Review of Westhelle, Vítor. After Heresy: Colonial Practices and Post-Colonial Theologies. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Reviewer: Jacob J. Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org
The theology of Vítor Westhelle continues to emerge with theopoetic language and intriguing insight with his new book. Westhelle, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is perhaps most recently known for his 2006 work,The Scandalous God,on thetheologia crucis,the theology of the cross. And while postcolonial analyses are not the focus of that text, they do remain textually present, anticipating his new work. After Heresy: Colonial Practices and Post-Colonial Theologiesworks diligently, impressively, to examine what makes postcolonial thought—theological and otherwise—possible in the contemporary moment.
From the vantage point of that contemporary moment, Westhelle opens the book by focusing on ideologies that participate in an “amazing display of colonial monoculturalism” in the modern West (xi). He unfolds this display through the words of that Moravian of a higher order, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who asserts that heresies are no longer possible as the Church marshals its own resources to imbue the clean slate of the missionary field with converts. In this vein, Westhelle notes that book’s title holds a double meaning: “One is leaving heresy behind—the heresy that colonized and plundered. The other is to go after the heresy in the literal sense. It is going in pursuit of that ‘heresy’ that the great Protestant theologian claimed no longer exists and seeing it surge from behind what Fanon called ‘the white mask’” (xi-xii).
One can sense the text seeping with the passion to indict the horrors of the colonial process. Simultaneously, understanding the historical moves of Western colonialism holds explanatory power for the multiplicity and the postcoloniality of the present. Westhelle, in the main assertion of the work, argues that “this conviction that heresies are no longer possible, asserted abroad by missionary zeal, instead of reproducing the Europoean- and later U.S.-based Christian teachings and practices allowed for indigenous and hybrid expressions of the Christian faith” (xiii). The very idea of monoculturalism and conviction of the impossibility of heresy begins to crack and transform, revealing multiple voices and hybrid realities. Working with such concepts, then, this work resonates strongly with Gayatri Spivak’s meditations on subalterity and Homi Bhabha’s articulations of hybridity.
Westhelle divides the book into three sorts of textual moments. Meditating on the twin themes of interest and desire in modern colonialism, the “pre-text” illuminates the modern missionary mentality, exposing the philosophical foundations and embodied histories that made postcolonialism possible. Here, Westhelle uses the history of Latin America as a sort of broad case study for illuminating patterns of missiology (Chapter Two is particularly helpful in its exposition of ideological paradigms of mission—acculturation, restoration and inculturation). The “con-text” exposes the crises of the modern, monolithic story as hybrid identities begin to emerge into, finally, the possibilities for postcolonial “texts.”
In his three textual moments, Westhelle begins to explicate a concept of representational “transfiguration.” An instance of tactically using dominant representations and theologies (pretexts) for the benefit of subaltern representation, hybrids transfigure cultural texts in a transgressive praxis. Westhelle argues that, “Hybrids transgress. They transgress margins, their own habitat, by transfiguring themselves. However, the point is not to surrender their own selves in the transgressive roles they play, for when they do so, they egress existence as such and are only accessible in the tradition of the memory of the victims of which we have plenty” (141). As theological transgression, Westhelle’s conception of “transfiguration” is a welcome constructive concept.
The best theological writing does not distinguish its own form from the unruly content of its assertions. These texts, their languages, as gappy and mysterious as they are, breathe life in both disorienting and orienting ways. Indeed, in readingAfter Heresy’s evaluation of the textuality of the Western colonial project, one perceives Westhelle’s own transfiguring of modern language, projects, and history into his own constructive project. Welcome is his own hybrid use of resources—noted postcolonial voices, theorists he finds tactically valuable (de Certeau), and contemporary philosophical voices to diagnose the marginalization of Others, illumining their postcolonial possibilities and hindrances (Habermas, Foucault, Derrida). The multiplicity of voices in this text is a whirlwind feat.
In the transfiguration of its own language,After Heresy, at times, feels remarkably enigmatic, sometimes more of a condensation of contemporary postcolonial scholarship than a proposal. The enigma of Westhelle’s words is both a blessing and a curse in this way; sometimes shrouding points, sometimes disorienting into new ideas. More peculiarly, though, Westhelle’s style raises for me the question of writing itself more than any other confessed postcolonial work in contemporary theology. That is, does not postcoloniality demand the West not only propose new lines or circles of thought, but also write those possibilities with an unseen verve and a strange gusto? Much ink has been spilled (sometimes harshly, politically) as to the occasional frustration of Homi Bhabha’s style. Such a discussion pops up in postcolonial as well as poststructural (e.g., Derrida) modes. It seems to me that the transdisciplinarity of theology should be having these discussions as well, but such conversations on poetics have been few, with notable exceptions (E.g., Rebecca Chopp, Catherine Keller, Amos Niven Wilder). As an indirect foray into this conversation,After Heresyprovides much for pondering.
Such pondering leads me to a set of questions for which I would need to take up more lines of e-script, html and otherwise. And so, here, I ask: Is transfiguration enough? What does postcolonial justice or creativity look likebeyondtransfigured hegemony? Can there be such a beyond? We may have to rethink concepts of liberation in the midst of neocolonialism, in its many guises of neoliberal capitalism and naïve expressions of globalized monoculturalism (indeed, such stunning contributions as Marcella Althaus-Reid’s begin this polylogue). More, we must rethink our concepts of pluralism, relationality, and multiplicity for our postcolonial context. As Westhelle notes, the Greekhairesis, from which the word “heresy” arises can mean “to plunder.” But, even more,hairesiscan also simply mean “to choose.” We need this definition ofhairesisfor the simple fact that it can mean an expression of choices, of pluralism, in the midst of a world that so often wants to limit rather than celebrate difference.