Josée Ngalula

A Doctor in Theology? In Order to Do What?
Lessons of an Experience

Josée Ngalula has the deep desire to see today theologians being humble and very prudent in their speech on God. Indeed, the theological knowledge can become a place of power, especially for the doctors in theology. From her experience, she proposes them to privilege the „circularity of the word“: to place the monitoring of the theological stammerings of God’s people in the heart of their theological gait, because one is doctor in theology for serving. To put in practice this dynamics brought her to discover the emergency to deepen today the paradigm of the body of the other.

Josée Ngalula est habitée par le profond désir de voir les théologiennes et théologiens d’aujourd’hui être humbles et très prudents dans leur discours sur Dieu. En effet, le savoir théologique peut devenir un lieu de pouvoir, surtout pour les docteur(e)s en théologie. A partir de son expérience, elle leur propose de privilégier la „circularité de la parole“ : placer l’écoute des balbutiements théologiques du peuple de Dieu au cœur de leur démarche théologique, parce qu’on est docteur(e) en théologie pour servir. Mettre en pratique cette dynamique l’a amenée à découvrir l’urgence d’approfondir aujourd’hui le paradigme du corps de l’autre.


In a world that is marked by the desire for prestige and the craving for publicity presenting oneself as the holder of a doctoral title in theology can cause people to put you on a pedestal which has its drawbacks. At the same time being a doctor means to have a certain competence that can and should be used for the benefit of the society, and you can’t hide any longer. This is why I’ve decided to re-read my own experience in order to understand what it has taught me about the status of being a « doctor in theology ».

Being shaped by the « circularity of the word »

My own experience has helped me to discover, step-by-step, over time, what it means to be a « doctor in theology »: it means to have been formed for a long time by a certain manner of putting one’s own words into the world. During my studies in theology and my activities as a researcher I’ve experienced that the more you proceed in theological research the more you realize that our intelligence and our memory can show us only a very small part of reality. It was while doing the first little practical exercises in undergraduate theology that the corrections of professors and the reactions of fellow students in group work made me understand that other people had discovered dimensions of reality that had not come to my mind yet. As a student, you constantly have to read what others have published, so it’s really a training in listening to others.

In researching and writing during the second part of my studies, then for the thesis in the third part, being guided by a teacher constantly made me notice that there were aspects of any given issue that had escaped me. Researching for a doctoral thesis constrained me to precisely outline a subject, that is to give up the claim to be able to embrace the whole and know everything: I was forced to focus on one single detail for several years as an advanced student. Doctoral research requires this rigorous act of keeping a complete inventory and bibliography of a given subject: so I learned that it’s not possible to think about the Christian faith with your ears closed to what others have discovered, either previously or simultaneously, even if you don’t agree with them.

The experience of defending a thesis in front of a jury has deep anthropological meaning: The results of your research that are condensed in the personal « word » of the doctoral thesis, must not be imposed on the world as a truth that everyone would be compelled to embrace. You have to accept that you are exposed to the judgment and thoughts of others. Or in the words of an African proverb: „Not knowing is not recommended, but not questioning is worse.“

To arrive at the level of a doctorate in theology thus means to have learned, in years, to bring forward one’s own words into a « circularity »: you introduce your own intuitions and experiences into a dialogue with other ancient and contemporary words. You don’t claim to have the final say and you leave the door open for listening to the reactions of others, be they your contemporaries or future generations. To stand in front of a jury will be the doctor’s condition for the rest of her life for each publication is always subjected at least to the « jury » of publishers or other researchers who will read and review it. This means that the doctorate in theology is a veritable school of humble listening to the other in the framework of the « circularity of the word » provided that you are ready to existentially take profit out of it.

The theologian who will have taken existential benefit out of this training in the « circularity of the word » will become a witness: Her way of uttering the words that express her intuitions, the results of her research or her acquired competence will be marked by a deep modesty. His or her behavior and reflexes will witness that truth is beyond human beings and that one can meet aspects of this truth only in the « circularity of the word». Her or his conduct will show that it is ridiculous to absolutize the words and phrases we use, that it is ridiculous to deify our thoughts and opinions. The continuous studies of theology and the career of a researcher will teach everybody who is willing to understand that God is beyond our wording: it’s therefore ridiculous to fight or to separate from one another for words, formulations or ideas that in fact are nothing but a stumbling effort to comprehend the divine reality that is far beyond all we can master through our thoughts or words.

 Witnessing theological wisdom

On the African continent today there is a hyperinflation of doctrines about God and belief, above all in the new religious movements that have invaded the popular neighborhoods, the media, the Internet and advertising spaces. How many facts of the Christian history are rigged in order to attract crowds and make money! How many of them are manipulated to position oneself religiously and socially! How much facts concerning Christian morality is fiddled with in order to destabilize the consciences of people and better control them! Be aware that knowledge, theological knowledge included, is power. The potential to abuse this power always exists as people trust in what they think to be an « expertise » of those who have studied religion.

 An African proverb says: « The strength of the Baobab is in its roots. » This means that the value of a doctorate in theology is not comprised in the quantity of information gathered in your mind or memory. It’s not about impressing other people with diplomas and academic titles. Rather, it’s the manner of using the fruits of your long formation and experience that unveils the deep identity of a doctor in theology: the real theologian does not overwhelm or manipulate. Is this utopian? No, for in my own life I’ve met several male and female theologians who are in fact modest and not manipulative.

During my studies in theology I was fortunate to meet several professors who were extremely humble. From their behavior I learned that a theologian is neither a judge nor a court. The theologian isn’t an inquisitor. Rather, he or she is a companion of the Christian community, not a person who accompanies from the outside but one who peregrinates along with other believers modestly contributing within the « circularity of the word » inside the context of the church, the community and the society.

The doctor of theology does not overwhelm the members of a community by his knowledge. He does not use the power of science to manipulate the illiterates in theology and to position himself financially or socially. He shares his or her knowledge inside the « circularity of the word »: He has his mouth open in order to modestly share what he has learned; at the same time his ears and hands are open to receive the experiences of others who indeed aren’t doctors of theology like him, but who have their own manner of saying and expressing the unique truth to which we all tend, the truth that is God himself. Such an approach has real « therapeutic » value for our present world where knowledge about divine and religious matters has at times become a power misused to manipulate our fellow humans.

Assessing the responsibility of a « doctor »

 In my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo on the African continent, the presence of women in theological milieus is rather recent, and there are still very few female doctors in theology. This means that we are a « curiosity » that evokes all sorts of reactions. The most extreme positive reaction is delight, the most negative one is rejection. Instead of leaving me exhausted and filling me with resentment or delusions of « persecution », certain negative experiences that are linked to my status as a woman in theology have helped me reflect more deeply the role of doctors in theology. Here is one experience that provides good stuff for reflection:

The very first day I gave a class in a theological institute in 1994, all my students were young people who had been sent by their religious congregations in order to get the formation that prepared them for the sacrament of order. I had hardly begun my introduction to the course when a student raised his hand demanding to speak. And here is exactly what he said in front of me and the whole class, five minutes after the course had started: „I’m scandalized to find that a theological institute that is as serious as this one looks for girls to speak to us. I suggest that we the students refuse to attend this course! » I immediately retorted: „Thank you for the compliment!“, then I continued as if nothing had happened. Of course the other students pounced on him during the break, rebuking him. Two weeks later this student who had thus offended me during the course came to me to apologize. In our conversation he explained that he had never imagined that women might be able to study theology as some great venerable philosophers had said that « the woman » was unable to reason. He added: « Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas said this. A doctor of our Church, might he be able to tell lies? I believed him and I adjust my relationships with women according to what I learned from him.» Of course, this student was in his first year of theological studies and still had to attend a certain number of courses in order to learn the hermeneutics of Thomas Aquinas’ claims. This student is not the only one who argues in this way: there are thousands of men in Christianity who see women through the lenses of certain phrases that have been written by a Church Father or a doctor or just some renowned theologian.

From this incident I’ve learned the responsibility given to intellectual elites to whom doctors of theology belong: some phrases of antique theologians that have been seized by theological discourses or writings, or certain biased interpretations of biblical texts referring to women which have been deeply entrenched in people’s minds up until and still in the 21st century. In my career as a teacher of theology I’ve had to fight with my students plenty of times about what this or that antique theologian mistakenly said about « the woman » since he did not yet possess the biological or biblical knowledge we have today. Every time the students said: « But Thomas Aquinas is a doctor of our Church, Augustinus is a Church Father! Unless this or that is true they wouldn’t have said it! » Every time I tell myself: It’s not necessary that in fifty or perhaps one hundred years there will still be this sort of debate concerning anthropological conjectures that we, female and male theologians of today will have integrated into our writings and that future readers will conceive as absolute divine thought or will.

This is the responsibility of doctors in theology: having passed through long periods of study has helped us to become aware of the uncertainness of the knowledge humans have accumulated in the course of centuries. The history of Christianity and other religions that we’ve learned during our studies and researches in theology mirror the fragility of human beings in the manipulation of knowledge referring to God. We doctors have learned that it is so easy to delude oneself about God and humans, in good faith; that it is easy to misuse the religious structures that mediate the relationship with God in order to foster violence or enrich oneself! The doctor of theology knows this through the history he has studied in his theological formation. As a believer he or she also knows it by contemplating the complexity of relationships between God and his or her human creatures as the bible witnesses it: The human being is so fragile and vulnerable to make mistakes about God and him- or herself!

Wandering with Christian communities asking oneself and God

 As members of Christian communities, theologians cannot be researchers who are insensitive to facing the pleasures, deceptions and questions of other members of their Christian communities and societies. Thus, I’ve been guided towards my research about the violence that is done to women in the configurations of our present time. Indeed, the numerous wars that have occurred in human history show that women are not the only victims of violence. Violence does not spare any race, people, social class or religion. It comes from the human heart, its doers can be men and women alike. Regardless of the scandalous character of certain facts for the human conscience, the theological approach is nevertheless compelled to get involved, wandering with the Christian communities, in the context of the « circularity of the word».

During the war that has affected my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been the classical war crimes that mark wars all around the world and hurt humanity. There has been another extremely scandalous phenomenon, too: violence against the female body as « weapon of war ». In other words, there have been systematic and public rapes committed from house to house, village to village, not out of sexual desire, but only in order to destroy the enemy; Men raped being perfectly aware that the uterus and vagina of the victim were destroyed in order to destabilize social relations. You can’t help asking yourself: « How is it possible that a human being commits such atrocious acts to such an extent? »

The « circularity of the word » holds me as a theologian and member of Christian communities to go a step further in questioning. I’ve set out listening to the particular questions that poured out of the hearts of the victims of these horrible rapes, the women themselves and their social environments that were highly affected by their sufferings. Here are their questions that have reached me:

 « How can God allow that women who believe in him, who pray, who are catechists etc. to experience such humiliation and destruction?“ „How dare you ask me to forgive and not to accuse the rapist before a court: doesn’t this mean that God is on his side since this is somehow a sanctification of impunity?“ „You priest, you pastor, you ask me to confess because I have been raped: what kind of evil have I done? Why don’t you tell this to the rapist?“ « You, my society, even some Christians in my social environment, you think I’m dirty and impure because I’ve been violated? You shun and stigmatize me because I’ve been raped? Where is the compassion for your neighbor?”

 As a theologian and witness of the living relation between God and his people I’ve seen how Christian women and men, shocked by violence and obsessed by these questions, set off searching for a divine answer, reading and re-reading their bible. I’ve witnessed biblical sharing and predications that related to this poignant questioning. I’ve discovered two opposed approaches: there were on the one side preachers who answered every question by blaming the women arguing in this way: « If a women is raped it’s her fault because she has been seductive as you can see it well in the bible; she has to accept the punishment that God gave to Eve; Those who have been raped have committed adultery and must do repentance as they have stained the honor of their families. » The second approach was that of the female victims; although they do not master the bible they said they were convinced that God was on their side for he had witnessed the incidence and knew about their innocence. However, they had no biblical arguments that enabled them to discuss with the preachers who always had (manipulated) bible verses at their disposition and told them that God endorses violence to women as a follow-up of the punishment of a certain Eve…

What can I do as a theologian in the « circularity of the word »? Again, I can modestly insert a word into this flood of contradictory words searching and fumbling for the will of God. Not a word that says the ultimate truth and splits off those who are wrong from those who are right. Rather a sharing that gives the fruit of my long theological formation to those who will listen. As everybody’s reflex was to search for some light in the bible in order to be able to live on with all these deep wounds that had been inflicted to individuals and the whole society through violence I decided to re-read the bible starting from their questioning. Of course this is only a contextual lecture of the bible. Beginning with the analytical tools that I had received during my theological formation, I wanted to listen again to what is said in the bible with regard to the violence that is experienced by women and their social environment. Indeed, there are plenty of theologians who have written heaps of beautiful things about violence in the bible. However, the challenge here was my walking along with people who had been deeply injured, within the framework of the « circularity of the word »: they read the bible, and I re-read it together with them, starting from the suffering and questioning that fretted them.

What I discovered was impressive: although I was used to reading the bible I discovered that the number of narratives that witness violence experienced precisely during wars in our actual world was substantial. I also detected inside the bible a dynamics of rejection and condemnation of these kinds of violence that led to the title of one of my books: « God denounces and condemns the violence that is done to women ». The book was sold out in a few months as the women spread it like bread, receiving from the biblical witness this liberating light for the victims of violence: for God it’s the rapist who is guilty, not the victim; for God, the victim deserves compassion and assistance, not stigmatization.

Although this data is important, the contribution of theologians to the Christian communities they wander with, who reflect and question themselves and question God, can’t limit itself to a mere consolation of the victims even if this was fundamental and urgent in the context that caused my research. To stop there would have meant merely scraping the – nevertheless important – surface. I would have held back my expertise from the communities even if it was only a little word that I added to theirs. I was not able to limit myself to militancy. Departing from our formation the doctors of theology serve the communities in going deeper, by providing data that help them to proceed in their relationship with God and the fellow human (or the society) that has been affected by violence. That’s why I began to be interested in an aspect of the biblical narratives that tell about human violence, in order to understand more deeply what happens after the act of violence has already occured and what it brings about to the victims.

The paradigm of the other’s body

 Listening to some biblical narratives that deal with interpersonal violence and its management, sheds light on certain paradigms that can helpful in moving on from spontaneous reflexes in order to ask fundamental questions. Four types of reactions that are assessed by biblical narratives allow us to become aware of reflexes that are very common in the present world and raise urgent question. All of them have one thing in common: What damage has been done if someone attacks another one’s body!

First there is the management of violence through more violence that is blind and creates new innocent victims: it’s the case of Genesis 34,1-31. Here you see Dina’s brothers (she has first been kidnapped, then violated by Sichem) who want to do her « justice » by killing off the rapist and his family. Thus, their impulsive reaction entails the death of hundreds of innocent people. What damage has been done if someone attacks another one’s body and this is followed by blind revenge! This dramatic situation is very common in the present world where thousands of innocent victims bear the consequences of conflicts between a small number of political individuals; where embryos and fetuses pay, by their abortion, for the conflict between the rapist and the raped; or thousands of refugees and displaced persons pay for economic or other conflicts.

Next, there is the management of violence through silence. In our actual world many situations of violence are stalled or trivialized in families, schools, civil and religious institutions for fear of the perpetrators or in order to save the good reputation of certain persons, families or couples. This withdrawal from the imperative to deal with the situation of violence and impose sanctions on the perpetrator is asserted in 2 Samuel 13,21: Faced with a rape that came across in his own house and that has emotionally and psychologically destroyed his own daughter Tamar, king David remains passive and withdrawn facing a phenomenon of domestic violence. So, the rapist is not troubled. The victim’s suffering is simply ignored. Life continues as if nothing had happened in order to recover the royal family’s reputation. Later, Tamar’s brother will take revenge for his sister by killing again innocent people and humiliating his father by a coup d’état. What damage has been done if someone attacks another one’s body, and the guilty person is not called to account!

There is, then, the management of violence by blaming the victim: human violence can result in physical or psychological destruction, in disfigurement. The numerous forms of violence that are known in our world have in fact generated physically and psychologically mutilated persons. Unfortunately many of them are stigmatized and even rejected by their environments. You can find a typical case in 2 Samuel 16,21-22: Under the demise of a « weapon of war », Absalom has publicly raped David’s two concubines in order to morally destabilize him. Very moved, David feels much compassion for them, but he also considers them to be a source of dishonor for his family and his royal dignity. They become kind of impure for him and therefore they « were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood“(2 Samuel 20,3). In many countries the presence of persons who have been affected physically or psychologically by violence is somehow or somewhere bothersome to the society: their « human disfigurement » causes their rejection by the same society that should help them. In the parable of the good Samaritan the priest and levite bypass the victim of violence shaped as they are by socio-religious prejudice and fear (see Luke 10.25-37). What damage has been done if someone attacks another one’s body and they are disfigured by it ! The dynamics of biblical texts proclaims it loudly: Being the victim of violence and being mutilated by it is neither a sin nor a contamination. It’s unfair to blame and reject the victim of violence.

There is still another management of violence that obscures one’s own responsibilities: In lawsuits for victims of violence, there often occur retaliation measures and other injustices. A biblical narrative helps in reflecting this case: in Judges 19,16-20,48 a Levite delivers his own concubine to perverse people who want to sodomize him or his servant (Judges 19,25). Although he « loves » his concubine the Levite does not deliver himself in the moment of danger as the men were looking for a man and not a women to rape! On the contrary, he himself proposes to the rapists to abuse her the duration of a whole night, thus protecting his own body. So, as the woman dies because of the cruel violence she has suffered, this Levite blames the rapists only, not at all admitting that he himself had consciously delivered that woman! Concealing his own responsibility in the violence against his concubine he accepts that only the rapists are blamed and seriously punished. What an injustice if somebody attacks another one’s body and not every responsibility is detected! This kind of situation is very common in our world of today.

My approach as a female theologian is not, in the context of the « circularity of the word » to give lessons to Christian communities, but simply to tell them: « reading the bible together with you, but equipped with my tools, look what I’ve discovered; what do you think about that ? » My contribution as a theologian is also to re-introduce the results of the dialogue I have with the Christian communities in the « circularity of the word » into the milieus of theological research and ecclesiastical decision-making. It’s an invitation to those who are able and have the necessary tools to work on the problem of the management of human violence as it occurs in our world of today. It’s an invitation to deal profoundly with the link between justice and forgiveness. It’s an invitation to deepen the debate about the paradigm of « the other one’s body ».


My deepest desire is that theologians today are careful people who do not absolutize their God talk, who do not play God’s „great sage“. Their theological witness will lead those who trust in their expertise to enter into a „circularity of the word“ that does not deify neither what is heard form the fellow human nor what comes out of his or her own mouth.


Response by Brigitte Cholvy

It’s as a French female theologian who lives in a country where laïcité has colored everything that I react to Josée Ngalula’s text. It was just yesterday that I told to a group I had met the day before that I was teaching at a Catholic university. I experienced the contrary of the « pedestal » of which Josée speaks! Rather, it was at best astonishment and in fact rejection. For certainly very different reasons we both have to adjust our positions with regard to our respective cultures: How can we have a say that can count and at the same time open up to a real freedom? Neither overwhelm nor manipulate, says Josée, to which I would add: neither be insignificant nor inaudible. The French society is convinced that it is possible to live in a good and sincere way without any religious reference, and it easily conceives every religious reference as unfitting, since private, or archaic and illusionary. As metaphysical questions have been (definitely?) pushed back, other ways of dialogue with society have to be re-established.

 In this extreme diversity of situations what Josée calls « the therapeutic dimension » of theology is decisive for our society. This urgent task is difficult for what our theological teachers have fought for and what has led to Vatican II with its irreversible results isn’t enough any more, even if this was a beautiful fight the approach of which remains and must still inspire us. The therapeutic dimension of theology, according to Josée, goes a step further than the encounter with the other’s face: it concerns the care for the other’s body, the body in its most intimate aspects as not only wounds but violation is at stake. How can we be present in the service for bodies that are not only injured but humiliated in an extent that affects the personal body, spreading to the whole social body?

 First of all we have to speak, and I see a close link between the « circularity of the word » out of which Josée makes the way of being, the lifestyle of the theologian and the « therapeutic dimension » of theology she calls for. It’s because Cain and Abel weren’t able to speak to each other, or perhaps never learned to speak – that is to make circulate words between each other – that murder has become the only way out (Gn 4). However, how can we avoid to be stuck in psychologizing, complaining or furious words facing injustice and violence? How can we proceed to a faithful and believing re-lecture of the incurred facts? Josée tells us to have experienced the fecundity of a link between a hermeneutics of biblical narratives that are re-read in community and the narration of lived incidents not in order to discern a meaning for what is not justifiable but to discern the pertinence of questions that we have to keep on and on asking and the validity of their denunciation, without reserve. To be simply useful this theological say has to be not only humble, listening, not reducing itself to a knowledge that presents solutions, it also has to open up, beginning with God’s word, to a critical re-lecture of our societies. The old Europe has to learn from others this way of care and service for the word that builds on the Word!  

(Translation from French: Ina Praetorius & Melissa Eberle-Schwartz)


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