Tag Archives: Kwok Pui-lan

Diversity and Difference

One of many important contributions of poststructuralist and postcolonial philosophies is the recognition that there are severe limitations to theoretical-political uses of the category of “diversity.” While some might naively ask how philosophies can undergo revision to be more tolerant and inclusive of diversity, the real question is how the category of diversity can be opened up to make room for something less philosophically ignorant. Discourses on diversity are espoused by philodoxers, lovers of opinions who fail to question their own presuppositions and fail to understand the grounds of what is given as diversity.

Poststructuralist and postcolonial concepts of difference provide means for thinking deeper than the category of diversity allows. Deleuze’s philosophy is a good example: “Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. […] Every diversity and every change refers to a difference which is its sufficient reason” (Difference and Repetition).

Homi Bhabha’s shift from cultural diversity to cultural difference is another good example. Kwok Pui-Lan gives a cogent summary.

The debate on multiculturalism in the United States has pointed to its inadequacy in dealing with diversity, because it fails to confront the dominant white culture’s power to define, appropriate, and assimilate minority cultures, in other words, its power to set the rules of the game. Following Homi Bhabha, I have come to see the limitations of cultural diversity when articulated within a liberal paradigm, which treats different cultures as mutually interacting and competing on the same footing in the public square. Such an approach often assumes the stance of cultural relativity, which calls for cultural exchange, the tolerance of diversity, and the management of conflicts through democratic means. Instead, Bhabha uses the term “cultural difference” to underscore that the interaction of cultures in the postcolonial world is always imbued with power and authority. Difference arises not because there are many preconstituted cultures existing side by side, but is manufactured through particular discourses at critical moments when the status quo is questioned. […] Furthermore, the tension and anxieties elicited by cultural difference are always overlaid and heightened by the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology)

Whereas the category of diversity makes issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality look like matters of identity politics, the category of difference trades identity politics for a politics of difference, for which race, class, gender, and sexuality are not given identities but are differential relations constituted through the tensions, ruptures, and resistance of asymmetrical powers. This is a rather old point, finding its explicit expression beginning in the late 1960s. However, the persistence of liberal discourses on diversity and identity politics indicates that this point has yet to be understood outside of the rare achievements of poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and difference feminism. Along those lines, it’s apparent that liberalism has failed. Like McKenzie Wark said recently, “not only the old socialism but also the old liberalism is dead.” This death needs to sink in before proceeding to articulate a politics of difference. Mourning is important, otherwise melancholy will pull us back into the same old discourses on diversity and identity. “So mourn good and long. And then we’ll organize, but differently.”

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world.” (Octavio Paz)


Experimental Theological Education

As usual, Kwok Pui-lan has it right.  She recently posted some comments in light of her keynote address “From Pasts to Possibilities: Religious Leadership in 2040,” presented to the Association of Theological Field Education (ATFE) during their recent conference in Williamsburg, Virginia.  She focuses on the year 2040 because that is the year that, according to projections, the United States will no longer have a racial or ethnic majority.

Her main point: “What if we see theological field education not as apprenticeship, but more like a laboratory—a place to try out and test new things?”

Theological education needs fieldwork, and those field sites cannot be churches only, but must also include non-traditional field sites.  My favorite example that Kwok mentions of a non-traditional field site: national parks.  This all strikes a harmonious chord with me personally.  I include fieldwork assignments in all of my classes, and I am continually working to open up fieldwork possibilities to include greater variety and diversity as well as greater relevance to the unique needs and interests of the students. 

Experimental fieldwork in theological education is necessary if we are to prepare students for the kind of participatory leadership roles called for in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.


Occupy Religion

I’m excited about the recently published book, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, which is a collaborative project by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan.  If you think it sounds like this book proposes a theology that draws on the concept of “the multitude” articulated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, you’re right.  Furthermore, the concept of the multitude in this book also draws on the biblical idea of “ochlos,” which refers to a mass or crowd of people (i.e., the crowds that would listen to the parables of Jesus). 

It’s a good book with plenty of good news.  It shakes up the tenacious yet increasingly irrelevant views of religion coming from modern liberalism.  It rethinks the place of faith in the secular space of the public sphere, and it enjoins theology to overcome structures of domination and facilitate planetary transformation. 

“Occupy religion” does not mean using force or other means to take over religious institutions and structures, holy sites, worshipping spaces, or religious goods, but rather indicates the conceptualization of a democratic and participatory space for religious life, broadly conceived, and active engagement to make this a reality.  It challenges rigid boundaries between the sacred and the profane, as well as between the professional religious elites and the masses, and thus transforms narrow notions of religion as private or other-worldly.  “Occupy religion” aims to demystify and debunk religious doctrines and social teachings that provide both religious sanction and justification for economic and social inequality.  It critiques religious institutions and structures that silence, discriminate, and marginalize people because of class, race, gender, and sexuality, and thus hand the power to the 1 percent.  “Occupy religion” call religious communities to account and asks them to engage critically in transforming the world to make it just for all and sustainable for the environment. (p. 5)