Sanctioned Ignorance and the Theological Academy By Egon Cohen

Namsoon Kang writes that dislocation can be a theologically transformative process of self-discovery, using the metaphor of the “homeless traveler . . . leaving home for Home.” Kang also states that one’s identity—one’s location as traveler—is necessarily influenced by one’s position along axes of identity such as race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender, ability, and sexuality. And it is at this interstice that I, and many other liberationist theologians, grapple with issues of privilege. We are committed to traveling with the marginalized, but our luggage is packed with advantages denied to our companions. Indeed, as individuals with the luxury of pursuing advanced theological studies, most academic theologians operate within a space of significant privilege.

In this regard, I have observed four main typologies of response: (1) denial, (2) guilt, (3) cataloguing, and (4) instrumentalizing. It is hard to constructively engage the first type of response within the present discussion—the existence of such institutionalized privileges is one of my implicit operating premises, so I will bracket this analysis for another occasion. Similarly, I believe that the constructive/transformational capacity of guilt for or detailed acknowledgment of privilege is quite limited. So the question becomes, how do white and/or male and/or heterosexual and/or “first world” theologians instrumentalize our privileges for and (more importantly) with our “fellow travelers”?

I propose that, within the sphere of academic theological praxis, one way in which we must do so is by combating what Spivak refers to as the “sanctioned ignorance” of the Western academy: the institutional sanction/imprimatur for white male thinkers to be ignorant of subaltern discourses, and simultaneous insistence that culturally marginalized thinkers must be aware of (and actively address!) the canon of historically dominant, “traditional” Western scholarship. And, as I recently observed at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting in San Francisco, sanctioned ignorance is a phenomenon with real and deleterious consequences for religious scholarship today. This was rather sharply illustrated for me by the presentation of a white male Hebrew Bible professor during the Masculinity Studies panel of SBL’s Feminist Hermeneutics section.

“Masculinity studies” is an emerging field that attempts to study men and masculinity within the methodological/epistemological frameworks of “gender studies,” particularly those of feminism and queer theory. Nevertheless, the professor’s paper presented a highly essentialized, heteropatriarchal portrait of masculinity that clearly had no space for the female and trans masculinities that form a large part of the existing literature. Moreover, his paper ignored several substantive, directly relevant questions that are raised repeatedly in the work of both Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam—two of the most influential authors in the masculinity studies canon.

After the panel’s respondent rather gently indicated these omissions in her paper, the professor’s answer to her concerns was most illuminating:

I’m not a sexist, I’m a person. And I’ve never read any of these texts, so I’m innocent. . . . I know that in this post-1984 world, there are some creative ways to make babies, but I’m still pretty certain you can’t make one with a dildo. You need a father. And a father is important to children. Now I don’t know if that’s in these articles, because I haven’t read them, but I’m speaking as a father and speaking to how to do that in a successful way.

It is helpful to unpack this statement a bit. The professor says that he is “innocent” with regard to the “[hetero]sexist” assumptions of his scholarship because he’s never read the texts that would have challenged these assumptions. The choice of words here is quite instructive—“guilt” and “innocence” are terms that address whether or not a particular duty/responsibility has been violated. Accordingly, the professor’s protestation of “innocence,” on the grounds of “never [having] read” the gender studies canon, could only proceed from the understanding that he has no intellectual or professional responsibility to read/be aware of this scholarship. But why shouldn’t he have these responsibilities? Especially when writing in the field?

Let’s examine a few analogous cases. Suppose that at another SBL section, the respondent, a womanist theologian, had read a paper on 1 Corinthians while proudly proclaiming her ignorance of Dale Martin and Hans Conzelmann. Would the Bible professor have considered this behavior similarly “innocent”? I also wonder what would happen if, for instance, I decided to enroll in one of the professor’s classes and told him that I wasn’t going to read any of his assigned texts, and would instead write a paper based on my experiences in BDSM play: “[Rope bondage] is important . . . I’m speaking as a [rope bondage enthusiast] and speaking to how to do that in a successful way.”

I sincerely doubt I’d pass the course. Nor should I expect to do so—I would be guilty of neglecting my institutional obligations as a student, and my more general intellectual obligations as a scholar. Yet, the professor was “innocent”—he could perceive no such professional or intellectual failure—when he walked into a feminist/queer space and presented a paper that loudly disregarded the entire discipline in which it was ostensibly written. His ignorance was sanctionedbecause it occurred outside the “traditional” Western canon.

So, where do we go from here? Ultimately, I believe the lesson for the privileged theological traveler is that this is a space in which we can instrumentalize our privilege in liberative and transformative ways. By actively insisting that black, feminist, womanist, queer, Asian, Latin@, mujerista, Native American, and other theologies “from the margins” have a place in the canon.And by actively refusing to indulge in, or sanction, ignorance.

Egon Cohen is completing a Master of Theological Studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. His research focuses on gender, sexuality, ethics, hermeneutics, and the intersection of liturgical praxis, politics, and BDSM. Egon likes riding motorcycles and eating Haribo gummibears. He is secretly still 10.

Categories: Academy, Gender and Power, General, Identity Construction

Tags: , , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Since this interchange occurred in a public forum, I wonder why you protect the professor’s identity?


    • I had originally written this as an open letter to the individual in question (Greg Mobley at Andover Newton), but decided against it because I was worried it would be read as a personal attack rather than as an illustration of a much larger problem. However, since (as you note) the exchange occurred in a prominent public forum, I probably should have named him when I rewrote the post.


  2. This was a great exposé reminding me of the importance of various feminist and queer theories. Even in masculine studies, one cannot make the assumption that all involved are operating out of a feminist and/or queer lense. In fact, from what you are saying, a scholar could present at a professional meeting quite unaware of the impact of queer and feminist theories on their chosen field of inquiry. We need to keep spreading the message as well as hold people accountable to answer for their ignorance and/or privilege. Thank you for the post.


  3. Egon, I can’t thank you enough for this post – it is such a critically important topic. How and toward what end/purpose we use our privilege is something we must all always keep in the forefront of our minds – especially those of us who are scholars and educators. Greg Mobley’s behavior is beyond disappointing – but your response is thoughtful and courageous – an example really. Thank you.


  4. Egon, I’m a student of both Andover Newton and Brite. Reading through your blog I was wanting to share all the while with my fellow students. But now reading the origin of the specific example, I would like to ask your permission before I do that.


    • Melissa,

      Thanks for reading, and you most certainly have my permission (indeed, my encouragement ;) ), to share anything I write with whomever you would like.

      Wishing you peace and many blessings in the new year,



  5. And whether we notice our privilege or take it as the norm, even if we are feminists and aware of issues.

    I went to the discussion on Elemental Theology that had both Starhawk and Rosemary Reuther as panelists. They were talking very much about the four elements, earth, water, fire, air.

    I had earlier gone to Kwok Pui Lan’s talk about Empire.

    So I started wondering whether that use of the four elements was Eurocentric, whether a different culture would structure Elemental Theology in a very different way.

    I asked a question about this, rather tentatively, and was unhappy at the response, as the panelists seemed to say that the four elements were universal but just sometimes expressed differently. They may be right, I certainly don’t know better, but it felt to me a very defensive response.


  6. Egon, Thank you for writing about this “sanctioned ignorance” which has always been the elephant in the classrooms of many seminaries!


  7. Egon, this is Gregory Mobley here. A couple of things: 1) I did not “walk into into the feminist/queer space” of the panel. I was invited to speak by the panel’s organizers, presumably because I have written about the male heroic culture in the book of Judges, in The Empty Men. Trust me, I would never crash one of your parties because I would be worried about BDSM play. 2) I did utter the word “dildo,” I confess, but I assure you it was only in response to a member of the audience who used the term.
    I now know that my paper, a consideration of the biblical Abraham as exemplifying the paradoxes of patriarchy, was out of place in that room. I wanted to say something honest about male identity from my perspective. That’s all. But, looking back, I can see that it wasn’t a forum for honest discourse. It was a rally for certain causes. Don’t worry; I am sure they will never invite me again.


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