What’s the big deal about decoloniality?

Investigating a term that is often used, but rarely described

By David Galston | 4.8.2019

A term has been coming up a lot in the work of both the Christianity Seminar, and the Seminar on God and the Human Future. Decoloniality. But what is it? One of our scholars wrote about it here, and this post aims to take another look at what it is, and how to better understand it.

Comments on theology and philosophy often involve strange, creative words that are not immediately known. Sometimes the word seems familiar but is used in a unique way. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, for example, had a way of using the word “fallenness,” which indicates the way we lose the sense of ourselves by falling into the cares of the everyday world. We can see a word like “fallenness” and more or less recognize it, but we have to read about it and think about it to know what is being said.

“Decoloniality” is another philosophical word that fits in this category. We can see in the word the sense of colony, colonization, and decolonization. We can probably feel the meaning, but to get the impact and importance of this word, we have to think about it.

There are three words of significance when it comes to understanding decoloniality (and decolonialism). The first word is colonialism. It is the physical act of one country or state colonizing another. England and France colonized Canada and the United States. The second word is postcolonialism. This second word indicates the study of the effects of colonization upon a nation’s history. In the case of Canada and the United States, there is the history of colonialism and the legacy our nations live with as a consequence of that history. Finally, there is decoloniality. This word might also popularly be called reconciliation. It means that colonized nations are challenged to form new cultures in which one set of behaviours (the behaviours of the colonizers) are no longer considered “normative” behaviours but in which everyone in the culture, regardless of heritage, holds equal dignity in both opinion and lifestyle.

The meaning of decoloniality is obvious to us when considering indigenous populations, Black history, and the colonial populations of North America. White North Americans had the power to presume that their sense of reality, reason, and truth was “normal” and that subordinating “others” (Black slaves and indigenous nations) to their truth was completely acceptable. This power to presume your (White) truth is the truth accounts for a history of racism and residential school. White nationalism today is an effect of the continuing power colonial history holds. Decoloniality is about overcoming this history and opening a new social space of shared dignity for all. The work of decoloniality includes reconciliation with indigenous nations and recognizing the significance of Black Lives Matter, and it is work that will regretfully take much time and involve many struggles.

Decoloniality extends beyond the colonial history of North American or other colonized nations. Decoloniality is also a factor in Christian history. After Constantine (272–337), orthodox (creedal) Christianity became the standard way to read Christian history. Christian groups that were different in nature from the orthodox groups lacked the power to have their experience of Christianity accepted. Instead, these alternative groups were called heretics and were silenced in history. Today, because of decoloniality, we understand that the first three centuries of Christian history were highly pluralistic and there was (and is) no “normative” form of Christianity in existence. Today, scholars have to “decolonize” their traditional readings of Christian history.

Decoloniality also names an attitude. It is possible to hold, in relation to any issue, a colonial and a decolonial attitude. A colonial attitude is expressed when we presume that how we see and interpret things is how things are; a decolonial attitude expresses the ability to recognize that there are pluralistic ways to interpret the world and that reaching an agreement is the work of a community sharing dignity, not of individuals holding power. Practicing decoloniality is difficult because it remains easy to assume that technical “reason,” as defined by and inherited from colonial powers, is the only form of reason that should count. Even the most liberal-minded among us still often find it difficult to affirm the value of arts education, of cultural awareness, and of diversity. It is important to have a common denominator when reaching a social, political, or even family agreement about a given issue, but the path to that agreement, for the sake of our collective futures, needs to be the path of decoloniality.

There is nothing wrong with being White or Black or Cree or anything else (gender, orientation, ethnic history, religion, etc.). Decoloniality is not about shaming who we happen to be. It is about recognizing the place we speak from and accepting that others in different places have the same dignity as ourselves. This challenge is as much a theological challenge as it is a political and social one.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.