Apr 12, 2017

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6th Steve De Gruchy Memorial Lecture – ‘Decolonizing theology’

6th Steve De Gruchy Memorial Lecture – ‘Decolonizing theology’

The 6th Memorial Lecture honouring Steve de Gruchy was delivered on 4 April by Prof Graham Ward, scholar in Divinity at Oxford University, England.

When John de Gruchy invited me to give this lecture and asked for a proposed title, I wrote: ‘Doing Theology in South Africa’. He sharpened that title and made, for me, a considerable challenge: ‘Decolonizing Theology’. I accepted the challenge; but that made it no less daunting when coming to research and write this lecture. This is dangerous stuff and if my respondent were to describe the effort as “totally presumptuous” or “fatuously ignorant”, then I could only nod my head. It is presumptuous – on at least three counts. First, it’s presumptuous because I’m part of the empire that colonized and still does colonize. In the hands of the Western leaders are the IMF, the World Bank and the international development funds. And every ambition of Oxford University is an imperial ambition – to be the world leader in the educational economy. Furthermore, I’m an Anglican priest and so a purveyor of what SEK Mqhayi called “the false gods of the white man.” Secondly, it’s presumptuous because I’m an Englishman using my own language – and language is the bearer not just of ideas and representations, but also of social relations. It’s a key tool in productivity of all kinds (from the workings of parliament to the construction of bridges). Language is how culture becomes embedded and evolves. It shapes the way we think and what we can think; the way we perceive and experience the world and the way we can perceive and experience the world. The Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his highly perceptive book The Decolonized Mind, writes concerning colonialist imposition: “its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.” I am aware, and thankful, that in South Africa several languages are spoken daily, not just English. But I am also aware that my language, not just in the past but even more importantly today, is a hegemonic one; a bearer of imperial values (moral, intellectual and aesthetic). Thirdly, and possibly most conclusively, I am ignorant – ignorant of South African history, the history of its peoples, the history of negotiating the foreigner that goes back almost 400 years. I am most ignorant of the Black theologians who carried on that negotiation since at least the time of James Read and John Philips in the early C19th.

So given all that why did I accept John’s challenge? Well in part, through the love I have for him, Isobel and their family; in part, though I didn’t know Steve, I know their abiding love for Steve; in part because I wanted to honour of their trust in me; and in part because of Australia. A few years ago I was giving a series of lectures at the biannual conference of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Society. We were in Freemantle, close to Perth. I picked up from talking to people of all ages from students to academics that connections with Europe were lifelines for their theology, for their sense of intellectual prowess, for their sense even of being civilized and cultured. Having degrees from Europe, having studied in Europe, applying to study in Europe, visiting Europe were all key to their self-esteem; their sense of being an academic or aspiring to be an academic on the international scene. Paper after paper, dissertation after dissertation, book after book, I listened to or heard about dealt with or referenced significant theologians and philosophers from the European and Anglo-American tradition. Where they spoke about something distinctively Australian they were methodologically closer to cultural studies; but theologically and philosophically it was the German or the French or the American or the British (and just occasionally the Latin American) voices they were citing, analyzing, comparing, contrasting and in debate with. After three days, and having got to know one of my hosts pretty well I ventured a totally generalizing observation: “It seems to me,” I said, “most Australians live around the edges of this country so they can leave it whenever possible to go to Europe or the States.” I can’t recall what her reply was, but I followed it up with a question: “Where is the Australian theology being done? How does the theology done here hook up to the land, its languages, its spiritual and material histories?” It seemed to me that many of the people at the conference felt they were still in some ‘outpost’, on some ‘frontier’, in some cultural backwater. Yet, at the same time, they were immensely proud of being Australian.

Now it’s a long time since Australia was a colony; but the colonized imagination, the colonized mentality seemed to me – as an outsider – still very strong. And I don’t think that’s because they have yet to throw off the status as a commonwealth or erase the cultural presence of the Queen. It’s much deeper than that. So, the question I’m posing tonight (and I really don’t know the answer because, on the whole, the universities I have visited and have associations with are few and possibly unrepresentative) – but the question I’m posing is “Where is the South African theology being done?”

Let me put this a little more sharply. When anyone writes to be published they have a public in mind. Only then can they communicate. Even doctoral students writing their dissertations and hoping eventually to publish them write with more than their supervisors and their potential examiners in mind. They are writing for an audience; they may even imagine their readership, the acclaim for their work they desire. So, more sharply, for whom are the professional theologians writing? Because under colonialism, as Fanon, understood, “the native intellectual gives proof that he [or she] has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. His [or her] writings correspond point by point with those of his opposite numbers in the mother country. His [or] her aspiration is European [or, more generally, Western] and we can easily link up these works with definite trends in the [theological] literature of the mother country.” For Fanon, this is a period in a national self-understanding “of unqualified assimilation.”

To be sure, I’m speaking now to professional theologians and I am Protestant enough to believe enthusiastically in the “priesthood of all believers” and, therefore, that we are all theologians – because we are all called not just to have faith but to seek an understand of that faith such that we can give an account of the hope that is within us in Jesus Christ. But the theology we teach gets filtered down or filtered out by the preachers and priests we educate. It informs not just their reading of Scripture but also its interpretation. So the faith of the very least Christian, valiantly trying to make sense of what they believe in and through their experience of the world, is potentially affected by the more abstract and reflective theology being produced by the educators for the laity. I may be wrong. South Africa may be more like Britain where the schooling in theology of those ordained or about to be ordained in the church is more a matter of getting through the qualification hoops. The theology in the churches then bearing very little relation to what the professional theologian produces. If so that credibility gap between what goes on in the academy and what goes on in the churches needs to be examined. The examination may indeed answer my question: “Where is the South African theology being done?” Because where theology is being done, whether colonial assimilation or authentically rooted in the land, its people, its languages, its spiritual and material histories there Christian mindsets are being formed.

So I’ve set out my first question: how decolonized is South African theology? I want to proceed now to my second question. If, in giving me this title to lecture on, there is a sense that South African theology needs to decolonized, then my second question is how should this be done? Let me sketch an answer. It comes in three stages.

The first stage, which I name after the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty on Indian decolonization, is provincializing Europe. We’ll leave aside the US at the moment – because the globalization of the culture of the US is overwhelming, but it’s empire is economic with respect to South Africa, not geopolitical and historical. Provincializing Europe is important for diminishing the power of the fetish in our own heads; and I say that as a European because we have to stop pretending to be a world-player. To provincialize Europe is to call into question the sense of having to emulate; most cultural emulation of Europe in Africa is envy. And the envy is misplaced. Europe did not invent theology – Jewish, Christian or Islamic. It was the translator, transmitter and interpreter for the theology already established in sacred texts and other languages. For many centuries, and the famous ecumenical councils are indicative of this, a distinction was made (and still is made by the Orthodox Church) between Christian theology of the West and Christian theology of the East. If the West became increasingly hegemonic the basis for that development was historical, and not a matter of cultural superiority. The difference was linguistic (Greek and Latin), ethnic, economic and political – social, cultural and even ecclesial structures in Alexandria were not the same as those in Rome. Western theology became hegemonic.

Today, Europe is tired and its power declining. It’s been at death’s door several times in the twentieth century; but as individual nations. During the struggle and then in the independence of Algeria Fanon was already pointing out that Europe was profoundly mired in its own post Second World War problems – far too mired to solve North Africa problems. The European Community restored it economically and politically; gaining a great deal of its ability to punch above its weight from the Cold War and the NATO alliance. The Cold War now is different and the future of NATO is insecure. Today, that united Europe faces major economic troubles, with some countries to the south having high youth unemployment. It has difficulties about where to draw it’s own boundaries – with a queue for future membership which includes Turkey. It has an ageing population with a decline in birthrates among its indigenous peoples. It finally has all the conflicts concerning migration and the free movement of peoples across its collective territories. And Britain going it alone is fraught with its own difficulties. The main advantage of Brexit, I feel, is the stimulus it has given and will give to stop its citizens being depoliticized consumers and provoke us into realizing we have to become responsible nation-builders. Not nationalists – goodness, Europe has gone through that nightmare! No doubt the European Union will bounce back, reform its entrenched ways of doing things, and replenish its reputation. But as a global superpower its days are over. Its cultural achievements have been great, but history will judge its political achievements harshly, I think. And I doubt its creation of Enlightenment universals will guarantee it a dominant place in world-culture in the future. After all, as the African colonies became increasingly aware – its vast belief and promotion of human rights did not prevent their inhuman activities elsewhere in the world.

Closer to home, with the discipline of theology and philosophy: after two centuries Germany is no longer the intellectual powerhouse for theological and philosophical thinking; nor is France the powerhouse for post Second World War radical thinking and critical theory. They cannot speak universally. In fact, the attempt to speak universally leads to fracture and further fracture until we’re back with the local. We’re back with why place matters – in every sense of that word ‘matters’. Feminism led to womanism, led to black women’s studies and Latina studies and the uncoupling ‘white’ from its invisible hegemony. When Serene Jones, the President of Union Seminary in New York, came here a few years back one of her observations in a private conversation was that black women in New York are not the same in attitude and behaviour to the black women she was meeting. We tried to tease out some of the differences. Black women are more confident here – was one of her conclusions. Being Black, or being White, or being Coloured are not the same across the world; they are each caught up in different social and economic hierarchies, class and caste systems and histories of domination or oppression.

The same has to be said for certain theological categories: the concepts we use and the connections we make through those concepts – the very theo-logics we construct, play out differently in different cultures and languages. Let me take one small example – though I think I could make a similar case for our Christologies, soteriologies, ecclesiologies, Pneumatologies, notions of sin, repentance and theological anthropologies. But let me take one example. The doctrine of justification by faith was one of the foundations of the Protestant imagination. It was nurtured by a change in the legal system as feudalism started to collapse with the growth of urban culture in the late Mediaeval and Renaissance period. It took hold of a phrase by St. Paul, and read its own new legal and law-court trends into that phrase – a phrase that could never bear that interpretation for Paul and the Graeco-Roman culture he inhabited. It did this in the way, earlier, Anselm had erected his own doctrine of the atonement upon Feudal-based political sovereignty. If it is used today, propounded by theologians today, it is centuries out of date unless it is radically rethought and reimagined. Melanchthon’s definition of the doctrine cannot hold; it lacks total credibility in the cultures we inhabit. At best it’s a metaphor – one of several used in the New Testament – and we have to find ways to retranslate and reinterpret this metaphor. And since each national legal system is different, likewise access to the justice of that system, likewise conceptions of how just that system actually is (and for whom) – then any theological reappropriation of the Pauline phrase “justification by faith” is also going to be different. If that model of salvation, and its relation to sin, repentance and sanctification, is still central (which I doubt, though I know others would disagree) – then there is a South African reading of those concepts and the theological connections made on its. My Anglo-American account of the doctrine will not work here. My account may offer suggestions for imaginative and creative thinking; I hope it would do that. But the concepts and the connections will be translated differently – even where the same language (English) is being used. And this is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country – I’ll come back to that.

Second step in decolonizing theology is, once more, a mode of translation, because we can learn from traditions of theological thinking – Eastern and Western – but we need to inhabit them in the material cultures as we live, breath and experience them. Fanon viewed the second step – the first for him being colonial emulation and assimilation – as contestation.

Let’s presuppose that being a professional theologian is not about finding your ranking on an international stage and therefore being in competition with those already perched high up there because they were educated or teach at Yale or Heidelberg, Oxford, Paris or Rome. I’ll say something about how difficult that is in our present university systems later. But let’s presuppose being a professional theologian is not even about gaining a reputation for erudition; one’s work being read by those in the traditional powerhouses for theological education who are or should be impressed by it. Rather, let’s presuppose that being a theologian is being trained in the various arts of theological enquiry to serve in his or her generation in an understanding of the faith that is being lived and practiced; to help, through prayer, discernment, study, discussion and contestation, understand the work of God in the redemption of the world in all its busyness today. Let’s presuppose it’s about struggling alongside others to be attuned to the work of Christ in and beyond the church today; being taught and led by the Holy Spirit what the gospel is today – and acting upon it in teaching and writing. In sum, that being a professional theologian is a response to a call not a career choice.

If we presuppose this, then we start to understand the theological task as trying to make sense of what God means, what salvation means, what the kingdom means, what the church means, what justice, beauty, goodness, forgiveness, mercy, and love mean today, in our contexts. We are not adding our footnotes to theologians of the past or even elaborating justifications for our faith, our denominational faith. We’re involved in creating an understanding for those of the faith seeking understanding; and the task is fundamentally existential – it’s about making sense of life and of living well, behaving better; or it is about nothing at all. And that living and behaving is not about isolated, purified individuals, but about communities and commonwealths of well-being that takes in the whole of creation. That living well and behaving better is the witness and testimony to God’s glory; the God with us and the Kingdom of God among us.

So we learn: from reading and engaging the Scriptures (not as homogenous as is frequently believed), from the social and cultural life in which we are immersed, and from past examples of those who have reflected theologically before us. Two of those examples will remain central, even foundational: the Apostles’ Creed (western in origin) and the Nicene Creed (Asia/African in origin depending where you place the very influential Egypt). Contestations about the Creeds, their meaning, and the context of their creation are still being fought among Patristic scholars – and each took centuries to gain acceptance. And then there are a long line of pre and post-Nicene figures – from Tertullian and Augustine, to Luther and Rahner. We must always remember two things about past examples – the Creeds apart. One: they are in the past not the present – not written as universal blueprints for what is the case, but located answers to located situations. And two: we handle our interpretations of those examples not the examples as churches or the theologians understood them then. But borrowing and learning from is not the same as being dependent upon. There is also need to get over the fear of contamination and syncretism; a need to stop believing in some theological purism. We are treating mysteries here and we are, as St. Paul recognized, stewards of such mysteries. There is no pure theology, and pace Barth we shouldn’t be remotely thinking that’s our theological goal.

The second step, the contestation of the colonized, is an act of transplantation –which is an act, as I said, of translation. This is important to understand. Translation is always one of the first acts of colonialism; it possesses by reimagining the strange and foreign in terms of the familiar, the common. It is not simply that something is lost in the translation; something is erased. Often colonialism attempted to erase the mother-tongue or mother-tongues, chasing the utopian dream of homogenization so the ‘outpost’ can be recognized as an geographical extension of the homeland. There are accounts of children at school and adults in the workplace being punished and alienated if they didn’t use the mother-tongue of the colonials – French, Portuguese, English, for example. This is wa Thiong’o writing about Kenya: “Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotional felt experience… The language of conceptualization was foreign. Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language… This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility.” This is what he calls “colonial alienation”. Gyatari Spivak, writing about India, uses the term “epistemological violence”. By this means, colonization becomes not just an historical act whereby one people is subjugated to another, more powerful people, but an imaginative act that changes the way people come to think about, articulate and experience the world in which they live, or have come to live. It starts to forge a new collective memory, a new mentality, such that it becomes difficult and strange to think outside the box, outside of the categories that have been handed down and taught as normative. I think this strangeness and difficulty becomes even more pronounced within such intellectual disciplines that have strong notions of the ‘tradition’, ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘canon’; disciplines that because of these strong notions are inherently conservative. Like theology, for example.

I will return to that in my closing remarks; for now I hope it is evident that if decolonization doesn’t engage in acts of translation and transplantation, then, as wa Thiong’o points out: the location of the “great mirror of the imagination” remains “European and its history and culture and the rest of the universe [is] seen from that centre.” For wa Thiong’o, as for Fanon, language is the carrier of culture, “and culture carries…the entire code of values by which we come to perceive ourselves.” It is in the translation and transplantation that the contestation with colonial hegemony is conducted. How it is conducted depends upon how we understand the composition and evolution of cultures themselves.

There is model for cultural composition and change that is entirely misguided and leads to contestations in which ‘reversal’ rather than translation rules. I’ll explain because I think from my own experience of being in South Africa and visiting South Africa over two decades, this is crucial. The ‘reversal’ model of decolonization is rather like Bultmann’s programme for demythologization: pealing away the colonial layers to get at the precolonial kernel of the kerygma; often in terms of an original language of the people. This model is deeply naïve about the way cultures function and change. It owes much to Marx’s distinction between the superstructure (laws, policies, and the institutions disseminating and socializing them etc.) and the substructure (the people, its labour and its production). This model won’t work because the social and the cultural in terms of relations, values, thought, imagination and language are more complex that any simple layering of reality. It may have worked in the past when a Manichean reality pitied colonial against native. But I doubt it when I look at Algeria, say, or Kenya. The histories of countries are far far more complex than any revolutionary process. The revolutionary change is an event – with dramatic consequences. But it is never a clean, irruptive break between past and present. Deep historical continuities will remain and in the post-revolutionary culture these continuities will have to be negotiated and rewoven into the entire history of the country. For it is in the entire history of a country that the identity of its national belonging lies.

The new South African constitution provided something of a tabula rasa for a new future. True, tabula rasas are never as clean as we might wish they could be; fights for freedom, justice and equal access to opportunities continue from the past into the present. But it would seem to me South Africa is much further down the line from that decolonizing moment of reversal that provided the space for a new constitution. The decolonization now is concerned with mental habits that have been internalized and where the west retains spectres of superiority – most notably in education. (And I’ll return to the education in a moment.) Or where, following global trends that characterize themselves as universal destinies and prerequisites for advancement, decolonization is actually creating new cultural and social colonialisms in the name of many-headed Empire based on capital wealth and military might.

To decolonize habits of mind, sensibility, and ways of feeling, experiencing and valuing, is a long process. Peeling away layers will not help because eventually, as with demythologization, and you eventually have nothing. Cultures are not layered like cakes so you can skim off the cream or icing and arrive at the real substance of what is South African. The sheer complexity of mother-tongues and their histories in this country make such a model of decolonization impossible. But in that impossibility lies a certain truth: because cultures are vast, complex, multidimensional networks of interactive parts: discourses, artifacts, institutions, languages, histories (among many other entities), and people who live and internalize these networks as ways of making sense of what they experience. They are never homogenous – that’s a colonial fantasy; a fantasy profoundly entwined with notions of dominion and sovereignty: a fantasy then about power. The decolonization model I am proposing then involves reshaping and bending these vast and complex, multidimensional networks in a way that best serves to make sense in a South African context to multilingual, multi-ethnic South Africans. There cannot be even a Pan-African approach because what went on here and goes on here, the languages used to express it, the histories with which those languages are interwoven, the institutions established to disseminate and reflect upon it, the ways people work and the ways people think – none of them are continental. They are South African. That isn’t nationalism, or it doesn’t need to be nationalism if we are critically sensitive to nationalist ideologies. It’s as basic as geographies, climates, animal life and cultivation at its most primary level; a cultivation that nurtures those who belong and understand themselves as belonging. In that there is some rich politics, I admit. But decolonization is and always will be a profoundly political project.

On my model, decolonization is not then about peeling away layers of western influence most importantly western languages. In fact, such a ‘reversal’ model is itself a most colonial act – because it is thoroughly akin to logic of getting back to some raw and naked precolonial state. This is the logic of modernity itself with its myth of the new order of Enlightenment that puts the old dark ages aside. The past cannot be erased, however traumatic; it has to be worked through. But for a number of years now the major prizes for English literature have gone to writers who have taken the language as their own and done something new with it: writers from the West Indies, from India, and from South Africa, writing in their own idiom about their own cultures. To employ a phrase Jean-Paul Sartre used with respect to French used by Frantz Fanon: he “bends the language to new requirements.” That’s translation and transplantation. What ‘reversal’ ends up doing is imposing a new colonialism. As Bultmann did when he peeled back the obscurantism and prescientific understanding of the New Testament culture in order to impose his own rationalized model of what the true kergyma consisted of. As with every other country and national culture, there is no prepolitical, prehistorical, presocialized South Africa that could ever be returned to, and in trying to return to it in the attempt of attaining some South Africa’s essential identity is a dangerous mirage. It will replace one colonialism with another, and employing the language of “our freedom” simply become another violent act of what essentially is ressentiment. The questions then arise: Who are the newly oppressed? Who are the newly marginalized? So scraping away colonial surfaces to reach some South African bedrock is a deeply colonial project that simply replicates in a mirroring fashion colonial mentality. Cultures are like eco-systems – they are complex, ever-shifting sets of intricate relations with unspoken rules concerning its agreed values and behaviours and its unacknowledged values and behaviours. They are not unrelated to eco-systems because they are affected by climate, land and its use and the passage of time.

The third and final step in decolonization, following the contestation, is affirmation. The affirmation arises from a recognition: that this is our culture, reflective of the diversity of peoples and their experiences of being here in this place, with these histories, politics, economies, socialities and values. To my own mind, whatever the country, affirmation is a benchmark condition – something aimed at and continually struggled for as circumstances change globally and locally: a culture that we identify as our own, expressive of who ‘we’ are. I’ve put that ‘we’ in inverted commas, because such a cultural self-identification at a national level will be continually struggled for because that ‘we’ will always remain a question. And, again to my mind, it should always remain so because of an important role a nation plays in being ‘host to’ and ‘hospitable to’ the other.

In my closing remarks let me return to ‘theology’ and three challenges it faces in this decolonizing process. The first two are brief, but the last one more complicated. The first challenge arises from the history of the relationship between Christian mission and colonization. The impact of that relationship is a considerable mixed bag – education and literacy have to be weighed alongside indoctrination and racism; patronizing at best, oppressive at worse. There’s no getting round that history – though there would be neither the Bikos nor Mandelas without it. What still, though, has to be thought through is the way certain remarks by Christ at the end of Matthew’s gospel have been read as a mandate for universal, cultural conquest. The challenge then is to think and do better theology on the basis of those Biblical texts and to resist the aggressive and opportunistic grabbing of people’s hearts and minds that too many read into them.

The second and much more radical challenge for the decolonization of theology lies in its conservative understanding of ‘tradition’. And I use conservative there with all its resonances. Tradition is not about seeking to preserve. The very etymology of the word means ‘to hand on’. Tradition is future orientated. It is not about conservation. As conservation, churches will end up being living museums; cultural archives. And that would be a profound betrayal of a living gospel. There are riches for decolonization in the Christian traditions, and I use the plural because there are many, and they are not homogenous. The singleness of Tradition with a capital ‘t’ lies in its faithful witness to the ongoing work of Christ in its various embedded locations, cultures and histories. And the Christian traditions have never been just western.

The third challenge comes from the academy and our educational systems, but we have to recognize the challenge of the academy is much weaker than is sometimes supposed. Theological reflection, faith seeking understanding, was neither nor is today born of a purely intellectual pursuit. The academy, like the studia of the ecclesial elites, has always been a troubled location for theological development. Formation – which is what theology has to inform – goes on in the world and in the churches in the world. The challenge today for the professional and teaching theologian like myself in the academy lies in the fact that universities aspire to be internationally important. And academics absorb that ambition so that even the aspiration of academic Christian theologians is to have their name in AAR floodlights. I don’t believe – I can’t believe – that academics have sold out; but we are certainly owned. What we can do is facilitate; nurturing and educating congregations of lay theologians. Lay, that is, with respect to ecclesial corporations and hierarchies; because the church elites cannot lead the decolonizing process either. Putting aside their own internal politicking, in the main this is because the priestly hierarchies don’t see the world as most of their lay congregations experience it. That means, for me, writing not just for the elites and specialists, but trying (not always successfully) to say something that as many as possible can comprehend, engage with and be formed by.

That necessary attention to lay experience and lay education – that needs to develop a broader curriculum of the best theological voices (Black, White and Coloured, in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English) does not mean the emphasis is simply on practical and public theology, leaving the systematic, Biblical and philosophical theology to the more intellectual, westernized institutions. Decolonizing theology does not mean South Africa simply looks to its own public issues with an open Bible. There has been an important shift away from that class division between the practical and the theoretical in the way theology is done, and that needs to have better institutionalization. Under sheer economic pressure British Faculties of Theology are realizing that we need to stop the silo mentality in Faculties of theology that tears apart different approaches to theology and, in past, but the people with lower academic achievement to do the practical work while the elites could do the sophisticated thinking and ‘real’ scholarship. Theology is interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, and we need to foster that among our students. There’s no reason then why there cannot be distinctive South African systematic theologies and philosophical theologies – distinctive Christologies, Pneumatologies and Ecclesiologies. That would be the hallmark of confidence in your own ability to be public intellectuals on your own terms –rather than handmaiden adopting and adapting western models of public intellectualism; a hallmark of that third step, Affirmation. For doctrine is rooted in living. It comes from below, not above. At the moment I’m saying that to ecumenical leaders in Europe – on Anglican-Roman Catholic debates, for example. For congregations are not needing the hierarchies to settle the debates – about women’s ordination or homosexuality, for example. The ecumenical movement is flagging in momentum at the top, among the church leaders; it is alive, well and flourishing on the street level. Eventually, the leaders will have to catch up. The theological lives being lived among ordinary Christians is well in advance ecumenically, and is setting the pace. That’s always been where the hope of the church lies – with Christians, the majority of them lay, living faithful lives in the complex pluralities of everyday life. Similarly, the decolonization of theology is also taking place already here. It’s the academy and educational systems that frequently has to humble itself to listen, learn and catch up.

Universities began by developing special centres of expertise: Salerno for medicine, Bologna for law, Paris for philosophy, and Oxford for experimental science. There need to be centres of excellence for studies of what is culturally indigenous, and international intellectual exchanges that can appreciate more clearly how the concepts and models we use in one place have different nuances and content when worked with in another place. The physical sciences may be different here, but certainly not the humanities and social sciences. This would help to foster a ‘decolonization’ in which exchanges were genuine, respectful and egalitarian; cultivating national confidence in scholarship. I spent last September at a university in Brazil and was asked to advise about the direction their theological research might take. They were aspiring to be a recognized player on the international scene and I was trying to tell them they had a very important contribution to make to international theology by examining what was going on in Brazil – with Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism, new moves in liberation theology, and the return of Afro-American religions with their hybrid animisms and demonologies. No one else can do that work in the way they can. Their attraction for international research funding would arise from the expertise they had accumulated because of where they are and who they are. They would be maximizing the resources on their doorstep – local knowledge, inseparable from the various languages spoken across that huge country. This would make them distinctive. There’s nothing but disappointment and sense of having failed that comes from trying to be Harvard or Yale. They are not the standard for the international economy in education that is marketed for them, with their league-tables, etc.. Each of those institutions is very distinctive and idiosyncratic, and locked into US capitalism. And in theology, especially, we need to develop critical and prophet voices that challenge such capitalism, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor rooted in where you were educated and the network of connections available through that education.

What this will affect internationally – and it is so needed – is the provincializing of the West, particularly Europe that I spoke of at the beginning of this lecture. The West can no longer afford its colonial and hegemonic reputation; and it can no longer sustain it. When I took at the makeshift housing in some of your townships, around Masiphumelele, for example, and I hear of their protests for proper and adequate civic amenities – yes, I think, this is important. And, with the next thought I think of the makeshift housing in the slums and no-go areas on my own country. They exist and they are getting larger, and they don’t have your kinder climatic conditions which enables people to survive in such conditions more easily. As a Curate in a church in Bristol one very cold winter, I got to know first hand that people froze to death on the streets. This is not just your problem, just as the raping of women, police and government corruption, the flagrant abuse of human rights, and organized crime are not just your problem. Europe cannot instruct or dictate here. It has exactly these issues on its own doorstep and has had for many years. For every Derrida who made it in the Academie Francaise there is a million Algerian others who didn’t and live in abject poverty in France; for every Sadiq Khan who becomes Mayor of London there are any number of disenfranchised Muslims to have no voice in the country, particularly women. Europe has no superiority to promote; no symbolic capital to lend – and if and when it does then it is posturing. It’s stock is waning and international power is elsewhere. For the global, ex-colonial powers too retain their colonial mentalities and sensibilities. It’s only the form of empire building that has changed; it is now internationally rapacious but the goals are the same: winning hearts and minds for efficient asset stripping. I was asked in a private conversation quite recently, “How is South Africa viewed by Europe?” I can see where that question comes from – every country is looking for economic investment and the favour of the G7, the World Bank and the IMF is important in attracting it. Although, apparently I’m told that South African Banks are sitting of great quantities of liquidity that is not being invested. But it has to be recognized also that the question I was asked is rooted deep in a colonial past (that’s over) and a colonial way of thinking (that still continues). The question, to my mind, is how do you view yourselves?

A closing paragraph for a lecture that has already been too long; but I haven’t mentioned Steve de Grucy yet, in honour of who this lecture has been established. That was purposeful. I didn’t know Steve, and I do not wish to be presumptuous. I have, though, been reading some of the theological work that Steve produced and it reads to me like a theologian establishing a programme for the decolonization of theology. Let me rehearse, briefly, three emphases in that programme: It has to be lay led. It has to be Biblically based. It has to be contextual. These emphases will form the basis, as he concludes, “for a sustained [and that’s an important word] development of an African theology.” And I think that’s spot on.

 

Image of Andile Vellem in the performance piece ‘Limen’.

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