Reimagining the evangelical tradition to include voices that have been obscured isn’t just good for marginalized Christians—it’s good for all Christians. Theology from every context offers valuable contributions. The mature theologian takes his or her seat at the table of theological discourse and both enriches and is enriched by the exchange. Different perspectives taken together embody a more robust vision of faithfulness and affection for Christ than they could ever manage alone.
-Walter Strickland in a recent Gospel Coalition article. This article provokes several questions that are becoming increasingly more difficult to ask. The article describes a central idea that American Christian history has been predominantly focused upon white Christian accomplishments, to the point of marginalizing serious theological figures from minority communities. He provides a brief bio of Charles Octavius Boothe, an astute theological mind who was born into slavery during the 19th century, and concludes with some reflections about learning as a black male in a predominately white theological tradition.
“Theology from every context offers valuable contributions.” This statement is an assumption of cultural relativism that doesn’t seem well supported by evidence. Diversity can provide needed perspective to theological discussion, but diverse contexts will not necessarily offer value.
I suppose Strickland could counter, as he does in his article: This is because “history is recounted by the wealthy and powerful.” Ergo, history will necessarily be skewed in a certain direction. This point, however, collapses upon itself when you consider that Strickland is attempting to undertake this very task. All Cretans are liars, the Cretan poet says. Should we trust him?
This reminds me of the objection that history is impossible to do objectively because historians are unable to extricate themselves from their subjective starting points. But the show carries on. N.T. Wright contends that what we need here a kind of epistemological realism, a basis for walking out into the tall grass of historical work without overly cautious concerns of being bitten by the snakes of our postmodern subjective sensibilities. In other words, yes, I have a point of view, but I don’t believe that this will obscure my vision so badly that I am unable to think objectively about my presuppositions.
To continue, perhaps the most important part of his article details Strickland’s experience of being a black male learning in an educational environment fostered by predominantly white men:
My theological education offered me a love for Scripture and a theological framework, but it unintentionally taught me that people of color have little to contribute to theological discussions. I had well-intended white professors who assigned white authors and invited white guest lecturers. In order to become more like my Caucasian professors, I began to squelch everything in me that didn’t correspond to them in order to do “real theology.” I began stripping away my blackness in order to fit the evangelical theological mold. At that time, I only entertained theological inquiry that emerged from culturally white space; I developed a bias against African-American theologians; and I belittled the rich heritage of the black church. I was miserable.
Since these considerations are so laden with moral freight, Strickland must, in my opinion, do a much better job describing what ‘stripping away his blackness’ or ‘culturally white space’ means. Only then would we be able to understand why he belittled the rich heritage of the black church. NB, where can we derive a theological basis for ‘the black church’ in the New Testament?
Furthermore, I’ve read similar accounts across a variety of disciplines, and it is interesting to note how seriously subjective the account is. This is not to say that the account is unimportant, but it is significant to insist that the real issue is not the history per se, but the manner in which the student is processing his current cultural experience in light of that history.
This experience is no doubt paralleled by Asian and Latino Americans, not to mention Native Americans. The absence of an institutionalized Christian ethos embodied by your ethnic community doesn’t provide you the basis for positing one.
Strickland further made an interesting point about cultural context:
Boothe demonstrates that theology can emerge from various contexts. In evangelical circles, however, certain contexts have been given almost exclusive priority. Formal theology has been disproportionately conducted by white men, and their perspective has been standardized. Thus “well-read” evangelicals can gain that label despite never interacting with theologically faithful traditions outside the dominant evangelical culture.
Again, are we asking historians to expand the horizons of their interest, or are we asking them to assume that for every white theologian you will find an equal and opposite black/Asian/latino theologian? Strickland continues:
By normalizing a particular context, issues that arise outside of that context are often dismissed as illegitimate. In fact, theological development from non-white contexts are often only deemed “proper” when they engage issues pertinent to white culture and conform to “authorized” conclusions. This explains why issues that disproportionately affect non-white communities—like systemic injustice, racial oppression, economic inequality, and human rights—have received scattered engagement among evangelical theologians and ethicists.
And here is where we hit a real ideological roadblock, one I am not sure I understand. We have come full circle back to the assumption: “Theology from every context offers valuable contributions.” I won’t even ask what ‘white culture’ means in this context, because it seems like Strickland has leapt into the present. Suddenly, buzzwords in the discussions surrounding racial tensions are being brandished as relevant to the quite tenuous discussion of historical representation in the church.
I suppose the best way to represent this is to say that Strickland says black people were being ignored in the past and they are being ignored now. I’m not trying to dispute that contention. I am trying to dispute whether “being ignored” means that we should always expect to be finding a black, Asian, Native American, Latino, or female Jonathan Edwards in every chapter of Christian history. If so, that is an ideological fantasy that does no justice to minority communities. Rather than being examined according to their individual merits, they will be lumped, always and forever, into groups and considered only within these groups. True merit will be masked by the shade of identity politics. Strickland honors Charles Boothe in his article, not by pointing to the color of his skin, but by examining his life on the basis of how he employed the limited resources he had.
I reserve the right to disagree with myself at another time, but I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking through Strickland’s article. I have a great respect for the folks at The Gospel Coalition, so I was eager to have this out of my head and open to scrutiny. Please let me know if you have any comments or clarifications to offer in the comments section below.