#31 Teaching Theology in the Middle East

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‘La Théologie a-t-elle encore un avenir ?’

Recently (26-28 April, 2018) I participated in a small symposium on the teaching of theology in the Middle East, at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK), co-organized by the Faculté Pontificale de Théologie and the Aachen-based Missio, directed by Prof. dr. Harald Suermann. Most of the contributors came from various Maronite and Catholic institutions in Lebanon, and most were involved in theological education in one way or another. Among them were Mgr Antoine Mikhaêl (FPT-USEK, Kaslik), S.E. Mgr Paul Rouhana (OLM) (Maronite Patriarchal Vicar of Sarba, Lebanon and also connected to FPT-USEK), P. Jean Azzam (FPT-USEK Kaslik), P. Sélim Daccache SJ (Rector of USJ), P. Elias Jamhoury (OLM) (Dean of FPT-USEK Kaslik), P. Elie Khoury OAM (Director of Université Antonine, and teaching at FPT-USEK Kaslik) and P. Raymond Bassil (FPT-USEK Kaslik).

Their introductions and comments on the Lebanese Catholic situation and theology were flanked by a number of other contributions that brought in different perspectives, representing a variety of churches and lay perspectives from the Middle East (Dr. Rima Nasrallah, Near East School of Theology Beirut), P. Amir Jaje O.P (Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies OP, member of the Conseil pontifical pour le dialogue interreligieux), P. Vincent van Vossel CSsR (Teaching at the Babil Faculty, Erbil, Iraq), Dr. Maged Yanni (Director of Episcopal services of the Catholic Coptic Church, Cairo, Egypt), Prof. Daniel Ayouch (Institute of Theology, Balamand) or from outside the Middle East: Prof. Vaja Vardidze (Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, Tblisi, Georgia), Prof. Daniel Assefa OFMCap (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), P. Pablo Mella S.J. (Dominican Republic) and myself from the Netherlands. This made for an interesting and mixed group of people that in different ways and in different places are involved in religious studies and theological education.

The themes that were discussed included the effects of the Syrian and Iraqi wars and role of Islamic radicalism, the economic and social precarity of many in the Middle East, the ongoing impact of migration (both out of and into the Middle East, with many Christians leaving from Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and with new groups of Christians, mostly from East Asia and Africa, migrating to the Levant and the Gulf states) and the more public and visible roles of women and lay believers. Additionally, many of the participants addressed the challenges that are put by the new and growing forms of atheism and agnosticism among Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim communities that long have been thought to be immune to such developments.

While the general survey in many respects showed that (Catholic) theology in the Middle East often is set up along classical lines and primarily is based on occidental sources and methods, there is a growing appreciation of oriental Syriac, Arabic and Greek traditions. The discussions also showed openness to more contextual, intercultural and intertextual approaches that are grounded simultaneously in specifically Middle Eastern as much as in globalized culture.

Let me conclude with a few personal notes that I shared during the conference (about which a somewhat longer paper is in the making). The first is that theology should be more than an internal reflection on what revelation and tradition mean to us today. It should be just as much about also how churches and Christians can speak about what is going on in the contemporary world where power and violence – exerted upon Christian communities but also very much present in Christian communities – tend to set the norm. For that, theology needs a language that to some extent has been secularized, in the sense that its language should be understandable to clergy and lay, to Christian and non-Christian. I am sure, in fact, that such language already exists, among the lay primarily, but perhaps also among theologians and clergy, although they might hesitate to use it in public. Much can be said without reverting to theological intra-language – more than enough, perhaps, to make theology and theologians relevant partners in a dialogue on and of life.

Second, to my mind this also means that Theology and Religious Studies as distinct fields of scholarship should engage with each other in creative tension, if, indeed, each of these fields and their practioners intend to be relevant not only in their respective academic in-groups, but also outside it. For theologians this means that they should take much more seriously not only historical and philological studies but also the social sciences, the psychological, social, anthropological, economic and political. If we do not master various scholarly languages to speak about the world, a theological reflection on that same world risks to become unintelligible to the larger part of the listeners – Christians and non-Christians alike. Conversely, Religious Studies scholars, among which I count myself, risk making themselves irrelevant in their analyses of religion in the world if they do not dare to put themselves on the line as to what religion might, and should, or should not, do in contemporary society.

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I would like to end with Arundhati Roy’s phrase ‘faith in fragility’. In her first novel (The God of Small Things, 1996), Roy challenges her readers to accept fragility as a fundamental way in which our lives, our families and our communities are a hybrid hotchpotch of identities, ethnicities, languages, religions and socio-political cultures. Roy’s faith that such fragility can be a fruitful and fulfilling way of life is not that of a naïve believer that ‘all will be well’, but rather the hope that it is among the weak and vulnerable that new and strong models for living together will be found. Models, that is, which resemble The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, as Roy styled her second novel that came out last year (2017), in distributing, furthering and serving ‘happiness’. Theology, wherever it engages with the local and global, might become such a Ministry of Utmost Happiness, critical of power and supportive of the weak, and so contribute to the common good.

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