Decolonial Theology and Changing the Global Church

By: Debora Tonelli

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

Religion—as a system of practices and beliefs—contributes to the building of the value system, criteria of judgement, and religious and social imaginaries for both believers and non-believers. During colonialism, religion—whether consciously or not—often supported the colonizers. At the end of official colonialism, religion has often been the space in which colonized people have fought to build their new identity. In this context, biblical interpretation but also ecclesiastical institutions and believers have sometimes played a role in the struggle for independence. This change requires the re-thinking of different levels: religious, theological, social, political, and economic.

In order to understand the complexity of the decolonial process, it is useful to distinguish between “theology” and “religion.” By “theology” I mean the doctrinal tradition, the theoretical and meaningful basis of practices and beliefs. By “religion” I mean a set of behaviors and beliefs, related to the sacred (separated from the common life), which are able to unify all believers in a single moral community called a “church.” Radicalizing their differences: “Theology” is a theoretical knowing, while “religion” produces social effects and influences not only the community of believers but also the public space. Its universality means that a religion has to take into account the cultural context in which practices and beliefs have their home.

From this perspective, the building of a common narrative of the past can play an important role in the new sociopolitical asset and contribute to taking the edge off between former colonizers and former colonized. Comparing the “conventional narrative” with Asian and African narratives, we discover a plurality of narratives: Here, the challenge is to highlight the divergences not as a limit but a resource, as encouraged by dialogical approach promoted by Second Vatican Council. Notwithstanding the divergences, council fathers converged in the recognition of the importance of dialogue as a common method, to proceed along a shared path. This convergence and the resultant consensus were rooted in ecclesiastical institutions and brought together by centripetal forces.

Welcoming the dialogical approach, decolonial theology requires the readiness to dialogue of both former colonized and colonizers at a high-quality level. The issue at stake is not only the reconciliation with the past but the building of new identities and a new global order, and this can only be an ongoing process. 

Welcoming the dialogical approach, decolonial theology requires the readiness to dialogue of both former colonized and colonizers at a high-quality level.

Whenever we face theological and religious challenges, whether directly or not, this confrontation will influence the sociopolitical order. This is especially true in times of transitions and crisis in which the “horizons of meaning” are reconfigured, making it clearly difficult to separate religion and politics; rather there are some grey areas. In these respects, decolonial theology opens a space of thought, providing opportunity to re-think power relations. These have religious, political, economic, and intellectual implications: the building of their own religious identity, the political struggle to send the invaders back home, the search for economic independence, and the epistemic emancipation from colonial thought. Political change goes hand in hand with new theological thinking. As many scholars have highlighted, the decolonization of knowing is the prerequisite for political independence. Then, decolonial theology becomes the basis of radical epistemic change, which is open to the possibility of a radical re-thinking of religious tradition and political space.

Decolonial theology entails the overcoming of the conventional narrative of Christianity as a “Western” religion: its birth in Palestine, its arrival in Rome, and then its spread throughout the whole world. In this conventional narrative, the idea prevails that Christian universalism is a way of self-expansion—from a center to the periphery—incorporating other cultures into a Western cultural identity. Despite the conventional narrative, a re-reading of the birth and of the expansion of Christianity could be useful for building an inclusive narrative, balancing facts, points of view, interpretations, and purposes. Doing so, we could rediscover historical resources to build a common narrative as basis for a decolonial theology. Decolonial theology breaks this narrative and attempts to include the broader Christian tradition, rooted outside the West and giving life to a wider community. At present, decolonial theology is an ongoing process, requiring the involvement of all actors involved, both former colonized and colonizers. The greatest risks come from the prevalent feeling of revenges and from a too-strong influence of politics on theological thinking. For this reason, dialogue is a good way to avoid radicalism and extremism but also to build a new and common perspective.

Decolonized theology takes up the theological and political challenge to re-think the relationship between the center and the periphery.​

Decolonized theology takes up the theological and political challenge to re-think the relationship between the center and the periphery. This is an interdependent and dynamic process, which will involve not only people who build their independence but also their former colonizers. At this stage, it is difficult to foresee where this approach will lead us, but it is a way to introduce a new narrative and to imagine new kinds of relationships in view of a more inclusive Christianity.

Opens in a new window