March 2021 Newsletter: As Iron Sharpens Iron, So One Person Sharpens Another
March 15, 2021
Amazing Stories of God’s Work in the Arab World
February 12, 2021

A Borderless Seminary:

Leaning into a Heritage and Moving into a Future

Brent Hamoud
MRel Program Lead
March 11, 2021
Chapter nine

The newly launched Integrated Theology Program has ushered ABTS into new institutional territory in which all students participate in studies while remaining within their own places of residence. My colleagues have provided previous chapters chronicling the ways this transitional journey has been propelled by excitement, undergirded by necessity, and accompanied by newfound challenges. The developments certainly are considerable, but if we reflect on ABTS’s heritage as a regional ministry facilitating global engagement to equip local church witness, then we will recognize how recent changes are in fact leaning into the seminary’s ethic of borderless-ness.

ABTS has long nurtured a vibrant community of faith that gathers members of diverse backgrounds into unique dynamics of learning and fellowship. This legacy stems from an institutional identity anchored in a strong sense of shared values and a collective willingness to reach across divides, especially the divide of political borders.
To explore ABTS’s borderless qualities and consider ways this is maturing in a new chapter of its history, let us first examine the concrete realities of political borders in our modern world. Afterall, they are so much more than simple lines on a map but profound parameters determining how individuals and organizations interact with the world.

It is nearly impossible for us to imagine a world that is not shaped by political borders. The successes of the 19th and 20th centuries in creating highly defined political entities have produced a global nation-state system that dominates our world at every level. Land is not just land but territory under the jurisdiction of sovereign states. Likewise, people are not just people, but nationals designated to political units. Nation-states and nationality, which denotes legal nation-state membership, are both the results of and the reasons for the pervasiveness of political borders. It is a historic phenomenon with immense implications.

Some may argue that nation-states boast an organic essence, that their boundary lines and national populations are the outcome of a natural process. Others may claim that a nation-state has been ordained by some divine act. A more sensible assessment is that all nation-states are fascinating products of human will created by earthly processes both inspiring and despairing. Narratives do matter, but they hardly alter the rigidity of political borders today.

Beyond their territorial dimensions, political borders are formative in shaping a person’s sense of identity as well as granting the right to even have an identity. To be Brazilian, Egyptian, Australian, or any other nationality is something deeply meaningful and highly consequential. This is reinforced by the undeniable importance of state-issued identification documents. Without a nationality, one cannot verify an official status or participate in the most basic of life activities. But not all nationalities are the same; borders manifest a fundamental form of inequality. For this reason, a person with a French passport and a person with a Yemeni passport are effectively different types of people experiencing different versions of the world.

The story of Middle Eastern and North African nation-states is, unsurprisingly, dramatic. Entire histories of the region can be told by following the plotlines of how borders were drawn and who determined their routes. Problematic as the region’s political composition may be, it is generally accepted by citizenries that have largely conformed to the shape of things. And within this current arrangement of borders ABTS exists with a particular orientation towards its geography.

Commissioned more than 60 years ago to serve the Church in the Arab World, ABTS has managed to set roots in Lebanon without ever becoming exclusively Lebanese. Its vision stretches beyond political borders in a way that makes any overt national sentiments tenuous at best. The result is an ethic of multinationalism that fosters a cosmopolitan community of faith and learning.

Transborder themes are woven throughout ABTS’s institutional narrative. Its origin story is that of an international effort embarked by globally minded individuals and organizations. In the past six decades, it has welcomed students from a host of countries to study and experience a type of home at the seminary. Additionally, teaching faculty teams have always featured a variety of nationalities, and special events have facilitated global gatherings bringing guests from around the world. Simply put, political borders are not pronounced in ABTS’s DNA.

Quietly, and perhaps unintentionally, the seminary has developed a glocal orientation that seamlessly pairs high levels of global engagement with a deep concern for local relevancy. This does not mean ABTS is antagonistic to things national – for example, there is considerable sincere appreciation for the way Lebanon provides conditions that allow the ministry to function – but it does mean that any nationalistic notions are measured. Notice how mute the nation is in ABTS’s description of its vision, mission, and ministry but how explicitly the global, regional, and local dimensions of the Church are discussed.

As a community equipped to faithfully serve students of different national backgrounds (many of whom live in locations other than their actual places of nationality), ABTS is mindful of the need to minister across political borders in ways that remain attentive to the localized realities within borders. It is a collective posture embracing the Church as a universal body emplaced globally through profound contextualized expressions. Great is the truth that God’s kingdom does not conform to the constructs of our politically organized world as it manifests across all types of barriers.

The fact that ABTS’s mission extends across borders means that it has always had to deal with borders. Until recently, enrolling seminary students in its programs required delicate management of things like passports, visa applications, and residency permits. Lebanon’s relatively open borders aided ABTS tremendously over the years, and God was faithful to open doors on countless occasions so students could study residentially. Even so, the number of times that academic aspirations were frustrated by the complications of borders is not slight.

In recent years, the task of bringing students to Lebanon was becoming more precarious. Even before COVID-19 sparked severe global travel restrictions, political borders were growing increasingly restrictive. In many ways, the events of 2020 offered a hard reminder that maintaining multinational programs in a world of tightening border controls risks becoming untenable.

When the decision was made to transition ABTS into a fully transnational educational institute that reaches students within their places, it already had the infrastructure and experience of border-crossing learning programs to build upon.

The online-based models of the Certificate of Ministry and Master of Religion (MRel) in Middle Eastern and North African Studies broke ground on allowing ABTS students to enroll in programs without being obliged to reside in Lebanon. This format of virtual learning opened doors for theological education and expanded dimensions of borderless-ness as the seminary became accessible to students anywhere in the world. The once novel approach has now become a new norm.

The reasoning behind ABTS’s emergent Integrated Theology Program has been thoughtfully presented for months, but its advantages are just beginning to be realized. One major benefit is the way the program is trivializing political borders. When the inaugural Integrated Theology Program cohort was admitted this year, students from locations spanning Western Europe, the Arabian Gulf, North Africa, and the Middle East immediately enrolled in a full-fledged theology program without facing the hassle of acquiring travel documents, filing residency permit requests, or enduring the scrutiny of General Security (Lebanon’s immigration services).

In a surprising twist, we discovered that by catering to the needs of students beyond borders ABTS made itself more accessible to students within its own borders. 2021 saw the highest new enrollment of Lebanese students ever in its history!

It is important here to emphasize that ABTS’s further movement towards a type of borderless-ness does not indicate any encroaching notion of placeless-ness. On the contrary, the move to operate beyond political borders amounts to renewed regard for place.

Place is fundamental to the human experience and a core element of the relational dynamic between God and people. Though life is becoming increasingly virtual, people are not. Therefore, any effort to serve the Arab Church must remain attentive to the unique experiences within places. In a world ruled by the nation-state system, national political forces invariably shape the way we experience life in our settings. These are complicated realities for faith communities in the MENA region, and ABTS is tasked with equipping students to witness within such complexities.

Forefront in our thinking is the acknowledgement that a borderless posture does not lead to disengagement from the places of the world, but rather, it drives earnest concern for engagement in all the world. Any inclination to focus on one national context and disregard others is simply not acceptable. For ABTS to succeed in this coming season, it must mobilize to take its presence across borders into the places of its students. As shared in previous chapters, collaboration will be crucial to this success.

Transnational as ABTS may be, its tradition of gathering people is by no means canceled. Students and faculty will travel, borders will be crossed! Yearly modified residencies, like the ones already taking place in the MRel, and regular visits by ABTS teams to student communities will provide important opportunities for soul-enriching, in person interaction. That these will take place both in Lebanon as well as in the students’ own contexts makes the Integrated Theology Program’s in person elements even more versatile and vibrant. The residential program’s rich legacy has not been abandoned; it has been adapted to the new realities to better serve its foundational mission.

ABTS is indeed moving into new (transnational) territory, and it is likely that the courses forward will be informed by reflecting on its heritage of borderless-ness. In fact, recent changes are but developments leading the seminary to another 60 years in the making. From its founding and into the future, ABTS seeks to be a community united to equip people for witness to Christ in their places. May God continue to inspire our orientation to engage from where we are to wherever the Church ministers.