Linda Hogan – Feminist Intercultural Ethics

Linda Hogan – « Feminist Intercultural Ethics: Conversing with Asia »

This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
中國人: 亞洲基督教

Feminist theological ethics has had multiple phases of development, and is now highly attentive to the diversity of women’s experience and to the important ways in which race, class and ethnicity intersect with gender to create and perpetuate social exclusion and economic marginalisation.  

However it was not always thus. Early feminist work focused on the failure of classical theology to recognise that the accounts of human nature and human experience on which it was based, were androcentric. Most theological frameworks operated with the mistaken assumption that it was possible to speak about human nature and human experience without any reference to gendered bodies, but the early contributions of feminists challenged this.

1. From early feminist analysis in theology to postcolonial criticism

Through the 1960s and 70s feminist scholars excavated the biblical and theological canon, unearthing the ideologies of subordination that had become embedded in the Christian tradition. The early seminal works like Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Religion and Sexism[1] and Kari Borresen’s Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and Aquinas[2] highlighted how thoroughly and energetically ideologies of subordination were adopted, developed and promoted within the Christian tradition. These early works established the initial critical moment of feminist engagement with theology, although very quickly this critical mode was supplemented with a determination, both to retrieve the neglected antecedents of women’s equality, and to reconstruct the tradition in a manner that was more consistent with the original egalitarian vision of Christianity.   

However, the early advocates of feminist theology in no way anticipated that their attempts to speak on behalf of women would become so contested and controversial. Indeed, viewed with the benefit of hindsight these initial attempts to theologise from women’s experience now seem extraordinarily naïve. Yet once women began to engage in theological reflection the differences among women came to the fore.   

Whereas initially the racial, ethnic, economic and geographical differences between women had been neglected, in the last three decades this precise issue has become a dominant theme in feminist theological discourse, so that particularly since the mid-1980s the theological significance of the differences amongst women have been fore-grounded.  The womanist theology, pioneered by Delores Williams and Katie Canon that emerged from the African-American community, was the first to highlight the impact of race as well as gender on women’s experience of church and society. Hispanic women in the United States too named their distinctive theological perspective mujerista theology, a neologism coined by the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Additionally the 1980s and 90s also saw the emergence of post-colonial feminist theological voices, particularly from the global South. Thus the diversity of women’s voices and experiences began to be known, not only through the writings of individual feminist theologians, but also through organisations like EATWOT (the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians) which has been instrumental in promoting the inclusion of voices from the global South, and also the Ecclesia of Women in Asia.  

Indeed, perhaps more than any group, it has been the theologians from Asia that have highlighted the enduring impact that imperialism and colonialism has had on the expression and experience of church.  Moreover, as Anne McClintock argued in her 1995 book Imperial Leather,[3] the imperial project of colonization was not simply about political and economic dominance, but rather it sought to impact culture and society all the way down.  Indeed, the categories of gender, race and class were deeply interconnected in the discourse and practice of imperialism to such an extent that they were constitutive of the consciousness of European modernity. Lands were feminised, (virgin territory), women were seen in categories of race (certain groups of women were regarded as ‘a race apart’), the middle class was structured over and against ‘the degenerate classes’, defined as departures from the normal human type, so that this interweaving was not merely a decorative metaphor but rather was formative of and integral to Western identity. In Asia, Virginia Fabella, Kwok Pui-Lan, Agnes Brazal, Gemma Cruz and Sharon Bong have been pioneers in theorizing the complex ways in which gender, race and colonialism have been yoked together to create systems of marginalisation and exclusion, as well as analysing how the Christian tradition has been variously complicit in, and critical of, this trajectory.   

So we now understand that many of our fundamental theological categories hide a myriad of cultural and colonial assumptions about the natural features of human identity, about the structuring of life in community and about the meaning of the body. Moreover, we have also come to appreciate how these assumptions have often functioned to exclude certain persons from full participation in the polity and church, and have placed limits on their ability to live lives that accord with their own understandings of human flourishing.  Indeed, it is particularly through post-colonial feminisms that we have become aware that many of the assumptions on which we have built our ethical frameworks are culturally constrained.

2. The challenge

The challenge for feminist theological ethics therefore is that it become a genuinely pluralistic and intercultural enterprise.  It is true that for more than three decades now, feminist theology has sought to respect, engage with and build upon the diversity of world-views and to be attentive to the politics of representation. However, we have discovered that this is far more complex than we could have ever imagined, and that those elements that seem natural and self-evident in one world, are precisely the elements that are often impenetrable and incomprehensible in another.  Moreover, there has been a recognition that orientalist perspectives have also pervaded theological and religious world-views, and that feminist theological perspectives are not immune from impulses of orientialist ideologies, any more than their secular counterparts.  Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism has a relevance for classic western feminism since he demonstrates how the grand narrative of western enlightenment (of which second-wave western feminism is a part) has been fundamentally ethnocentric, with western norms operating as the sole standards according to which diverse societies are judged.[4] It is no longer sufficient therefore to continue to privilege western philosophical categories of analyses and within that context to try to accommodate those that derive from other cultures and contexts. 

Theologians from the Northern hemisphere, who are immersed in the scholarly, cultural and economic paradigms that have created this marginalisation, are particularly challenged to reflect on our own ethical responsibilities as we seek to create a genuinely pluralistic and intercultural feminist theology, or rather intercultural feminist theologies, that are committed to the promotion of social justice. And in this next stage I ask whether and how feminist theologians from the North can think through our own complicity in this dominant model to find ethical forms of engagement in feminist intercultural ethics. While this issue has many different dimensions, I wish to focus on just one, namely the ethical challenges that we/I face as we speak offor, (on behalf of) or with ‘the other’.

3. The Burden of Representation

Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal essay Can the Subaltern Speak?[5] is both chastening and illuminating in this regard since it clarifies the depth of the challenge of mediating ‘the other’. Spivak’s essay asked a radical question of those who, like herself, were seeking to break away from the narratives and perspectives of the elites and to ensure that the voices of those who have been marginalized because of their class, caste, gender, race, language or culture can be heard.[6] She is critical of discourses that pay lip-service to the power differentials between those who speak for others and those they represent and concludes that, in most academic contexts today, the practice of problematizing the role of the investigator ‘remains a meaningless piety’. 

Even those theorists who are renowned for this critical attitude, namely Foucault, Deleuze and Gauttari are criticized for failing to understand how they, too, reproduce the erasure of marginalized subjects even as they believe that they are rendering them visible. She argues that, although they resist speaking for the oppressed, they nonetheless “turn away from the dynamics of representation” that ought to inform their difficult intellectual (elitist?) role in rendering visible the concrete experiences of the oppressed. In short, they fail to be burdened by the problems of representation, and she contrasts what Cornell calls ‘this almost willed naïveté’ with other approaches that acknowledge their dependence on representational schemas and their linguistic underpinnings.’ 

Most of us either retreat from or ignore the complexities of the politics of representation, even as we are immersed in it.  However, as I have argued elsewhere, a more ethical approach requires that the burden of representation be assumed, and that the inevitability of the epistemic violence inherent in all representation be acknowledged.[7] For Spivak, the key is to understand that ‘we’ are not representing ‘them’, i.e. those who are radically outside,[8] but rather that ‘we’ are learning to ‘re-present ourselves’.  Spivak does not think that all benevolent attempts to represent the interests of the other are doomed, although she is rightly cautious about the echo of earlier civilizing projects. Rather, as Ritu Birla argues,

“in asking us to re-present ourselves, Spivak asks us to supplement the benevolent intention of ‘speaking for’ with an ethics of responsibility – in the sense of cultivating a capacity to respond to and be responsive to the other, without demanding resemblance as the basis of recognition.”[9]

Those involved in the discourses of advocacy, including the discourse of feminist theological ethics, cannot proceed as though we are not ourselves caught up in the politics of representation. Rather, we must accept the burden of representation, that is, the ethical responsibilities associated with the privilege of speaking of, or of speaking for, the other.

In her Oxford Amnesty Lecture in 2001, Spivak develops her analysis of this burden of representation in the context of the politics of human rights.[10] She recognizes that the history of human rights has been an ambivalent one, and argues that human rights politics can have a future if, but only if, it can be ‘sutured into the torn cultural fabric of responsibility.’  The torn cultural fabric of responsibility of which she speaks is the responsibility associated with the privilege of representation, and which requires a commitment that we will engage in an ongoing interrogation of the assumptions we carry about the nature of, and justifications for, human rights. Human rights advocates are thus inserted into the field of representation, not as dispensers of rights, but rather as persons whose entitlement to represent affects the way we understand human rights. Indeed, it is only when we grapple with and deconstruct our own hierarchical sense of entitlement that we can engage with human rights politics in an ethical manner or, to use Spivak’s characterization, that we will have sutured human rights to an ethics of responsibility. Moreover, this process of self- interrogation is facilitated by the presence of the subaltern. Indeed

“by remaining what those of us enabled to represent cannot represent precisely because of our enablement, [the subaltern] forces us to see the limits of our definition of the human and, with the asymmetries, our view of the inequalities that also make us see the subaltern as in need of us to right wrongs, as we are the ones who grasp the meaning of those wrongs.’

We are forced, in other words to address the question ‘who is the ‘we’ in the representation of how they have been wronged?”[11]  

As with the ethics of human rights, so it is with feminist theological ethics, namely, the question must become ‘how can we speak with (not for) the other, and especially with those who have long been marginalized? In Spivak’s analysis, our ethical responsibility begins with the recognition that the human is first and foremost a being-in-relation and in the acknowledgement that traditional accounts of the demands of relationship have tended to underestimate, even ignore, the alterity of the other. Spivak draws on Levinas to insist that it is only when we truly appreciate the alterity of the other that we can begin to understand the demands of relationship, and the responsibilities associated with being in a position to speak with or for the other. 

“To be born human is to be born angled towards an other and others. To account for this, the human being presupposes the quite-other: This is the bottom line of being-human as being-in-the-ethical-relation. By definition we cannot – no self can – reach the quite-other…. This is the founding gap in all act or talk, most especially in acts or talk that we understand to be closest to the ethical – the historical and political. We must somehow try to supplement the gap.”[12]

In its early years feminist theological ethics tried to supplement this gap by downplaying the alterity of the other and emphasizing the commonalities among women. However, as Spivak and others have shown, such an approach is no longer adequate, since it inevitably re-inscribes existing inequalities, even as it tries to avoid doing so. Moreover, the reflections of Asian feminist theologians, particularly those like Brazal who adopt a feminist post-colonial perspective, highlight the pervasiveness of the politics of power, even in contexts where feminist women and men share common ethical goals. A renewed intercultural feminist ethics will need to think differently about how this gap can be supplemented. Taking its cue from Spivak, it will need to begin in solidarity with the alterity of the other, and with an appreciation that the other is what she calls ‘the quite-other’. It will, most importantly however, need to proceed with a determination to accept the ethical burdens associated with the privilege of speaking on behalf of, and/or with, ‘an other’. While this is first and foremost an attitude and a way-of-being, it is also important that the implications of this way-of-begin find expression in the infrastructures of our theological disciplines and of our professional contexts. The dominance of the northern paradigm and the formal difficulties of prioritizing feminist theological voices from the global south continue to be a challenge, notwithstanding the presence of fora like Concilium. Yet it is only when the various theological disciplines, institutions of theological learning, professional associations, journals and other strands of the academic infrastructure embed this radically inclusive agenda that we will see the start of a genuinely pluralistic and intercultural feminist theological discourse.

Forged through multiple voices, contemporary feminist theological ethics aims to be a pluralistic and intercultural discourse, although for many the struggle to be heard continues. As it proceeds along this path it will be important to pay continued attention to the politics of power (cultural, economic and intellectual) in the academy and the wider world, and to recognise the new inequalities that are the legacy of colonial and postcolonial politics. Only in this way will we be able to create new and durable networks based on mutuality and respect. 

[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Religion and Sexism, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973

[2] Kari Borresen’s Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and Aquinas 1968, reprinted Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995

[3] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, London: Routledge, 1995

[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto & Windus, 1993, 58.

[5] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, 237-291. 

[6] The central concern of Spivak and her colleagues in subaltern studies has been to write history from the underside and in so doing to restore the agency of the ordinary people. While sharing this commitment to those on the margins, Spivak is not as confident as others that it is possible to speak for ‘the subaltern.’ With the term ‘subaltern’, Spivak draws attention to those people whose experiences and actions are incomprehensible within the dominant discourse, those who are ‘in the space of difference’ and on account of a failure of recognition are both unrepresented and unrepresentable. In her essay Spivak argues that it is impossible for subalterns to speak without appropriating the dominant language or modes of representation, and that moreover it is impossible for those who seek to speak about or for subalterns to do so adequately. Commenting on Spivak’s challenge, Partha Chatterjee noted that subaltern history had successfully shown that the ‘man’ or the ‘citizen’ who was the sovereign subject of bourgeois history-writing was in truth only the elite, but that Spivak had added a further challenge when she asked why it was necessary now to clothe the subaltern in the costume of the sovereign subject. Moreover, he continued, after this seminal essay the critical question was no longer “what is the true form of the subaltern?”  Rather it had become, “how is the subaltern represented?” where to represent meant both to “present again” and also “stand in place of.” In short, Chatterjee conceded, both the subjects and the methods underwent change.     

[7] Linda Hogan, Keeping Faith with Human Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015), Chapter 3. 

[8] Such as the subsistence farmers, the tribals, the zero workers in the streets.

[9] Ritu Birla, “Postcolonial Studies: Now that’s History,” Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea, ed. Rosalind Morris(New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 93. 

[10] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Righting Wrongs,” in Human Rights, Human Wrongs, edited by Nicholas Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 164-227.

[11] Drucila Cornell, Cornell, “The Ethical Affirmation of Human Rights,” 108. 

[12] Spivak, “A Moral Dilemma,” in What Happens to History: The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary Thought, ed. Howard Marchitelo (New York, Routledge, 2001), 215-216.  


Linda Hogan is Professor of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.  Her primary research interests lie in the fields of inter-cultural and inter-religious ethics, social and political ethics, human rights and gender.  Amongst her recent publications are Keeping Faith with Human Rights, Georgetown University Press, 2015, Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics: Conversations in the World Church, Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 2014, edited jointly with Agbonkhianmghe Orobator and ‘The Role of Religion in Building Political Communities’ in ed. Cranmer, Hill, Kenny & Sandberg, The Confluence of Law and Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2016. 

Address: Irish School of Ecumenics, ISE/Loyola Building, Trinity College Dublin,  Dublin 2.

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