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Hearing Voices: Pathology or a Path Toward Religious Authority of Women?

Historically, the voices of women have been rooted in the reality of illiteracy, lack of education, and renunciation from the public sphere. In the article, “Gendering Comparative Theology,” Michelle Voss Roberts uncovers the historical marginalization of women’s voices within the field of scholarship.[1] Comparative theology is part of such scholarship where the experience of women has been slow to emerge as an academic subject.[2] Thus, Voss Roberts advocates for the significance of being mindful of and inclusive of the systemically excluded voices—typically those of the women—within comparative theological studies.[3] As an attempt to practice such mindful inclusiveness, Voss Roberts borrows the concept of the ‘outsider within,’ from Patricia Hill Collins, a renowned sociologist and black feminist scholar.[4] Through the perspective of the outsider within, then, Voss Roberts invites the voices of the underrepresented within diverse religious traditions into the realm of comparative theological work that has been traditionally and typically dominated by the voices of the insiders, particularly male participants, of those religions.[5] I would like to argue that Voss Roberts’ feminist comparative theology allows the minorities within various religions who have been structurally invisible and inaudible to gain recognition by the broader public. Moreover, I envision that this framework can empower a marginalized group of one tradition to interact and grow together with the oppressed voices from other traditions so that they can establish solidarity and engage in comparative work as each gains their respective agency and authority.

Therefore, this paper utilizes Voss Roberts’ feminist comparative theological framework of the ‘outsider within’ to examine the ways in which women—the typical victims of marginalization—in various religious traditions have attempted to claim their authority within their respective traditions. In order to do so, this paper invites two interlocutors: Monica A. Coleman and Jarena Lee. These interlocutors represent two respective religious traditions—Yoruba-Christianity and Methodist-Christianity. Voss Roberts’ framework will reveal these interlocutors to occupy different statuses as ‘outsider within’ in their own religious contexts. Then, as outsiders within each of the traditions, these interlocutors will share their languages of faith and these voices will together unveil the history of women’s struggle toward gaining religious and spiritual authority through the experience and practice of “hearing voices.” 

However, the act of “hearing voices” is a double-edged sword. A feminist postcolonial scholar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her quintessential work raises a question, “can the subaltern speak?”[6] Pondering upon this question, I was, at first, uncertain whether it was the subaltern who literally cannot speak or the rest of the world that does not listen to the voice of the subaltern. Either way, it is rather clear that the subaltern and the others who have the ability to participate in the hegemonic discourse are unable to easily communicate with one another. However, here, I would like to continue to explore such uncertainty in Spivak’s question. What if the subaltern is able to raise their voices, but it is rather the relatively powerful others who do not, or perhaps cannot, hear the voice of the subaltern? I would like to argue that the powerful others could indeed fail to have the ability to listen to the experience of the oppressed, especially when the oppressed are removed from the systems of those who have the power. For example, let us think about those phantom-like almost removed presences in society, such as the undocumented, those whose resident registration numbers are canceled, a homo sacer,[7] and the outsiders within religio-spiritual boundaries. After all, who, especially among the power, hear the voices of these ghosts—the oppressed whose statuses are unrecognizable? If one can hear such ghostly voices, then the others with power might consider the one to have a pathological symptom similar to how modern medical science diagnoses the experience of hearing voices as a neurological and/or mental disorder, such as hallucination and schizophrenia. In this sense, the inability of the powerful to listen to the voices of the marginalized, I argue as a socially prescribed ritual to stay away from the so-called abnormal, unhealthy, and haunting presence of the marginalized within their boundaries.

Nevertheless, throughout history, there have always been those who dared to listen to these ghostly voices, especially in the realm of religion and spirituality. These people have prophesied the words of the weak as well as the grandeur of the ultimate beings through the power of hearing voices, even though this ability has, at times, been considered to be a pathologic behavior while, at some other times, as a spiritual gift. These listeners were the outsiders within this-worldly and the-other-worldly realms. They have been known to us as shamans and other religio-spiritual leaders, as maniacs and heretics, and/or as those who suffer from a psychiatric disorder.

Henceforth, this paper engages with the spiritual listeners, Monica A. Coleman and Jarena Lee, all of whom inhabit a form of the outsider within their identities as they share their struggle of raising voices and hearing voices. Their stories about their oral/aural abilities will propose a path where the once-oppressed voices, especially women of color’s voices within religious traditions, can together work toward gaining acknowledgment and authority by their larger communities. 


[1] Michelle Voss Roberts, “Gendering Comparative Theology,” The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation, ed. Francis X. Clooney (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 110.

[2] Ibid., 112.

[3] Ibid., 115.

[4] Ibid., 110.

[5] Ibid., 115-116.

[6] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Revised Edition, from the ‘History’ Chapter of Critique of Postcolonial Reason,” in Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[7] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998).

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

This paper examines comparative theology through a feminist approach, utilizing the concept of “outsider-within,” which was coined by a black feminist scholar, Patricia Hill Collins, and adopted into the field of comparative theology by Michelle Voss Roberts. Voss Roberts’ framework of the outsider-within confronts the traditional comparative theology manifested as a conversation among the privileged who are considered to have the authority to speak for their own and to others. Furthermore, it attests to the possibilities of the marginalized becoming part of interreligious discourse, namely women in diverse religious communities. Utilizing this framework, this paper attempts to explore a way in which women religious leaders, who are outsiders-within their respective traditions, claim their authority, which is unfolded as a power to hear voices. By inviting Monica A. Coleman and Jarena Lee as interlocutors, this action of hearing voices will reveal as both pathology and a path-toward-authority in interreligious dialogue.