Harold J. Recinos, ed., Wading through Many Voices: Toward a Theology of Public Conversation, Rowman & Littlefield, Plymouth, UK, 2011. 392 pp. $64.95. ISBN: 9781442205833.
I added a new phrase to my lexicon in the process of reading and reflecting upon Wading through Many Voices: subaltern theologizing. Put simply, subaltern theologizing is theology “from below” and reflects the central conviction that animates this fine collection of essays edited by Harold Recinos. Winston Churchill is reported to have remarked, “History is written by the victors.” The same could be said about theology. Theology has, like many other types of study and discourse, been dominated by white males writing out of contexts of privilege and exclusivity. Wading through Many Voices represents an attempt to correct this deficiency by paying attention to themes and perspectives that have often been excluded from dominant modes of theological discourse.
Included in this work are voices from a wide variety of communities. Whether it is Tink Tinker’s critique of modern American conceptions of the “public good” from a Native American perspective, or Nancy Bedford’s analysis of the politics of food production through the lens of its impact on US Latina workers, or Korean American Andrew Sung Park’s plea for a public theology of “enhancement” as a way both honoring and challenging the particularity of individual cultures in the American context, each chapter (and its response) reflects the intention of the project as a whole. A theology of public conversation must include a diversity of voices. It must include the experiences and reflections of those who have historically found themselves on the margins. And it must not only accept, but also prioritize the themes of justice and liberation that so often emerge “from below.”
This book reflects almost exclusively on the American political and theological landscape. As such, non-Americans may have some “translation” work to do for their own cultural contexts. As a resident of the Canadian prairies and as a pastor of a (mostly) white Mennonite congregation, the shape this translation ought to take in my own context seems obvious enough. Our city is located next to the Blood and Peigan Nations to the east and the south, and the Siksika to the north, all three of which, along with the South Peigan in Montana, are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Like many others, our region is still characterized by deep and abiding attitudes of racism and suspicion toward our indigenous neighbors. How might we make space to listen to—indeed, to privilege—these voices “from below”? How might our theology and practice need to change to make space for the voices of those who have not only historically been excluded from dominant arenas of discourse and reflection, but actively stifled and vilified through Canada’s calamitous legacy of Indian residential schools? The challenge is daunting, but desperately necessary.
Which brings us to one of the inherent ironies of this collection of essays. What we have here, of course, is a book advocating for subaltern theologizing whose contributors are exclusively academics at respected American institutions. The list of contributors reads exactly like every other collection of academic essays:
Prof. __________ received their PhD from ___________ and teaches __________ at the University of __________. There is racial diversity amongst the contributors, as you would expect, and there are a whole host of different experiences, histories, and perspectives represented by each writer, but academic theological reflection done by academic theologians in American academic institutions is not exactly theology done “from below.” Would not a chapter written by (or transcribed from an interview with) a Central American migrant farmworker been appropriate? Or from a Native American boarding-school survivor? Would not an appropriate gesture toward a genuinely subaltern theology have been to include non-academics who used non-specialist language to reflect their own lived experience, their own contribution to a broad and expansive genuinely public conversation?
In his recommendation of this book, Robin Lovin says, “a public theology for the future must find ways to sustain conversation across the boundaries that now fragment our faiths and divide our politics.” Perhaps one of the “boundaries” that conversation must be sustained across, in addition to the familiar categories of race and gender, could be the academic and nonacademic boundary? Indeed, David Sánchez asks this question in his response to Victor Anderson’s plea for the privileging of “local” voices: “I remain incredulous…as to whether an academic theologian is the optimal voice for such articulations in the construction of the unarticulated local” (197). In other words, instead of academics presuming to speak for those who find themselves occupying subaltern positions, maybe we should just let them speak for themselves. And actually listen to them.
In the end, the title of this anthology, Wading through Many Voices, is an apt one. Wading can be a slow, awkward process. It’s not swimming and it’s not exactly walking either. It’s a kind of laborious trudging against the resistance and weight of the water. It is not easy, and we’re bound to get a bit soggy and uncomfortable in the process. But we keep moving, nonetheless, because we are convinced that the many voices—particularly those “from below,” as Christ himself reminds us in Sermon on the Mount—are worth wading through if we are to get any closer to truth, to justice, to love, to harmony, to the glorious vision of the peaceable kingdom articulated by the Hebrew prophets and by Jesus of Nazareth himself.
I close with these beautiful words from María Teresa Dávila—words that, in my view, sum up the goal of this valuable book and the challenge to all who read it: “Knowledge becomes a matter of location, and location becomes a matter of where we choose to see and ultimately what we choose to love” (69).
I commend this book to all who want to have better theological conversations, and who are convinced that these conversations require that we listen most closely to those whom our Teacher and Lord consistently, stubbornly, relentlessly, inconveniently made space for.
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church, in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.