outside and looking in: an unedited response

I often find myself sticking ‘my head above the parapet’, as the saying goes, and then regretting it. This piece continues that trend though I may have passed my theological sell-by date. Largely a god-talk maverick with my ideas more inclined towards order-subverting I have this desperate urge to engage the recent statement by the Executive Committee of the Society for the Study of Theology (January 25, 2022). The crafters may be pleased to know that I have read it a few times with my mind and imagination doing multiple somersaults.

Mindful that a colleague and friend continue to rightly insist that the theological task before us must include ‘moving beyond good intentions’ and taking Greta Thunberg’s charge to move beyond our ‘blah-blah-blah’ I offer in this blog some of the questions and ruminations causing my head to overheat. What follows is not to diminish the necessity and ‘good intentions’ of the SST around the larger task of “enabling inclusive theological discourse”. My observations are intended to take the SST at its own commitment of not “replicating logics that are harmful and violent to those who have been historically silenced”.

But first, I will need to lay my cards on the ground as I do not do the ‘logic’ of table. I confess I do not naturally gravitate towards Guilds and Societies. I did join one Academy and left after a few years as a total misfit and tired of consistent queries about my “discipline”, “area of concentration” and finding it wholly difficult to locate a panel where my papers can ‘fit’ any discipline. And, while technically still with ‘church’ (a sort of ecclesial Society) I have left a long time ago, as I ‘dwell’ elsewhere.  Secondly, there is the matter of the word ‘discipline’ and what this entails, which needs intentional decolonising. It is a loaded word that exudes ‘control’ and when deployed in the context of this statement and the way it is crafted, I can understand my sense of being a misfit given the above.

I recently wrote the following in another context but may be appropriate for my point: “In my work, theological writings, and ministry practices (largely around inclusion, and diversity content themes), I used to hold the view that ‘minority-ness’ serves the purpose of the dominant majority class if we continue to situate ourselves on marginal and peripheral places and if we remain locked in that place, on the periphery (real or imagined). In my own ecclesial community, I have tried to counter this by working with minority groups and privileged traitors from the ‘majority enclave’ to bring the connecting and intersecting discourses ‘centre’ stage on and around the so-called common table at the heart of the Church’s life. The change, I envisioned is yet to happen. It may yet happen in my lifetime, though I am not optimistic. Exclusion seems to thrive even more intensely. That dominant ‘table-space’ or ‘centre’ continue to find ingenious ways to hijack, co-opt, and re-baptise ‘minority-ness’, to keep its own power and maintain its privilege, while giving the impression of an experience of total conversion towards a ‘heaven on earth inclusion’ landscape, life together embodying all the differences of the community.  Majoritarian norms and their agents find it extremely difficult to create space for difference around that often talked about ‘common table’.”

The 1st sentence of the SST statement got my attention as it commences with “the pursuit of truth in theology” which locates the undertaking as privilege or already a privileged group’s entitlement to this pursuit. Should I be warmed that the sentence continues to read: “…demands a multiplicity of voices and a deep commitment to inclusion”? I cannot disagree with this. However, is the demand here presenting multiplicity and inclusion as ‘politics’ or as a recognition of the reality on the ground and around us? Should I read this as SST doing people like me a favour as against the reality that this is the way the world already is — multiple – even if SST failed previously to recognise this?  Would I be inconsiderate in thinking that what seems to be offered in the opening declaration reads like the SST is ‘obliging’ me (among the many other minorities) a voice at their table and that by demanding inclusion is doing me a favour? Who is doing whom a favour here? Furthermore, in this co-opted integrated space of SST where everyone gets to speak, the question for me is: what about those or the theologies that need to be silent for a change?

One of the myths of openness and inclusion is the way such undertaking currently obscures its own inner workings, by sweeping power differentials and inequity under the proverbial rug. So, an intention (as the SST Statement) that proclaims or demands openness and inclusion should be mindful of the danger of side stepping questions of power and agency even when it is clear that such issues remain. I know this from experience as one of the minority voices who was co-opted (intentional use of the word) on Committees/ecclesial leadership/ministry formation wishing to change. Openness and inclusion may contain the seeds of its own closure as inclusion gets hijacked by a framework or by terms of engagement which remain dominantly Eurocentric or within the ‘majoritarian norms’. The awareness of this reality gives me cause to ponder more on the 2nd sentence which reads: “It (pursuit of truth in theology) requires the insights, arguments, and challenges of a diversity of voices…” which reinforces my worry that the framework and reference point is already working with a pre-determined set of optics and modus operandi, perhaps with an unconscious bias around ‘truth in theology’ and about established modalities on what passes for insights, arguments, and challenges.

“Establishing the conditions for inclusion” is commendable and there is no doubt that “building up critical mass from marginalised communities” is a strategic intention.  Besides the query of “on whose terms”, the critical phrase though may be the line: “able to shape the substance and methods of the discipline”. This raises an epistemological question about who has knowledge about what and on what grounds will this reshaping of the substance of the discipline happen. The challenge here is how to rethink and unravel majoritarian world views which still is the epistemic underpinnings of SST. A cursory glance at SST’s themes-speakers and constitution will underscore this.

To move beyond the ‘good intentions of the statement’, SST will need to consider the need to deprovincialize one set of knowledge (Brit-Euro-Western) as its framing medium and fount of all referencing and flip the assumption that there is truth for someone who can know truth for everyone else. SST will need to work on unlinking itself from imperial designs, interrogating the assumptions that sustain its ethos. When things revolve around you, it takes massive work and leaps to do the necessary task of de-centering. Can the minoritized voices coming on board change the terms of the conversation already set-up within a particular frame/mode? This remains a big challenge and massive undertaking. Further, an inclusive discourse does not necessarily mean an anti-racist theological one.

Certainly, there are some ‘good dreaming’ in the statement. And we do need big dreams! Consider the following (for instance) interspersed across the statement: “building an inclusive theological discourse”; “paying attention to the experience of students and staff from historically marginalised backgrounds”; “freedom of enquiry”; “scholarly practice”; “academic canons”; and ‘texts and speakers”. All ought to be warmed by the SST’s commitment to be ‘a community for all scholars and students of theology, and its annual conference a forum where a diverse breadth of backgrounds, experiences, traditions, theological questions, topics, and ways of pursuing them are welcomed’. Perhaps each and all (individuals and institutions) should critically reflect, in this pursuit of excellence and truth, on the kind of knowledge/understanding they are engaged in generating; why and who are being privileged, who are benefitting, and who are taking advantage of such knowledge/understanding etc. And together we should ask: can such questions (and others) be answered by an established discipline or establishment already under trial and implicated as part of the problem?

I would not wish to underestimate the challenge and the adventure before the SST which calls for what some decolonial thinkers are unequivocal about: “epistemic disobedience”. Without this disobedience the terms of (inclusive) conversation will not change. Consequently, the ‘dreams of good intention’ may end up into “business with a degree of managed inclusion”. For the diverse breadth of BAME theologians to join in this ‘labour’ (an interesting term for another conversation) I am sure we need more than the same tools that were used to create so-called ‘genuine theological discourse’ via SST to bring about repair. Thus, I am curious to see how theologians whose past and current work and writings have perpetuated ‘provincial euro-centric terms of engagement’ as reference points to what the rest of us need in order to make our God-talk “genuine” will confess, repent, and convert. In commending what SST is doing, it may be that the problem is more than creating spaces around the table for different voices. We may find that the problem is actually the room in which the table is located. The whole room (SST) may need dismantling to ensure that the dream does not become nightmare.

It is great to read the statement’s recognition that the task ahead “is not only a move towards truth and justice” but that “it is also an activity of love”. I agree. This is the easy bit as most would not disagree over such an activity. Such a ‘love movement’, linked to justice, must be an honest move towards learning from those who have been excluded and are now taking and assuming their own agency. Will SST’s ‘unlearning’ mean that they (the historically excluded) will have their own agency to decide what merits “serious academic attention”? A multitude of sins of assumption (done and about to be done) can be covered up behind what, how and who determines what merits being labelled as [genuine] scholarship.  And so here is a test to the commitment:  can the SST imagine giving up its role/space/resources/inherited deposits and assumptions so that something new can be ‘birthed’ – perhaps some flourishing ‘illogic’ such as where BAME theologians can one day ‘run things’ and determine their own agency? This is where the battle will take place (giving up and letting go). I can only speak for myself: I have grown weary of being co-opted.

© caribleaper January 31, 2022

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