Listeners’ Reports

Listeners Reports

Reflections on the “Challenges and Promises of Quality Assurance in Theological Education: Ecumenical and Multi-Contextual Inquiries.” by Lester Edwin J. Ruiz


  My context-specific task in this “listener’s report” is to try to make some observations about the ongoing conversations on theological education broadly conceived that have occurred during this WOCATI consultation, to raise some questions about some of the issues that I believe are embedded in these conversations, and to offer an interpretive perspective about the conditions of possibility that may have a bearing on the transformation of theological education in our time.   Entering the discussion in this way does at least two things, for the future of this ongoing, turbulent and necessary conversation. First, by situating the conversation within an ongoing discussion of the relevance, adequacy, and desirability of theological education worldwide, I wish not only to recognize the importance of the conversation, but the necessity of re-affirming the public character of theological education as an antidote to the re-emergence of auto-referential, self-serving, and therefore fragmenting subjectivity in theological education and its destructive consequences.   Second, by affirming the multiple locations and positionalities of “our” multi-stranded diversities as the methodological and spiritual starting point for transformative theological education, I wish to signal an affirmation of diversity and a recognition not only that the boundaries, territories, and containers of pluriform theological education are far more permeable than has often been acknowledged, but also that the virtue of living in leaky containers lies in the strength it provides to refuse the temptation of essentializing or homogenizing theological education and its curricular forms.

Dilemmas in Theological Education:

Social, Political, Philosophical, Institutional

I am particularly grateful that this consultation, unlike some that I have attended, has insisted that theological education, not unlike the institutions out of which it arises, namely, the church, academy, and the world, are creatures with multistranded histories comprehensively and variously understood as “space,” as “political-economic-cultural artifact,” as “religio-moral event,” as “sites of ministry,” as “structures and processes of capital, goods, information, people,” and, as “ecosystem.” It is not surprising, then that our discussions about “quality in theological education” have sought to carefully, intentionally, and passionately attend to these histories that not only gave it birth, but which continue to nurture and shape it.   In the first place, there seems to be consensus that our world in the early years of the 21st century no longer resembles the world, which gave birth to the seminary, theological school, or university-affiliated divinity schools with its decidedly “monastic” self-understanding.   In the second place, there seems to be agreement among us that institutions of higher education continue not only to be intensely contested, but also continue to be sites of substantive, metatheoretical, methodological, and political/institutional contestation. We know in our hearts that there are real differences among a small denominational seminary in Richmond, Indiana, USA, a large university-affiliated theology department in Kwazulu-Natal, a diocesan theologate in Manila, Philippines, a cluster of theological schools in Serampore, India.  Location and positionality make a difference. Bodies shape ontologies, which in turn disciplines epistemologies.   For example, the notion of community which is central to the language and experience of seminaries, theological schools and university-affiliated divinity schools, and on which many ground their raison d’etre has raised more questions than it has provided answers—a theme eloquently articulated yesterday by Farid Esack. While there may be an emerging sense of a globalizing identity, and while we may yet in our lifetime see the institutionalizing of a worldwide theological education oriented around Christian unity—about which Dietrich Werner correctly reminds us—present-day structures and patterns of actually existing communities, tied to territorial claims, particularly of the state and/or of ethnic groups, still remain and continue to hold sway.  It is not so easy to extricate ourselves from the reigning asymmetrical definition of “community” that is articulated along dichotomous, if not divisive lines—the civilized versus the barbarian, the inside versus outside, the friend versus enemy, the domestic versus the international, the resource-rich versus the resource-deprived along with the imagined or real asymmetries of power, position, and privilege that often accompany these asymmetries.   In effect, one of the dilemmas faced by WOCATI is that any pretensions of having a community of learning, teaching, and research, normatively rooted in the primary face-to-face relationship within a shared and common horizon, are rendered problematic, if not illusory by, on the one hand, the actually existing “anarchic” structures at the global level masquerading as centralizing, not to mention, civilizing norms, and, on the other hand, the specificities of local identities desperately asserting themselves in the name of survival.  The question is not only whether there can be a community without the ethical face-to-face, but also what the conditions of possibility are for a community that can account simultaneously for both local (face-to-face) and global identities.   In the third place, it is difficult to speak about universally applicable theological education for church, academy, and world, given what for a long time now has been called the “unevenness of development.” This kind of unevenness is probably the most pervasive context of theological education worldwide—and is often legitimated by practices rooted in assertions of subordination based on gender, class, and race.  This problem of unevenness lies not only in the vastly different theoretical and practical contexts in which seminaries, theological schools, and university-affiliated divinity schools have come to be situated in the present—contexts which themselves are undergoing profound changes. Nor does the problem of unevenness emerge only as a question of the re-distribution of resources—political, economic, and cultural. In fact, this WOCATI meeting underscores the fact that there are “higher order” differences, both inter-and intra institutionally, in the ways institutions of higher education are organized, supported, and developed, which profoundly shape each institution and which cannot simply be resolved by appealing to some universal pedagogical role which theological institutions are said to play in church, society, and world or by redistributing the resources required for theological education—their importance notwithstanding. In fact, both difference and unevenness raise critical questions about commensurability, applicability, and translatability; and can only be addressed, if not overcome, by intentionally providing contexts and opportunities for encountering, engaging with, the historical Others who continually _dis_place or _re_place our best intentions and desires for quality theological education.  

Orientations: Towards (Best) Practices in Quality Theological Education

While I am somewhat skeptical about the capacity of theological institutions including my own to exercise a consistent and sustained transformative role in church, society, and the world, I do not believe that they will wither away—more so that they should.  For these institutions in their medieval, modern, and post-modern forms have always re-presented society: its “scenography, its views, conflicts, contradictions, its play and its differences, and also its desire for organic union in a total body.” In fact, these institutions—such as we know them today—are more necessary than ever, because they are already implicated in society as topoi for practices that shape human experience.   Among the many lessons I have been gifted by all of you in this consultation, I would like to underscore at least four normative, orienting practices.   First, there is the practice of engaged deliberation.  Deliberation cannot be reduced to mere speech.  It encompasses the whole range of participative practices, which our morning bible studies with Sarojini Nadar so lightly but profoundly exemplified. These practices pre-suppose a recognition and affirmation not only of the plurality of theological institutions, celebrating difference as constitutive of community, but also of meaningful and direct participation in the production and reproduction of theological wisdom. Here, “community” has less to do with the aggregation of groups based exclusively on racial, gender, class, or disciplinary identities or solidarities, and more with the sites where human beings, if not theological educators, recognize and affirm their mutual responsibilities, obligations and relationships while simultaneously accepting norms of principled diversity and non-exclusion.   Second, there is the practice of creating, nurturing, and defending what Hannah Arendt called, in a different though not unrelated context, the res publica—the “public thing.” Contrary to those modernist practices that reduce the public to a pre-given structure of reality, or even to an ethnocentric project given ontological or universal status through its imposition worldwide, the “public” is the space for difference carved out by deliberating communities as they seek meaningful consensus.  By being committed to the retrieval and preservation of the res publica, understood primarily as practices of intersectionality, of living in the interstitial, one casts suspicion on the logocentric, self-referential, and totalizing pretensions of modernist narratives that continue to cast their long shadows on theological education today. It also redefines the public beyond the conventional notions of territoriality, recognizing not only our shared contexts or our profound pluralistic existence, but also of our human specie identity. The discussion we had around the Kairos documents is illustrative.   Third, there is the practice of utopia—of living in the “no place.” I suspect many of us would agree that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29: 18, NIV) This vision, not unlike Namsoon Kang’s notion of “remembering the future,” is not a description of the future, rather, it is an orientation in the present, a point of entry, a beginning, a departure, but not a final solution.  While this orientation is mediated through our limits and the limits of our institutions of theological education, this unavoidable, if necessary, limitation, can be transformed into a practical critique of universalizing hegemonies, that, in the language of Foucault, makes transgressions possible, making it imaginable to undermine, subvert those dominative practices—particularly of pseudo-universals and false dichotomies—which discipline present-day experience of the church, academy, and world.  The strategies undergirding the discussions on the geopolitical and socio-cultural issues of Session 6, as well as in the panel with Nico Botha, Simon Dossou, and Priscille Djomhoue directs us to the transformative theological imagination that arises out of and returns to our unconditional limits.   Moreover, the possibility of transgression rests, largely, on a critical consciousness and a creative imagination that are not imprisoned by the logic of modernity nor bound by conventional wisdom. Such an imagination and consciousness, which are windows into time and eternity, will need to be nurtured, cultivated, indeed, disciplined in order for them to be in_formative_ as well as trans_formative_.  It will require that imagination be at home with memory; and that critical consciousness not be a disembodied emancipatory interest.  Indeed, one of the lessons we have learned for theological education as a whole, particularly from the feminist/womanist movements—caringly represented in this consultation, is the impossibility of dissociating mind and body, reason and passion, thought and action.  What is at stake, moreover, is both the freedom to reflect in ways that go beyond present structures of thought and action; as well as the practical wisdom that avoids the pitfalls of the “first naiveté” that often mis-recognizes reversals and rejections of the practice of modernity for the transformative act.   Finally, there is the practice of truth-saying, of theological education institutions striving to be places of truth in church, society, and the world, as part of its commitment to self-critical accountability. Despite their implication in modernity’s “meticulous rituals of power,” seminaries, theological schools and university-affiliated divinity schools, by intention and design especially in terms of learning, teaching, and research and the specific forms they take in their respective theological curricula, can provide alternatives to the practices of thought and action generated by the grand narrative of modernity which intersects with other historical narratives including (hetero)sexism, racism, classism. They can seek to articulate, as in John Gichimu’s presentation, different understandings of the world in which they are situated, provide alternative readings of political, economic, cultural, and religious life—without pretending or aspiring to be legislators for the worldwide church, academy, and world. Such truth-saying is a necessary condition for the ethical, though it is not yet its completion or its apotheosis.

Locations/Positions: Tasks for Theological Education in general, and WOCATI in particular

Let me conclude by suggesting several tasks for WOCATI and theological education.   First, WOCATI may need to more fully embrace and experience a continually changing world. The profound transformations, dilemmas, and questions that WOCATI faces today call for articulating appropriate pedagogies, structures, and processes that are adequate for the particular spaces and places in which we variously find ourselves. The work articulated by Reinhold Bernhardt and his emphasis on theological pedagogy in the light of the demands of the Bologna Process; the work of David Esterline that seeks the alignment of mission, resources, and learning/formation in the context of quality assurance and improvement; and, Ravi Tiwari’s suggestions about a more intentional and sustainable practice for educational assessment, exchange, cooperation, and networking of accrediting institutions—provide an agenda for how we might embrace and experience this continually changing world of ours.   What is especially important, in my view, is that while cognizant both of the profound resource asymmetries of our world and the necessity of having resources approaching those of the global north, these examples do not reach for the latter, but are committed to their own sustainable ecologies.  In their respective ways, these examples may be interpreted as challenging the fact that the notion of educational quality, for example, has been identified only with the standards set by institutions of higher education in the global north—much in the same way that global capitalism has arbitrarily defined for us what is the true, the good, and the beautiful.  Judged even by its own standards, educational quality in the global north is clearly (ecologically) unsustainable; and the premises under which it is achieved arguably anomalous. The challenge, then, is to form our own meanings of sustainable quality for our own space, time, and place without surrendering the spirit of quality, which animates even these so-called model institutions, particularly in the areas of governance, faculty, resources, and educational effectiveness (assessment).   But even more than sustainable quality, I believe that the challenge for WOCATI and its member institutions is to look beyond quality itself—beyond matters of accreditation, credentialing, quality assurance—to institutional strategies of excellence, that assist individuals in the creation and nurture of a genuinely public space in which persons can appear before each other in the best way they know how to be.   Second, WOCATI may need to develop even more fully engaged pedagogies of interpretation, performance, formation, and contextualization. We have been reminded in this consultation that all education is about the discovery, creation, and nurture of creative and critical consciousness. In their own ways, each of you have pointed out that “critical consciousness” in theological education is a process of thinking, feeling, acting which is set in a thoroughly historical, political, cultural context, and, carried on in the midst of a freely-chosen struggle to create a just, participatory, and sustainable society. My reading of Dietrich Werner’s WCC-ETE’s missiological guidelines for quality theological education, of Nico Botha’s UNISA “Charter on Transformation,” and of Gary Reibe-Estrella’s plea for Catholic “friendships” against the backdrop of an almost absolute Roman magisterium, is that they are pressing institutions of theological education to be places for the practice of embodied freedom.   This practice of embodied freedom, which is always and already a sustainable freedom, includes the development of the whole person, one who has clearly grasped the simple fact that his or her self is fully implicated in those beings around her or him—human, non-human, Other, and who has learned to care deeply about them. Embodied freedom is relational freedom, by which I mean, it is a biosphere. In my opinion, this is part of the message of the film “White Wedding;” of the Apartheid Museum and of Nelson Mandela; and of the dinner celebration last evening. Indeed, the world of the 21st century is yearning for human beings who are fully alive, and who therefore can embody the “glory of God.”   Third, WOCATI may need to attend to building human and humane communities of theological scholarship with its three-fold character of learning, teaching, and research. At the heart of this task is the commitment to, and practice of, dialogue—moving through multi-stranded universes of meaning which, often involves conflict and collaboration, continuity and chance, and the creation of justice. We already know that the way education occurs is as important as its content. What is sometimes overlooked is that relevant and meaningful education occurs as a dialogue, which means, like any good conversation (or degree program), it has purpose, goals, content, location, duration, and resource requirements. In its most comprehensive sense, it means together connecting different spaces, times, places, in order to overcome what the American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern universities.”   We already know that theological education requires positive, affirming relationships among its participants.  What is often overlooked is that in order for learning, teaching and research to be relevant and meaningful, they must involve passion, i.e., connected to eros, love, and ecstasy.  After all, human beings are more than logos; we are also eros, pathos, and the daimon. Unfortunately, despite our being a truly passionate people, we sometimes tend to view with skepticism, if not open hostility, the pedagogical virtues of eros, love, and ecstasy in theological education, perhaps, because we fear eros may lead us down the dangerous pathway to undisciplined, irresponsible, if fascinating human sexualities; or, we believe love will impair our pedagogical judgments and evaluations by making us “subjective” or “biased;” or, we think that ecstasy is nothing more than esoteric, otherworldly-directed experience. Happily, eros is more than the sexual. It is the moving force that propels every life form from a state of mere potentiality to actuality—and therefore, is an entirely appropriate (re) source for theological education; love and care in the Christian tradition are the bases not only for a fuller humanity, but for a deeper and expansive understanding of self, other, and world; and, ecstasy, “standing outside ourselves,” is the historically-grounded precondition for personal, political, historical, and, indeed, religious, insight and transformation, without which we will only remain myopically pre-occupied with and in ourselves and our own self-interests.

Listening report of the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions (WOCATI) Consultation Johannesburg (South Africa), 2011 By Isabel Apawo Phiri

  1. from 4 to 8 July 2011 representatives of the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions (WOCATI) met at Lakeview Airport Lodge in  Johannesburg, South Africa for a consultation on “Challenges and Promises of Quality Assurance in Theological Education: Ecumenical and Multi-Contextual Inquiries”.
  2. During the session on participant introductions, it became clear that this was  a historic occasion in 3 ways:
    • For the first time, all the major denominations are represented. These include:  Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant,  Pentecostals and African Instituted churches (AICs) associations have come together to discuss issues of quality in theological education. The presence of the AICs was particularly important because they feel marginalized in theological institutions. Therefore, this consultation gave them a platform to gain international recognition in WOCATI.
    • It was particularly historic for Africa, because it was a first WOCATI meeting of its kind on the African continent.
    • It also created an opportunity for African Theological Institutions to come together to discuss challenges and promises of quality assurance in Theological Education. This was important because the African Theological Institutions are trying to find their joint voice after a long period of dormancy.
  3. During the session on reception by the local committee, there was screening of a South African film entitled ‘White Wedding.” After the screening of the movie, the participants engaged in a lively discussion on issues of race, gender, culture, hybridity, tradition and modernity as part of life after apartheid in South Africa. The discussions showed an appreciation of an exposure to some aspects of change in human relationships in South Africa. Critical reflections on the movie continued to inform the discussion at various points of the Consultation, and participants drew on the insights offered in the movie to highlight issues particularly related to contextuality and theological education.  

  4. At three of the morning reflections, the participants were introduced to Contextual Bible studies which provoked serious conversations among the participants as received readings of bible passages were challenged and transforming interpretations were promoted. In the first biblical reflection, a new reading of the Genesis 1 creation stories promoted the creation of mutuality in the relationships between women and men based on community of equality. In the second biblical reflection, the reading and discussion of the narrative of the Canaanite/Syrophonecian woman as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark brought to the fore challenges of inter religious relationships and the need to transform our deep seated prejudices of other religions. The third morning reflection was facilitated by a Muslim theologian who shared a reading and a reflection from the Quran. In his reflection, he highlighted the struggle of all religious people who live with contradictions in our faith, particularly with regard to our sacred texts. We struggle to make sense of the ambiguous God portrayed in our sacred texts - a loving God and at the same time a God who avenges. He highlighted the inconsistency in the ways in which “power” requires different and contradictory responses from Islam. He provided the following examples: When communists ruled Afghanistan “power” required Islam to respond with “jihad”, which in turn relied on an understanding of a God of vengeance.  In the aftermath of 9/11 “power” requires a more “moderate” Islam, one that relies on an understanding of God as loving. In the final morning, at the request of some of the participants, a session on how to design and facilitate a Contextual Bible Study was held. The pedagogical principles which undergird the Contextual Bible Study method were discussed.  

  5. During the sessions of paper presentations by the participants, it became clear that quality assurance and quality enhancement take place in a variety of different ways.  In some contexts, the work of quality assurance and enhancement is done by different organizations, including state- related accreditation agencies, independent secular accreditation agencies, and church-related denominational or multi-denominational accreditation agencies. It also became clear that there is no global agency to accredit institutions of theological education with similar standards all around the world.  However, there are increased expectations to have some common understanding between all Christian institutions of theological education on what constitutes essential elements of quality assurance and enhancement in theological education.  

  6. Furthermore, from the participants papers it also become clear that quality assurance and improvement in theological education is a multidimensional process that involves several interrelated dimensions, including: the dimensions of content and curriculum in theological education, institutional resources for theological education, competencies and skills achieved by theological students, contextualization, and outcomes of theological education among others.  A balanced concept of quality in theological education should include academic proficiency, spiritual formation and pastoral competencies.  

  7. From some papers and discussions that followed, one of the dominant issues was the importance of making a link between offering a quality theological education with multiple oppressions and discriminations affecting all people regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion or race. Giving an example of gender, it was asserted that the inclusion of gender in the curriculum needs to be two-fold. On the one hand mainstreaming is crucial.  Mainstreaming requires not just “gender sensitivity” in the curriculum but a critical awareness of how power relationships between women and men, inform, restrict or contribute to the scholarship in particular disciplines. On the other hand, specialized study in the area of Gender and Religion is also required so that students can obtain specialized qualifications in this discipline in and of itself. Another point raised here was also the issue of evaluation – how can those who support patriarchy themselves be the evaluators of whether the study of gender is needed within theological education.

  8. Another major issue that came from some papers and discussion was that despite denominational differences on what constitutes quality theological education, there is much more which can be held in common between all Christian churches in the understanding of theological education. During discussions, examples of collaboration in Theological Education across denominations were given to show that it is possible to work ecumenically without compromising on denominational theology. As a way forward, one of the papers presented a proposal to formulate a Common guideline on what constitutes basic elements in the understanding of quality in theological education. During discussions of this proposal call for the need to respect contextual experiences and focus on outcomes were voiced out.

  9. Participants raised a number of important issues on - Kairos theologies in South Africa and Palestine and their implications for Theological Education. One of these was the notion of a theology of land as espoused in the Palestinian Kairos Document.

  10. At the meeting of the WOCATI executive which took place before the Consultation, the members were informed about the plans of WCC to prepare a major assembly in 2013 in South Korea where attempts are under discussion to also have an Ecumenical Theological Institute prior and during the assembly. Furthermore the executive were also informed that discussions included the possibility of creating a visible space for theological educators and associations of theological schools.

  11. Where are we going with WOCATI


  • How can WOCATI be helped as an institution?
  • What is the next tangible stapes to go forward?
  • How can WOCATI’s relationship be improved with regional church organization
  • James: on the basis of the papers that we have received, we can empower the executive to concritse the points that we have heard
  • Or form a small group of experts to be adopted in South Korea
  • Group discussions have been less reflected on

English Language PDF’s

⤓ WOCATI Consultation closing report by Isabel A. Phiri Listener’s Report Presentation By Lester J. Ruiz, 2011.

2011 key pages