September 6, 2016


Teaching theology with a new worldview

Elaine Nogueira-Godsey brings experience in the Global South to a new role in theology, ecology and race

Something happened when Elaine Nogueira-Godsey was 20 that gave her a powerful new perspective on her life in Brazil: She moved to South Africa.

“Growing up in Brazil, I knew from an early age that I wanted to travel and learn more from other cultures,” she said. “It was not until I moved to Africa that I saw the value of my perspective as a female theologian of mixed race. Working with Angolan and Mozambican refugees in South Africa reinforced my desire to explore this perspective further. It opened my eyes to the injustices that had become normalized in my native habitat, of which religion was inextricably central.”

As she observed “the centrality of the natural world in our everyday lives,” she developed an abiding interest in the intersection of ecology and issues of racial and gender oppression. “The poor conditions exacerbated by pollution and disregard for the environment disproportionately affected women, the poor and the racially marginalized.”

Nogueira-Godsey gained these insights while earning a master’s degree and doctorate in religious studies from the University of Cape Town, where she served as a lecturer and postdoctoral research fellow. She has taught classes including Religion Past and Present; Religion, Ecology and Spirituality; and Religion, Gender and Sexuality. She received her bachelor’s degree in theology from Faculdade Teológica D’Oeste do Brasil.

Now she brings her expertise and an international perspective to MTSO, where she will begin teaching in the Spring Semester as assistant professor of theology, ecology and race.

“Dr. Nogueira-Godsey brings an expansive understanding of theology to our seminary,” said MTSO President Jay Rundell. “Her students will learn how environmental threats to our planet compound the burdens faced by many people who already are marginalized because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status. I expect she will help us see the faithful care of creation through a new lens.”

Added MTSO Dean Lisa Withrow: “Her gift to us is going to be the conversation about the Global South, ecology, feminism and culture. She’s going to centralize that for us.”

Nogueira-Godsey currently is a postdoctoral research fellow intersecting postcolonial theory, religion, ecology and gender in the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Religious Studies. She has spoken and written extensively on topics ranging from religion and cultural diversity in post-apartheid South Africa to the work of Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara, whom Nogueira-Godsey studied for her doctoral dissertation.

“Gebara’s journey resonates with me on many levels,” she said. “I too questioned my right to make my own choices and decisions from a young age. I was born in Brazil into a devoted Christian family, half Baptist and half Catholic. I was told from early age that all that I needed to do to please God and have a happy life was to go to school, find a husband, have children and be a good mother.”

“What to do with my life as a girl became an existential problem. Why did God create me with intellectual needs if I was not supposed to think for myself? Why did God create me with leadership skills if I was supposed to become a good submissive wife and focus on motherhood as fulfilment for life? Gebara’s work helped me think through these questions.”

Nogueira-Godsey’s work in ecofeminism connects different but related forms of subjugation. “Most ecotheologies have addressed the idea that the domination of humanity over nature and its exploitation are the consequences of a dominant Western philosophy that foregrounds human uniqueness above all living beings,” she said. “However, many ecotheological works fail to adequately make the connections between various forms and loci of power as they are asserted over the environment.”

“The domination of humanity over nature is only one of the facets of a bigger picture. We need to re-examine the claim that the Abrahamic religions convey dualistic teachings that cause the separation of humans and nature, but which in turn generate earthly hierarchies with men constituting the highest pinnacle. The kind of ecofeminism that interests me approaches the reality of poverty and ecological devastation so common in colonized contexts as originating from the same mindset that foregrounds human uniqueness above all living beings.”

A life lived in Brazil and South Africa has sharpened Nogueira-Godsey’s sense that the study of ecotheology may begin with humanity’s care of the planet but goes somewhere broader and more complex: “I think that by being exposed to the multiple realities of the Global South’s postcolonial contexts, students will be better equipped to analyze and take into consideration the ways in which poverty, gender inequality and racial oppression are themselves deeply ecological issues. Such a perspective points to the fact that to care for the environment represents a different rationale for those who fight for their own family’s basic subsistence on a daily basis.”

She’ll encourage her students not to seek a quick and tidy fix for these problems but rather to accept and encourage an evolving world.

“The beauty of Gebara’s ecofeminist theology is the focus on alternative epistemologies as a vehicle for finding solutions to environmental, gender or racial problems,” Nogueira-Godsey said. “By forging a space for different ways of learning and transmitting knowledge to evolve and adapt to changing human identities, the approaches to issues of ecological, gender or racial injustices will likewise adapt and evolve.”

“It has become central to my scholarship and to transmit to my students that adaptations, adjustments and changes are a common occurrence and generally expected when reinventing our own relationship with the earth and the sacred.”

Nogueira-Godsey, who interviewed and lectured at MTSO in May, said she has fond memories of the students, faculty, staff and delicious Dunn Dining Hall cuisine. She’s excited by the opportunity to teach graduate theology courses and to be part of a campus community committed to the pursuit of a just and sustainable world.

“The desire to live out a theology that promotes sustainable living for all became clear during my visit to MTSO,” she said. “For me this is very exciting. It feels like a dream come true to imagine that I will be working with scholars and students who are serious about answering the call to respond to the world’s most urgent needs.”