Monday, January 31, 2011


Call me cynical, but here’s my suspicion: Adjectives in front of theology are deceptive. Yes, they’re needed; no, I’m not against them, but still, they’re deceptive. Here’s how.
By distinguishing some theology with a modifier — feminist, black, Latin American, eco-, post-colonial, or indigenous, we are playing into the idea that these theologies are special, different — boutique theologies if you will. Meanwhile, unmodified theology — theology without adjectives — thus retains its privileged position as normative. Unmodified theology is accepted as Christian theology, or orthodox theology, or important, normal, basic, real, historic theology.
But what if we tried to subvert this deception? What if we started calling standard, unmodified theology chauvinist theology, or white theology, or consumerist, or colonial, or Greco-Roman theology? The covert assumption behind the modifier post-colonial thus becomes overt, although it is generally more obliquely and politely stated than this:  Standard, normative, historic, so-called orthodox Christian theology has been a theology of empire, a theology of colonialism, a theology that powerful people used as a tool to achieve and defend land theft, exploitation, domination, superiority, and privilege.
If that doesn’t sound disturbing, I’m not writing well or you’re not reading well.
Noting that "If standard Christian theology has indeed been colonial, then we would expect it to have certain characteristics," McLaren lists the following:
  1. It would explain — historically or theologically — why the colonizers deserve to be in power — sustained in the position of hegemony.
  2. It would similarly explain why the colonized deserve to be dominated — maintained in the subaltern or subservient position.
  3. It would provide ethical justification for the phases and functions of colonization — from exploration to settlements to land acquisition to minority marginalization to segregation to hegemony-maintenance, even to ethnic cleansing.
  4. It would bolster the sense of entitlement and motivation among the colonizers.
  5. It would embed the sense of submission and docility among the colonized.
  6. It would facilitate alliances with political and economic systems that were supportive of or inherent to colonialism.
  7. It would camouflage or cosmetically enhance its ugly aspects and preempt attempts to expose them.
As a little thought experiment, replace "colonizers" with "men" and "colonized" with "women," and ask yourself, does this describe typical Church of Christ doctrine and practice? I think you know what I think you'll find...

3 comments:

Gil said...

How is an experiment replacing and modifying nouns with gender like "colonizers" for "men" and "colonized" for "women" different then the use of a modifier adjectives in theology? The experiment you propose is to re-expose practices and doctrines in the Church of Christ. If the use of modifier adjectives is deceptive what do you think, what would you say, anyone who carries out the experiment will have revealed for themselves?

I share and hold a similar dislike with you, even if for slightly different reasons, on the use of adjectives in theology as you have stated. We've heard it before: Figures don't lie, but liars figure. This bit of cynicism has a measure of truth when applied to words. Words can be shuffled around, substituted and modified to create a different, prefered meaning. This is not limited to theology, but as this is the discussion here, I would say the objective of these manipulations is to create distance between ourselves and any sort of shame and disgrace, or, to put shame and disgrace on another individual or a group.

The theology Paul implemented and modeled even while absent from Corinth was not to modify or manipulate the sinful situation. This, Paul was not ashamed to reveal, is (pardon the modifier) practical theology, theology in practice, the knowledge of the Sovereign Holy God among some all too human disciples. He didn't, like Jonah, turn to create distance between himself and the saints in Corinth. He didn't engage in putting shame or disgrace on anyone. That had already been established. They proudly boasted and called it "love." We know from the second Corinthian epistle the matter was rectified and the brother was restored.

I believe anyone who performs your experiment will see what you think (and hope?) they will see. What then? How many times is this and similar experiments to be performed only to remained fixated on what has been, what is rather than moving forward to what will be with each one of us working to shape that future, not by our might, but by the Holy Spirit who indwells. Having said all this, I do find great value in your words because they reflect insight and not slogans or sound bites.

JTB said...

The opening words are McLaren's--I included them simply to give a little contextual framing for the list of characteristics he suggests for a colonial/imperial theology. I don't disagree with his point though, which I take to be that the adjectives themselves are not problematic--the cultural context within which we use them, however, is, in the way that it reserves one type of theology as the "unmarked" (and therefore somehow universally applicable) category. The 4th century Cappadocian Fathers are no less contextual than contemporary feminist theology--but we don't treat them the same, and the issue becomes one of epistemic/ecclesial authority. So I also basically agree with his suggested solution: everything should be "marked" with an adjective, because that's simply descriptive of how things actually are. No one is producing a theology that's unmarked by their perspective, social and geographical location, etc. It's not humanly possible to do so.

(For a CofC context, that lesson needs to be taken to heart with regard to both the biblical text and our own hermeneutics. But I digress, and for that, anyway, Jamey Walters is your man, and he gets credit for pointing me to the McLaren post as well.)

Not sure how to respond to your last point. Can't say I disagree, but it sure is depressing. No one can force the kind of conversion experience it takes to wake up to the realities of gender injustice in our CofC churches--and of course, I see people putting up a hell of a fight to resist it, all the time--but I do think that once this happens, the full moral, spiritual weight of it is immediately apparent and resists a fearful flight back into willful ignorance or apathy.

Gil said...

I have always sought to be enveloped in the wholeness of the body of Christ. What I mean by that and the value of that is that being inside, or aware, of all that goes on and in the body of Christ keeps me mindful, though not necessarily focused on every "issue." This is not to save an issue is not important. It is to say that in due time, being inside the body, I know and I trust the Spirit will bring me to that issue.

The value of that is that regardless of my likes or dislikes or abilities and inabilities I am led there for the glory of the Father, the building up of the saints, and, here's the (choke! gasp! gulp!) tough part about it: my humility.

I've long taken to heart Mordecai's words to Esther: Who knows if you have not come into the kingdom for such a time as this. It was for Esther to boast on a matter to which she required some prodding from Mordecai before she stepped up on behalf of her brethren. Certainly, I am made to wonder if I have come into the kingdom for such a time as this. That time is now as concerns the preaching minisry of the royal priesthood of believers [my prefered term rather than the culturally tempered "gender inclusivity"] as concerns my sisters in Christ and just as much, my brothers in Christ, too.

I only recently "met" Jamey Walters after listening to a podcast of his and commented on his message.