Interfaith Dialogue from the margins

“Christians included a strange declaration in their Creed. They said they believed in and wished for the resurrection of the body. As if the body was the only thing of any importance. But could there be anything more important? Could there be anything more beautiful?” –Rubem Alves, “Celebrations of the Resurrection”

Religion is an experience of the body. We cannot talk about religion without talking about how our bodies feel the Mystery of Divine. The French anthropologist David Le Breton says that “The body is the human condition of the world, the site where the incessant flux of things settles on precise meanings or impressions, metamorphosing into images, sounds, odors, textures, colors, and scenes” (2017, p. 2).

We feel the world with our body. Theology is done in the body, it is done in the possibilities and impossibilities of the experience of the body. It is the body who creates culture, art, poetry and religion. It is the body that feels divine ecstasy and it is the body that feels oppression, it is the body that “turns into tears, cries of pain, fleeing, chills, hatred and persecution” (GEBARA, 2016), and it is also the body that shivers when hearing a song of love, that feels butterflies in the stomach with every new experience, that dances in a party, that laughs until it hurts the cheeks.

My starting point for this reflection is my body. Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, observed: “Is there any other possible starting point?” (1985, p.32). The body is a potential of the senses. Different bodies feel different things. David Le Breton wrote:

“Walking in the same forest, different individuals are sensitive to different stimuli. There is the forest of the mushroom picker, the rambler, the fugitive, or Aboriginal; the forest of the hunter, gamekeeper or poacher; the forest of lovers, vagabonds, or ornithologists; and also the forest of animals and trees, of night and day, a thousand forests in one, a thousand realities in a single mystery that remains a hidden and yields its secrets only in fragments. There’s is no true forest, only a multitude of perceptions base on one’s perspectives, expectations, and social and cultural affiliations.” (LE BRETON, 2017, p. 1-2)

Many traditions exclude the body in the discussions about spirituality, religion and faith. Perhaps only one type of body is allowed to do theology: the male-white-heterosexual-rich body. We must start to question: where are the other bodies in theology?  How can the marginalized bodies participate theologically? What does it mean to be in the margins? Can a marginalized body do theology?

Marginalized bodies and theology

Minorities in all regions of the world continue to face serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political, social and cultural life available to the majorities in the countries or societies where they live.”  Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Statement on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2009)

Gurung & Kollmair (2005) says that margins and center tend to be identified in two categories: 1) spatial marginality – focusing on geographical and physical location and distance from the center; 2) social marginality – concerning human dimensions such as culture, gender, sexuality, religion, class, age. “The study of social marginality has to do with understanding the processes and politics of discrimination, exclusion, inequality, injustice, and oppression on the basis of these human dimensions” (GOVINDA, 2013, p. 3)

Our body is our language. When our bodies are marginalized we do not have a voice anymore. Minorities have their bodies oppressed and silenced by colonialism. As a Latin-American woman my body bears the symbolic scars that came from colonialism and imperialism. LGBTQ, Black Movement, transgender people, Black Women, poor, indigenous, homeless … we feel in our bodies sexism, racism, economic inequality, injustice, and violence. Our struggle is due to the fact that our bodies are read in society as inferior, abnormal. Our freedom is limited by our genitalia, color, social class, sexuality. “Life and death manifest themselves through the body. Restoring the physical body to its rightful place is a fundamental part of our affirmation of a real and sensual life” (CARDOSO, 2002).

“Marginalization no longer becomes exclusive to socio-economic categories, race, or cultural appropriation of difference. The disenfranchisement of other groups has in many ways been a result of colonization. Imperial forces have not only subjugated individuals physically, but perhaps more ominous, intellectually. The totalizing effect of both the physical and the intellectual colonization has necessitated a liberation hermeneutic that accounts for these facets. Liberation theology through a postcolonial perspective has provided an apparatus for such a task, starting with redefining the meaning of poverty in the midst imperial forces” (THOMAS, 2015)

The center of theology doesn’t want the peripheries to begin to think and do theology. This is why they label feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology, queer theology, and dalit theology as heresy. The same thing happens with our theology as with our marginalized bodies.  A postcolonialist perspective is important to understand this relationship between center and margins: postcolonialism “is not a discourse of historical accusations, but a committed search and struggle for decolonization and liberation of the oppressed” (Dube 1997:14). Unfortunately, colonization still happens in different ways, so minorities must struggle together against the Empire of capitalism, exploitation, prejudice and violence. Margins are a contested space and the marginalized “body must be seen as an instrument of power dynamics, construction and demise of empires and thousand forms of domination” (CARVALHAES, 2016).

A marginalized body is a potential that challenges the hegemony, a potential for creativity, a potential to dream different spaces and political issues. The Marginalized body does not have only one identity but has a lot of identities in dialogue with this ambivalence. Besides this plurality of identities, this hybridization cannot be analyzed by Marxist categories that reduce the struggle in the margins to only an economic perspective but must analyze it with postcolonial theories that try to cover the multiple identities in the margins. “According to Bhabha, hybridity and ―linguistic multivocality― have the potential to intervene and dislocate the process of colonization through the interpretation of political discourse” (ONWUEGBUCHUNAM, 2015, p. 2)

Marginalized bodies living dynamic faith

Dr. Gladson Jathanna opened his lecture at the Henry Martyn Institute about “Margins, marginality and inter-religious dialogue” with the following sentence: “Inter-religious dialogue is a discourse of the center”. I could not agree more. As a researcher in inter-religious dialogue I have been questioned about where my woman-body is in the interreligious dialogue. Until I started to question this all my references in theology of religions were male-european-white-heterosexual: some of them were good men with great work, but only one view is showed in this discussion, the vision of the center of theology. In my research I found a book called “Women and interreligious dialogue” by Catherine Cornille, and began to feel more hope towards my works in theology of religion. Cornille says:

“By all appearances, dialogue between religions is conducted mainly by and between men. The images of high-level meetings between religious leaders tend to depict males, dressed in colorful religious robes, displaying solidarity and mutual respect in spite of their differences in beliefs and practices. Theologians and intellectuals involved in theoretical reflection on interreligious dialogue also appear to be predominantly men, as evident also in the previous volumes in this series. And many of the public grassroots interfaith initiatives are attributed to men. This is largely unsurprising. In so far as the leadership of most religions continues to be predominantly male, and official dialogues tend to involve religious leaders, it is to be expected that women appear absent or underrepresented in official dialogues between religions.” (CORNILLE, 2013, p. 7)

This is one of the reasons why I use interfaith dialogue. Kwok Pui-Lan, Chinese theologian, in her book “Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue” said that the interfaith dialogue is a better concept than interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is dialogue between Christianity and other religions, but Interfaith dialogue is a meeting between people living in a living faith. “The interfaith dialogue would benefit from the insights of post-colonial studies, which question how the self and the other, the center and the periphery, the cultural dominator and the marginalized have been constructed” (PUI-LAN, 2012).  Not only religious leaders can dialogue about their faith, but all kinds of people who have a faith can dialogue and build a new perspective of world. That is why postcolonial studies are very important in the interfaith dialogue. Pui-Lan works in the postcolonial perspective and questions where are the multiplicity of voices in the discourse of liberation theology and interreligious dialogue. Postcolonial theology provides a more nuanced articulation of the meaning of liberation for marginalized groups.

The Marginalized body feels the forest of religion in different way, their sense, taste, and look is different. In Kwok Pui-Lan’s words, bodies living in a living faith. This faith is dynamic, is not locked to a religious system, it transcends the boundaries. Religious identities are constructed on the borders of different realities, no longer in singularities.

“The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with “newness” that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent, it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent “in-between” space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. “The past-present” becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living.” (BHABHA, 2012, p. 10)

Living on the border of different situations must produce a new meaning for reality. Moreover, living “beyond” the border is enjoying the future, even living in the present (RIBEIRO, 2012, p. 17). The in-betweenness would, therefore, be a space / time in peripheral essence, would be an ideal place to stage the multiple political-cultural contemporaneity. This border is a “space for subversion, transgression, blasphemy, heresy, and so on” (BUDEN ; NOWOTNY, 2009, p. 201). The margins challenge the center narratives creating their own narratives: “The border position allows greater visibility of the structures of power and knowledge, which can help in apprehending the subjectivity of subaltern peoples” (RIBEIRO, 2012, p. 18).

Where are the poor in the interreligious dialogue? Where are the women? Where are the LGBT people? Where are the black people? Where are indigenous people? The colonialist thought is the current reality of discourse about interreligious/interfaith dialogue. This is the reason why marginalized people, the subaltern, the people who live in the borders have to create a new space, a dream-space to build relationship with other religions. “Dialogue between religions indeed often emerges from a sense of interconnection, from a particular challenge or concern common to individuals from different religions. For feminists from different religions, this sense of commonality expresses in itself the experience of exclusion from religious authority and knowledge, and of control over their sexuality” (CORNILLE, 2013, p. 11).

Celebrations of interfaith dialogue – or creating new imaginaries of an interfaith body

“Theology: poetry of the body” (ALVES, 1985, p. 52); the body that dances in the rhythm of the drums, symbol of resistance in many countries like India and Brazil. The drums of the slaves still resonate in Brazilian history. Marginalized bodies suffer injustice, exclusion, violence, but the margins are also a space for celebrations and transgression: Marcella Althaus-Reid, Argentine theologian, asked once, “Is theology the art of putting your hands under the skirts of God?” (2004, p. 99). In dancing God’s skirt reveals the mystery of life.

According to the rhythm of the drums, the margins can rewrite, rethink, and re-imagine the theology of religions. The Theology of Religions or Inter-Religious Dialogue is a discourse of the privileges, sometimes, or as Dr. Prabhakar Dayam said in one session in HMI, it is the guilt of white people. The center discusses about inter-religious dialogue, but the margins live a dynamic of interfaith dialogue. When we leave the institutional ethos and move on to the complexity of life and human interactions the dynamic of interfaith dialogue takes place organically and intertwined. Interactions, negotiation, hybridism are things that happen in the margins.

Bricolage of the Divine. A Marginal God. An interfaith dialogue from the margins is about a spirituality in the borders of religion and society. A spirituality that is not embodied within doctrines, creeds or theological discussions but instead based on the experience of the body. In Brazil we have a celebration called “Festa do Bonfim” – Festival of Bonfim – that happens on the second Thursday of January. It is the largest street festival in Bahia – and an expression of this negotiation of the margins. After a procession from the Basílica da Conceição to the Sacred Hill (Colina Sagrada) female leaders of the candomblé religion, Mães de Santo (Mothers of saints), wash the church grounds with vases of water and flowers at Church of Bonfim while dancing and singing chants in the Yoruba language. In the Candomblé religion, Our Lord of Bonfim is associated with Oxalá, father of the Orishas and creator of humankind. Indeed, people dress in white during the feast to honour Oxalá.

Interfaith dialogue is a celebration of bodies, built with relationship, brotherhood and sisterhood, with bodies interlacing like an orgy of different religions exchanging fluids, pleasures and joys. Interfaith dialogue as a way of living in the margins is a new way to find God of the margins.


ALTHAUS-REID, Marcella. “Queer I Stand: Lifting the Skirts of God,” The Sexual Theologian: Essays of Sex, God and Politics, eds. Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004)

BUDEN, Boris and Stefan NOWOTNY. 2009. “Cultural Translation: An Introduction to the Problem.” Translation Studies 2 (2): 196–208.

BHABHA, Homi K. et al. The location of culture. routledge, 2012.

CARDOSO, Nancy. The body as hermeneutical category: guidelines for a feminist hermeneutics of liberation, In The Ecumenical Review, July, 2002.

CARVALHAES, Claudio. Body Matters in Education (2016) last accessed 17 March 2018


CORNILLE, Catherine. Women and Interreligious Dialogue (Interreligious Dialogue Series Book 5) (p. 7). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Edição do Kindle.

DUBE, W M 1997. Toward a postcolonial feminists’ interpretation of the Bible. Semeia 78, 11-25

GOVINDA, Radhika , « Introduction. Delhi’s Margins: Negotiating Changing Spaces, Identities and Governmentalities », South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal[Online], 8 | 2013, Online since 19 December 2013, connection on 17 March 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/samaj.3646


GURUNG, Ghana S.; KOLLMAIR, Michael (2005) Marginality: concepts and their limitations, IP6 Working Paper n°4, last accessed 17 March 2018, URL:


KWOK, Pui-Lan. Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue. Paulist Press, 2012.

LE BRETON, David. Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

ONWUEGBUCHUNAM Marcellus; ONWUEGBUCHUNAM, Rita. Homi K. Bhabha’S Nation and Narration: The Case of Transformation of Culture and Hybridity. Journal Of Humanities . 2015. Vol. 21 No. 2

RIBEIRO, Cláudio. Fronteiras. entrelugares” e lógica plural: a contribuição dos estudos culturais de Homi Bhabha para o método teológico. Estudos de Religião, v. 26, n. 43, p. 9-21, 2012.

THOMAS, Nicolas. Black Liberation Hermeneutics: A Postcoloinal Perspective. As part of coursework for The Bible and Empire in Texas Christian University, 2016.



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