Monday, November 13, 2006

Liberating God from Spirituality

UPI column

Today's column returns to my series on black theology. Last week I received an email from a friend who reminded me that some churches make identification with the suffering the primary plank of their theology and as a result beat up their parishoners with 29 lashes of guilt simply for being born white and into privilege. They manage to make working for justice the impossible endless task that evangelicals make missions and saving the lost.

My intention in this series is not to add a new burden to anyone's life (God knows I am not yet living the ideals put forth in black theology). Rather, I'm drawn to the critique that reveals a misplaced spirituality among the middle class church - our emphasis on ideas rather than practical action or even awareness that Christianity ought to be about relevance to a moment in history. It is easier to transcend history when you are not on the oppressed side of it.

As I work on my MA thesis paper, I'm conscious of how much Bonhoeffer predates any of us in his thinking. His insights are like a scalpel, cutting through churchianity and requiring us to give up our notions of "faithfulness to doctrines" for "suffering with God."

In an America where poverty is hidden from the suburbs, where the international crisis of AIDS is far off, and where mega-churches are models of successful Christianity, I think Cone and Bonhoeffer prophetically remind us that real faith has to do with involving ourselves in the sufferings of God, ergo, the sufferings of human beings.

7 comments:

OldMom said...

Here is a great contribution, cogent and timely,

Oh good! I was hoping you would get back to this. . . . .

Finding the balance between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is one of the most delicate and important things I see churches, as institutions, needing to do.

Rebecca

Carrie said...

Reading along. This is a very thoughtful article today. I look forward to you next column.

I have a question, but I'll hold off 'til next column if that is best.. If there is no actual heaven or eternal life, what is God saving the oppressed to? It is obvious people are often not brought out of their sufferings and oppression in this life, so does Black theology look to "another life" or to a presence and comfort in this life only?

Thanks,
Carrie

Scott said...

Juile, I hope you don't mind a few critical comments, which are not meant to provoke combat, just dialogue.

"Christianity ought to be about relevance to a moment in history."

There is a sense in which I think I grasp what you're you're trying communicate by this sentence. If I am correct in what I think, I agree, but this statement strikes me as overly simplistic. I certainly would not dispute the relevance our Christian faith needs to have for the moment in which we live, for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, especially as it pertains to the clear call of the Gospel to work to bring about God's reign in the real world, a big part of which is liberating the captive and freeing the oppressed. But is momentary relevance Christianity's bottom, or only, line? I think even many liberation theologians would take issue with putting the matter so definitively.

I have a bit of a problem with the employment of Dr. Cone's quote-
"[T]ruth is not a concept or an idea to be discovered in a theology or philosophy textbook. Truth is a liberating event, a divine happening in the lives of the people" (p. 223)- in the context of your article, which you give as an axiom. The very fact you read that quote in a theology textbook is telling. So, Cone's axiom, far from being self-evident, brings up questions, like: What precedes this liberating event? What brings about the consciouness, lays the ground for this divine event, assuming that God uses human agents, if not preaching and teaching? Certainly some theological/philosophical questions are abstruse, but don't these concerns also flow from human experience and reflect authentic human concerns? Are white middle-class Christians exempt from suffering? Haven't some of them (a dangerous theological category) lost children, spouses, homes, been afflicted in very real ways? If white middle-class Christians don't really suffer, then it seems to me their only response to the poor and suffering can only be sympathy, not empathy.

Are we also to really to believe that Black Christians don't ask the question, How can God, who is Good and who is Love, let this happen? Can this be a moot point for any Christian?

Another interesting question is, How does what you propose as the basis of Black theology-God is on the side of the poor and suffering, with which I agree wholeheartedly-connect with more traditional theologies that do not have their roots in 20th century middle-class evangelicalism, like Bonhoeffer's? These theologies, which comprise the foundation on which liberation theology is built, emphasize the role of suffering as a means of salvation, and see liberation as goal not be deferred to heaven.

I love your fourth from last paragraph, which begins: "When our Christianity" . . .


Thanks for provoking thought.

julieunplugged said...

Scott these are truly terrific questions and I agree with you on almost every one as far as revealing the limits ofmy thoughts. One of the challenges I face is that I get about 700-1200 words per column. I want to be both engaging and offer some substance, but clearly that means I leave a trail of unanswered material in my wake.

I did not select that quote of Cone's from a textbook! I hope I didn't convey that. It comes from his work: God of the Oppressed. And it is one of his theological axioms, frommy reading of him (I've read three of his volumes and many articles, though would be wide open to correction since I'm still learning).

I want to respond to a couple of your points (and will probably address others of them in my future columns).

1. What precedes this liberating event? What brings about the consciouness, lays the ground for this divine event, assuming that God uses human agents, if not preaching and teaching?

I hope I didn't set up an automatic denial of teaching or preaching. For black Christians (particularly as Cone delves into slaves experience Christianity), story, song, and the experience of suffering all precede the liberating event. Clearly there is some preaching and teaching for the knowledge of Jesus Christ to penetrate and become known. The difference I hoped to highlight is that historically for black Christians, preaching and teaching had as its aim nurturing and giving courage to the suffering in their oppression...with the hope of liberation.

Cone has been criticized for perhaps suggesting liberation of the oppressed as God's primary motif when the evidence of divine action has not been clearly apparent (even black women theologians known as womanist theologians bring this critique).

2. Certainly some theological/philosophical questions are abstruse, but don't these concerns also flow from human experience and reflect authentic human concerns?

In the context from which Cone is writing (and Bonhoeffer I might add), there is a weariness with preoccupation with those theological wranglings when right before their very eyes, peoples were being marginalized and violently abused. We must recall that Cone wrote during the Civil Rights Movement. So to him, it was wretched to think that entire schools of theology would spend energy on philosophical schools of thought while Christian black brothers and sisters weree being lynched. We are beyond that ear now and some of what I hope to unfold in future columns is to ask the question: where is God today? In whose suffering?

3. If white middle-class Christians don't really suffer, then it seems to me their only response to the poor and suffering can only be sympathy, not empathy.

Ah, but this is where Cone is truly brilliant. The issue isn't about individual sufferings as we all have these. He contends that Jesus, coming in a historical moment, in a particular ethnicity, during a real time of oppression models an empathy through identification and living with/among those at the bottom of the heap. Cone would contend that we are not talking about individuals nearly as much as communities. More on this next week, actually.

4. 20th century middle-class evangelicalism, like Bonhoeffer's?

Bonhoeffer was not an evangelical. :) Still his insights have informed Cone, womanists, feminists like Elizabeth Johnson and even someliberation theologians. This idea of identification with the sufferings of God in the world is one I hope to explore in my thesis and here.

5. These theologies, which comprise the foundation on which liberation theology is built, emphasize the role of suffering as a means of salvation, and see liberation as goal not be deferred to heaven.

To this I'd say: yes. Salvation and heaven must be defined in any theologian's discourse. Cone explains that the real promise of heaven (as Carrie asked) is something black Christians do take courage from - the idea of an absolute future that is liberation guaranteed by Jesus's resurrection.

However, what Bonhoeffer, Cone and others say is that that hope fuels our energy to see justice realized on earth as well. I remember reading this perspective even in Hans Kung!

You have hit on so many good themes and I wish I could just post my 20 page paper and show you that I haven't ignored these issues. Hopefully as I post more columns and blog entries we can dialog more. I love the sharpening of the ideas when I get good thoughtful questions like yours :)

Thank you.

Julie

Scott said...

Julie:

Thank you for taking the time to write such a comprehensive response. I especially appreciate the references to Catholic theologians! You are correct that Kung writes very well on these issues and takes it up a notch with his work on a global ethics that is inter-religious. Such an endeavor certainly requires putting intramural theological disputes to one side, or bracketing them in favor of orthopraxis, which orthodoxy should exist only to support.

One clarification from my end: in my ",like Bonhoeffer" phrase -I was linking Bonhoeffer's thought with "traditional theologies that do not have their roots in 20th century middle-class evangelicalism", not identifying him as a middle-class evangelical.

I also appreciate your clarification on Cone's take on suffering. I agree with him on the significance of Jesus' historical specificity. On this point, Meier's Jesus:A Marginal Jew is quite wonderful in rooting this theology soundly in Scripture.

Scott said...

One last comment from the Barmen Declaration, written principally by Barth and contributed to by Bonhoeffer among others: "A silent community, merely observing the events of the time, would not be a Christian community."

julieunplugged said...

Scott, I'vebeen gone but thank you for these follow up remarks. I love Hans Kung. He was a primary contributor to my revised thinking about xtnty as I was processingmy evangelical heritage. I read On Being a Christian three times and several of his other books. got to hear him speak and Xavier and like a teenager at a rock concert, rushed the stage for his autograph in my copy of "Tracing the Way."

His interreligious dialog work is important and often overlooked by Protestants. Love that you know him as well.

The quote you wrote in that second post is powerful! Thank you for sharing it.

Julie