God of the Oppressed: White Context

I skip around a lot. If you wonder how I manage to read so much, then I've fooled you. I skip and skim and flip and co-opt (to my own agendas) every title and text that catches my eye. The only books I actually finish [mostly finish] are those I'm assigned to for classes.

This term, I have some self-directed reading for my Biblical Theology class. There are so many TYPES of biblical theology (yes that's right: there is not a singular biblical theology) that they can't all be covered in any number of semesters - so I have to pick-and-choose.

This term I've chosen readings from Black Theology, and Queer Theology.

Tonight I read:
I do not want to minimize or detract from the significance of Athanasius' assertion for faith one iota. But the homoousia question [for example] is not a black question. Blacks do not ask whether Jesus is one with the Father or divine and human, though the orthodox formulations are implied in their language. They ask whether Jesus is walking with them, whether they can call him up on the "telephone of prayer" and tell him all about their troubles... we must not forget that Athanasius' question about the Son's status in relation to the Father did not arise in the historical context of the slave codes and the slave drivers. And if he had been a black slave in America, I am sure he would have asked a different set of questions. He might have asked about the status of the Son in relation to slaveholders...

Unfortunately, not only white seminary professors but some blacks as well have convinced themselves that only the white experience provides the appropriate context for questions and answers concerning things divine. They do not recognize the narrowness of their experience and the particularity of their theological expressions. They like to think of themselves as universal people. That is why most seminaries emphasize the need for appropriate tools in dong theology, which always means white tools, i.e., knowledge of the language and thought of white people. They fail to recognize that other people also have thought about God and have something significant to say about Jesus' presence in the world.

My point is that one's social and historical context decides not only the questions we address to God but also the mode or form of the answers given to the questions...
God of the Oppressed - James Cone (Introduction, p. 14-15)

I hope you'll be inspired to explore what's out there!


pastormack said...

Who gets to decide what "black questions" are? One black theologian? In practice, African-American academics can have a narrower orthodoxy than the most stringent whities out there. Just ask Bill Cosby.

This is one problem with contextual theologies. Who gets to decide what "black" or "hispanic" or "queer" theology is? Seems like this will always tend toward a totalizing and therefore unjust and unrepresentative view of all blacks or hispanics or LGBTers.

I think we should all just do Christian theology, but I'm old fashioned I suppose. Anytime theology's starting point is anthropocentric, we're set up to fail.

Josh Mueller said...

I don't think my friend Chad Holtz would mind that I'm quoting part of a recent comment he made at Scot McKnight's blog and the discussion about Brian McLaren's new book:

"All contextual theologies fail because they all seek to rise to the level of the dominant narrative. In other words, black liberation theology, for example, fails because it aspires to be the "white man" (and we mustn't read "white" as white, necessarily). The way forward, he argues, is to not seek equality with the dominant orthodoxy that one is trying to subvert but to identify with the one who transcends orthodoxy - Jesus."

Josh Mueller said...


Chad is actually referring to J. Kameron Carter's view here (with whom he agrees).

Peter said...

Good quotation, Josh.

Pastormack, apparently one black theologian can't speak for black theology, but Bill Cosby can? Why? Because he's safe, and says things white people are comfortable with?

"Who gets to ask what black questions are?" I'm not certain Pastormack, but I am quite certain it isn't you or me.

And there is no such thing as "just Christian theology." That's not "old fashioned," it's a redaction of theology's own historic pluralism. "Just-whatever" is whatever is normative. Cone does a fabulous job of demonstrating how whiteness presumes its own objectivity.

Cone writes:
"There is a need to respond to a certain kind of critical dismissal of Black Theology, typified by the statement of one distinguished theologian that blacks "are not free to violate the canon of exact reflection, careful weighing of evidence, and apt argument, if they want to make a case for other intellectually responsible listeners." Because theological discourse is universal, I am constrained to reply to this comment, serious despite its patronizing mood, by a fellow theologian. Because theology is also particular, my reply is (in brief) that he is wrong, and that he is wrong because his theological perspective is determined by his whiteness. He is saying nothing other than, "Unless you black people learn to think like us white folks, using our rules, then we will not listen to you." And that is bad theology." (7-8)

Josh Mueller said...


What if Pastormack essentially tried to make the same point as Carter whose quote you approved of: all contextual theologies fail. Jesus transcends those contexts.

Don't jump the gun before you hear back.

Peter said...

Josh, all contextual theologies fail because all theologies fail. All human-made constructs fail. And I agree with that.

I actually do disagree with this: "they all seek to rise to the level of the dominant narrative." That simply isn't true. Many contextual theologies purpose to exist specifically as critiques and counterbalances to the dominant narrative.

To reiterate the core of my initial reaction, it is not the outsider's role to critique the beliefs or worldview of another group. Biblical prophets criticized from within, not without.

I may be guilty of crossing this boundary from time to time, unwittingly, but the vast majority of my complaints here are about the context, system and faith I still inhabit.

pastormack said...

Point of fact, J. Kameron was my theology teacher, and one of the reasons I liked him is that he really had a foot in both the black church tradition and the orthodoxy of someone like Barth.

There is not just one "dominant narrative." Different schools of thought and circles have their own. There is certainly one in black and feminist theologies. I didn't suggest Cosby got to determine the questions because he "agreed" with white people (certainly not with white liberals, mind you). I simply implied that his views don't fit within the African-American paradigm as told by people like Cone and Dyson.

There is also a dominant narrative in feminist theology. Similar to black theology, it revolves around victimhood, but also has a lot to do with gender theory and the belief that naming gender as a sociological phenomenon is reason enough to believe one can either undo or transcend it.

Same story with queer theory (which I know next to nothing about). If it has anything in common with other contextual theologies, it has some seriously Marxist presuppositions. How would conservative, Republican homosexuals fit into that picture? (Yes, they exist)

See the point?

I also think that the view among some of the contextualists that there has never been a non-white, non-male voice in theology is far overplayed. Think about the women mystics. Augustine and Athanasius. Thecla.

Of course it is good that there is an increasingly representative number of theologians from across the globe. I simply think the starting point for theology should be God, in particular God in Christ who reconciles the world to himself. Starting anthropocentrically is to build a foundation of sand - the house can't stand. You start with the James Cone, but the logical endpoint is someone like Anthony Pinn.

And if it is not the outsider's role to critique the beliefs of others, then why, in your words, is OK that "Many contextual theologies purpose to exist specifically as critiques and counterbalances to the dominant narrative"?

While we are on the subject, Jonah was not an insider when the called on the Ninevites to repent.

Am I wrong, or are you saying it is perfectly OK for contextualists to rage against "the dominant narrative" but not OK to criticize how they go about it?

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