I began to understand the radical potential of the Hispanic Theological Initiative’s commitment to teología en conjunto when I felt its teeth. I was serving as advisor to a doctoral student who was selected as an HTI fellow. Of course I was thrilled at the student’s selection. And I was glad for the structure, support, and accountability that HTI was clearly giving to the student. And then that accountability came for me. Calls and emails began to come in—not just from one person, but from what felt like a whole network. There were forms to complete, solemn commitments to sign. The communication was always warmly professional, but I knew that I was being watched and that I would be held accountable. I loved it.
I was glad for the accountability because it pushed me to be a better advisor. And I was glad because I felt like I, too, was connected to this network of people that I admired. Even if my role was secondary—and rightly so—the accountability let me know that I had some share in the life of the community. I was glad to be part of it in whatever ways I could.
And I was glad for the radical intervention of this program in doctoral studies in the United States. In the prevailing pattern of doctoral studies, the student is accountable to the advisor, who is practically accountable to no one. Procedures for appeal beyond the advisor might exist, but in practice most students regard them as too costly to pursue. As a result, students are structurally vulnerable to abuse, indifference, and poor performance from advisors. Even well-intentioned advisors might neglect students because there are so many other pressing demands for which they will be held accountable. Students are often already in precarious positions, and the structure of doctoral education makes them even more vulnerable. But when HTI monitors advisors—even through a friendly call or a routine form—it changes the power dynamics. Indeed, it transforms the whole structure. And this is only the beginning of the radical potential of doing theology en conjunto.
In naming this potential, I do not presume to tell the readers of Perspectivas what it means to do theology en conjunto. On this matter I am always a student. I simply mean to write and celebrate what I have witnessed in the good work HTI is already doing. And, in putting this witness in print, I mean to make myself freshly accountable as one who aspires to be an ally in this work.
At the entry level, teología en conjunto means creating a community that facilitates the success of Hispanic/Latinx scholars through practices like layered mentoring, structured time for writing, editorial support, and intellectual exchange. It means opening channels for wisdom to be shared between generations. It means creating the bonds not just of a professional network for mutual advancement, but of una comunidad that sustains scholars, body and soul, in environments that are often hostile. By every measure, HTI has excelled in this work. 94% of HTI fellows complete their degrees, with an average time to completion of 5.5 years. Placement rates are similarly high, with 86 HTI scholars going on to become full-time educators and another 48 serving as leaders in administration, research, and ministry. Any doctoral program in the country would envy these numbers.
This work of diversifying faculties in theological education is essential. It is demanded by justice, by the search for truth, by a vision of Spirit poured out on all flesh, by the need for theological schools to serve diverse churches in a diverse society, and more. No meaningful progress can happen in theological education without continued efforts to diversify faculties.
If greater diversity is necessary, it is not in itself sufficient, for it can too easily be assimilated to a social order Jodi Melamed has dubbed neoliberal multiculturalism. The two words might seem impossible to combine, as they arose from opposite ends of what often gets taken for the political spectrum. Neoliberal measures like financialization of the economy, individualization of risk, deregulation of industry, globalization of capital markets, predatory debt, and justification of inequality by appeals to individual merit were championed in the 1970s and 80s by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. By themselves, though, neoliberal policies could not win durable political support. The extreme inequalities they produced grated against sentiments arising from new social movements for equality and self-expression. But “Third Way” center-left politicians of the 1990s and 2000s like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair found ways to channel those sentiments into a fusion of neoliberalism and multiculturalism. They key, in social theorist Nancy Fraser’s language, was to separate politics of distribution from politics of recognition. Neoliberal multiculturalism combines the distributive politics of neoliberalism with a multiculturalist politics of recognition. This politics of recognition is charged with symbolic importance, but it is materially empty. In Melamed’s language, it is a kind of “multicultural formalism.” Hollowed out from material claims, multicultural politics of recognition can become a shell that houses neoliberal politics of distribution.
Neoliberal multiculturalism runs through every sphere of contemporary society in the United States. It appeared last summer, when corporations like Amazon released strong statements against racism even as they resisted calls to pay a living wage, pressed towards monopoly power, continued to seek deregulation, and structured their businesses in ways that compounded already racialized inequalities. Neoliberal multiculturalism underwrote what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called the “predatory inclusion” in which banking and real estate industries targeted Black communities, promising to expand home ownership even as they seized wealth through foreclosures that were part of the business model. Neoliberal multiculturalism also played an important role in justifying wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were presented as wars against dangerous Muslim societies that had not learned to be multicultural in the right ways.
In theological education, neoliberal multiculturalism might lead a school to feature a politics of recognition that seeks a more diverse student body, even a more diverse faculty, and a series of strong public statements against racism—even as its distributive politics depend on things like rising student debt (perhaps eased a bit by calls to individual thrift); a two-caste faculty, with inequalities between tenure-track and adjunct faculty so extreme that no difference in merit could justify them; staff positions that offer little opportunity for advancement; and a curriculum that does more to teach students the right language for talking about justice than it does to involve them in real-world social movements of people who are oppressed.
This kind of neoliberal multiculturalism can assimilate mere diversity. Indeed, it thrives on its ability to present a diverse array of individuals. But efforts to diversify theological education that are linked to a vision of teología en conjunto are more difficult for this ideology to digest. For the call to work en conjunto resists neoliberalism’s reduction of society to the individual. And its focus on what gives life to whole communities refuses attempts to hollow out the material heart of movements for equal recognition.
These communal and material dimensions appear in HTI’s intervention in the advisor-advisee relationship. Connecting advisee and advisor to a wider community—and a community in which the advisor, too, is accountable—breaks up the power dynamic that depended on the two functioning as isolated individuals. Teología en conjunto makes a material difference. It also makes a difference when it informs genuinely collaborative scholarship—not just edited volumes that collect a bundle of essays and markets them together, but works that arise from years of thinking together and struggling together in movements for justice, works that are so deeply intertwined it makes no sense to say which idea should be credited to which partner. A commitment to doing teología en conjunto matters for patterns of academic leadership, too. It involves not just diverse individuals in a neoliberal power structure, but, as Joanne Rodriguez has said, diverse communities that are able “to love the whole person … listen to the whole person … and learn” together. And teología en conjunto simply will not accept the neoliberal logic that would fund theological education through individualized student debt. It will find ways to share the costs—and the benefits—of theological education in wider communities.
In seeing the significance of those wider communities, theological education en conjunto presses towards reforms that go beyond the internal functioning of schools. La Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH) Executive Director Fernando Cascante calls for this kind of vision when he urges a theological school to do something that is “not just good for Spanish-speaking students, but also good for Spanish-speaking communities.” Theological education en conjunto refuses models of diversity that see identities as traits of individuals rather than connections to communities. It refuses a “trickle-down” model that assumes the goods of education will automatically flow through individual graduates to bless whole communities. As Ignacio Ellacuría wrote, the university “cannot take as the fundamental criterion and ultimate horizon for its activity the subjective interests of students and professors, unless these subjective interests coincide with the objective interests of the oppressed majority.” Instead, the “horizon of university activity … the ultimate standpoint and deepest purpose” of education must be the people as a whole, what Ellacuría called “the poor majority” (180). Serving the poor majority requires more than admitting students from the poor majority, Ellacuría wrote, for there is no guarantee that students from the poor majority will graduate to serve the poor majority. That assumption reflects a wrong understanding of identity, one that treats it as individual trait rather than communal connection. That understanding of identity opens the door to a separation between politics of recognition and politics of distribution. “In terms of the university’s mission,” Ellacuría wrote, the important point about the character of the student body is not where they come from but where they are going” (198, emphasis in the original). Teología en conjunto does not just support the careers of individual students. It calls us all to pursue our teaching, leading, and writing for the sake of the poor majority.
Attending to the material dimensions of identity connects us not only to communities beyond the academy but also to people with identities that are different than ours. Immaterial identities can become cul-de-sacs of difference. In their idealist form they bind us to smaller and smaller communities of people who seem to share the same idealized identity. But as soon as we trace identities down to the ground of everyday life, we see that they are endlessly entangled. Black feminists have been making this point for decades. Writing in 1977, the collective of Black feminists who authored The Combahee River Collective Statement pioneered language of identity politics to describe resistance to forms of domination that are tied to racial, gender, and other identity markers. A little more than ten years later, Kimberlé Crenshaw named the interconnection—the intersectionality—of these patterns of domination as they actually play out in particular lives and communities. Because of this intersectionality, materialist identity politics are always open to connections to other groups. The patterns of domination are no respecters of idealist identities. They are always multiple, always intertwined.
Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen makes a similar point about Asian American identity. There is a fictive quality to this identity, Nguyen writes. It is constructed in a way that Korean or Vietnamese identity is not. But the fiction is born from a desire to connect with others to resist colonial and neocolonial patterns of domination. And that desire gives the identity an inherently expansive quality: “That will to find kinship can be the basis for further solidarities—with everyone else shaped by colonization’s global impact, its genocide and slavery, racism and capitalism, patriarchy and heteronormativity.” As I have come to understand it, as I have seen it lived, doing teología en conjunto has a similarly expansive quality. A sense of community that is material, earthy, and rooted in resistance to domination will expand to connect to others who cry out against intersecting and overlapping structures of domination. Emphasizing identity, then, need not divide us. Understood materially, identities are always already connected.
Doing theology en conjunto breaks the individualizing logic of neoliberal multiculturalism, which would change identities of actors without changing the structure of the play. The call to work en conjunto shifts power structures within the academy, points us beyond the internal workings of the academy to a horizon defined by the poor majority, and invites connections with people who bear different identities. The logic of teología en conjunto creates an ever-expanding circle.
That circle does not stop at the boundaries of earthly time and space. In Advent 2020, deep in the belly of the pandemic beast, the HTI community gathered online for what was billed modestly as a “reception.” The term does not begin to describe all that was shared that night. In opening worship HTI alumnus Antonio Alonso led those gathered in singing:
Te damos gracias,
te damos gracias
por tan gran nube de testigos.
We give you thanks, Lord,
we give you thanks, Lord,
for such a wondrous cloud of witnesses.
Que en la lucha que luchamos,
la carrera que corremos,
nos rodean y nos guían,
¡qué tan gran nube de testigos!
In the struggles we must face,
in the running of the race,
they surround us and they guide us,
this great and wondrous cloud of witnesses.
Those gathered on the call spoke the names of saints, martyrs, ancestors, and other forerunners in the faith. After each name the community responded: “¡Presente, presente!” It was a call to resist the powers and principalities that had taken the lives of the faithful. It was a refusal to forget, a summoning of dangerous memories. It was also a liturgy of thanksgiving for the lives that have made our lives possible, the lives that surround us even now. And it was a joyful communion with the faithful in every time and place, and with the God who loves all life into being, whose love is stronger than death. In that moment of worship, the circle of teología en conjunto stretched beyond all that we could ask or imagine, and gathered all creation up in new life, and life abundant.