Intersectional Theology (Grace Kim & Susan Shaw) - A Review

INTERSECTIONAL THEOLOGY: An Introductory Guide. By Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 208. Xix + 129 pages.

When I scan my theology bookcase, I quickly discover that the vast majority of books on these shelves were written by white, heterosexual, men. That is, they were written by people who look a lot like me. It's not surprising since for the past two millennia white men have been the dominant force in matters of theology and biblical studies in the Christian West. It's not that the books that line my shelves aren’t worthy of being read, it’s just that if my theological conversations are limited to these conversation partners then my theology will be undernourished. There is a tendency for us to live in ethnic/gender silos, which hinders our encounters with those who do theology from different vantage points. Back in my seminary days, I found myself attracted to liberation theology, which widened my perspective. Nevertheless, most of these liberation theologians were male, like me, and most had been educated in European and American contexts. So, how do we break out of these silos? How do we broaden our theological conversations? I recognize that there are many Christians who are quite satisfied living in their theological silos, engaging only those figures who not only think as they do but like them. I’m not one of them, which is why I’ve been trying to add more diverse voices to my bookshelves.

To expand the conversation, we’ll need to find new ways of doing theology. One possible avenue to pursue is known as intersectional theology. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw have provided us with a primer on this form of doing theology.  One of the central points in doing theology in this form is through personal narrative. In other words, we cannot separate our theological work from our own identities, and these identities are complex. Our identities include our gender, our ethnicity, our social-location, our education-level, our sexual orientation, and more.

Since personal narrative is important to the task of doing intersectional theology, it is important to get to know the authors of this book. Grace Kim is a Korean-American heterosexual woman who grew up and was educated in Canada after immigrating from South Korea. She currently is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. Susan Shaw is a white American woman, who is also a lesbian by sexual orientation. She is Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.

Since we’re talking about narrative here, I should note that I requested the review copy after running into the authors in San Diego while at the AAR-SBL meeting in November. My son Brett and I were walking toward the Convention Center when we encountered the authors having lunch. It was in that conversation that Grace suggested that I might find this book interesting and worthy of a review. Since the publisher was at the meeting, I went to the display and put in the request, which leads to this review. I share that bit of information, simply to say that sometimes personal relationships can inform one’s reading of theology. It’s also why I’m reviewing a book published in 2018, which isn’t my normal pattern. But, as you’ll see it was worthy of a review.

Getting back to the identities of the authors, they bring their biographies into the conversation and demonstrate how their biographies influence the way they do theology. They write that "intersectionality recognizes that people experience multiple and intersecting of oppression and domination simultaneously" (p. xiii). This is an important point. We can find ourselves being in positions of oppression and domination at the same moment. Thus, one can be a woman and experience discrimination or suppression, but because one is white, that puts her in a dominant position over against, perhaps, a black male, who might be in a dominant position in relation to a Latinx woman. And, on it goes depending on the situation. Even being a white heterosexual male doesn’t preclude being in both positions, depending on the context. To do theology intersectionally one must let go of single-axis thinking and instead, look at things with a both/and lens. We need to see ourselves on both sides of the equation, embracing the complexity of our identities.

As the title suggests, this is an introductory text. It’s intended to be used by beginning graduate students in theology and ministry (and perhaps even undergraduate theology students might find it of value). Because it’s an introductory text, it's accessible to the non-specialist. That doesn't mean, however, that it is shallow. The subject itself is challenging (especially for those of us who are white, heterosexual males).

The book itself is comprised of six chapters, plus a glossary and bibliography. The book begins with a chapter introducing the reader to intersectionality. In this opening chapter, the authors set intersectional theology in a broader conversation about intersectionality, and central to this conversation is the importance of social justice. This is one of the end goals of doing intersectional theology. It is intended to help us achieve social justice, so "that people's basic needs are met, people are treated with equity and fairness, differences are welcomed and valued, and economic, social, political, and religious equality is achieved." (p. 2). They root the origins of this methodology in Black Feminist theological work.

From this introductory chapter, we move to a chapter focused on the relationship of biography to intersectional theology. Here the focus is on identifying the complex nature of our identities. Kim and Shaw illustrate this by telling their own stories of growing up, their calls to ministry, their experiences of love and marriage, and their developing theological orientations. They note that biography and experience are set in diverse contexts, including family, country, and faith tradition. These first two discussions set the table for chapter three, where they set out intersectionality as a theological method. In this process, theology is not focused on discovering ultimate truth, but instead focuses on destabilizing "fixed notions of theological truth." (p. 42). In other words, this is a move away from hegemonic theological systems. They invite us to look at our social locations and ask how they influence our theological discussions. Again, this involves both/and thinking. The following chapter extends the conversation to include biblical interpretation. Chapter 5 takes the conversation into practical theology, focusing on topics such as worship, sacraments, and ordination. In this chapter, they ask us to consider what an intersectional/intercultural church might look like. That is, how do we move beyond our current ecclesial silos?

In their conclusion to the book, Kim and Shaw again remind us that intersectional theology focuses on multiplicity and indeterminacy, which arise from biography and social context. I'm of an age where the assumptions that we inherited or were taught largely ignored social context and identity. We made assumptions that white European male theologians represented the truth. We might have recognized theological differences, but we largely ignored gender, race, and sexual orientation. We can't do that anymore. We can try, but only if we cut ourselves off from people whose stories are different from our own. If we step outside our silos, we will hear voices challenging single-axis attempts to do theology.

As a 60-something white, male, heterosexual, married, pastor/historian/theologian, I find this path both intriguing and challenging. I understand the need to step back and listen to other voices, but I also wonder how my own identity fits into this new conversation. I wonder the same thing for my son who is also studying theology. Where will he fit? I don't know that the complete answer is present here in this book, but it is a starting point for understanding how to do theology in a more pluralistic context. For that reason, we have much to be thankful for to these two theologians, for giving us a pathway to follow.