wasn’t the main objective for NAIITS to receive formal ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accreditation, but when it did arrive in spring 2021, LeBlanc says it felt “vindicating.”
NAIITS is the only accredited Indigenous-led graduate theological school in North America. It offers four master’s degrees, together with an experimental accredited Ph.D. program.
LeBlanc is CEO and director of Indigenous Pathways, a corporate entity comprising NAIITS and its sister organization, iEmergence, which focuses on leadership development in Indigenous and tribal communities. He completed his Ph.D. at Asbury Theological Seminary.
LeBlanc spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about NAIITS’ accomplishments so far and what the future might look like for the school. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me the story of NAIITS?
Terry LeBlanc: The idea of it began back in the late ’80s for some of us, mid-’90s for others, and came about as a result of the continuing challenges raised by varieties of individuals in the Christian church, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who criticized the idea that Indigenous culture and faith could be brought together in some fashion — or put another way, that one could be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian in the same way that one could be authentically Euro-American or Euro-Canadian Christian.
So it began with conversations about how to address that, which led to hosting annual symposia on Indigenous theology and mission, which in turn led to the publication of a journal and the creation of a faculty and curriculum to teach our own programs in the broad compass of divinity.
F&L: Recently, you were accredited by ATS. How did that feel?
TL: Vindicating. I’m not sure that we had it in mind when we launched our formal programs, first in Canada in the late 1990s and then in the U.S. in 2001. But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point.
F&L: What kinds of degrees do you offer?
TL: We offer four master’s degrees in North America: an M.A. in intercultural studies, an M.T.S., an M.A. in Indigenous community development and a newly framed M.Div. program. We also offer an experimental Ph.D. program accredited by ATS.
And in Australia, we offer an M.T.S. program, along with a grad certificate and a grad diploma, as well as the Ph.D.
F&L: How does the teaching work, with so many different people from so many different places?
TL: We had determined that we needed to do something to address the issue of many Indigenous students being reluctant to leave their home communities or territories to go for lengthy periods of time to study. So we had already determined that we needed to offer some of our programming in a virtual format, online within learning management software, as well as with Zoom and virtual videoconferencing.
But we also wanted to be sure that we created an in-person community experience, so we went to a trimester system, with two semesters, the September and January semesters, being offered in a virtual format, synchronous and asynchronous, and then the summer semester, which wrapped around our annual symposium on Indigenous theology and mission, being offered as an in-person intensive set of courses.
We’ve been doing that from the beginning, so going virtual with COVID wasn’t an issue for us.
F&L: What have you seen your students be able to do with their training in their communities?
TL: Varieties of things. Some have gone into spiritual care work as chaplains, some, in urban environments, doing street work or urban-based advocacy and ministry. Some have gone into pastoral ministry.
Others have become or are becoming community scholars in their communities or have gone on to do further study to advance their academic skills.
All of the graduates thus far have gone into vocations that connect to the disciplines within which they received their degrees.
F&L: Why is NAIITS so important?
TL: At this juncture, it’s important because it’s the only Indigenous-designed, developed, delivered, and wholly governed Indigenous graduate and postgraduate theological educational institution that is ATS-accredited in North America.
While there are other institutions teaching at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level, they are either teaching under the auspices of non-Indigenous governance or teaching under the auspices of other denomination-institutional environments.
NAIITS is unique, and that in itself makes it essential, since to be able to govern our own theological education, albeit within the parameters that ATS and the new standards of accreditation require, is critically important for us to advance our notion that one can be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian.
F&L: In terms of the governance being Indigenous, how does that make the education qualitatively different for your students?
TL: Well, you could have the same course title, say New Testament Introduction. Offered from a Euro-Canadian or Euro-American seminary or divinity college, it will use mostly standard approaches to New Testament study, even though some will be more contemporary than others. They’ll use materials that are largely written by or taken from a Western philosophical and hermeneutical approach.
Whereas a New Testament introduction course that we offer will come from an Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous ontology and worldview and will use Indigenous frame materials, in addition to individuals from the Indigenous community who come in to provide community perspectives.
When we do a course, irrespective of what the course may be, it’s offered from an Indigenous perspective as the first order of business, not as a supplement.
F&L: How does theological education that is done by and driven by Indigenous people avoid some of the blind spots for the traditional Euro-American-centric theological education?
TL: Well, whether intended or not, by default, given the trajectory of the Western church, Euro-American as well as Euro-Canadian and Australian (or wherever it may be) approaches to theology have largely assumed that a singular worldview is the appropriate worldview through which to approach the Scriptures, through which to approach the ideas, the principal ideas of Christian faith and life.
As a consequence, this theology is not only blind in certain areas but oblivious to the fact that Christianity, or Christian faith — or, if you will, the following of Jesus — doesn’t originate in the Western environment.
There’s an imposed notion that Jesus was an American or Jesus was a Canadian, and the images, of course, tend to bear out the Eurocentric nature of Christianity down through the centuries.
There’s also certainly the idea that a theology rooted in the Western Enlightenment is an engagement with faith that provides a context for science and faith to coexist. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t provide a place or a context where that coexistence can have a mutuality about it; it’s more that there are boundaries between the two, and on occasion, there are semipermeable membranes — but on other occasions, they’re completely separate.
Whereas with an Indigenous context, there is not an either/or epistemology at play but rather a both/and, so that impacts how we view not only the text of the Christian Scriptures but also other stories of experience and tradition of the pursuit of God.
F&L: What do you think the future looks like for NAIITS?
TL: Oh, goodness, I wish I were good at prognostication. Given that we’ll celebrate 25 years next year, and seeing what we’re able to accomplish with our partnerships and support, I foresee greater numbers of partnerships of differing sorts.
I can certainly see us creating perhaps a chair of Indigenous studies, which will have a Christian framework available for study but won’t be specifically a theological chair. It will be a chair of Indigenous studies that neither excludes nor centers Christian faith but rather sees Christian faith as one aspect of Indigenous life throughout our history.
F&L: Speaking of the partnerships, how can people who aren’t Indigenous support or partner with Indigenous theological development?
TL: Our partnerships with existing non-Indigenous institutions have been extremely supportive and beneficial.
We do provide up to 25% of our seats in any given degree program or course for non-Indigenous students — first, for non-Indigenous students who are engaged with Indigenous community, and then second, for non-Indigenous students who are wanting a non-Western approach to theological education.
Certainly financially, where we’re a not-for-profit, we are essentially people-funded. We’re tuition- and fundraising-driven — not that that isn’t the case for many other institutions — but we have a constituency that, as you might imagine, given the history of Christianity in treating Indigenous peoples, aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for Indigenous peoples support, and through no fault of our own.