Home > op-ed > The Task of the Postcolonial Theologian by Steve Hu

The Task of the Postcolonial Theologian by Steve Hu

Some thoughts from Steve Hu, an ISAAC volunteer. Steve is currently a pastoral intern at Rutgers Community Christian Church where he also serves as a leadership coach. He received his dual Master’s of Arts in Old Testament and Missional Theology from Biblical Seminary (Hatfield, Pennsylvania) in 2007. This commentary was originally posted on the Postcolonial Theological Network on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/topic.php?uid=23694574926&topic=10504

Almost 30 years have passed since Edward Said’s Orientalism was first published in 1978. What first emerged as a school of literary criticism, postcolonialism came to embody a field of critical discourse and analysis centered on power, privilege, identity, and the relationship between East and West. Postcolonial theory has gained prominence as a critical methodology in secular disciplines, yet it is still making headways within the walls of the Church. When postcolonial theory is employed as a methodology in theological discourse, the resultant product is always categorized as “third-world” theology. Such categorization, Franz Wijsen notes, renders any theology that employs postcolonial theory as “exotic fruit” that merely supplements “traditional” European theology. This delineation only perpetuates colonialism in theological discourse and the dualistic categories of what’s normative and marginal. The theologian who employs Western categories is often blind to such colonialism, and the theologizing that he practices is all but irrelevant to the colonized.

The dualistic categorization of the normative and marginal obfuscates the enterprise of theology by predetermining what is acceptable theological discourse. This act is inherently political, and by delineating theological discourse, theologians are no longer theologians, but they become powerbrokers who mute the voice of those in the margins. While the number of postcolonial theologians remains few, recent works by Mayra Rivera, Joerg Rieger, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Jonathan Tan indicate theologians are seriously examining this methodology as a source for theology. The number of scholars working in this field is on the rise, yet the majority of these scholars still remains in the Catholic and mainline segments of the Church. Evangelicals are slow to take seriously postcolonial theory as a starting point for theology. The reasons for this are too many and complex to describe here. However, in this essay I hope to encourage my fellow evangelicals to cease regarding postcolonial discourse as an accessory of theology. Postcolonial discourse should no longer remain in the theological periphery. Rather, engaging and listening to those in the margins will further inform and enrich our theological enterprise. It is out of a personal commitment that I say this: as an Asian American evangelical, I’ve discovered that postcolonial discourse grants me voice that is normally not heard by those sitting at the theological roundtable, a table that long has been the domain of Westerners and privy only to those who can speak its predetermined discourse. This table has been so embedded in Western forms and categories that when I attempt to converse, my words, as Tite Tiénou notes, “are perceived as threats to orthodoxy.” Yet no one will disagree that theological enterprise is conversational in nature, that it is an ongoing multi-lateral exchange between the biblical text, tradition, reason, and context among various dialog partners. It is time that those sitting at the theological roundtable cease to exclude marginal voices from this conversation. The inclusion of marginal dialog partners not only will give voice to the voiceless, it will also produce rich fruit for our theological conversation.

As an Asian American evangelical residing in North America and as one who represents those voices in the margins, I ask my fellow evangelicals to consider seriously postcolonial discourse as a starting point for theologizing. In our globalizing world, the Church cannot afford not to consider the multiple contexts in which theology begins. The task of theology always has its origins in a particular context, and is done for that context, by that same context so that the result is always something relevant in that context. If our discourse continues to remain in the domain of the West, the resultant theology would be powerless to address the issues of the global church. What will this new theologizing look like? Here I will describe five starting points necessary for the new kind of theologizing to be done for today’s world. This list of loci is by no means exhaustive, but they must be incorporated into our theological enterprise in order for it to be relevant.

1) The life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The beginning of any theology must consider the life, death, and resurrection of Christ himself. Incarnate in human flesh, Christ embodies all aspects of the postcolonial: contextuality, marginality, and hybridity. Christ came not as a man without a cultural heritage, but as a first-century Jewish carpenter who lived and breathed the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. He was not culture-less, but was fully embodied in a cultural context in which he knew and engaged so well. Christ was an outsider, a working class average joe, and was not privy to the roundtable of privilege, power, and the ruling class. Yet he continuously challenged the systemic evils that the elites perpetuated, questioning their piety and bringing to light their hypocrisy. Lastly, Christ in his personhood concretized both God and man, divinity and humanity, and yet he was sure of his mission and purpose on earth. In Christ there was no confusion of purpose and identity. Christ’s hybridity points us toward the multiple identities which postcolonial theology must consider, that even our own identity in this world is fluid, not monolithic.

2) Contextuality. Today’s theologian must think and act like a cross-cultural missionary and take into account the place in which his reflections are located. As Wijsen observes, today’s theology must be constructed in “the context of multicultural societies and a globalizing world.” Theology is at once global and local, and it reflects upon the divine and speaks to the unique earth-bound locale from which theology begins. No one can escape the contextuality of theology. Contextuality is necessary for the theologian to faithfully appropriate the message of the Gospel in culturally relevant forms so his audience may understand what he is attempting to communicate regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The theologian’s task is never done in a vacuum; he is always guided by his context, mindful that he is always theologizing from that context.

3) Marginality. As globalization continues to shrink the world through economic, political, and technological advances, it simultaneously creates new local conditions. Those who do not have the means to adapt and change with the dynamic processes of globalization are left behind and pushed to the margins. In these locales, marginality may also result from exclusion from the political process. Another situation in which marginality arises is the process of migration. As the son of immigrants from Asia, I know very well what it means to live in the social and economic margins of mainstream society. I am always questioned by others about my origins and never accepted as part of the majority culture. Nevertheless, my experience has given me a unique perspective of the world, a perspective that Christ himself had when he lived as an outsider in first century Palestine. Yet, as Gary Okihiro notes, the struggles of disenfranchised minorities have helped preserve the egalitarian ideals of liberal democratic societies. This important contribution by the disenfranchised has been missed by those engaged in theological discourse. It is the dialectics between the margins and mainstream that fuels fruitful conversation. Theologians would gain much insight if they lend a listening ear to marginal voices. Thus, today’s theologians must identify with those in the margins and recognize that their voices add insightful reflection to the theological process.

4) Heterogeneity and hybridity. The issue of identity should also have a place in today’s theological discourse. As globalization continues to create new realities for humanity, individuals must negotiate, navigate, and bridge multiple contexts in order to live and belong. In this dynamic process, new identities are forged, often from various sources. Thus, identity in the age of globalization is one of hybridity and synthesis. Speaking from my own social location as an Asian American, my identity is multi-faceted and cannot be relegated to a monolithic category. I stand to have my feet in different worlds, one in the old and the other in the new, and I posses a hybridized identity that is informed by my unique social location. In a word, I am in-between, or “betwixt,” embodying both worlds at once. This hybridized identity informs me how my faith is perceived, conceptualized, and practiced in my community. The relationship between faith and identity is bilateral, with faith informed by my identity and my identity maintained by faith. Any theologian engaged in today’s theological enterprise cannot disregard the hybridized identities individuals embody. Our theological enterprise must take into account the various social locations from which identities are synthesized so we may remain relevant to speak the truth of Christ’s life into those contexts.

5) Activism and service. Lastly, the postcolonial theologian must make his theologizing an act of service in order to give voice to the voiceless. As Jonathan Tan points out, this theologizing can never be “abstract” that remains in “the intellectual arena” removed from the realities of people’s lives. He goes on to say that “one problem about classical academic theologies as conceived in the Christian West is that they are often either articulated apart from, or in priority over community life, practice, and spirituality.” A theology espoused in this manner actually does disservice to the people. Any practicing theologian must take into consideration the “struggles, dreams, and aspirations in a particular place and time.” Such theology will indeed give voice to those who are hurting, to those who are oppressed, to those who are victimized and alienated, to those living in the margins. The theologian is not just a scholar who sits in the ivory tower; he is an advocate, a voice for the unheard, one who betters humanity through his work.

What I have described are five simple and fundamental starting points for any theologian who wishes to engage today’s world. Gone are the days when theologians sit alone and dream up categories for their systematic theologies. Today’s new theological enterprise requires collaboration among different perspectives and conversational partners who reside in the margins of society. Until theologians can engage and listen to multiple perspectives and utilize postcolonial insights, our theological enterprise will remain provincial at best, with our theologies developed only for the Western ghetto. Such theologies will also be powerless to speak to the contexts of our globalized world. Only engagement with postcolonial methodology will result in a theology that is relevant and capable to embody the truth, the person, and the diversity of God.

Contact Steve Hu

Categories: op-ed
  1. March 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Hi. Thanks for posting this article. I’ve tried to click the link to contact the author, but it did not take me anywhere. I’d like to quote this article for my thesis, is there any other way to contact Steve Hu? Thanks for your help.

  1. March 2, 2010 at 8:40 pm

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