Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why I study at Boston Uni School of Theology

The purpose of this article is to inform those interested in my theological studies about why I have chosen to study at Boston University School of Theology.

I come from Singapore Chinese Presbyterian background, and I am aware that most theological students from the Chinese Presbyterian churches usually prefer Singapore Bible College (SBC). Not many would opt for Trinity Theological College (TTC), let alone overseas theological education. It is almost unheard of to choose overseas non-evangelical or non-conservative theological seminary for their first theological degree. Shouldn't the first theological degree be anchored in an evangelical setting or school with "sound" reputation? So, what makes me choose Boston University School of Theology, a school that is strongly affiliated with liberal theology?

The sense of calling to pursue theological education can be traced back to as far as 1996. I was at ORPC (Mandarin congregation) Joy Fellowship Bible camp. The intensity of studying Bible left me thirst for more. I wanted to know more about the Bible, and the Christian faith. It was in the same Bible camp that Jun Hao, a to-be SBC student who suggested to me to explore full-time theological education. When I entered NUS in 1996, I joined the Chinese Varsity Christian Fellowship (CVCF). I met a lot of brothers and sisters from other denominations, and we were exposed to theology, church history, street evangelism, mission trips, evangelistic rally, Bible studies, Bible camps, did a lot of planning, and co-ordination work. I remembered there was once when I was still in my first year, I had a chance to join my seniors for a dinner at Suntec City. After the dinner, we launched into debate about predestination and I had so much fun. Our discussion did not stop until someone reminded us that we might miss the last MRT train. During my 4th year, I had a chance to engage a Roman Catholic student lay leader in a debate about the primacy of the Bible. I discovered that church tradition does conditioned how we interpret our Bible. So, we had to end the discussion as we could not even agree on a common ground to start off with. In that same year, I was also exposed to some Muslims' criticism on Christianity in NUS. I was able to engage some of them online, and I detected a sense of foreign militant literature flowing into S'pore. What would happen if our argument does not take into account the fragility of our social fabric? I remembered reminding the debaters about racial harmony in S'pore, and if they do not value such harmony, dialogue for mutual understanding is pointless. All these exposure molded me, and I grown so much within these four years. However, the framework that I acquired and issues I came into touch with made me quite an odd-fit in the church setting after I graduated.

In the year 1999, I made a bold step in responding to an altar call during the mission rally (宣教大会) at ORPC (Mandarin). At that point, I was certain that I will be pursuing full-time theological education in the near future. When I got to know my wife in 2000, one of the first few questions I asked her when she was my girlfriend then was whether she would still accept me if I were to pursue theological studies one day, and she said "yes". Since the year 2000, I have also prepared my parents (particularly my mother) psychologically, who are still non-believers even today, that I might be pursuing theological studies one day.

My staple diet used to be books by Alister McGrath, J.I. Packer, Norman Geisler, John Stott, Peter Kreeft, James Sire, etc. which are mostly evangelical authors and attended many sermons by Rev. Stephen Tong, while I was in my uni days. The year when I graduated, I was exposed to Hans Kung's On Being a Christian. Oh boy! This book changed me forever. In the span of 700+ pages, he discusses Marxism, secular humanism, other prominent philosophers, world religions, and argued favorably for Christianity. Hans Kung spent considerable effort to make me doubt that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, and then took me through the next few chapters to convince me that Jesus is indeed the resurrected Christ and this resurrection event forms the crux of a Christian identity. Christian humanism is a fuller version of being human than secular humanism. Being a Christian vastly surpasses being a Marxist. He doesn't say that other world religions are insufficient, he gave reasons why he chose Christianity. This book literally shook my previous foundation and re-constructed my Christian faith. I was gradually open to studying in non-evangelical school by then.

In 2005, I encountered a serious faith crisis. It was mainly an intellectual barrier to the Christian faith. Since I have started reading survey of philosophical ideas from Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy, James Sire's The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, Colin Brown's Philosophy and the Christian Faith: A Historical Sketch from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Gunnar Skirbekk and Nils Gilje's A History of Western Thought: From ancient Greece to the twentieth century, to Keith Ward's God: A Guide For the Perplexed, I gradually came to acknowledge that the framework I have acquired as an evangelical Christian in a Chinese Christian church setting is inadequate for me to relate philosophy to theology, particular when I have read something about Immanuel Kant's philosophy. I had difficulties "talking" to God who cannot be properly accessed by my five senses. As such "God" cannot be verified nor falsified. Am I then talking to my own imagination reinforced within the reality of a congregation? I couldn't find anyone in my church whom I could discuss with. It was at this point that I turned to Tan Loe Joo, a graduate of Regent College and staffworker at Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Chinese Work). He turned my attention to the need for prior faith. I spent a few days mediating on this. When I read Milliard Erickson's Systematic Theology(2nd ed.), his chapters on "What is Theology?" and "Theology and Philosophy" liberated me to move beyond this impasse, and to once more claim the Christian faith as my own. By then, I firmly believed that philosophy class should be part of my theological curriculum.

In 2006, Vinoth Ramachandra's Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry & Christian Mission opened my eyes to social issues that were never discussed in my uni days or in my church. Ramachandra did an analysis of the nature of science and the tendency to adopt a reductionist method in reducing the world within scientific framework. By then, I believe theology must explore how faith can be integrated and articulated within a larger society if God is indeed the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the world, and not just my own private creator, redeemer, and sustainer.

By 2006, I started looking for a curriculum that would equip me to engage culture, other religions, issues of globalization, and science. Only a few schools offer science & religion, philosophy, on top of the usual theology, church history, NT & OT classes, and ethics classes, and they are located overseas. I started asking around and sent email to overseas schools. One of the professors, Kirk Wegter-McNelly, at Boston University School of Theology (BUSTH) replied me, and affirmed that BUSTH would be the right school for me. I was eventually accepted by Regent College (RC) in Vancouver, Canada and BUSTH in Boston, US, by early 2007. I was in a dilemma over which to choose. Both offer cross-disciplinary classes. J.I. Packer is at RC, and RC has a strong evangelical base. BUSTH offers more scholarship, and is part of Boston Theological Institute (BTI) which means I can take classes from other theological schools like Boston College, Harvard Divinity School, etc. who are part of BTI. BUSTH also offers J2 visa for my wife, which means that she would be able to work legally in Boston. When one of RC founders, James M. Houston, was in S'pore for RC alumni gathering in Mar 2007, I had a chance to ask him which institution would be more suitable for me. To my surprise, he told me that BUSTH would be a better choice for me. My choice was clear by then. If you are reading this article, please also read my article "Why I switched from 2-yr MTS to 3-yr MDiv" for the curriculum offered in BUSTH, so that you will have a better understanding why I chose BUSTH.

Having narrated briefly about why I chose BUSTH, I would also like to feedback that the church where I came from did nothing much to prepare possible theological student for theological pursue except for meeting church-sponsored missionaries during the same year and the following year. From the day I expressed my conviction in 1999 publicly, till the day I left for my theological education in 2007, there was no guidance on how to source for theological school based on my needs; or studies to examine the nature of calling and the adjustment one might make, particularly for the family members; or dispatching ceremony as if theological education was my own private endeavor. I am very sorry to burp this out as I believe that constructive criticism is necessary for healthy church growth. So, for the potential or current theological students who feel neglected by your own church, you are not alone. I pray that when I am done with my theological education one day, I will be able to educate the laity and to explore the nature of the church and her mission in a multi-racial and multi-religious context.


Sze Zeng said...

I don't know what's God's calling for you, neither do I know mine.

But one thing for sure is that over this region, we need more theologians. Personally, I do plan to go back to Malaysia to do something. To do what, I still have no idea.

Your experience of lacking of guidance in the local scene is a clear indication of the lack. If that's the situation in Singapore, Malaysia is much much worse.

Arthur KohsL said...

Joshua, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. My greatest fear in coming back to SG is to be ostracized by the larger community where I might be in, as my view may not align with the dominant view. I already feel like an "exile" at the moment.

As I read PM Lee's recent National Day Rally Speech on religion, I could see the concerns caused by some Christian communities in a secular SG society. SG is not like US where majority of the Americans claimed to be Christians (and I am aware that it differs from state to state, and the meaning of being a "Christian" varies as well) and where President Barack Obama could appeal to "God" and "Scripture" in his inauguration address, and where the conservative and evangelical right have influence over politics. Unfortunately, when Singaporean Christians read books by American conservative or evangelical right authors, we have a tendency to import their presupposition BLINDLY into our context. For e.g. when I learned "Explosive Evangelism" 10 years ago, the first two qus to ask those whom we evangelized to were: (1) When you leave the world tonight, do you have the confidence that you will proceed to heaven to be with God? (2) If God were to ask you on what basis God should allow you into heaven, what would you answer?
Though this evangelism tool has its strength, it presupposed a predominantly Christian society. I think the imperative task for me as a Singapore Christian minister is to develop an authentic theology (or contextualized theology) that speaks to my context, and takes our social fabrics into account.

Yes, each of us has our own calling. Yours might be in M'sia, and though it might be fraught with a lot of obstacles, hang on, and trust in God who calls us to our studies. Theological studies is a path of discovery, and our calling becomes clearer as we progress longer in our theological endeavor.

Benjamin Ho said...

Hi Arthur, came across your blog while surfing the net for some information. Would like to enquire whether you are based in Singapore at the moment or are you still in Boston? Enjoyed reading your posts (especially on how you decided to go to Boston). Joshua's a good friend of mine too. Let's keep in touch.

Arthur KohsL said...

Hi, Ben, quick response to your qus: Yes, I am still in Boston, doing my MDiv, in my 3rd year now. Feel free to correspond.