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Feminist Hermeneutics & The Task of Theology

Updated June 27, 2021
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Feminist Hermeneutics & The Task of Theology essay

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In Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology, Kwok Pui-Lan draws from the insight of post-colonial theory to critique the tangled relationship between Christianity and colonialism. While Kwok acknowledges that “the Western theological tradition is not monolithic,” she argues that many of its theological projects are laden with imperializing structures and biases because they have neglected to examine how power interacts with religion. Additionally, by deliberately situating the voices of Third World and indigenous women at the center of her work, she also exposes how traditional feminist discourses have not adequately considered the diverse experiences of non-Western women. Kwok explores what it means to do postcolonial feminist theology, even as she acknowledges the ambiguity and difficulty of defining its boundaries.

According to Kwok, postcolonial feminist theology is still developing and has not yet been fully defined. To some extent, it involves steering away from Euro-centrism without romanticizing one’s heritage or culture. Kwok also envisages writings that “reflect an acute understanding of the social, cultural and political impact of colonialism and neocolonialism on women’s lives and on the Christian communities” as postcolonial feminist theology. However, Kwok acknowledges certain tensions must be held in balance when considering what to refer to as postcolonial feminist theology.

On the one hand, Third World and indigenous Christian women have been writing and doing theology for some time, though they may not have called their theological works postcolonial feminist theology. Kwok observes how Ghanaian feminist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s concept of “crossroads Christianity” shares striking similarities with the concept of hybridization in postcolonial thought. Both concepts incorporate fluidity and border crossing, refer to the gray area of the in-between, and defy easy categorizations and boundaries. For these reasons, it would seem appropriate to refer to their contributions as postcolonial feminist theology. Kwok expresses a strong desire to acknowledge the contributions of Third World and indigenous Christian women, even if they have not explicitly referred to their work as postcolonial feminist theology.

On the other hand, Kwok weighs this against the awareness that it is inappropriate to label all writings by Christian women from former colonies as postcolonial feminist theology. Doing so would be reductionist and disingenuous. In order to recognize the diverse theoretical frameworks these theologians have employed, Kwok hesitates to call their works postcolonial feminist theology if the authors have not self-proclaimed that they are working out of such a perspective. Ultimately, there can be no easy definition or designation because “there is no one single postcolonial feminist theology that is adequate or comprehensive enough to cover the pluralistic postcolonial contexts, as the experiences of colonialism are far from homogeneous.” Kwok further acknowledges that postcolonial feminist theology is “still in the gestation process” because its theoretical horizon, its subject matter, and its future direction have yet to be defined.

In some ways, Kwok is less concerned with what postcolonial feminist theology is and more concerned with what it does. That is, she is not interested in establishing an authoritative definition or method but, rather, in considering its potential contributions and applications. For Kwok, “The most important contribution of postcolonial feminist theology will re-conceptualize the relation of theology and empire through the multiple lenses of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and so forth.” Toward this end, Kwok offers up her viewpoint on how postcolonial feminist theology can be applied. She articulates her belief that the task is threefold: to resignify gender, requeer sexuality, and redo theology.

Kwok explains resignifying gender as “moving from a liberal humanist position and a poststructuralist emphasis on difference to a transnational approach that foregrounds relation of female subjects in globalization.” Gender is placed in a wider context that extends beyond geographical or national boundaries. Gender is understood as cross-cultural and transnational.

To requeer sexuality is to trace “the genealogy of sexual discourses in the wider nexus of race, class, and religious difference in the colonial process.” For example, it moves beyond the white queer theology found in the United States or Great Britain to consider the complexities of how sexuality and desire operated in colonial India.

Lastly, redoing theology includes a critical appropriation and interpretation of the theological tradition. Redoing theology involves utilizing different approaches when conceptualizing the scope and themes of theology. It involves examining the imbalance of power associated with theological symbols, the nature of interreligious dialogue, and the impact of environmental degradation on the lives of marginalized women. Redoing theology is an act of imagination. It provides the possibility for new articulations of theology from a myriad of people.

Engagement and Critique

For me, Kwok’s major contribution in Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology is the sheer width and diversity of her work. She presents a multitude of voices, referencing established Western thinkers as well as the works of Third World and indigenous women. Kwok engages with these voices critically and thoughtfully.

In terms of areas which could be improved, I found myself wishing Kwok had offered more thoughts on possibilities for coherency and unity. While I understand that her intent was to stress multiplicity and plurality, it would have been interesting to have more engagement with what unity can be found in the midst of this.

This dynamic can be demonstrated in Kwok’s articulation of Christology, which I found to be one of the most interesting contributions of the book. Kwok begins with the conviction that a postcolonial Christology must push boundaries. A postcolonial Christology must be able to convey nuanced differences of the in-between, the multi-dimensional temporalities, and the multiplicity of voices from men and women. It must be able to offer new possibilities and open up new space for creative theological imagination of who Christ is. In attending to these concerns, Kwok believes “the concept of hybridity, as it has been vigorously debated among postcolonial theorists, offers some important hints” to a development of a postcolonial Christology.

According to Kwok, hybridity is not simply the mixing of two languages or the juxtaposition of two cultures; this definition, which often comes in tandem with a liberal or pluralistic understanding, neglects the interplay of power and speaks as if the two languages or culture were on equal footing. Rather, hybridity in postcolonial discourse “deals specifically with the colonial authority and power of representation.” Another aspect to hybridity is the acknowledgement regarding colonization as “a double inscription process” which impacts the metropolis as much as the colonies. Thus, hybridity “exposes the myths of cultural purity, the monologic discourse, unitary enunciation, and the collapse of difference that legitimize colonial authority.” Lastly, hybridity in postcolonial discourse acts to destabilize the frame of reference clings to binaries as the sole mode of understanding. Hybridity critiques rigid boundaries and challenges a frame of mind which binary opposites: black and white, East and West, European and the native.

Using this term, Kwok posits “the most hybridized concept in the Christian” is that of Jesus as Christ. The images of Jesus as Christ presented in the New Testament are highly pluralistic and hybridized, “emerging out of the intermingling of the cultures of Palestine, the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora, and the wider Hellenistic world.” It straddles the borderland between “the human and the divine, the one and the many, the historical and cosmological, the Jewish and the Hellenistic, the prophetic and the sacramental, the God of the conquerors and the God of the meek and lowly.” There are no neat categories or easy closure; the space between Jesus and Christ is fluid.

This ambiguity is both unsettling and fruitful. The space between Jesus and Christ can be a source for profound richness and vibrancy in the way it defies binaries. As Kwok notes, “Christian community is diminished whenever the space between Jesus and Christ is fixed” due to the “need for doctrinal purity, the suppression of syncretism, or the fear of contamination of native cultures.” This non-binary, holistic way of thinking has tremendous implications on how to engage with difference. Difference is not a threat, but an opportunity for richness and exploration.

I found this argument by Kwok incredibly compelling. However, I would like to add nuance to her discussion about the formation of orthodoxy. Kwok argues that “under political pressure and amidst ecclesial rivalry, the early Christian councils sought to differentiate orthodoxy from heterodoxy” as service to “the imperial unity” of the expanding Roman empire which “required some kind of doctrinal uniformity.” As a result, an open-ended and fluid understanding of Christology was lost. Kwok then notes that “it is important to remember the Christological formulas crafted in Nicaea, Ephesus, or Chalcedon where never accepted as normative by all Christians. These creedal and “orthodox” formulas never succeed in silencing the debates or shutting out the voices of dissent.”

It is here that I would like to propose another possibility for understanding orthodoxy. While Kwok rightly points out how orthodoxy can be a coded word for normalizing domination, I believe there is another way to re-interpret our understanding of orthodoxy. In regards to the Christological debates at the Council of Chalcedon, the gathering produced a confession that affirmed both the human and the divine nature of Christ. This is a radical statement. The Chalcedonian definition allows us to contemplate the ways in which Christ’s very nature and being embodies hybridity.

Christ is fully human, and Christ is fully divine. Jesus’ incarnated being resists the binary of being only one substance. While hybridity can, and often does, offer a critique against the established doctrines of theological thought, that is not its only function or relationship to orthodoxy; there is the possibility that, at times, hybridity illuminates and supports existing patterns of theological thought. There is the potential for coherence and unity that can be found, even while lifting up multiplicity and diversity.

Feminist Hermeneutics & The Task of Theology essay

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