I’ve been writing a lot lately about special events and epic weekend adventures, so I wanted to write a post to reassure you that yes… I am actually going to school too! Here’s a brief snapshot into my different classes and the things we’re learning here at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey:
The week begins with History of the Ecumenical Movement. This is one of our Core Courses, which all the students take regardless of their academic program. So far we’ve learned about
- the theological issues leading to the early schisms in the church, particularly about incarnation and questions about the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ
- The schism between the East and the West. This will continue coming up again and again, but it’s clear that historical, political, social, and cultural misunderstandings are often the cause for schism, NOT theological differences!
- the Protestant Reformation, the life of Martin Luther, and Reformation theology
- the meaning of the word ecumenical: “the whole household of God.” It is a combination of the Greek words oikos “house” and oikoumene “the whole inhabited world.”
- the formation of the World Council of Church in 1948
Some particularly fun insights from this class:
- Matthew, writing to a Jewish Christian audience, ends his gospel with the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples of all nations…”) because up until that point for him, the good news had only been for the nation of Israel. Mark, on the other hand, writing to a Gentile Christian audience, had included all nations in the good news of Christ from the very beginning! This is one of the reasons suggested why he didn’t feel the need to end his gospel with the Great Commission.
- What is the gender of the Holy Spirit?! In Hebrew (ruach) it’s feminine, in Greek (pneuma) it’s neuter, and in Latin (spiritus) it’s masculine.
- Catholics priests cannot be married. Orthodox priests have to be married. Protestant pastors get to choose.
- The origin of the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s in a letter from a 4th century Italian bishop answering the question of whether someone from Milan (where they fast on Saturdays) should fast on Saturdays when they’re in Rome (where they don’t fast on Saturdays).
On Mondays I also have Ecumenical Social Ethics, one of my two elective modules. So far we’ve discussed
- that one of the dangers in Christian Ethics is that the precepts we develop continue unquestioned for too long. A healthy Christian social ethic must always be open to re-questioning and re-framing, then either confirmed or rejected as a result.
- suffering as a mark of discipleship vs. the mark of discipleship (in our discussion of Bonhoeffer, one of my favorites!)
- the role of the ecumenical movement in ecological justice
- whether or not such a thing as a universal Christian social ethic is possible – or are our contexts too diverse to develop a single ethic that can be applied to everyone everywhere?
- Currently we’re presenting case studies to show how ethical questions impact life in our different cultural settings. So far we’ve heard about: language as a form of cultural domination in Cameroon, the role of the church in ministering to Muslim refugees in Egypt, problems of prostitution in Sri Lanka, ecological justice campaigns in South Korea, and pastoral responses to homosexuality in Chinese culture. It is FASCINATING!!!
Tuesday is my “Bible Day.” Our first class of the day is a Workshop on Intercultural Biblical Studies, another one of the mandatory classes for all students. We began by discussing
- how we are influenced by our culture, but we also influence our culture. This means culture must naturally evolve and change, because we do!
- how many different ways culture influences us, such as: communication styles, attitudes towards time, attitudes towards conflict, decision-making styles and thinking patterns, approaches to knowing, attitudes towards nature and space, issues of power and authority
We will spend the semester, along with other assignments, working through the Lord’s Prayer line by line and discussing the ways our culture influences how we read and understand this prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven” alone has taken two class periods!!! Do our languages use different words for our biological father and our heavenly father or not, and does that change our perception of God? Can we call God “Mother?” (That was a fun one.) Does the word “heaven” have connotations of distance in all languages? If so, how do we hold that in tension with a theology of Emmanuel – God with us? And how do you explain this prayer if you’re living in a predominately Buddhist culture where heaven is not something to be desired but surpassed entirely by Nirvana? These words that we often say without thinking about them have a LOT to unpack!
My other class on Tuesday is Ecumenical Biblical Hermeneutics, the other of my elective modules. Topics so far have covered
- the difference between hermeneutics (methods and theories for how we interpret the Bible) and exegesis (the actual practice of interpreting the Bible)
- how interpretation and language, rather than theology, is still at the root of SO many of our Christian divisions – as I mentioned above, this is a common theme in our learning here at Bossey, and why the intercultural learning part of the program is so important!
- the differences between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox bibles
- What do we mean when we say that the Bible is “inspired?
- the history of chapter divisions (not added until the 13th century) and verse divisions (added another 300 years later!) and how that changes how we read the stories of the Bible.
Some particularly interesting thoughts from this class:
- Our professor, a Roman Catholic priest from Nigeria, is fond of saying “Every translator is a traitor.” Translation always involves interpretation, so the Bible as we have it in English today is the result of a domino of interpretive choices other people made for us as it was translated from one language into another. How do we trust that the words we have today are true to the original author’s intention? (Which takes us back to the question “What do we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired?” Does this inspiration extent to the translators as well? And if so, does it also extent to us as modern day readers as we read and interpret the Bible for ourselves?)
- In addition to chapters and verses being added later, punctuation marks were also added later because they don’t appear in the original biblical languages. But where you put punctuation marks changes everything! For example,the disciples come to Jesus in John 9 asking “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Depending on what punctuation marks you put where, Jesus’ answer could have been:
- “Neither this man nor his parents sinned (comma) but that the works of God should be revealed in him (period) We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day. This version could be interpreted to mean that God made this man blind on purpose so that the miracle of restoring the man’s sight would be possible and God be glorified. OR…
- Neither this man nor his parents sinned (period) But that the works of God should be revealed in him (comma) we must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day. This man is not blind because anyone sinned. Full stop. Moving on. But while it’s still daytime, let’s get out there and do good works like restoring a blind man’s sight so that God will be glorified!
Pop quiz – Which version is the one which actually appears in the Bible?! Do you know??
Wednesday morning is the second section of Social Ethics and Thursday afternoon is the second section of Biblical Hermeneutics. Thursday mornings we also have an occasional workshop called Practical Ecumenical Theology.
This workshop gives us an opportunity to reflect and process as a group what we’re experiencing and learning, especially about our daily morning prayers led by students to teach about their respective worship traditions. It’s a safe space to ask questions like “Why do you that in that way? That seems strange to me.” or to notice unexpected ways in which we share things in common! It’s also used to help prepare us for upcoming study visits, which I’ll tell you about later. Once a month or so, we also use the time as a community town hall meeting of sorts, just to make sure we’re not making anyone mad or disrespecting one another without realizing it! It’s an important part of our life together as we seek to live in unity not only theologically but practically speaking as we live together 24/7!
Friday morning is the second section of our History of the Ecumenical Movement class. And then although some weekends are free, some weekends are used for Study Visits that are also a mandatory part of the program.
For example, last weekend we spent the day on Sunday visiting the Orthodox Center in nearby Chambesy, Switzerland. There, you can find Coptic (Egyptian), French-speaking, Greek, and Romanian Orthodox churches all within a few blocks of one another! After learning about the Orthodox Church in the classroom, we got to see Orthodox liturgy and culture in real life. Next month, we’ll be dispersed all throughout Switzerland to spend the weekend visiting parishes and experiencing a Sunday in the life of a Swiss pastor. We will also spend a weekend with the Taize community in France in December and a week in Rome and the Vatican at the end of program in January.
So there you have it – a week in the life of a student at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey! I’m so grateful for the professors here and for all that I’m learning that will help make me a more informed and conscientious Christian and pastor. As is true in so many other aspects of life – the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know! It is truly a blessing and a privilege to be here and to learn as much as I can about this wonderfully diverse world and my little part in it.