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Theological Literacy and the Strange(r) Stranger: Theological Education and the Non-religious Believer


This discussion attempts to engage the question of theological education in the face of religious non-belief, which is an increasing identity and experience, even among students entering seminary. At the same time, it is framed against an understanding of the increasing prevalence of theological illiteracy among both students entering theological schools and the faculty as well.  This deficit in preparation lamented by Butler and others, for example, relates to the fact that students may enter a theological college without deep connection to a religious tradition or even basic Bible knowledge. They may be ignorant of the basic tenets and beliefs of the faith. Or, it may well be that religiously formed persons lack critical thinking skills or the ability to open themselves to new religious experiences. Similarly, theological educators may themselves be illiterate having only knowledge of their own theological or confessional positions. I would, however, argue further that this illiteracy includes a lack of understanding of non-religion and that theological education may do little to address this problem due to the stance taken toward non-belief. It concludes that a response of hospitality as an approach to welcoming the strange(r) stranger may serve to deepen the transformative praxis that is theological education.

Introducing the discussion

In the academy there have been developments in theological discourse in the African American context, for example, in the work of Anthony B. Pinn, which argue for the possibility of doing theology without God – non-theistic theology. Pinn maintains that belief in divinity is not necessary for liberative praxis, but rather may be positively correlated to oppression, as the experience of African-descended and other marginalised persons has shown. He, therefore, rejects doctrines such as redemptive suffering and posits a strong humanism in place of faith in a supernatural creator or redeemer. Pinn calls for a sense of human responsibility “without cosmic safeguards and presuppositions”.[1] Human responsibility is “to promote the well being of life – in its various forms – as a matter of secular accountability and work”[2]

Pinn’s position raises for me a question How do conversations about no faith happen within the context of theological education, especially in a situation where studying theology is believed to present the possibility of “losing your faith”.[3] What does this all mean when we consider theological education as transformative praxis, particularly as we are called to embrace affirmative alliances, even with those who do not share our belief in the importance of belief?  As the experience in the Caribbean demonstrates, Christian theological education and discourse have come a long way such that, as an outgrowth of ecumenism, there is now more of a willingness to engage with other faiths, even if somewhat minimally or reluctantly.[4] The wilful non-believer, who cannot be viewed as a potential convert, is ignored and often-demonised. At the same time, in a global space where people are increasingly identifying as secular, humanist, non-believers, “spiritual but not religious”, agnostic, atheist,[5] it is important to engage meaningfully with these experiences in order to more fully understand our own. To do so will require some willingness to engage with “the strange stranger” with whom what is shared is a common humanity rather than a common faith/religious orientation.  Indeed, now is the time “to take a very close and hard look at the many communities of faith [and non-faith] that our theological schools and seminaries have ignored for too long”.[6]

Theological Illiteracy

In 2009, the American Academy of Religion dedicated an issue of Spotlight on Theological Education to theological illiteracy and its effects on the enterprise of theological education.  Various academics and seminary educators reflected on the meaning of such illiteracy and how theological education may be called to respond. These educators wrestled with illiteracy of both Christian and non-Christian traditions. However, the discussion exhibited a particular lacuna – concern with non-religious belief.  It is possible to extend the various understandings of and approaches to theological illiteracy to religious non-belief in a fashion that enriches and deepens theological literacy today.

In the Spotlight discussion, Emily Click of Harvard Divinity School outlined the Harvard approach to theological education, which insists on interfaith engagement. Click identifies among the components of her non-traditional understanding of theological literacy, readiness to: 1) critique one’s own stance and study other positions and actions with an openness to how these may inform one’s own convictions; 2) suspend certainty in favour of gathering good information and delaying the formation of opinions in ways that enable nuanced judgments. She cautions against a peculiar type of illiteracy that can block students from becoming truly theologically literate. This involves uncritically adopting the position that Christianity, as the dominant religion, is one that has “not ever fostered self-critical capacities in its leaders”.[7]  This is a version of the argument against Christianity that is made by many persons, including non-theists like Pinn, who reject Christianity outright.  The validity of this position needs to be nuanced against expressions of the Christian faith that have fostered self-critical capacities and the self-sacrificing actions that follow. The mirror image of this position is one that refuses to recognise the interpretations of Christianity that have supported (and continue to legitimise) colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism – some of the very reasons many persons today reject theism.[8]

Understanding Religious Non-Belief

A basic area of illiteracy among theological students and faculty is the nature of religious non-belief.  Religious non-belief is not monolithic, yet it is often misunderstood and stereotyped.[9] The recognition of diversity that is present in Christianity and acknowledged through ecumenical engagement is not evident in approaches to religious non-belief.  Indeed, Yancey advises it would be a mistake to “develop a singular, cookie-cutter approach in our interactions with them”.[10]

The diversity inherent in this group of strange strangers calls out to theological educators to plumb the depths of the Christian traditions to identify appropriate ways of engaging such that affirmative alliances can be formed across what are usually strong fault lines.

Christianity, Hospitality and the Strange Stranger

One way of engaging with strange stranger is hospitality, which Daniel Jara Jhayya[11] identifies as an important element in the Christian tradition.  Building on Ricoeur and others, Jhayya argues for a “hermeneutic of hospitality” for engagement in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. This paradigm can be extended to incorporate dialogue with the non-believer.  A hermeneutic of hospitality assumes the stranger encountered is a religious other, who believes in and worships God. Clearly, the presence of such commonality of faith makes it possible to find God revealed in the stranger. That commonality cannot be assumed when one encounters the non-believer or the non-religious person – the strange(r) stranger.

Interestingly, Jhayya, quoting Moyaert, notes that “being hospitable also involves recognizing the “world of the religious [or non-religious] other”, i.e., acknowledging that the other has something to offer and that God’s revelation cannot be completed until that something is finally shared”.[12] Jhayya, in discussing the world of the religious other, at this singular point inserts into the Moyaert quote “the non-religious” other. He, however, misses the opportunity to develop this further as he returns to the ecumenical and the religious space – “practising a truly ecumenical dialogue and mission”.  The non-religious person is indeed a strange(r) stranger, perhaps the strangest stranger. Nonetheless, Jara Jhayya is clear that practising ecumenical dialogue and mission involves the removal of all asymmetries of power. The other is received and relationships of equality are established such that both guests and hosts recognise themselves as strangers – a stranger. Keeping in mind being a stranger oneself encourages the practice of hospitality. Perhaps even the roles of guest and host become reversed or elided in the process. Differences collide and/or nurture in the process of engaging with the stranger. Such collisions need not be fatal to the relationship of strange(r) strangers such that estrangement is deepened, but rather can open up routes for growth and new life.

Conclusion: Theological Education and the Strange(r) Stranger

One of the goals of theological education as transformative praxis is the formation of such affirmative alliances so that we engage and improve the world or as Pinn states it “promote the well being of life”.[13] This means that our curriculum, pedagogy and formation processes must dare to “engage the world” amongst whom are to be found many strange(r) strangers, increasingly men and women who are religious non-believers. Some of these men and women are themselves attracted to theological studies or function as faculty therein. The presence of powerful advocates of non-theistic theology in the academy and their humanist perspectives present a significant ground for engagement in the perspective of a hermeneutic of hospitality.

Graduates of our theological colleges, seminaries, schools and faculties enter a variety of ministries; they become pastors, educators, media personalities, lay preachers; they serve on boards and impact national and global policy.  For them to succeed in their ministries, they must have the requisite tools that mark them out as theologically literate and able (“pastorally agile”). This calls for modelling respect and acceptance of difference, including religious non-belief, in a fashion that grows out of the Christian tradition of hospitality to the stranger.  Such hospitality involves engagement marked by critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. This begins with creating learning spaces inside and outside the classrooms that embody respect for difference so that students can learn without fear of ridicule or harsh judgment. At the same time, such critical literacy must engage the heart of the learners building up their capacity to feel, empathise, imagine, create. Only thus can they/we be open to the strangest of strangers – the self and the non-religious other.

[1] Anthony B. Pinn, Nontheistic Humanism.  Journal Ausgabe Nr. 27 (April 2016): 27-32 [27]

[2] Pinn 2016, 27

[3] Tara Isabella Burton, Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God. The Atlantic. October 3o, 2013.

[4] In Jamaica, for example, the two main theological colleges are the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTC) and St Michael’s Theological College (SMTC). Both are affiliated to the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI), and offer degrees in theology. UTC is an exercise in ecumenical cooperation, having been founded in 1964, through the merger of three denominational theological colleges – Calabar Theological College (Baptist), Union Theological Seminary (Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Moravian, Disciples) and St Peter’s College (Anglican). Today it is supported by 6 denominations:  Moravian, Anglican, Methodist, United, Lutheran, and Baptist. St Michael’s is Roman Catholic. Both colleges work together to deliver a common undergraduate and postgraduate curricula with degrees awarded by UWI. The undergraduate curriculum includes courses like Philosophy of Religion, Introduction to the Study of Religion, and Comparative Religion.  Both colleges engage with the question of interfaith interactions in various ways.  St Michael’s has, between 2004 and 2010, hosted a series of seminars on Caribbean Spirituality in which the contribution of various non-Christian religions to Jamaica (and by extension, the Caribbean) was explored. These valuable presentations were published in the SMTC journal, Groundings: Chinese (issue 13, July 2004); Judaism (issue 19, July 2007), Buddhism (issue 24, July 2010). Groundings has covered ecumenical issues (See, for example, issue 32, July 2014). The Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship (JCIF) is hosted at UTC. An annual Interfaith Awareness Day is held each year in collaboration with UTC and the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech).  Topics have included, “Valuing Humanity and Living in Peace”.  The theme for the 12th Annual Interfaith Day in March 2016 was “One God, One Creation, One Common Home”. Dr Martin Schade, a former Roman Catholic priest and now “priest for all people”, a key convenor of JCIF, lectures at UTech and has introduced there both the study of ethics and the celebration of diverse faith experiences.  Some of his ideas are captured in his d a book, Incarnation: The Harmony of One Love in the Totality of Reality (UPA: May 2016).

[5] Anna Kasafi Perkins, “Evangelical Christianity and Social Change in the Caribbean: A Battle for/in the Public Sphere?”  Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies (Special Issue on Religion in the Caribbean) Vol.41 No. 1 (April 2016): 13-46, citing Duke, Johnson and Duke (1995), describes the global religious landscape as having changed dramatically in the 20th Century.  This change can be captured in three generalisations, which form the backdrop for the changes in the Caribbean: a) the phenomenal growth of atheism, agnosticism and nonreligious groups; b) the growth and decline in Christianity, in places like Africa and Europe, respectively; c) a strong fundamentalist revival, including strong Christian evangelical and Muslim fundamentalist movements. (Minority Christian groups such as Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses also showed strong growth.). The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012 reports a worldwide decline in religiosity. Religiosity has dropped by 9%, while atheism has risen by 3%. Overall, 59 % of world population was religious, 23 % was non-religious, 13 % atheist. Approximately half of the Chinese population identified as non-believers. In the United States, religiosity was declining. Similarly, in India, religiosity declined from 87% to 81%; 13 % identified themselves as atheists.  There was a 1% decline in the number of people calling themselves atheist – down from 4% in 2005. (


[6] Daisy Machado, Spotlight on Theological Education.  Vol 3.  No. 1 (May 2009): iii.

[7] Emily Click, Spotlight on Theological Education.  Vol 3.  No. 1 (May 2009): iv, viii [viii].

[8] Although humanism is presented by Pinn and others as the antidote to the “sins” of religion, especially Christianity, it is a mistake to believe that these movements are themselves devoid of such failings. See, for example, Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. ( Infidel Books, 2011).

[9] The six types of atheists identified by Christopher Silver (in George Yancey, What the ‘Six Types of Atheists’ Mean for Christian Outreach.  Christianity Today, August 12, 2013. are: 1. The Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic: Sees his/herself as intellectually too advanced for religion and seeks to engage with other likeminded individuals through writings, YouTube videos and talks; 2. The Activist: Proactively works for issues connected to naturalist or humanist cause; 3. The Seeker-Agnostic: Considers the metaphysical a possibility but is comfortable with uncertainty as it concerns the interaction of science and the metaphysical; 4. The Anti-Theist: Believes religion to be evil, thus actively works against religion and religious influences; 5. The Non-Theist: Does not have much interest in religious concepts; 6. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic: Does not have otherworldly beliefs but regularly attends a religious ceremony, finding that this meets some social or psychological need.

[10] Yancey, 1.

[11] Daniel Jara Jhayya, As Strangers and Pilgrims: Hermeneutical Hospitality as Theological Paradigm for Christian Mission and Ecumenical Dialogue. Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion. October 28, 2016.

[12] Jara Jhayya, NP.

[13] Pinn, 27.