No, You Cannot Fence the Table with Orientalism

No, You Cannot Fence the Table with Orientalism May 28, 2013

This morning, Reformed pastor Doug Wilson posted a response to a question from a friend about a recent tweet by Rachel Held Evans about how she would take communion with John Piper in a heartbeat. See for yourself:

Wilson’s interlocutor didn’t have the same ontological understanding of communion as Evans, though. His query to Wilson apparently focused on how because Evans taught feminist ideas both on her blog and in her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she should be excluded from the communion table. To pull a Catholic parallel case, this was like taking Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s statements in The Ratzinger Report about ‘radical feminism’ being a ‘different religion’ from Christianity to its logical conclusion. Indeed, this is no mere parallel with Bishop Allen Vigneron’s comments that Catholics should abstain from communion if they believe that abortion and gender-neutral marriage should be legal. No, Wilson’s interlocutor goes for the jugular, pressing him to articulate a theology of excommunication on the basis that Evans taught feminist ideas and was thus a false teacher.

Characteristically, Wilson’s classically informed Reformed theology leads to a thoughtful response, though one that in fact justifies schism instead of leading to its healing. Abstracting the question from Rachel Held Evans, Wilson holds forth more generally on excommunication. Wilson argues that there are two parts to this question. The first is: who is doing the disciplining? Were it an official ecclesial excommunication, then Wilson says that the church should withhold communion from the offender, but if it is simply Diotrephes from 3 John shouting down competition, the claim to discipline should be ignored. This leads to a second issue: the state of schism in the church, in which withholding communion from someone from another Christian branch of communion can be justified as disciplining that entire branch. If feminism were such a communion branch (to my knowledge, it is not), then one might have to start weighing whether ideological non-adherence is justification for church discipline.

The complications that arise from this thought process leads Wilson to wax orientalist. Calling these practices of withholding communion from anyone who does not subscribe exactly to one’s beliefs as the making of a practical ‘ecclesiastical North Korea,’ Wilson goes on to delineate the interweaving of ‘grace’ and ‘discipline.’ Acknowledging that his readers might find his explanation arcane, he jokingly apologizes that he may have ‘veered into some kind of Zen Presbyterianism here,’ and clarifies the ultimate point of this backhanded swipe at Evans: Wilson would not excommunicate Evans, but would intentionally show her grace in order to deliver her from her feminism.

While I take issue with this flippant characterization of feminism as a unitary movement (it is not, and thus, I’d argue that you can’t brand the whole thing as ‘false teaching,’ but of course, he might come back at me with how Gnosticism was a complex movement, and we’d go on and on and on), there will be bloggers joining A Christian Thing in the not-too-distant future who will be addressing the question of feminist theologies and will be more competent to speak on this than me. So I shan’t.

Instead, as I’ve taken others to task for their orientalizing statements, I’d like to take Wilson to task for his flippant usage of orientalist terms. By ‘taking Wilson to task,’ however, I’m afraid that I’ll have to provide a bit of a prolegomena. You see, I suspect that Wilson–as well as many Euro-American Christians of a variety of theological persuasions, Protestant or Catholic–may be intellectually allergic to the critique of ‘white (male) privilege’ that I am about to perform. This, after all, may lie behind why some, likely including Wilson, are allergic to feminist theologies; after all, they might reason, it’s just a bunch of women unaware of their own will to power trying to shout down an invented bogeyman called ‘white male privilege’ to be able to join the institutional ranks and redefine entire organizations with their own pet agendas. In turn, these people who imagine themselves to be victimized should be subjected to ridicule–not exactly exclusion, mind you–but enough teasing to show that they do not have a sense of humour and that this lack of joy can be attributed to them wanting power. The same may go for African American, Chicano American, and Asian American theologies, in which ‘women’ might be substituted with ‘racialized minorities’ who allegedly talk a grand talk about liberation, desegregating the church, diversifying seminary faculty, and discovering indigenous ways of doing theology. Because of this, the logic may go, these people are always on high alert for the racist remarks of white privileged men, failing to see that the occasional remark about ‘race’ is just an off-hand funny remark that maybe they could have done without if they weren’t writing off-the-cuff on a blog or speaking extemporaneously in a sermon, but that is really just harmless and funny. The joke’s on the racialized minorities, then, for being offended at everything and looking for things at which to get offended. They should instead (the reasoning might go) get off welfare and get a job.

I’d like to assure Wilson from the outset of this critique, then, that I was not looking to be offended (nor, I might note, do most feminist, postcolonial, and racialized minority scholars actually go looking to be offended). In fact, I hope that my comments will have some substantive value for his discussion of communion and excommunication, and indeed, I’d like to propose to Wilson that feminist, post-colonial, and minority theologies have an awful lot to contribute to the ongoing work of making the Body of Christ one, even as the Father and the Son are one, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son. Finally, I’d like to note that if you title your post ‘Some Kind of Zen Presbyterianism’ (emphasis mine), regardless of how much orientalist substance your post actually has (there are after all, only two, if we were to really exegete it), then you are asking for a response of this kind.

Indeed, following the advice of feminist theorist Saba Mahmood to not (as St. Paul would have it) despise all statements wrought by white male privilege but to examine fully ‘the force that a discourse commands,’ let me begin by congratulating Wilson on what must feel like a significant departure from the usual fare of classical Western education and his devotion to a unitary Eurocentric canon in his educational advocacy. In fact, this departure is quite courageous because he picks up on a post-structural tactic at the end of the piece described by Michel Foucault as ‘the heterotopia,’ that is, if you want to know what the norms are in any given place, interface it with a radically different space that can act as a mirror, and ‘the order of things’ in any given site will be clearly revealed. That heterotopia, you might say, is the geopolitical alignment of the contemporary Asia-Pacific region: churches that only take communion with people who believe exactly as they do are like an ‘ecclesiastical North Korea,’ which in contrast makes all the churches conducted by grace non-isolationist and thus connected to the global capitalist political economy like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and (to some extent) post-reform China. While these strict ideologically-driven churches are like North Korea, in other words, the rest of us in the evangelical world are more or less like the other capitalist Asia-Pacific regimes. I leave it up to your imagination to figure out who’s who on this geopolitical map.

However, to describe the state of theological malaise in this Asia-Pacific geopolitical map that stands in for the fragmentation of American evangelicalism, those interested in fine theological distinctions (as Wilson presumably is) have wandered into a sort of ‘Zen Presbyterianism,’ that is, if you are a Presbyterian (as a proud Chinglican, perhaps I might be configured as a ‘Zen Anglican’). As Jane Iwamura puts it in her startlingly incisive book Virtual Orientalism, Wilson is invoking the figure of the ‘oriental monk,’ a wandering contemplative sage who says wise things about nature and social relations that simultaneously confronts the excesses of Western capitalism while being lodged in capitalist processes as the monk has to be marketed to people as the new, hip thing in which to be interested. This is, after all, #2 on the list of Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like: ‘religions their parents don’t belong to.’ Appropriating the identity of the oriental monk for careful theological thinkers like himself, Wilson wants to tell us two things. Following the East Asian capitalist geopolitics playbook, he’d like to tell us that like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia, and parts of China, the evangelical world has capitulated to the shallowing influence of capitalism, at times deploying, as anthropologist Aihwa Ong notes, ‘Asian values’ (or in the evangelical world, ‘Christian values’) as bumper-sticker justifications for capitalist lifestyles and flexible families. Not so Wilson, though: keeping to the ancient traditions, Wilson the oriental sage is still interested in fine theological intricacies where true wisdom is to be sought. That’s where he flips the primacy of discipline over grace to grace over discipline, arguing that if that’s the case, he and Rachel Held Evans (my goodness, a feminist) could still take communion. This grace is profound, mysterious, almost impenetrable, almost like Zen.

As Edward Said noted long ago in his classic Orientalism, the space of the ‘Orient’ has long served as a heterotopic space to the occident (here, Said also thanks Foucault for the insight, though he then follows to take issue with Foucault’s anti-humanism), which in turn suggests that my earlier congratulations to Wilson might need to be qualified. After all, perhaps Wilson is simply doing what his Western canon would tell him to do, that is, when stuff gets difficult to explain, use a heterotopia, and all will become clear. The most convenient heterotopic space is the Orient, and Wilson deploys it skillfully.

Now, of course, all this is not so much offensive as much as it ultimately undermines Wilson’s case for communion where grace takes primacy over discipline. Here, Foucault might actually be more right than Said: these orientalist off-hand remarks don’t originate from Wilson, but are part of a longer epistemic movement within what can be called ‘Western Christianity.’ In two church history classes I’ve taken (I suspect this might be a common experience), for example, we were taught that arcane figures like Pseudo-Dionysius with his ‘Mystical Theology’ and via negativa were uniquely products of the ‘East’ and that the controversies between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church over the filioque clause, the primacy of Rome, and the value of negative theology were ‘cultural’ as the ‘East’ went more contemplative and the ‘West’ went more propositional. In his devastating critique of this sort of logic, J. Kameron Carter retorts that this goes all the way back to the earliest times of distinguishing Jesus from the Jews so that ‘Jesus’ became ‘Occidental’ while the ‘Jews’ became ‘oriental’ or ‘semitic,’ forcing a wedge between Christianity and the East from the get-go. The framing of Eastern Orthodoxy as ‘Eastern’ in turn is a justification of schism precisely on the grounds that the ‘East’ is heterotopic to Western Christianity.

These problems haven’t gone away in the contemporary period. Jesuit theologian Peter Phan, for example, was investigated by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith because it was alleged that he taught an ‘Asian negative theology’ contrary to the received teachings of the Church. This investigation’s orientalist claims still have yet to be decisively addressed by Asian American theologians who should be appalled that ‘Asian’ and ‘negative theology’ were unproblematically lumped together by Phan’s ‘occidental’ accusers, chief of whom has been the Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, whose Fortnight for Freedom deserves to be examined side-by-side to his inquisitorial stance toward Phan’s work. Or take another recent example in the evangelical world: the Deadly Vipers Case, a situation that surrounded a blog-based book published by Zondervan that framed sins as ‘deadly vipers’ to be attacked by the mixed-marital arts of the mortification of sin. Evangelical pastor Eugene Cho successfully launched a campaign to oppose the book’s continuation on the shelves of Christian bookstores, clarifying that this was not a vendetta against its authors, but that framing Asian Americans as the sinful ‘other’ would exacerbate racialized tensions in evangelical churches. So too, the discussion within Asian American evangelical circles around loving one’s parents without dishonouring Jesus continues to frame the conversation around orientalizing one’s Asian parents while occidentalizing the Christian faith, a premise that Baylor theologian Jonathan Tran pointed out is ultimately untenable if Asian American Christianity is to develop its own catholic expression of the faith.

In other words, Doug Wilson is not alone in using these orientalist frameworks to frame his argument; it is instead a problem that plagues much of Euro-American Christianity even within Asian American Christian circles, and its roots lie far back in the history of the church. The question one may pose, then, is this: is labeling ‘Asia,’ the ‘Orient,’ or whatever ‘other’ you might have to Western Christianity as a heterotopic space ultimately helpful for Christian communion?

My answer is no. And this, if those in positions like Doug Wilson’s have ears to hear, might be the way forward in answering the schisms that have plagued our churches. Instead of hearing the complaints of women, post-colonial peoples, and racialized minorities as emanating from a will to power and born of an unsanctified lust for immanent liberation, perhaps our cries for justice are in fact cries for communion, complaints that this table where the sacraments impart the grace of God to us remains a space of division and exclusion. If Wilson is reading this, the answer following the reading of this post is not to debate internally whether you owe Asian Americans an apology for colonizing our space to make your point, though if you were to issue this apology, we’d be happy to hear it. The proper response, however, is to critically and contemplatively reflect on our shared Christian tradition, to examine if this thread of orientalization actually has any proper place in our discourse, and to begin the long overdue process of healing schism, that the world may know the Father has sent the Son.

**Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Wilson was a ‘homeschooling advocate.’ This error has been corrected to ‘educational advocate,’ as Wilson’s primary task has been to advocate for classical Western education in a school setting. We are grateful to our careful readers for pointing this out.

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