CRITIQUE OF A COURSE PROPOSAL
Eve Parker in the United Kingdom has proposed a new discipline to be included in theological education. Her proposal appeared in the journal of the World Council of Churches:
Eve Parker, “World Christianity as a critique of Whiteness in Theological Education” in The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 74, Number 1, January 2022.
Parker’s argument is that theologies are divided illegitimately into “theology” and “contextual theology.” Normal theology has privilege based on its white imperial supremacist male origin, while theology created by others is marginalized and disadvantaged. “Theology” (without an adjective to modify it) is by people like Barth, Bultmann, and Kung. But theology composed by outsiders has to be justified by the context and comes with a classifier, such as “Feminist Theology,” “Min Jung Theology,” or some subservient branch that is not quite theology at all such as “Cherokee Spirituality.” However, Christianity is shifting south and away from the middle class into the lower class. World Christianity is a reality which ought to impel a “deconstruction of such dominant ways of knowing in theological thought” (p. 49). The solution to this blindness to the new reality of Christianity, and to the facts about how Christianity in the hands of white supremacists suppressed indigenous and native thoughts, Parker submits, is to add a discipline, “World Christianity,” to theological curricula in the UK. This would expose students to voices and experiences they are being prevented from knowing.
Parker’s section about the devadasis is the most astonishing and convincing part of her article. She describes her research among a group of prostitutes who declare knowledge of Jesus as they also have allegiance to the goddess Yellamma. “Many of the women I encountered had converted to Christianity and yet sustained their belief and worship in local village goddesses. …The religious hybridity of the Dalit initiates a religious identity, shaped by the dedicated women’s experience of both the goddess and Christ, where they hold beliefs simultaneously in both and allow both Christ and the goddess to structure their meaning of life” (52). Parker concludes, “… contemplating God in the brothels of the devadasis in South India challenges dominant structures of knowledge production. This is because knowledge instead stems from indecent spaces inclusive of the sexual and religious narratives of the oppressed.” (p. 56)
It is hard to imagine a starker and more convincing example of how alternative theological knowledge is available outside the borders Christianity has erected. Those walls, so old, so strong, and so stoutly defended, may or may not have been built for the sole purpose of protecting Christian imperial enterprises, but they did do that. Colonialist and settler theology discounted non-white races and their knowledge a priori. The church (both Protestant and Catholic) operated on and still upholds the principle that cultures must be wiped out so that Christian culture and civilization can replace them. It is breathtaking to realize how much has been lost and how many have been annihilated in order to promote and protect a non-inclusive, narrow point of view and one that is illegitimately misogynistic, racist, and supremacist. The church has much to answer for. Parker believes that if we bring in narratives from those diverse sources two things will happen: those who listen will gain appreciation for the faith and validity of people whose stories are being told, and the sordid history of Christian expansion will be exposed and confronted.
Parker’s solution is to tinker with the theological curricula of training institutions in the United Kingdom. Her proposal is to add a new discipline called World Christianity. It’s high time, she says, because Christianity has shifted from north to south and has found a new center outside the elite and middle classes. Oppressed and struggling people have become the demographic majority of Christianity. It’s time to stop training the new generation of leaders to be chaplains to white Christians sheltering away from the tectonic shift and gathering storm. The new generation is departing the church in droves and refusing to have anything to do with it. The ship is sinking, but there are other ships in the fleet sailing in new directions.
This new discipline in theological seminaries is a place to start, and something that is doable. So, let it be done. It would be helpful to have Parker explain what the content of that new discipline of World Christianity would be. Curriculum designers need to have that spelled out. What is the scope and who decides what to include and what to exclude? Are there to be limits? How does one get at the narratives from oppressed minorities? Who is going to do the sifting and make the decisions?
It appears that Parker’s proposal is to replace the prevailing mega-narrative about church history with an anthology of stories that describe personal experiences, and to include micro-narratives from Christians around the world, especially those who have been oppressed and struggling. The proposal, if this is accurate, is stunningly post-modernistic. It would, then, have both the benefits and disadvantages of post-modern anti-structuralism, which is bent on eradicating that which (i.e. institutions which) control us and return control to the hands of the smallest social units. The outcome of this could be fragmentation of the church. The result is impossible to know for sure. In principle, from a post-modernist perspective, it would be a good thing to have multiple Christianities. But the history of post-modernism does not encourage optimism. It may be that human nature is basically violent and survivalist. Tribalism takes over when empires collapse. “Me first” is but a step away from “Only Me.”
On the other hand, Christian theology, unencumbered by ecclesial imperialism, espouses compassion and justice, self-abnegation when there is prevailing need, and reliance on sacred sources of strength and endurance. There is no sign that Christian communities outside the white borders are lacking in higher moral standards and are theologically deficient. Actually, as Parker makes clear, we have not listened to voices from most of those communities to know anything about them.
Knowledge production is a key concept for Parker. If the prostitutes of the goddess worshipped by the Dalit have knowledge of Jesus, there is hope for us who are in the Christian gay and queer diaspora. We have often been evicted or at least shunned. We have felt relegated to oblivion as far as our stories and voices are concerned. Any LGBT person in most churches who “comes out” is told to keep quiet or leave.
Yes, there are individual congregations and some whole denominations who are trying to be inclusive. Yes, they are growing in number. Perhaps this substantiates Parker’s proposal. The way these denominations have developed openness to our LGBTQIA presence and are trying to value our contributions of perspective and experience, is by fracturing. When enough of the recalcitrant, obstinate opposition has departed, those who are left are receptive. In short, neo-tribalism is where oppressed people have the best chance to find hospitality and freedom, at least to be going on with.
I cannot imagine how it would work, however, to have our Gay theological perspective included in a course or even a set of courses that attempts to include enough obscure voices to represent the whole scope of World Christianity. There are too many of us. Parker’s proposal, of course, is to expose the emerging generation of Christian leaders to a few examples of theological knowledge from outside the camp so they get the idea that theology is now on a different trajectory. Once they get out of their rut they will go on to discover the amazing variety of valid religious experiences and their commitment will veer into a new direction. This will eventually, possibly, maybe put the church onto a new track. But that will leave their discovery of any particular theological perspective, such as our Gay Theologies, up to chance.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.