Making a Way Out of No Way: a womanist theology, by Monica A. Coleman Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2008. Pbk. $21. ISBN 978-0-80066-293-6
Monica Coleman is at the vanguard of the third generation of Womanist theological scholarship in the US. It is the opinion of this reviewer that she is one of the ‘rising stars’ in the Womanist theological firmament in the US. This text represents something of a coming-of-age and an important grand statement of intent for a radically new direction in Womanist Theology. Monica A. Coleman is an Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont Divinity school of theology. Claremont remains, arguably, the premier location for the propagation and constructive development of Process Theology in the US. Coleman, a graduate of Claremont Graduate University, has used the theoretical frameworks of Process thought and their concomitant metaphysics, in order to fashion a genuinely new, innovative and startlingly original model of Womanist theology.
Coleman argues that this work is very much a reflection of her twin identities of scholar and activist, and in this respect, the author is working in the grand tradition of her Womanist forebears who have always held reflection and action in tandem as an expression of their dialectically influenced scholarly ministry.
Making A Way Out of No Way: a womanist theology has emerged from Coleman’s doctoral studies and is part of the wider series of innovations: African American religious thought, edited by Katie Cannon and Anthony Pinn. This text is comprised of five chapters, an introduction and conclusion, and includes notes, a bibliography and an index.
Let me say at the outset of my assessment of this text that this work has enlivened my imagination and is a piece of work that will become a standard, indeed, a classic text in the canon of Womanist scholarship for many years to come. The author has made, to my mind, the important conceptual leap of going beyond the traditional parameters of Womanist theological thought. As the author outlines at the outset of the book, when assessing the ways in which a number of the leading Womanist theologians have engaged with the central concept of salvation in Christian theology; this previous work is often circumscribed by an essentialist, Christocentric paradigm. Namely, that the claims for inclusivity, plurality and mutuality, which remain important thematic markers for the broad hinterland of Womanism, as defined by Alice Walker in her landmark In Search of Our Mother’s Garden are stunted, somewhat, by an insistent and pressing Christian superstructure on which the bulk of Womanist theological work is built.
While there have been other attempts to construct Womanist paradigms on alternative religious frameworks (see essays by Debra Mubashir Majeed and Melanie Harris in Stacey Floyd Thomas’ Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society – New York University Press, 2006), this work lacks the range and the substantive import of Coleman’s text. Coleman’s book presents a post modern womanist theology derived from the concepts of process theology as expounded by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. The insights from this work are then juxtaposed with reflections drawn from African American womanist theology, Yoruba spirituality and the lived experiences and activity of African American women in a post modern world.
Coleman’s post modern womanist theology also draws on insights from her personal experiences, as she seeks to embody a more theologically nuanced appraisal of the Womanist vision to offer healing and reconciliation for all within a communitarian ethic that embraces the care for the earth and support for all marginalised and oppressed peoples. In this regard, her close attention to the needs of LGBT communities represents an important milestone in the work of a major Womanist theologian. Perhaps, of greatest import in this work, is the means by which the author is able to link the post modern present alongside the ancient wisdom of the ancestors. This dialectical nexus of process metaphysics and African Tradition religions is an ingenious and a spellbinding intellectual turn, where the author brings, what appears on the surface, as oppositional modes of being into conversation, in order to broaden the trajectories of Womanist God-talk that is ‘fit for purpose’ for the intricate realities of the 21st century. Coleman reminds us that not all Black women are Christian, and that even the Christianity so many Black Christians espouse, is itself a complex interaction of a multiplicity of sources and concepts that are consonant with the Diasporan routes of post modernity as espoused by Paul Gilroy in his magisterial The Black Atlantic.
Writing as a non-African American, what was most refreshing in Coleman’s eclectic, interdisciplinary, semantic gaze is the sense that she is engaging with the postcolonial trope of hybridity; described as ‘metissage’, in the work of Black British Woman theologian Kate Coleman (see Kate Coleman ‘Another Kind of Black’ – Black Theology: An International Journal, Vol. 5, No.3, 2007). Like her British namesake, Coleman fashions a post modern Womanist theology that eschews the kind of reified notions of the ‘homeland’ that one often finds in the work of some African American scholars.
Coleman’s is a highly nuanced and post modern take on Africa, African Traditional Religions and the role of the ancestors in communal African life. This work opens up new trajectories and postcolonial optics for a new semantic gaze on the Black Atlantic mythos of the old world and the new. It can be argued that Coleman’s book represents an important first in Womanist theology in a number of avenues. It is a post modern, inter-religious, post Christological, process-influenced, African traditional religion-informed Womanist theology for the 21st century. Like the best of all new scholarly work (in any tradition), it simultaneously integrates the old, whilst fashioning a new course for the future direction of the subject. It is neither reductively derivative nor is it dismissively reactionary. I commend Monica Coleman for having written a hugely important work that will command much interest and comment for many years to come.
Dr Anthony G. Reddie
Research Fellow in Black Theological Studies
for The British Methodist Church and The Queens Foundation For Ecumenical Theological Education.
Editor: Black Theology: An International Journal