Weekly Reflections: Theology in action

BY REV LUNA DINGAYAN
www.nordis.net

“I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of Egypt to a spacious land, one which is rich and fertile… “ — Exodus 3:7-8
(Excerpts from a BTR given to participants in the Summer Exposure Program 2018)

Sometime in the early 70’s, the Summer Exposure Program was introduced as a new way of doing theological education as well as a new approach to doing theology. As a matter of fact, this particular approach was then regarded as a theological trend happening worldwide, which was known as Theology in Action.

A number of seminaries in the country closely related to the member churches of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) bonded themselves together to form the Inter-Seminary Exposure Program. Some of these seminaries included: Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, Lutheran Theological Seminary here in Baguio, Silliman University Divinity School in Dumaguete City, and the Central Philippines University, College of Theology in Iloilo City.

There was also a network of agencies throughout the country that provided areas of exposures and gave guidance and supervision to students in their exposures, and sometimes provided necessary financial support and accommodation, like the case of factories, restaurants, and even public works.

Every summer, students from the participating seminaries would come together for the Program. Since the Program was done ecumenically, the spirit of unity among church denominations was already implanted in the hearts and minds of participating seminary students. Before they would be assigned to the different exposure areas ecumenically, the students would have one week of orientation. They would be given lectures and instructions not only on what to do in the exposure areas, but also more importantly on how to do theology in the midst of the people.

The Summer Exposure Program was not simply an exposure; it was primarily a theological education in action. It was indeed a learning process. The students must learn from the realities and experiences they would encounter in the communities. They would have to validate their understanding of the Christian faith with their own experiences among the people in the communities.

Oftentimes, the students would realize that their theologies were too abstract and detached from the realities of this world. Their understanding of the Christian faith had very little to do with the lives of ordinary people. Hence, they would have to unlearn a lot in order to learn new things, which was oftentimes a very painful yet liberating process. Of course, there were those who would refuse to unlearn, and therefore, they would not learn at all, even if they would go through the whole process of exposure. Some would even quit at the middle of their exposure program. Interestingly, those who refused to learn would become later on problematic pastors in their own respective churches.

There were several historical factors that led to the introduction of the Summer Exposure Program in the Early 70’s. First and foremost was the question of the relevance of the Christian faith. The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s was a period characterized by great ferment not only in social and political life worldwide, but also in religious life as well. Many Christians throughout the world were raising serious questions on the relevance of the Christian Gospel to the pressing issues of the day.

In the schools, colleges and universities, students were finding the Western-brand of education irrelevant to their lives. They were turning to the outside world as their classroom; they would like to learn from the ordinary people in the streets, in the fields, in the factories, in the tribal communities, and not simply from Western books, which they found to be irrelevant to their daily lives as Filipinos. Theologians and theological educators were also learning from these experiences of the secular world, which somehow influenced the whole process of ministerial formation.

Moreover, another historical factor that gave birth to the exposure Program was the challenge for the church to take seriously its missionary imperative as well as social responsibility in the world. World bodies, like the World Council of Churches, and national church organizations, like the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, were challenging their member churches to take seriously their social responsibility and do their mission in the world in the midst of social unrest and clamor for genuine change worldwide. Hence, seminaries also had to respond to these challenges and had to review their own curricular programs. They realized the fact that in order to serve the people genuinely, they had to be with them and to learn from them honestly.

Then, sometime in 1987 a national consultation of church workers and leaders actively involved in church and social transformation was held in Manila. The Institute of Religion and Culture and the World Council of Churches sponsored the activity. And surprisingly all the participants pointed out to their experiences in the Summer Exposure Programs of the seminaries as the decisive turning point in their journey as students of theology and as servants of God and of the people. The exposure programs somehow helped them change their perspectives in life and in the Christian ministry to which they had been called.

Some biblico-theological foundations

These would lead us now to some Biblico-theological foundations of our Summer Exposure Program. There are some central Biblico-theological affirmations that I would like to point out very briefly for our reflections.

Missionary God

First of all is our understanding of God as a missionary God. The God whom we come to know and understand through the Scriptures is not an impassable God, one who is not affected by what is happening in the world, like the god of the philosophers. Rather, He is the God who is moved and touched by the cries and sufferings of people.

This is shown in the story of the call of Moses as recorded in Exodus 3, especially verses 7 and 8 when the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of Egypt to a spacious land, one which is rich and fertile… “

This missionary God could not withstand people’s sufferings. His goal is to set people free. He is a God of freedom and liberation. Thus, He calls on people to be instruments of His liberating acts. He said to Moses, “Now, I’m sending you to the king of Egypt so that you can lead my people out of his country “(v. 10).

Our Seminary’s Summer Exposure Program is meant to make us understand the very nature of God as a missionary God. Hence, the Program tries to help us open our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds, to the struggles and afflictions of people as God sees them. And hopefully, we may be empowered and inspired to go and lead God’s people from their sufferings. Unless we are exposed to the realities of people’s lives, and open our eyes and ears to these realities, we may not be able to understand the nature of God as a missionary God, and we may not respond to the call to be God’s instruments of freedom and liberation.

Jesus as Model for Theological Education

Another central Biblico-theological affirmation that I would like to share with you is about Jesus as model for theological education. Jesus taught his disciples not inside the classroom, but out there in the open field, right there in the streets where people were struggling for survival. The birds of the sky (Mt. 8:25-27), the flowers in the fields (Mt. 8:28-30, the workers’ situation in the vineyard (Mt. 20), and many more — all these things happening in people’s everyday lives were used by Jesus as educational tools to teach about the truth of God and His Kingdom.

Jesus exposed his disciples to the life situations of people: how the rich gave their offerings in the Temple out of their surplus (Mk. 12:41-44), how the Pharisees prayed with all their arrogance and self-righteous attitude (Lk.l8:9-14), how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over the people (Mk. 10:35-45). But at the same time, he also showed to his disciples what really was God’s will and purpose for them: that to give is to thank God; that to pray is to humble ourselves before God; and that to lead is to serve.

Our Seminary’s Summer Exposure Program is meant to recapture the Jesus model of theological education. This model presumes that God’s reality animates the whole world, and therefore anything or any event in history could be an instrument of God’s self-revelation and a powerful tool for theological education.

Prophetic Heritage

And finally, the third central Biblico-theological affirmation that I would like to share with you concerns our prophetic heritage. In the Scriptures, God’s servants are prophets of God. Prophets are primarily God’s messengers or spokespersons. And as such, they have very special insights into the will and purpose of God, which they interestingly discover as they are exposed to the realities of people’s lives. We cannot be God’s true and genuine prophets unless we are exposed and immersed in the life situations of people.

After having been exposed to the injustices of his day, Prophet Amos said to the people of Israel, “The LORD says, I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry “(Amos 5:21-24).

When Isaiah saw how unjust laws were enacted to oppress the poor, he said to the people of Judah, “You are doomed! You make unjust laws that oppress my people. That is how you keep the poor from getting justice. That is how you take the property that belongs to widows and orphans. What will you do when God punishes you? Where will you hide your wealth? “ (Isa. 10:1 -4).

Our Seminary’s Summer Exposure Program is designed to help us discover God’s will and purpose for our own lives as well as for the lives of people in the church and in the world, even as we are exposed to the concrete life situations of people in communities where they live. For in listening to people’s genuine hopes and aspirations, we are also listening to our God. The moment we stop listening to people, chances are that we may also stop listening to our God. # nordis.net

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