Theological Education and Identity Politics: On Listening Carefully

This post is just a sketch of a major issue that looms in the background of my doctoral studies. As the landscape of twenty-first century theological education is rearranged by seismic cultural forces, one of the major shakeups is precipitated by the larger conflict about identity politics in American culture.

In this context, I believe it is imperative for me to assume the posture of a careful listener. So I’ve been thinking about what that means.

Who Is Listening?

I’m a straight white guy. Confession: I don’t accept that as my identity. I do accept that those characteristics shape my experience of everything else that defines my identity.

I’m an aspiring professor. I will, God willing, be writing syllabi and assigning reading soon. I will be interacting with all sorts of students, and leading class discussions in which identity politics is inevitably at play, for good or ill.

I’m a missionary and a student of missiology and theology. I have lived as a minority in a dominant culture that was not my own. I have confronted consciously and conscientiously the issues of race, nationality, economic privilege, and cultural difference—not to mention gender dynamics in a machista culture—that haunted me in missional and ecclesial contexts. This means, first and foremost, that white normativity makes perfect conceptual sense to me. It’s the very thing I was trained to divest by becoming a humble learner and vulnerable participant in Peruvian culture. As a student of missiology, I listen with an ear attuned to postcolonialism, which is more at home among intercultural studies (the a la mode name for missiology) than anywhere in the theological academy. As a student of theology, I listen with many commitments that necessarily shape my interaction with the commitments embedded in identity politics. The latter do not control the former, but listening carefully means they do get a critical hearing.

Listening From Where?

I’m a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary. Conversations about race have been tense on campus since I arrived in Pasadena. Recently, they have reached a fevered pitch.

A couple of articles reporting the situation, including links and video:

Fuller’s official responses:

The ongoing forum in which I’ve participated (note the useful bibliography at the bottom of the page):

In this context, I’m listening in order to understand what is really at issue. It doesn’t seem straightforward to me, nor does it seem that the public articulation of the problem has progressed to anything like a meaningful dialogue. I’ve been required to read pretty broadly throughout my graduate and postgraduate education—despite the fact that my MDiv program could be taken as a paradigm for white male homogeneity—and encouraged to recognize the white, Western, male character of dominant theology. So I’m trying to understand what, on a class-by-class and an institutional level, should be happening. But I’m listening as someone who has felt chastened all along and is somewhat perplexed by the idea that my institutions have failed to challenge my white normativity or teach me about institutionalized racism or give me the tools for ideological self-critique. I suspect, therefore, that the root issue is the experiences of minorities, so that’s what I’m listening to understand.

Listening How?

I’m listening as someone who believes that listening carefully involves asking questions. Yet, in the current milieu, it feels like I’m expected to shut up and listen. It feels as though any question I might ask sincerely in search of clarification will be thrown back at me as evidence of my white normativity. I often get the sense that, because I’m a straight white guy, asking questions is a micro-agression or a power play. So I’ve been listening sort of desperately, without asking questions.

I also think listening carefully involves attending to multiple perspectives. And this is the real sticking point with identity politics. It is all knotted up with tensions between free thought and advocacy, and it is prone to reflexively dismiss or even demonize those who tend toward thought that is free from advocacy. While I think the claims of the free-thought camp are sometimes naïve and overblown (I’m thinking of Paul Griffiths at Duke last year), to say nothing of those who are outright disingenuous, I also recognize a growing tendency among the advocacy camp to shut down interlocutors who don’t fall in line, by bullying or political brute force if necessary. So I’m also giving a hearing to those who reasonably critique the excesses of identity politics. This Quillette article, “Identity Politics Does More Harm Than Good to Minorities,” is an exemplar:

Conceiving identity politics

I’ll end this patchwork of thoughts with some information for those who might be wondering just what identity politics is. The term gets bandied about a lot these days, often vaguely. The quoted definition in the Quillette article is helpful, but a broader perspective might be of more use. (The following is adapted from a group project completed for my Methods for Observing and Interpreting Culture seminar, used with the permission of my colleagues.)

Cultural studies is the broader context of identity politics.

Generally, cultural studies is what it claims to be: the study of culture. But in particular, it is the study of the dynamics of power and authority in sub-cultures and emphasizes gender, race, class, and sexuality in everyday life. Cultural studies isn’t neutral but is biased toward the margins or fringes of society. It is a “radical anti-elitist critique” (Miller 2001, 11) and is shaped by the following concerns: (1) The focus on everyday life and its practices; (2) a shift away from classical or elite cultural forms to popular or industrially produced forms (such as cinema, television, radio, popular magazines); and (3) the focus on ways in which power and authority are exercised in cultural practices.

Experience is the vital concern of cultural studies.

“Experience acts as a methodological touchstone in sounding an insistence on the significance of listening to others and attending to what is relatively distinctive in their way of knowing their immediate social world, for it is only by doing this that we can glean any sense of what is involved in their subjectivities, self-formation, life histories and participation in social and cultural identities. . . . What is crucial is how we understand the bearings which any expressive cultural form has on socially and historically specific experience and how this articulates with broader determinate structures of social life. . . . It is the subjective dimension of lived social worlds that experience occupies, and it is this which is central to the concerns of cultural studies.” (Pickering 2008, 23–24)

Identity politics is a subset of cultural studies.

“In literary and cultural theory, discussions of identity politics have focused on the link between subjective experience and social identity as the central issue that needs to be analyzed.” (Mohanty 2011)

Identity Politics entails a theoretical concern with the tensions involved in the construction of, for example, racial identities: between “subjective experiences and objective social locations” (Mohanty 2011), identification and representation, “my public identity and my lived self.” (Alcoff 2000)

The social construction of identity does not preclude its “reality.”

“Identities refer outward to objective and causally significant features of the world, . . . they are thus non-arbitrary, and . . . experience provides both an epistemic and political basis for understanding.” (Alcoff 2000)

“Social identities are often carried on the body, materially inscribed, perceived at a glance by well-disciplined perceptual practices, and thus hardly the mere epiphenomena of discourse.” (Alcoff 2000)

Sources

Alcoff, Linda Martín. “Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?” in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, edited by Paula M. L. Moya and Michael Hames-García, ch. 10. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Miller, Toby. “What it is and what it isn’t: Introducing . . . Cultural Studies.” In A Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by Toby Miller, 1–20. Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies 3. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

Mohanty, Satya P. “Identity Politics.” In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan. Wiley, 2011.

Pickering, Michael. “Experience and the Social World.” In Research Methods for Cultural Studies, edited by Michael Pickering, 17–31. Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.