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October 26, 2023

Feminist theologian and Emory professor Kwok Pui Lan, Ph.D, spent two days in Millville in October.


On Oct. 19 and 20, St. Paul’s School hosted Kwok Pui-lan, Ph.D., dean’s professor of systematic theology at Candler Theological Seminary at Emory University in Atlanta as the School’s first Dickey visitor of the 2023-24 academic year. During class visits, Chapel and several meals, Kwok joined students and faculty for deep discussion on issues ranging from the symbolism behind religious architecture in China to her experiences traveling to South Africa during Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Best known for her scholarship in the realms of Asian feminist theology and postcolonial theology, Kwok teaches contemporary spirituality and interfaith understanding and has written or published 23 books in English and Chinese. During her Chapel talk on Oct. 20, she reflected on the Hebrew Bible as a historical book, and one that is unique in that it is written from the perspective of the losers.

“We always say that history has been written from the perspective of the winners because they wrote the history and passed it on,” she said. “The Bible is not like that. It was … a book for the losers, for those who were defeated by their enemies, forged after Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem amidst total chaos and calamity.” It was during that time of defeat and destruction, Kwok explained, that Jewish writers fashioned a new way of thinking about who they were and developed a notion of political community; at the heart of the Hebrew Bible lies the question, “what does it mean to be a people?” The New Testament, Kwok continued, expands on that question to ask, “What does it mean to be a people reconciled with God?”

Kwok’s talk also touched on current events, observing that over the last several weeks she has reflected on the same question that many others have: that of why God would allow suffering and turmoil. “It is in moments like this that one particular tradition in the Bible is so important to me: it is lament. When we look at the Bible, there are praises of God, but there also are laments directed to God,” she said. “And what I have learned from my Hebrew Jewish colleagues is that it is okay to ask the question [of why].”

Dr. Kwok Pui Lan in Rev. Lovett's class

The students appreciated [Dr. Kwok’s] ability as a teacher and storyteller to make complex histories come alive through narrative.”

— Rev. Sam Lovett

In addition to mealtime conversations with the SPS Chinese Society and members of other affinity and alliance groups, Kwok spoke to students in Jenny Li’s Chinese Seminar class, Jessica Pine’s Religion and Ethics class, Rev. Walter Thorne’s Sacred Literature and Ethics class and Rev. Sam Lovett’s Religion, Race and Gender class. In her discussion with his students, Lovett says, Kwok was able to weave together multiple thematic touchstones, from telling the story of the first female priest to be ordained in the Anglican Communion in 1944 in her native Hong Kong to her study of political theologies — a pursuit that has taken her around the world to witness movements for Indigenous autonomy and girls’ education. “The students appreciated her ability as a teacher and storyteller to make complex histories come alive through narrative,” he said.

As with the School’s other endowed series, the Dickey visit allows SPS to bring significant thinkers and figure to the grounds to engage with the community. Like the student prizes of the same name, the endowment that supports Dickey visitors is named for Charles D. Dickey, Form of 1878, a former Trustee of the School and was established by his son, also Charles D. Dickey, of the Form of 1911. The Rev. Chuck Wynder Jr., who arranged for Kwok’s visit to SPS, described her two days on the grounds as an important experience for the community.

“It was significant for our community to hear from Prof. Kwok Pui-lan — master teacher and global scholar,” he said “Her Chapel talk, engagement with students in classes and presence inspired the community and animated the imagination of our students to live out their global citizenship.”