American Journal of Theology & Philosophy
Volume 19, Number 2,  May 1998

 

RETHINKING THE NATURE AND TASKS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN THEOLOGY: A PRAGMATIC PERSPECTIVE [1]

Anthony B. Pinn / Macalester College  

 

African American theology has too often embraced a limited canon of black religion that does not acknowledge the full range of African American experiences. As a result, African American theology is too apologetic and provincial, failing to appreciate complex African American experience. This essay offers, from a pragmatic posture, some initial thoughts on the nature and look of reworked African American theology. This is accomplished by: (1) rethinking the canon of black religions from which theologians draw; (2) redefining the objective of Black Theology to embrace Victor Anderson’s sense of “fulfillment”; and (3) using the work of Gordon Kaufman and Charles Long to make methodological shifts which will open African American theology to Anderson’s sense of “fulfillment.”

In Black Theology of Liberation, James H. Cone threatens to destroy “God,” if God is not in favor of black liberation: “If God is not for us. . . then God is a murderer, and we had better kill God.” [2] Cone suggests that the African American existential condition and its radical alteration take priority over symbol systems, language games, doctrinal formulations, and religious structures. Understood in this way, Cone’s statement implies that Black Theology is concerned with methodological, canonical (e.g., resources, ideas, structures) deconstruction, and fresh visions of “liberation.” Regrettably, Black Theology has not taken Cone’s jeremiad to its logical conclusion. Rather, it has lost sight of this objective, while embracing comfortable institutional structures and traditional rhetoric and becoming theologically numb to the changing African American context.

What follows is my effort to move beyond a strictly polemical discussion of Black Theology toward a more constructive and pragmatic posture that is based on three pragmatic moves. The first movement entails my rethinking conceptions of religious experience in ways that recognize the multiplicity of religious experiences. Thus, theology is done with a knowledge of and acquaintance with the variety of religious expressions. In this regard, the reader will recognize the intellectual shadow of both William James and Charles Long within this first move. The second move seeks to think through theology as empirical and historical discipline. Understood in this way, theology becomes a way of seeing, interpreting, and taking hold of African American experience. This thesis is expressed through an examination of theology’s objective and goals, using in large part Victor Anderson’s notion of “cultural fulfillment.” The third move entails reflections on methodology within African American theology. I argue for a critical, pragmatic commitment that gives priority to experience (and the objective of fulfillment) over “tradition.” William R. Jones and Gordon Kaufman provide the framework for this third movement in my pragmatic critique of African American theology.

I

My view is that Christianity, its concept of God, humanity, and Christ, when construed as the normative expression of African American religion limits the relevance and truth content of other religious experiences that are not in keeping with church activity and doctrines. In short, to hold that Christianity is normative in theological conversation and methodological formulation of African American experience is to make its principles hegemonic or closed to discourse.

Although new understandings of the black American religious landscape have developed in recent years, still the words of Charles Long hold relevance some twenty-five years after they were first published. Long suggests that “what we have in fact are two kinds of studies: those arising from the social sciences, and an explicitly theological apologetic tradition.” He continues, “this limitation of methodological perspectives has led to a narrowness of understanding and the failure to perceive certain creative possibilities in the black community in America.” [3] By this, Long means that African American experience has been a frequent topic of academic discussion, but much of this conversation misses the uniquely “religious” components of this experience because the methodological tools are limited to the social sciences —anthropology, sociology, etc. An attempt, according to Long, was made to correct this through the development of Black Theology, with its attention to African American history, experience, and cultural production as the substance of a unique form of theological reflection.

Yet, their efforts are limited to the Christian context and apologies for the liberative content of the Gospel message, and varieties of faith existing outside of this context are excluded. With time, this apologetic Black Theology has come to define the discussion of uniquely religious elements within African American experience. The dilemma most relevant to my argument is the manner in which its hegemonic tone deadens the complexity of black religious experience. In other words, historically speaking, the professionalization of Black Theology resulted in an economy of ideas and the establishment of a canon based on what was considered representative of black religious experience. Other less visible aspects of black religious life were ignored or marginalized because they threatened the ideological stability of the Church and by extension the thinkers who sought its sanction. [4] The words of religious studies scholar and author of The Politics of God, Joseph Washington, give warrant for this assertion. He writes:     

In the beginning was the black church, and the black church was with the black community, and the black church was the black community. The black church was in the beginning with the black people; all things were made through the black church, and without the black church was not anything made that was made. In the black church was life; and the life was the light of the black people. [5]

Washington’s comment, tied in tone and form to Christian scripture, also ties too intimately close to black collective life and one form of religious conduct. By extension, if one is black, one is Christian; hence embracing other forms of religious experience places one outside the recognized borders of the black family. The normative status of black Christianity and the resulting canon suggested by Washington and subsequent black theologians are maintained.

Even some of those who seek to take seriously the theological ramifications of African American cultural production that falls outside of the Church stumble over this issue. For example, Dwight Hopkins’s, a theologian teaching at the University of Chicago, push for a contextual expansion of resources as part of the constructive enterprise—recognition of and respect for Africanisms or “remains”—ultimately collapses. [6] Hopkins, in several of his works—most notably Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology—argues that Black Theology properly done must engage the full range of African American insights, including slave narratives, folktales, and the literature of figures such as Toni Morrison. In Hopkins’s words: “It calls on Black Theology to set its compass for the avenues African American folk are traveling. Black Theology, then, must develop itself from beliefs deeply embedded in the very blood and bones of an African American reality. Black resources are the heart of Black Theology.” [7]

This process, according to Hopkins, will bring theologians into contact with African elements deeply embedded in African American life, present in the stories of High John the Conqueror, Brer Rabbit, and other cultural heroes. Albeit important, within Hopkins’s work, Africanisms are only of rhetorical value; I judge them tangentially relevant, and consequently they become dependent upon a strong Christian base that renders them relatively undefinable and certainly without vitality or texture. According to Hopkins, “enslaved Africans took the remnants of their traditional religious structures and meshed them together with their interpretation of the Bible.” Furthermore, “all this occurred in the Invisible Institution, far away from the watchful eyes  of white people. Only in their own cultural idiom and political space could black slaves truly worship God.” [8]

Womanist theology, a corrective for Black (male) Theology, also maintains a similar perspective on the centrality and normative status of black church thought within theological reflection. The position taken by Cheryl Sanders during the round table discussion on ethics and theology in womanist perspective published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion is representative of this orientation. [9] Womanism as defined by Alice Walker should open new approaches to religious materials, new conceptions of liberation and community because it provides a hermeneutic of life, a mosaic that embraces black women’s diverse experiences, thoughts, and productions. [10] Yet, Sanders questions womanism’s usefulness: “Are we committing a gross conceptual error when we use Walker’s descriptive cultural nomenclature as a foundation for the normative discourse of theology and ethics?” [11] Sanders concludes that the term denotes a primarily secular way of life that is likely to be incompatible with the Christian context of theological discussion. In short, the term has questionable theological significance for the black community and its major institution, the Church.

Black Theology should hold black experience to be foundational. However, the “issue is whether the ‘black experience’ is one experience or a combination of many, and thus, whether it leads to one theological expression or many.” [12] On this point, Charles Long offers a useful insight. He writes: “The Christian faith provided a language for the meaning of religion, but not all the religious meanings of the black communities were encompassed by the Christian forms of religion.” [13] And these other forms of expression arose out of black peoples’ experiences and addressed their needs. Anything less would have been religiously counterfeit. Shiva Niapaul says: “Gods ought to exude out of the pores like sweat. They ha[ve] to well up from the inside. They could not be borrowed from others or imposed by others. Such gods were no good at all. They had no magic, no potency. Borrowed gods erased the soul and left you with nothing you could call your own.” [14]

The pragmatic reconstruction of African American theology involves a movement toward theological openness and disclosure. [15] In the current context of black theological production, many black theologians give attention to other forms of religious expression (i.e., Africanisms) but in order to foster a unique form of Christianity. However, by understanding these traditions as mere remains, exotic fodder, theologians fail to place them in their historical and existential contexts, and thereby, they fail to appreciate them as vital and dynamic forms of religious life rather than static and dependent. [16] Implied here is a required and complex theological exploration of all expressions of religious experience in all localities.                        

Again, Christianity is not the only expression and representation of black religious life. Long is worth quoting at length:

To be sure, the church is one place one looks for religion.  . . . But even more than this, the church was not the only context for the meaning of religion. . . . The Christian faith provided a language for the meaning of religion, but not all the religious meanings of the black communities were encompassed by the Christian forms of religion. . . . Some tensions have existed between these forms of orientation and those of the Christian churches, but some of these extrachurch orientations have had great critical and creative power. They have often touched deeper religious issues regarding the true situation of black communities than those of the church leaders of their time. [17]

If Long is correct, and I think that he is, and if African American religion is understood in terms of ultimate orientation and framed by an ultimate concern, then I think theologians, who are interested in African American experience, are required to extend religious boundaries beyond the obvious and well-documented forms of black religiosity. African American theology ought genuinely to be open to what Long has labeled “extra-church orientations.” My goal is to demonstrate, although briefly, the ways that complex depictions of religious expression enhance the African American theological enterprise by opening up new visions of liberative activity. [18] The first step is to document historically the existence of “extra-church orientations.” For this, African American theologians need to take seriously the historical and empirical research of social scientists and others.

Albert Raboteau and countless others highlight the secret meetings of slaves as the location for religious and theological developments within early black communities. [19] However, if these meetings were, in fact, clandestine, how can scholars assume that these meetings served only to nurture black Christian thought and practices? Do not other possibilities exist? Surely, collective memory, preserved in the hush arbors and the movement of slaves from the Caribbean, would have allowed for the maintenance of certain rites and deities. [20] As Zora Neale Hurston states: “Nobody knows for sure how many thousands in America are warmed by the fire of hoodoo, because the worship is bound in secrecy. It is not the accepted theology of the Nation and so believers conceal their faith. . . . Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.” [21] Perhaps the gods did not die and perhaps what Haitian and Cuban immigration sparks is not new practices, but rather a “re-membering” and “re-fining” of former ways which have been softened by the years but not forsaken. The words of Jessie Gaston Mulira are important here:

The word and the system arrived in North America when the first Africans landed in Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. The number of voodoo worshipers increased as more Africans arrived, first as indentured servants and later as slaves directly from Africa or through the West Indies, where African slaves were introduced as early as 1504. With the influx of more Africans, voodoo became entrenched in the North American colonies and later in the United States. [22]

Charles Joyner echoes this statement when saying: “Many slaves in the South Carolina and Georgia lowcountry continued to embrace African supernatural beliefs that were not incorporated into African American Christianity but instead persisted in a kind of parallel stream.” [23] Furthermore, the testimony of slaves and former slaves speaks to the survival of multiple forms of religious expression. According to fugitive slave Charles Ball: “At the time I first went to Carolina, there were a great many African slaves in the country. . . . Many of them believed there were several gods; some of whom were good, and others evil.” [24] Additional examples of voodoo and other complex African-and Caribbean-based religious practices abound. For example, within the two volume collection by Harry Middleton Hyatt, Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork: Beliefs Accepted by Many Negroes and White Persons These Being Orally Recorded Among Blacks and Whites, are various accounts of the African gods which force a recognition of theological complexity beyond the religio-magical orientation of conjure. Hyatt records a conversation with a “spiritual worker” who provides the following prayer as one used to bring business and to “open de do’”:

St. Anthony [elsewhere in the text referred to as St. Peter], open dis do’. St. Anthony, please open de do’. An’ dear St. Anthony, who lives in Jesus’ love, open dis do’. St. Anthony, ah consecrate mahself to yo’ an’ use yo’ as mah patron saint, an’ ah ask yo’ tuh keep mah do’ open. [25]

Readers will recall that Legba, the keeper of the gates, in vodun is associated with Jesus, or St. Peter; and in santería, Eleggua has the same function and is connected to St. Anthony. The saints are also in Vodun and santería, at times, given drink and other items in an attempt to strengthen their resolve. The use of the saints for communal or individual gain does not restrict the practice to simple religio-magical activity, in the same way that within the Haitian or Cuban context the relationship to the loa or orisha is bound by mutual exchange, goods in exchange for services. In addition, the saints are vengeful when the items promised in exchange for favors are not provided. One informant tells Hyatt the following concerning St. Peter:

Well, you see, I had promised him a quarter. Well, I wasn’t able to give him that quarter that certain day, and I left a little bit of fire in my furnace in my room, locked up, and goes out. When I comes back—I didn’t see no way in the world thatthat fire could pop out and set nothing afire. All my clothes and one side of the house was in a light blaze. [26]

The survival of some African deities is enhanced with the immigration generated by the Haitian revolution (1790-1804). Many slaves (roughly 10,000) and slaveowners made their way to New Orleans, bringing with them their vodun tradition (perhaps now flavored with touches of Cuban santería based upon contact with Cuba between 1804 and 1809). These slaves would have come in contact with other blacks, some of whom would have been familiar, as the noted examples show, with elements of their religious system. As a result, the practice of these traditions would have continued to grow, though often outside of the gaze of the curious. This was the case in New Orleans were the curious were exposed to dances and activities meant to entertain them. Sensationalized newspaper accounts are based upon these activities. Yet, in private, Marie Laveau, for example, maintained service to Damballah (Li Grand Zombi) and Legba (Papa Limba). One of Robert Tallant’s accounts, also noted by Albert Raboteau, indicates the appeal and presence of Legba:

She went outside and here come Marie Laveau wit’ a big crowd of people followin’ her. . . . All the people wit’ her was hollerin’ and screamin’, “We is goin’ to see Papa Limba! We is goin’ to see Papa Limba!” May grandpa go runnin’ after my ma then, yellin at her, “You come on in here Eunice! Don’t you know Papa Limba is the devil?” [This miscorrelation was common among Christians. Because Legba is a trickster he was often maliciously associated with the Christian’s devil.] But after that my ma find out Papa Limba meant St. Peter, and her pa was jest foolin’ her. [27]

The further development of African based traditions, in the twentieth century, was enhanced by, if not partially responsible for what Gayraud Wilmore has labeled the “de-radicalization” of black churches. [28] That is, during the early twentieth century, the religious landscape of African American communities was diversified by Islamic, Spiritual, and other forms of religious expression. Consequently, during this period, the normative status of the black churches was questioned and important forms of knowledge surfaced. This eruption of “extra-church orientations” is further strengthened by the immigration of Cubans to the United States during the 1940s and on. Such diversification of black religious experience, I hold, suggests a revised canon of black religious thought, revision that accents flexibility and fluidity by embracing various manifestations of religiosity because they function in useful ways. That is to say, this revision gives attention to traditions that provide praxis-oriented answers to the questions forced by the existential condition of African Americans. These alternate traditions help their practitioners creatively to imagine and act out multiple life options.

II

The prevailing assumption has been that African American theologians must, when dealing with the needs of African Americans, think in terms of racism—black versus white. Hence, the resolutions to this absurdity revolved around the race question. That is, once blacks and whites came to appreciate racial diversity, the Beloved Community would be recognized. Even when this issue was somewhat complicated by a recognition of classism and sexism, these latter forms of oppression “paled” in comparison to the race issue. Here one finds traces of a black aesthetic forcing a dwarfed understanding of black life and sacrificing individuality for the sake of an illusionary unified black “faith” and life. Implicit in this critique is a crisis of faith, a fear of addressing both the glory and guts of black existence, and nihilistic tendencies that unless held in tension with claims of transcendence have the potential to overwhelm and suffocate. According to Victor Anderson, a religious moralist at Vanderbilt University:

Talk about liberation becomes hard to justify where freedom appears as nothing more than defiant self-assertion of a revolutionary racial consciousness that requires for its legitimacy the opposition of white racism. Where there exists no possibility of transcending the blackness that whiteness created, African American theologies of liberation must be seen not only as crisis theologies; they remain theologies in a crisis of legitimation. [29]

“Racial Apologetics” has been the norm for African American theological production. Cornel West sees such productions as the major African American response to racist discourse. [30] Anderson describes the aesthetic move behind this production in terms of the black aesthetic or black “genius” (exceptional if not essentialized qualities) informed by African American cultural philosophies. This sense of black genius challenges notions of white superiority by arguing for the uniqueness of African American contributions to culture as the rationale for including black Americans in the larger picture of social progress and democratic humanism.

This sense of black creativity and legitimacy provided a vocabulary for responding to the challenges of life. Anderson refers to this counter-discourse, discourse against racism, as ontological blackness. Although passionate and reasoned, such arguments from the likes of David Walker, Reverdy Ransom, Maria Stewart and DuBois inadvertently reenforced racial ideologies, thereby doing internal damage to black cultural and religious criticism and limiting the life options of black Americans. Only those activities that mirror and advance this sense of black genius are found acceptable because this genius is reified and definitive of black being. African American collective identity, so defined, creates conflict to the extent that individual desires and styles do not match the black “party-line.”

Anderson seeks to change this understanding of black religious aesthetics by maintaining an optimism that speaks to the possibility of triumph over wrongdoing in tension with the recognition that the causes of injustice are long suffering and slow to change. He sees the theoretical grounding for this stance in figures such as Cornel West and Howard Thurman. Anderson contextualizes the integrating of cultural and religious criticism. For him, the religious functions of cultural criticism are developed through a critical appeal to the theory of radical consciousness and human action of Thurman and the prophetic pragmatism and politics of difference of West. He appreciates the manner in which these thinkers promote an approach to the existential condition of black people that is aware of racism but is not subsumed by it. They acknowledge the richness and complexity of African American existence; this life is neither binary, nor communal at the expense of the individual, nor is it radically individualistic. Black life is here understood as a mosaic, a full range of individually selected and community nurturing actions, attitudes, stances, objectives, and goals. Herein, appreciation is expressed for the human impulse toward creative transformation, or what Anderson labels “cultural fulfillment.” Cultural fulfillment accents the communal and individual potentials and possibilities for freedom, emancipation, transcendence. Connected to this is an appreciation for the full range of life in what Anderson embraces as the grotesqueries of black life.

The grotesque serves as an effective counter-discourse to ontological blackness that enlarges the scope of life by embracing both the “light” and “dark” aspects of existence insofar as it holds in tension oppositional sensations—pleasure and pain, freedom and oppression. [31] In this way, the full range of African American expression, interactions, etc., are given weight in and of themselves because difference is valued. In this way, the grotesque can help theology free itself from the totalizing nature of racial apologetics and the classical black aesthetic through a multilayered and humanistic agenda.

Unlike prior approaches, an understanding of the grotesquery of black life provides a full range of black individual and collective activities, the good and the “questionable.” It provides, in short, a complete historical workup, one that does not sweep unacceptable behavior (e.g., heterosexism, sexism, classism) under the rug in the name of racial unity. The hegemony and the specific forms of power, and the established forms of discourse on power associated with it, must be deconstructed if Black Theology is to serve a fruitful purpose, if Black Theology is to recognize the manner in which the “gods ooze” out of the collective pores. In African American theology, full expression of life must be the goal and the full range of creative possibilities must be kept in view. [32] In order to bring about the first two steps discussed, attention must be given to theological method.

III

Pragmatically oriented methodological shifts in African American theology result in a theological discourse mature and refined enough to embrace and explore the full range of black religious experience, in all its grotesqueries. What I am suggesting is not new. A seldom mentioned, but extremely important, move in this direction was provided by William R. Jones in his theological work between 1972 and 1974, most notably his 1973 text Is God A White Racist? A Preamble To Black Theology. [33] Jones argues for a methodological reconstruction of theology in light of inconsistencies between what black theologians theoretically claim and what is existentially present. The overall agenda outlined in that text is very similar to the three-point agenda established early in this paper: (1) rethinking of the canon; (2) reformulating the notion of “liberation”; and, (3) methodological shifting enabling sustained attention to points (1) and (2).

Jones urges theological formulations that make historical and experiential realities central. He asserts that theologies which are explicitly geared toward “liberation” from oppression are by nature extended theodicies. Therefore, a broadly conceived theodicy that is not confined to strict definitions of theodicy provides a proper methodology for liberation theologians. Jones explains that “the theologian of liberation, by definition, is committed to annihilate oppression, which is to say, to eliminate the suffering that is the heart of oppression. Thus he must provide an explanation that perceives the suffering as negative. He must show that the suffering that is oppression is not God’s will or sanctioned by nature.” Furthermore, according to Jones, “he must, in sum, de-sanctify the suffering in question, or else the oppressed will not regard their suffering as oppressive and will not be motivated to attack it. The theologian or philosopher of liberation, in short, must engage in the enterprise of theodicy if he is to accomplish his task.” [34] For African Americans in the United States, the contextual framework for this questioning entails a response to the possibility that God is in fact a racist who is bent on their destruction. However, Jones argues, black theologians have avoided the logical possibility of such a God. They have assumed that this is not the case and consequently their theological formulations “beg the question” of divine racism.

In a pragmatic turn, Jones asserts that Black Theology must expose its theoretical assertions to the full range of black experiences. That is to say, theologians can only proclaim God a liberator if there is historical evidence for such a statement. For Jones, the theological formulations offered by black (Christian) theologians do not and in many cases cannot move beyond theological pitfalls noted above. As an alternative, Jones argues for a rethinking of theodical responses based upon an alternate form of religious expression, namely, humanocentric theism and the primacy of human activity it suggests. Jones personally endorses humanism as a more viable form of expression, but he notes that both humanocentric theism and humanism move beyond existing theological dilemmas and that the former is more tolerable for the bulk of black Americans who embrace Christian ideals. In either case, the issue of divine racism left unresolved by traditional approaches to Black Theology is resolved because humans function as if they “were the ultimate valuator or the ultimate agent in human history or both.” [35]

What is most significant about Jones’s proposal is that it entails a central methodological shift to theodicy, and this shift allows for a rethinking of “canonical” forms of black religious expression—in this case humanism. Theology as a human conversation, as expressed concern for human wellbeing allows for ultimate goals that revolve around complex human community—sustained communitas—as opposed to alienating goals which in fact limit community to activities and expression in keeping with black Christian models. That is to say, theology done as Jones suggests is flexible and expansive enough to move beyond liberation understood strictly in terms of race issues to cultural fulfillment.

The undertaking Jones initiates and that I seek to extend is methodologically possible once the nature of theological discourse is rethought, in part using the work of Gordon Kaufman (Essay on Theological Method ). Black Theology’s approach to traditions is based on a soft version of what Kaufman has labeled first-order theology. It is marked by Kaufman’s description:

In this sense, it may be held, theology always presupposes a certain faith, namely the faith that God has in fact revealed [Godself]; and this faith is not itself subject to theological questioning or doubt. Theology [understood in this way] is thus a work of the church and for the church; it is an analysis and interpretation of the faith of those who already stand within the “theological circle.” (Tillich) [36]

I want to suggest that the task of Black Theology is more in line with Kaufman’s third-order theology and Long’s reflections upon theology of the Opaque. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction oriented toward uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within the larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative. One can be committed to Christ while recognizing the need to theologically travel a religious landscape extending beyond one’s personal faith. African American theology need not be parochial. As currently done, the implied message is that there are very few ways to be black and religious; black experience is dwarfed and boiled down to differing shades of the same. The form of theological reflection is, then, by nature pragmatic.

Cornel West provides an insightful geneaology of pragmatism including African American versions. [37] I will, therefore, not rehearse this material. Nevertheless, the reader should know that theological reflection is here understood as pragmatic because of its reliance upon lived experience as the basis for theoretical and doctrinal formulations, and its willingness to operate ethically by means of “risk”—the recognition of human potential as well as daemonic behavior.

Conceived in this way, Black Theology’s only obligation is the uncovering of religious meaning and the providing of responses to the questions of life that explain experience, assess existing symbols and categories, and thereby allow for healthy existence in the form of liberative vision and the implications of this for life. Granted, it may find itself often engaging churches, but that does not make theology the possession of black churches. That is to say: “Theology, thus, has public, not private or parochial foundations. It is not restricted either to the language and traditions of a particular esoteric community or to the peculiar experience of unusual individuals.” [38] (The second phase of theological discourse outlined by Kaufman is analytical and descriptive; the third order is deliberate formulation and construction.)

Black Theology, as it currently stands, has become too complacent, and as a result has lost its critical edge, its internal critical mechanism. There is here, from my perspective, an implicit requirement to explore theologically all experience for its religious content and thematic structures. Along this line, theologians should understand that churches have been their conversation partner, and with familiarity comes a sense of “ownership.” However, this long and sustained conversation does not define the ultimate responsibility of the theologian, which is primarily defined by a need to articulate liberative visions for life. In this regard, personal faith commitment may spark initial interest in this enterprise with the responsibilities of the discipline. In the words of Charles Long: “The religion of those who have had to bear the weight of this confrontation in the modern world should generate forms of critical language capable of creating the proper disjunctions for a restatement of the reality of the human in worlds to come.” [39] Rather, it should concentrate on the “kinds of images and meanings [that] lie behind the religious experiences of the black communities in America.” [40] It is an ever-evolving language seeking to voice the depths of the individual and its larger self—community—to give space and meaning to the fact of oneself in the world—to identify locations, presence, meaning, and the function of the “I” in relationship to the “We.”

How do theologians involve themselves in this enterprise? I suggest that the problem of evil provides a starting point, when combined with an embracing of what Anderson refers to as the “grotesquery of black life,” that is, the full range of black experiences, thoughts and productions, and reflecting upon materials phenomenologically gathered. [41]

African American religious orientations are, in large part, a religious response to contact and conquest. And, consequently, they can be explored theologically based upon the assumption that their ritual framework and thought rest upon a response to moral evil. [42] Using the problem of evil as a methodological option allows theologians to uncover issues of theological import often missed by sociologists and anthropologists. In short, there is a substantial, yet often unspoken, rationale for ritual activity and attitudes toward the “gods” that is best explained in terms of theological responses to the problem of evil.

In conclusion, as currently done, Black Theology is facing another identity crisis—one grounded in methodological dilemmas, canonical narrowness, and nearsighted notions of liberation. None of these conditions are terminal. And this special edition of the American Journal of Theology & Philosophy provides space for a consideration of the pertinent issues. Such thoughts are, granted, prolegomenus in nature and more discussion is imperative. These conversations will, no doubt, require a bracketing of personal beliefs and convictions for the benefit of sustained dialogue and the welfare of larger groups and sets of experiences. Yet, this is a challenge we dismiss at our own peril.


1    Portions of this article were first presented at Iliff School of Theology and as a paper delivered at the 1996 American Academy of Religion national meeting. I am grateful to those who provided feedback and suggestions that helped to refine my argument. In particular, I would like to extend thanks to Victor Anderson for his help with this essay.

2    James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2nd ed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 27.

3    Charles Long, “Perspectives for a Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States,” History of Religions 11, 1 (August 1971), 55.

4    See Sally Cole’s Introduction to Ruth Landes’ The City of Women (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1947, 1994), xxiv-xxv.

5    Joseph Washington, “How Black is Black Religion,” in Quest for a Black Theology, eds. James J. Gardiner and J. Deotis Roberts (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971), 28.

6    Dwight Hopkins, Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 5.

7    Ibid., 2.

8    Ibid., 18. Hopkins’s recent work entails an exploration of connections between cultural studies and theology, a movement away from strict attention to Church-bound theological formations. See for example: Dwight Hopkins and Sheila Greeve Davaney, eds., Changing Conversations: Cultural Analysis and Religious Reflection (New York: Routledge, 1996).

9    Roundtable, “Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5 (Fall 1989): 83-112. It should be noted that Sanders seems to have a stronger “appreciation” for the theological and ethical possibilities of womanism in Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 195). However, chapter 9 of that text suggests that this appreciation is, in part at least, based upon her ability to conceive of womanism as advocating a spirituality not unfamiliar with the quest for spirit housed in Black (Christian) churches.

10  Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1983), xi-xii.

11  Round table, “Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective,” 83 and 85.

12  Ibid., 85.

13  Charles Long, Significations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 7.

14  Shiva Niapaul, Love and Death in a Hot Country (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 104-105.

15  Much of what follows in the section on “non-Christian” traditions is further developed in my project entitled The Varieties of African American Religious Experience: A Theological Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1998).

16  See Sally Cole’s Introduction to The City of Women, xxi.

17  Long, Significations, 7.

18  I suggest an understanding of theology as conversation on items of ultimate reality and importance. In this way, theistic and non-theistic materials are allowed to influence the content of the conversation. Theology so conceived has much in common with the philosophy of religion. However, I believe that the strong similarities are balanced by differences with respect to tone, texture, language, and the recognition of some community of faith, broadly conceived.

19  See Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), Section II.

20  George Eaton Simpson, Black Religions in the New World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 19.

21  Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, (New York: Perennial, 1990), 185.

22  Jessie Gaston Mulira, “The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans”in Africanisms in American Culture, ed. Josephy E. Holloway (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 35.

23  Charles Joyner, “‘Believer I Know’: The Emergence of African-American Christianity” in Religion and American Culture: A Reader, ed. David G. Hackett (New York: Routledge, 1995), 198.

24  Ibid., 188.

25  Harry Middleton Hyatt, Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork, I (Hannibal, MO: Western Publishing, 1970), 862.

26  Ibid., 876.

27  Raboteau, 77; Robert Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1994), 67.

28  Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People, 2nd edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973, 1983), chapter 6.

29  Victor Anderson, Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay On African American Religious And Cultural Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1995), 117. Some of this outline of Anderson’s text is present in my review of his book, forthcoming in African American Review.

30  Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982); Anderson, Beyond, 118-132.

31  Anderson, 127.

32  Long, Significations, 195.

33  William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973). For a more in depth analysis of Jones’ text and larger project see my Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (New York: Continuum, 1995).

34  Jones, xix-xx.

35  Ibid., xxii.

36  Gordon Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 1-2.

37  Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneaology of Pragmatism (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

38  Kaufman, 1979, 8.

39  Long, Significations, 6.

40  Ibid., 174.

41  Ibid., 140. See Theophus Smith’s Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) as an example of phenomenology applied to African American religious experience.

42  I develop this argument in Why, Lord? Introduction and chapters 4-6, and in Varieties of African American Religious Experience.