After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, politicians, psychologists, and economists, are still studying its effects. And we can add to that list theologians. World events have registered profound influence on how Christianity is perceived and on how future leaders of the church are being prepared to lead the church and to represent Christ in a pluralistic culture.
Attempts to counter violent zealotry have led peaceful practioners within many differing religions to form common bonds. While such development has some positive features, it has also contributed subtly to the view that all religions are, by and large, equally true. These perceptions have made more difficult the challenge of presenting a Christian witness.
Many in seminary education candidly acknowledge their students and alumni were not fully prepared to see their communities through a crisis of this magnitude (not that anyone would have reasonably expected them to be). Many seminaries have added courses or course emphases intended to better prepare future pastors to guide their congregations through times of national or community crisis.
Beyond this dimension of pastoral ministry, however, September 11 (9/11) has opened new avenues for intellectual exploration in graduate-level theological education. The typical seminary student today is far more conscious of the role religion plays in political conflicts. This is reflected, in part, by the addition of courses and seminars intended to facilitate greater understanding of Islam and how to witness to Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad.
The changes taking place at seminaries since 9/11, however, go far beyond the need to come to a greater understanding of Islam. Increasingly seminaries are focusing on such topics as the relationship between religion and world conflict and the unprecedented challenges of presenting the gospel in an increasingly pluralistic culture. In addition, theological education is having to come to grips with the reality that the reputation of Christianity is on occasion tarnished. In some contexts those who have Christian beliefs become victims of guilt by association with religious fundamentalism in general.
Religion and world conflict
Kevin W. Mannoia, Dean of Azusa Pacific University's Haggard School of Theology, believes it is misleading to conclude that 9/11 has led to an increase in the role of religion in world conflict. He states, however that "the tragedy of 9/11 served to coalesce the thinking of the world around the fact that religion is at the heart of nearly every major conflict."
Samuel Shahid, Director of Islamic Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees. "Undoubtedly religion plays a very important role in various world conflicts," Shahid says, "especially where that conflict involves Islamic countries.
"Since Muslims associate 'Christian' with the West and the Western media allude to the East as the 'Islamic East,' the nature of the conflict has taken a drastic change on the basis of the Islamic understanding of the relationship between State and religion," Shahid says. The association between religion and national political powers, he notes, is stronger in the Islamic tradition, whereas religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism "focus on the ideological differences but do not revolve around religio-political issues."
Media spotlight turns on Christianity
With the attacks by Islamic terrorists have come increased media attention to the connections between religion and terrorism. It was inevitable that media coverage would eventually include Christianity. Shahid, for one, feels that the result has been negative. He maintains that the Western media have "created the concept of evangelization as a monster that threatens other religions, especially Islam. On the other hand," he adds, "Islamic media directly or indirectly sustain the Western media's view, nourishing this attitude. Christianity thus receives great attention, but from a negative perspective."