Theological education in the Indian Himalayan region, like the region itself, stands in continuity and discontinuity with the rest of India and the Global Church. This article offers a picture of theological education in the region to show both its distinctness and oneness with broader theological education. From this process, the article seeks to draw lessons for theological education in the region and then for global theological education.
St. Anselm’s words, “Fides quaerens intellectum” (“Faith seeking understanding”), have been frequently cited as a motto for theology. Yet, in 2016, Bernhard Ott wrote, “The whole field of theological education is in upheaval,” as he saw globalization and related events as “paradigmatic changes” that challenged educational institutions (Ott, 2016, 1). Within the upheavals Ott recognized are nuances depending on geographic and social location. Globalization is not experienced the same by all nor does it manifest the same everywhere.
Despite almost a millennium separating Anslem and Ott, faith still seeks understanding – but today in the increasingly connected world that Ott analyzed. Thus, the task of theology and of theological education, in one sense, remains the same despite the passage of centuries. In another sense it is ever changing. This fact should come as no surprise because within Anslem’s motto one finds both an unchanging object of faith and an ever-changing subject seeking understanding.
Recognizing this interplay of the constant and the ever-changing, the unifying and diversifying characteristics across and within contexts, this article approaches the task of examining theological education in India’s Himalayan region. It seeks to answer the question, “What are some defining characteristics of theological education in the Indian Himalayan region and what can we learn about theological education from these?” The article will primarily focus on formal Protestant and Evangelical theological education (particularly when discussing the Himalayan context), while being cognizant of connections with other streams of theological education. It will argue that theological education in the Himalayan region in India continues to thrive despite growing challenges and weaknesses, and it can add a valuable voice to global conversations related to theological education as it seeks to fulfill its role in the missio Dei.
A Picture of Theological Education
Andrew Bain, tracing the development of theological education, points to the post-Constantinian era, with a growing need for trained clergy, as the phase that led theological education to develop explicitly toward fulfilling the Church’s needs. Although monastic communities often trained clergy, Bain points out that, even then, most theological education happened “on the job” (Bain and Hussey, 2018, 36). These early models of formal theological education prioritized “personal character and godliness,” which Bain contrasts with contemporary emphases on “functional training,” which was seen as the “easy part” in early Christian theological education (Bain and Hussey, 2018, 37). However, these early forms of clerical education were not isolationist in their outlook, as many assume when thinking of monastic systems. Instead, Bain notes that these centers engaged deeply with pagan education and the external community; they offered educational opportunities to a wide variety of social backgrounds while also creating a micro-community with a shared purpose – to study the Scriptures together in a concentrated manner (Bain and Hussey, 2018, 38-39). Bain rightly contrasts early theological education’s approach with our own culture’s emphasis on functionality. Early Christians saw functional training as the most basic part of theological education, to be built upon or transcended, whereas modern theological education tends to see functional training as the primary purpose. If one considers the theology developed in this era through these three emphasizes on personal formation, openness to interested outsiders, and focus on the Scriptures, one sees no dearth of deep, careful thought.
However, reacting against our world’s pragmatism, the Church in the 21st century seems to be moving back toward an integrated approach to theological education that resembles early church practices. For example, in evangelical circles, the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) states, “Our programmes of theological education must combine spiritual and practical with academic objectives in one holistic integrated educational approach” (ICETE Manifesto, Section 7). This desire for a more holistic approach comes with a recognition that “we so often focus educational requirements narrowly on cognitive attainments” (ICETE Manifesto, Section 7). Similarly, David C. Wright notes broad agreement across theological education that “the content or inputs of integration are theology, practical skills, and godly character” (Wright, 2022, 10). On one hand, this move toward an integrated approach may be seen as a return to roots. However, on the other hand, it may be seen as a response to much later developments in theological education, with their greater emphasis on the functional and the cognitive.
Theological Education in Asia and India
Bain narrates the history of early theological education from Western European centers, but these were not the only areas where theological education was being developed. Considering the Persian empire, Scott Sunquist finds that this region had “some continuity with what was happening in the Roman Empire…but Persian discipleship and Persian schools did develop differently in light of the Asian context” (Sunquist, 2017, 273). Further, as Sunquist says, “the local Zoroastrian (national) religion also shaped the spirituality and theology of Persian Christianity” (Sunquist, 2017, 273). This approach led to what Sunquist terms the “intercultural nature of Persian theology” (Sunquist, 2017, 285). Christians in the Persian context were a minority, so they developed theological education under threat or actual experience of persecution. Because these communities were not always able to function on their own terms, their theological education had to become more dialogical. This situation seems to have led to an even deeper enmeshment with the local culture, with Persian schools even framing the biblical message with aspects of Zoroastrianism.
Maintaining this theme of dialogue with local cultures, in India specifically, Jesudas Athyal and Dyron Daughrity trace the beginnings of theological education to the Malankara Church in Kerela, which “used a Gurukuklam system, organized around revered senior priests (Malpans) who were familiar with the liturgy and traditions of the church” (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 31). In this system students were educated as they lived with their teachers – similar to the Guru-Shishya tradition found in Indian-based religious traditions, such as Hinduism. (The Guru-Shishya tradition is a teacher-student tradition grounded in patronage or family lineage systems.) Here, liturgies, rather than systematized fields of study, formed the foundation of education. Education was imparted as life was shared – unlike in 21st-century theological education (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 31). Athyal and Daughrity note the establishment of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in 1815, Sermapore College in 1818, and Bishop’s College in 1820 as the beginnings of modern theological education in India (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 31–32). All these institutions were collaborations between Western and Indian leaders.
Thus, what Sunquist asserts of Persian theological education is true also of early Indian theological education – it is an intercultural enterprise. Indeed, reaching back to Persia, early theological education in India, despite working with systems similar to local gurkuls, derived much of its theology from Syriac liturgy. In addition, later theological institutions were collaborative enterprises between Western and local leaders. This presents a picture of Indian theological education as dialogical, both across branches of the Global Church and with the surrounding local culture.
Theological education in India thus presents a picture of continuity and discontinuity with global theological education. Continuities (with early European and Persian theological education) can be seen in the emphasis on personal formation. However, local nuances happened as the Christian faith existed as a minority under threats of persecution within the Indian context.
I must note here that collaboration in India was perhaps not always between equals. Even a cursory glance at early Indian church history reveals inequalities. A. Mathias Mundadan finds that, even as early as the 6th century, “the Christians in India were juridically subject to the East-Syrian Church” (Mundadan, 1984, 100). This insight is particularly illuminating because it highlights the potential for inequalities even within minority communities, for both the Persian Church (East-Syrian) and the Indian Church were minorities in their larger political contexts.
If we connect this narrative to the concerns of theological education today, we may make three assertions. First, theological education has historically been formed through intercultural dialogue with secular societies. Second, theological education in one area develops in dialogue with others in the Global Church. Finally, even within the Church, dialogue is not between equals. This inequality goes beyond simplistic East versus West and majority versus minority divides. Instead, particularities in this unequal dialogue mean that those who are less powerful in one context may be more powerful in another.
Locating the Indian Himalayan Region
Before examining theological education in the Indian Himalayan region, it is necessary to define the region. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), the main public policy arm of the Indian Government, states that “The Indian Himalayan Region is spread across 13 Indian States/Union Territories (namely Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal), stretching across 2500 km. Nearly 50 million people reside in this region” (NITI Aayog, 2023). This description gives a glimpse into the region’s size and diversity.
Despite this diversity, some characteristics unite this region. One of these, obviously, is the presence of the Himalayan Mountains. Another unifying feature derives from this geographical reality, as Chetan Singh notes. He states that the juxtaposition of the people in the highlands from those in the lowlands has marked this region since the early sixteenth century (Singh, 2019, 26). This unifying characteristic can be found in terms like Pahari (a person from the mountains – pahar), which many in states like Uttarakhand use even when referring to others from the Himalayan region. Conversely, this unity may be expressed by defining the Other using terms like madise/madesi (plains folk), as in Nepali-speaking areas of the region (mades being a term referring to the plains). Further, Singh notes that this region has historically been marginal for most South Asian societies (Singh, 2019, 27). This liminality continues to surface in border disputes between India, Pakistan, and China (as well as Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar, to a lesser degree)(“China Includes,” 2023).
Some conclusions from this brief overview may be drawn for theological education. First, the region spreads over a vast geographical area with diverse cultures and peoples. Yet the region’s inhabitants – as well as those outside the region – acknowledge the region’s unifying characteristics. Second, because of its geography and its political/cultural situation, the region has historically been at the fringes of developments in the Indian subcontinent. Third, the region exists on frontiers between modern nation-states. This proximity to large political powers impacts the regions’ cultures. At the same time, the region has its own persistent peculiarities, which give it a unique identity. Theological education in the Indian Himalayan region has developed in specific ways in light of this context.
Theological Education in the Indian Himalayan Region: Opportunities and Challenges
In India, most mainline Protestant denominations require their clergy to be trained at institutions recognized by the Senate of Serampore (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 34). Many Protestant institutions (particularly those that may be broadly categorized as evangelical) are accredited by the Asia Theological Association (ATA)(Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 32). While most mainline churches do not recognize degrees offered by ATA for ordination as clergy, many evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal denominations recognize ATA degrees for ordination. Many ATA-accredited institutions offer programs aimed at local church ministries. Additionally, a growing number of independent Bible colleges “particularly in the north, east, and north-east sections of the country” are oriented toward grassroots evangelism (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 33). Finally, programs like The Association for Theological Education by Extension (TAFTEE) offer “parish level” education for the laity (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 36). Theological education by extension is a growing area, with even established accredited institutions starting to offer some programs by extension; the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified the rise of extension programs.
In 1981, Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden recognized that theological education in India had “not been contextualized either in terms of India’s poverty and injustice, or even in terms of the people of God in India” (Samuel and Sugden, 1981, 96). Proposing a way forward, they envisioned Indian theological education developing to integrate “the training of church leaders… into the training of the entire people of God and in contact with the living context of India” (Samuel and Sugden, 1981, 96).
Theological education in the Indian Himalayan region in its contemporary form addresses much of what Samuel and Sugden point out as deficiencies and opportunities for Indian theological education, as it shares many characteristics with the broader Indian landscape. Bible colleges and grassroots degree programs are proliferating; some of these are accredited by ATA. However, the Himalayan region has fewer Serampore-affiliated institutions. Christians are minorities in most of the Himalayas – though it must be noted that Christians are a majority in the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. Very few institutions are conducting active academic research in and for the region. The proliferation of non-accredited and independent institutions and the orientation of many established and accredited institutions toward the grassroots is evidence of a deep connection with the lived context, which is rife with marginalization and lack of access to resources. Such an emphasis on grassroots education creates both challenges and opportunities for Himalayan theological education.
A primary challenge is the lack of contextualized pedagogical materials. Athyal and Daughrity rightly point out that, with a few exceptions, most Indian seminaries “are still dependent upon Western textbooks; around 70-80% of books are from the Western world.” (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 36). The lack of contextualized textbooks creates a major challenge for Indian theological education, a challenge that is even more extreme for institutions in the Himalayan region, where lack of financial resources makes acquiring new textbooks almost impossible. Himalayan theological institutions need updated resources, but the funding gap means that they can neither produce nor acquire such resources.
However, this challenge also opens a glimpse into a possible new direction. Careful observation of class lectures and interactions, particularly at grassroots institutions, in the Himalayan region shows that they are not actually completely dependent on Western theology. Their education is neither completely contextualized nor completely Westernized. Rather, it is not uncommon to find an older instructor delivering a lecture in a systematic theology class utilizing Wayne Grudem’s book. He will interrupt this lecture with descriptions of how he encountered God in a supernatural way, or the class may launch into long discussions of India’s present political situation and how it impacts their lives. Sometimes the class may even sing a song together – all during an ostensible systematics lecture using a Western text.
To an observer these practices may seem dissonant or chaotic. However, this methodology is built on the instructor reviewing a Western text, which they would have themselves read as students while being taught by a Westerner, and bringing it into dialogue with their lifetime of experience serving the church at the grassroots level, as they prepare for their lecture. Within the lecture, interspersed stories, songs, and apparently superfluous “rabbit trails” implicitly bring that Western text, originally taught by a Western instructor of another generation, into dialogue with the 21st-century lives of the Indian lecturer and his students. This hermeneutic bridges the academic and the pastoral so that the Western text becomes translated in a way that is neither fully Western nor fully Indian. In some ways, this situation embodies Lamin Sanneh’s concept of “translatability” (Sanneh, 2009, 417). In these processes of theological education, one sees disparate contexts in dialogue producing intercultural hybrids. They do not merely mix two contexts (Western, Indian) but three or four contexts (absent Western lecturer, current Indian lecturer, Indian students from various locations) in order to create an educational pastiche.
Thus, even with a lack of funding and textbooks, theological education in the Himalayan region continues to thrive. Mushrooming independent institutions all over the region practice such adaptive, hybrid pedagogies. I do not wish to romanticize the lack of resources, nor do I mean to discount the need for theological education to attend to the production and acquisition of more stable local resources. Instead, this picture demonstrates the unexpected hermeneutical and pedagogical turn that theological education in the Himalayan region has taken, a turn that opens specific new opportunities.
For example, the processes of theological research need to be rethought in this region (and perhaps in other regions too). Grassroots practitioners need to be encouraged to produce resources in active dialogue with academic authors and vice versa. One possibility would be to establish research centers in the region that create spaces for academics and practitioners to come together and produce white papers, curricula, and other materials in conversation with one another – tools that both academics and practitioners then go out and use (teach, present, analyze) in their respective worlds. Then they could return to the research center to discuss how those uses developed their previous work. Together, they could revise their materials. This process of conversation, creation, use, and revision could build a synergy that produces materials both for the “ivory tower” and for the grassroots. Of course, this is currently only a dream.
While the challenge of reliance on (often older) Western resources leads to an opportunity through hermeneutical and pedagogical practices in the Himalayan region, the lack of quality resources still remains problematic. What is true of Western resources is even more true of local resources – there are hardly any academic resources written by authors from the Himalayan region, especially when one excludes Christian majority states. If we take academic publications as an example, the gap may be seen on three levels. First, there is the well-recognized problem of a lack of theological resources from Indian authors as a whole. This gap is being remedied in evangelical circles, though, as evident in the growing number of Indian journals listed on ATA India’s website. However, the second level of this issue is that not many theologians hail from the Himalayan region, as seen in a paucity of academic publications by theologians from this region. The third level of this issue is apparent when one considers the paucity of academic journals located in the Indian Himalayan region. A few publications from the Northeast region, like the Clark Journal of Theology from Nagaland, do exist – but, in the case of the Clark Journal, the last available publication online is from December 2020, so these journals are not very active. (They may have print copies, but by not being active online, they cannot engage with the broader academic world.) Only one journal is situated in a Himalayan state in the north, where Christianity is not a majority – the Doon Theological Journal from Luther W. New Jr. Theological College. While the lack of academic journals does not necessarily indicate a complete lack of theologizing, it does point toward a lack of engagement in academic theological conversations.
Related to the challenge of a lack of academic resources is the question of the quality of theological education offered in institutions in the Himalayan region. This issue is especially relevant for institutions that are independent and grassroots-focused. While Athyal and Daughrity see this as a challenge for theological education in India as a whole (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 37), this problem is exacerbated in institutions in the Himalayan region that are generally even poorer. Himalayan institutions lack “trained faculty, quality of libraries, or numerous other basic facilities required for good theological education” (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 37). While one can celebrate the creativity and process of implicit contextualization highlighted above, we must understand that much of this labor happens under duress and results in graduates who may struggle to meet the demands of higher theological education, especially if they choose to leave the region to pursue further studies.
As mentioned above, a lack of financial resources undergirds these issues. Without money, Himalayan institutions face two challenges. First, regional institutions struggle to survive. How sustainable is theological education in the Himalayan region, particularly at the higher level and at higher quality? Sustainability requires financial resources. Access to foreign funds continues to dwindle for nonprofits, including theological institutions, all over India, with many losing their Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) accounts. Athyal and Duaghrity find that with the dwindling of overseas donations, “the basic money resources are now within India itself” (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 35). This situation poses an even greater challenge for theological education in the Himalayan region, where most churches are neither wealthy nor exist in large enough communities to sustain theological education locally (this is less true of the Christian majority states in the Northeastern region, of course, which have a bit more leeway).
The second challenge related to the lack of financial resources is the brain drain of those few individuals who have higher degrees. Athyal and Daughrity see that “the brain drain of trained theological faculty” is a challenge for Indian theological education (Athyal, Daughrity, and Thomas, 2022, 37); they make this point by considering the movement of Indian theological educators to institutions abroad. However, for the Himalayan region, particularly for the 10 states where Christians are a minority, the brain drain is even worse. Trained theologians from the region move to institutions in other parts of India that have better library resources, internet access, and financial support. Further, even within the Himalayan region, a few institutions tend to have the largest concentrations of trained faculty. This brain drain is understandable when one considers the lack of quality resources and lack of sustainable income for faculty in the region. Faculty often work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Given this situation, the lack of engagement in higher academic conversations is hardly surprising.
Global Theological Education in Conversation with the Indian Himalayan Region
The previous section has presented a picture of theological education in the Indian Himalayan region – of creativity and challenge. This picture must be qualified with the disclaimer that this picture is truer of areas without a Christian majority, 10 of the 13 Himalayan states.
Following from these considerations, this section will now briefly consider global theological education in conversation with the Indian Himalayan region under two broad themes: first, theological education as part of the Church’s participation in the missio Dei; second, theological education within the church as “the community of argument” (Tanner, 2007, 1876).
David Bosch asserts, “The missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae” (Bosch, 2011, 379). This perspective is crucial when thinking about theological education because it locates theological education within the mission of the Church, which in turn finds its raison d’être in the mission of God. This perspective resonates with Perry Shaw’s perspective, as he lists the mission of God as the first of three affirmations central to theological education (the other two being the people of God and incarnation) (Shaw, 2002). Theological education must shape its methods for contextualization, pedagogical choices, and choices of curriculum by questions such as, “How does this serve the Church?” However, theological education must also seek to look beyond the established church and the immediately apparent avenues for its mission by asking, “What is God doing in mission and where is he leading his church?” Theological education in the Indian Himalayan region is stronger in the first of these areas – an effectively contextualized and deeply grassroots ecclesial orientation. However, its lack of engagement with academic theological conversations with the wider church leave it much room to grow in the second area – seeking to clarify the church’s mission.
Second, when analyzing Himalayan theological education within the broader global context, we can consider Tanner’s description of the community of argument as
one in which participants have the courage of their convictions to dispute the corruptive effects of sin, yet show an openness to being corrected by others in recognition of their own fallibility and possible corruption, brought together in a common project whose realization, they all know, is ever beyond any simple identification with what any of them has achieved. (Tanner, 2007, 1876)
Because, as Tanner says, theological educators need to correct one another and to be open to new ideas, theological-pedagogical knowledge from the Himalayan region is even more valuable – first within the wider Indian Church and then globally. The above conversation has highlighted some of the contributions that theological education from the Himalayan region can make to the global discourse. First, the lack of resources and facilities has led to creativity, to the development of contextually rooted pedagogies built on active dialogue between academia and grassroots practitioners. Second, and relatedly, theological education in the region offers a model of keeping the Church’s lived realities and everyday concerns in close and ongoing conversation with formal theological education. Finally, a closer study of ways in which theological education in the region continues to thrive, seeking to fulfill its part in the missio Dei, despite financial and logistical challenges, can provide helpful models for others in the Global Church who face (or will face) similar challenges. The voices of this region are members of the polyphonic chorus of the Church of God. Even in their fallibility, they add a unique perspective that can fill out the global Church’s understanding of the missio Dei.
Before I conclude, I should note two areas for further consideration for theological education in the Himalayan region. These are the growth of online education and the interplay of vocational training with theological education. These themes are beyond the scope of the present article and deserve thorough examination by others who are more qualified.
Conclusion: Preliminary Pragmatic Directions
The global Church needs to grasp the distinctness and nuances of the Himalayan region. Theology as faith seeking understanding must understand not just God but the people of God. This article is a first gesture in this direction, as it embodies the principles it proposes. Beginning with a broad vision of theological education derived from a church father far removed from the Indian Himalayan context, it gradually narrows from Asia to India to the Himalayas. In each of these moves, it reflects upon the continuity and discontinuity within practices and understandings of theological education. Finally, it ends by suggesting some global implications from the region.
The current socio-political situation in India continues to become less favorable for Christianity in general and theological education in particular. For the Himalayan region these tensions are exacerbated by the issues discussed above, such as the lack of resources (or concentration of resources in a few places), the lack of new theological training materials, the absence of engagement with wider academic theological discussions, and the brain drain of trained theologians. The way forward for the Himalayan region will in part depend on the generosity of better-resourced institutions in other parts of India. Indian Christian institutions need not only to train workers for the Himalayas but to open avenues for theologians from the region to participate in wider academic conversations.
Furthermore, even as we need to build expertise in the region for theological dialogue, theologians from the Himalayas may be able to offer useful correctives to the established rules of academic discourse elsewhere. While Himalayan theological education may be deficient in some areas, it demonstrates levels of creativity that established theological institutions in other regions may not be aware of at present. Global theological education must not discard the gains made in Himalayan theological education.
Although institutions outside the Himalayas need to extend hospitality to Himalayan theologians, theological education in the Himalayan region will grow only through the sacrifices of theologically trained personnel from the region. Especially as conditions deteriorate, this call will be challenging to fulfill. At present, violence and persecution are sporadic and not organized, but the region is on a dangerous trajectory. Theological education in the region may require the blood of a new generation of martyrs. The Indian Church and the global Church can help with training, resources, conversation, and encouragement, but Christian educators in the Himalayas, however few, must be ready to stand firm.
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