Theology beyond colonialist logic
Among the many Constantinian assumptions that much Protestantism shares quite uncritically with Rome is a commitment to modes of imperialism that preference and propagate particular cultural forms. The near-idolatry of, and proclivity to proliferate, its own forms, coupled with an ecclesiocentric view of the world, has very often restricted the church from entering into unfamiliar territory in anything but highly-qualified and guarded ways – ways usually accompanied by the violent protection of the state, such as was the case with the Conquistadors (lit. ‘conquerors’) who sought to extend the bounds of Europe to the Americas, to Oceania, to Africa, and to Asia.
I have been reminded of this narrative again recently while reading Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Jennings maps how among the many tragic consequences of associating Christian belief with the power of colonial conquest has been the ways that Christian theology has been harnessed as a ‘discourse of displacement’ which both imagines and appraises new situations ‘wholly within a colonialist logic’. This, as Jennings suggests, has ‘changed the trajectory of the teleological framework of Christianity’ and ‘established a strange kind of insularity and circularity for Christian traditions of enquiry’. One result of this decision has been that ‘the inner coherence of traditional Christian inquiry’ has been ‘grafted onto the inner coherence of colonialism’.
Reflecting upon the work of the Spanish theologian and naturalist José de Acosta who, in 1570 and at the age of 32, travelled with his Jesuit brothers from Spain via Columbia and Panama to teach at the newly-established mission in Peru, Jennings outlines the ways that the historic colonialist trajectory of much Christian theology is marked by ‘pedagogical imperialism’ and ‘epistemic insularity’ that makes it frightfully difficult for theologians to imagine whom we ‘belong to as we write, as we think, as we pray. This problem’, Jennings argues, ‘has fundamentally to do with a world formed and continuing to be formed to undermine the possibilities of Christians living together, loving together, and desiring each other. Such a desire is not a narcissistic longing for self to be seen in others, or an indulgent seeking for the comfort of like-minded doctrinal confessors. It is the necessary beginning for overturning the remade world’.
Naming some of the implications of this challenge for his own context as a teacher serving in the academy, Jennings argues that ‘Black Atlantic Christianity … lacks appeal because, enamored of the power and beauty of whiteness, … [it] presents itself to no one but itself and tragically invites “nonwhite” peoples to do the same. An intellectual life formed in so unappealing a setting becomes crushingly insular. It is exactly the insularity of Christian theology and all its identifiers (for example, orthodox, liberal, conservative, and so on) and the insularity of its Christian contextual responses and all its identifiers (for example, African, Asian, feminist, womanist) that repeatedly show Christians the missed opportunities of Christian intellectual life’.
Jennings’ is work launched by the assumption that worlds constituted on slave ships or by racial subjugation need to be overturned, and even where such efforts are provisional at best, such capsizing bears witness to the right orientation of things birthed of the hope gifted by the God of life. Such capsizing also calls for drawing from ‘the processes of displacement and translation clearer sight of something genuinely new in the formation of Christianity in modernity, the interpenetration of the vernacularization of Christianity and the production of space’. The logic of the incarnation means that the life and witness of the Christian community must not, as Jennings puts it, ‘stand over native flesh’. (Jennings is concerned to not dismiss what he calls ‘the important parental legacy of Christianity’ insofar as these nurture academic work in the modern West, especially for Black intellectuals. But, he argues, ‘we must not allow this legacy to blind us to the aching absence of a truly Christian intellectual community’ that reflects in its work ‘the incarnate reality of the Son who has joined the divine life to our lives and invites us to deep abiding intellectual joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only of beliefs and practices but of common life, and all of it of the multitude of many tongues’.) To proceed along such lines is to abandon one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones.
Some Recent Watering Holes
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
- Damion Searls on how psychiatrists used Rorschach tests to examine Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.
- George Monbiot’s piece on being ‘Screened Out’.
- Julian Cribb on why ‘coal will kill more people than WWII’.
- Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, and John Menadue reckon that ‘we can stop the boats and also act decently, fairly and transparently’.
- The announcement about the National Gallery of Australia’s ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ coming up later this year!
- Chris Green’s Ash Wednesday reflection – Christ’s Death Lives in Us.
- Steve Wright’s Ash Wednesday reflection – To dust.
- Mary Beard is simply awesome: check out her piece on Seneca and her lecture on women in power, delivered at the BM.
- For those within cooee of Melbourne, this looks good – Thomas Crow, Anne Dunlop, and Charles Green talking about theological originality in art.
- Matthew Sharpe on Montaigne’s Essays.
- Jane Hutcheon talks to Reg Mombassa.
- Michael Hobbes on the epidemic of gay loneliness.
- Jonathan Sacks on the architecture of holiness.
- Rick Floyd has been looking for light in the shadow of death.
- Jason Guriel on Christian Wiman and ‘kind of faith that a poet had better not lose’.
- Queensland, a part of the country where most locals seem to espouse the philosophy that two wongs don’t make a white and which is not especially well known for a radical brand of Christianity, sees some religious fanatics charged for beating swords into garden hoes.
- A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius, plus his good little introduction to Christianity.
- Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump’s America.
- John Milbank on the problem of populism and the promise of a Christian politics.
- Scott Jackson asks, ‘Was Niebuhr a “Real” Theologian?’
- The University of Divinity is seeking a Director for its Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP).
- Swee Ann Koh asks, ‘Is there racism in the church?’
- Paul Collier reviews a couple of recent efforts to understand the logic and opportunities of, and challenges to, capitalism. Along the way, he has some insightful things to say about nationalism, ‘nationhood’, multiculturalism, and global citizenship too. (However, given the reality of religion, for example, it would be very difficult to defend the claim that ‘nationhood is the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity’.)
- Why students hate peer review, and how to make it work better for them.
- Watching Umberto Eco and his books and books and books and paintings and books and books and ladders means that I will tolerate no more complaints on this subject, from anyone.
- Speaking of no complaints, Doug Gay’s third public lecture on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism is now available here.
‘We will no more be able to shield our eyes from class struggle, which began in the previous century within the nation and now has gripped all continents, gripped them indeed as a deadly conflict between the privileged and those who have been exploited for centuries. What disguises itself as the free market system and which promises to enrich all, is in reality the continuation of imperialism and colonialism by means of a capitalistic system. It survives by the third world delivering raw materials and taking back our finished goods, among which – and this is especially abominable – are weapons of every sort. Thus the slums grow, which are the underside of our prosperity, and for three quarters of humanity our earth becomes a hell, in which hunger, murder, and prostitution reign and everyone struggles with the other for survival’.
– Ernst Käsemann, 1988
[Image: Andrew Cullen]
Settler Colonialism and the Freedom of Religion
Here’s my brilliant colleague, Mark Brett, talking about settler colonialism, the freedom of religion, and the witness-invitation of Roger Williams:
Claiming Sovereignty: Theological Perspectives
The University of Divinity, Whitley College, the Centre for Theology and Ministry, and the Commission for Mission of the UCA are organising what sounds like a wonderful conference ‘to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context’:
In a context where Indigenous claims remain unresolved, the rights of asylum seekers are contested, and global economic forces are making new demands on nation states, the theme of sovereignty demands closer examination. Beginning with discussion of settler colonialism, this conference brings together people from a range of disciplines to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context.
Speakers include R. S. Sugirtharajah, Djiniyini Gondarra, Robyn Sampson, and Joanna Cruickshank, and a call for papers (proposals due by 15 June) has also been issued.
Further details are available here, or contact Mark Brett or Monica Melanchthon.