Online Features Editor Rebecca Wells speaks to Professor Louise Lawrence about the department’s, and her own, efforts to comprehend what “decolonisation” means within Theology and Religion.
Until last year, Professor Louise Lawrence at the University of Exeter served as Director of Education for Theology and Religion and Liberal Arts, she is now co-Head of Department of Theology and Religion. Her work centers around New Testament Interpretation, and speaking with her, I realised that the approach the University takes, especially within her teaching, is far more complex than I first imagined.
Lawrence’s research investigates the constructions of dominant norms within biblical texts (core religious texts in Judaism and Christianity) and their receptions: in particular those surrounding the role of the body, with a strong focus on disabilities. Those bodies deemed ‘other’ to a norm “are often subject to stigma and exclusion”.
“texts and literary analysis and the privileging of words is a colonial move.”
Lawrence also designed the core level one module for the Liberal Arts programme at Exeter named “Being Human”. Students are here exposed to different disciplinary lenses each week: from literary, historical, philosophical and psychological perspectives to name just a few. She notes that whilst the course “didn’t have a specific anti-racist dimension” from the beginning, nonetheless through the module students gain awareness of how particular categories of identity and ‘the human’ are constructed and how these privilege particular individuals. This module inevitably makes students aware of “some of the ways in which norms and inequalities are constructed and sustained”.
She also noted within disability studies the word “humanities” is contested in that it has been linked to European and imperial contexts which defined what it meant to “to be human” in particular exclusionary ways. She laments that “we probably could do more on that module” to explicitly link the “decolonising” agenda in higher education, and offers a possible solution of a compulsory, cross-cultural competence module for all first years.
“One of the shortcomings of the decolonising the curriculum agenda is that… (to use Audre Lord’s famous words, ‘you can’t undo the masters house using the master’s tools’, and if you think that decolonising the curricula would just be to put a more diverse reading list together…without addressing methodologies, pedagogy, and also structural barriers . . . . ” she trails off. “Reading and texts and logic and the way we write are all part of that framework.”
Lawrence furthers her argument saying that “texts and literary analysis and the privileging of words is a colonial move” on those of the Deaf community (a group who would not define themselves as people with hearing ‘deficits’, but rather a minority language group who use British Sign Language and have a rich heritage and culture, but also experience prejudice (audism) surrounding their signed language, as opposed to written script and words. If we’re really thinking about decolonising the curricula then, she asks, “why are assessments often privileging particular ways of communicating? Why are we still upholding such an individualised neoliberal model of assignments and grading?”
“In bringing together biblical reading and criticism with the real world events occurring in student’s lives, Lawrence and her department are clearly one step closer to deconstructing the notion of theology and religion as overly centrist”
“Any context where a body is disabled on account of either perceptions of how that body or mind interacts is a point of injustice”, she says. “Whilst I work in a very particular context within Bible texts, it actually has a huge relevance and transfer to many contexts, and higher education has been one of them.”
Biblical Studies, Lawrence suggests, is “centrist in lots of ways. Not just on race or gender, but also on methodology”. “When you’re looking at texts which many value as ‘historical’, historical-critical methods often dominate. One sees the text almost like a body on which you do autopsies to find out what happened.” ‘Other’ methodologies in this way are marked as marginal: feminism, queer studies, liberation, and disability-critical methods etc. often follow on in curricula from the ‘historical-critical’. She asks though, “but why didn’t we start with postcolonial readings of the Bible?”
Lawrence is highly aware of and critical of “Christian privilege” and the part that biblical texts have played in imperial histories. Therefore, in order to “decolonise” the curricula within theology and religion, one of the first and most imperative steps is to teach students to read the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible together through a postcolonial lens. “Why would we start with European modernist paradigm?” she asks.
Lawrence is on the anti-racism group in the College of Humanities which has started among other important initiatives a ‘Humanities for All’ movement. Part of this makes lecturers comment on the inclusive design of their modules on module proposal forms. In History, English, Theology and Religion, and other departments in Humanities, this also goes further by drawing attention to something bigger, perpetuating injustice: “The unspoken narrative behind a curricula”, which often goes unseen by students, and some staff alike.
Modules in Theology and Religion are responsive to real world events. This academic year following the George Floyd murder and protests last year, Lawrence found that students reading biblical texts whilst also learning about Black Lives Matter and Black Scholars Matter, engaged powerfully in ’The Bible and Racism’ week in which this framework was applied. In bringing together biblical reading and criticism with the real world events occurring in student’s lives, Lawrence and her department are clearly one step closer to deconstructing the notion of theology and religion as overly centrist.
“education has been a big broker of white power. It is time things change, I’m hopeful that humanities at Exeter is moving in a positive direction on this”.
One of the aims within the department is to establish a “culture of care”. Lawrence remembers the atrocious Bracton Law Society scandal, but laments upon a multitude of other on-campus instances of aggression centering around Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia which in comparison often don’t have “the same air time”. The Theology department is very conscious of the religious connections with such events and as a result, are “very sensitive” with regards to handling such instances.
When asking about demographics within the staff of the department, Lawrence stated that “we’re very white”, she pauses. “We’re not very diverse in that respect”. She continues, “though we do have one of the most gender-equitable staff teams of any Theology and Religion Department in the UK”. I asked whether recruitment of non-white professors in the department would be advantageous to the whole agenda and she agreed, adding that in order to ensure “epistemic justice, you need people’s lived experiences, you need role models. I feel it would be hugely enhancing and empowering, so definitely”.
Lawrence concluded by restating a previous argument. Recruitment of non- white professors within the department would be a positive change, but also deep thinking around what systemically just education really looks like. She asks, “where do the tentacles of white power and ableism finish?” Indeed, “education has been a big broker of white power. It is time things change, I’m hopeful that humanities at Exeter is moving in a positive direction on this”.