“How can one develop a theological voice?” asked one of the participants at the Asian Theological Summer Institute.
“It is a lifelong process,” I replied.
The Asian Theological Summer Institute (ATSI), funded through the Luce Foundation, offered a four-day seminar for Asian and Asian American doctoral students at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (LTSP) in the last week of May.
Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar, Luther D. Reed Professor of Systematic Theology at LTSP, saw the need to offer such a mentoring program because Asian and Asian American doctoral students often do not have the help and support of an Asian professor at their schools. The students came to present their dissertation proposals and work in progress and received feedback from a group of professors in different theological fields.
Just as in any art, developing your individual and unique voice in theological scholarship and style requires much learning, practice, coaching, and responding to feedback. But in many theological schools, Asian and Asian American doctoral students do not find the coaching they need to develop their scholarship and the community of discourse to try out new ideas.
Even though a student’s supervisor may be supportive, he or she may not know the social and cultural context of the student sufficiently well to give informed feedback. Worse, some professors treat the student as a “native informant”—the one to educate them about the particular culture or community.
One of the recurrent feedback from ATSI participants is that their work has been taken very seriously at the seminar. They do not need to explain their culture to people who have little knowledge about Asian and Asian American culture and history. The discussion can therefore move further along to explore the theological issues involved in the dissertation and the different theories and theological traditions to address them.
Developing your theological voice requires a lot of confidence in yourself. You need to have the courage to speak your mind, disagree with what has been said, offer a viewpoint that has not been tried, and/or suggest fresh new ideas.
Many educational systems in Asia are good at impacting knowledge, but not so good at encouraging students to challenge established authorities and think for themselves. Thus when Asian students come to the US to attend graduate schools, they often find the academic culture demanding and difficult to adjust to.
A dissertation needs to make some original contribution to the field. Where does that originality come from? Would it come from questions and issues arising from an Asian and Asian American context? Would it come from seeing a misfit of an established body of theories when applied to a new situation? Would it come from constructing new knowledge based on qualitative research? Would it come from developing new models that are culturally specific?
These are questions that beginning Asian and Asian American scholars often ask. In To Open Minds, Howard E. Gardner, an expert on multiple intelligences, compares Chinese and Western approaches to nurturing creativity, using learning Chinese painting as an example. He says that in China, one needs to spend years mastering the techniques and imitating great artists before developing one’s style. In sharp contrast, the American system values too much individuality and personal expression, sometimes at the expense of basic skills and training. He says that a balance between the two approaches will be beneficial.
The ATSI, now in its seventh year, has provided the space for more than 130 budding scholars to listen to themselves and others, hone their academic skills, and sharpen their theological thinking in a supportive environment. They have been encouraged to take the beginning steps, however tentative, to develop a life-long pursuit of scholarship and nurture a theological voice that is distinctly their own.
I wish I had such a seminar when I began. It has been a privilege to be able to accompany many of these students and play a small part in their journeys.