Theology Feed

Henry McNeal Turner

Henry-McNeal-Turner

The first person that Gary Dorrien focuses on his book The New Abolition is Henry McNeal Turner, a leading figure in the AME Church and an outspoken voice of black nationalism.  Turner was a pioneer of the blackness of God.  He argued that African-Americans could not be self-respecting and not believe in a black God.  Better to be atheists.

He had been a legislator in the early days of Reconstruction but lost hope in America as Reconstruction was abandoned.  He wrote, defending the contributions of African-Americans to American culture:

We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years!  And what do we ask of you in return?  Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you--for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled?  Do we ask retaliation?  We ask it not.  We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now, for our RIGHTS.

 Gives us some perspective to note that Turner wrote the obituary for the Republican party of abolition and civil rights in 1877, saying it was "slaughtered in the house of its friends" when it abandoned Reconstruction.  Though Turner gave up hope that America do anything but get worse for African Americans, so he advocated that people should disrupt the system "Vote any way in your power to overthrow, destroy, ruin, blot out, divide, crush, dissolve, wreck, consume, demolish, disorganize, suppress, subvert, smash, shipwreck, crumble, nullify, upset, uproot, expunge, and fragmentize this nation, until it learns to deal justly with the black man.  This is all the advice I have to give."


Recovering the Black Social Gospel

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Having read the very white Religion of Democracy, my next theology book is The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien.  The covers the development of African-American theology after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.  Dorrien feels that this movement has been overlooked and that it should be recovered.  One reason is that these are the historical and theological influences on King and leaders of that generation.  Here is a good summary from the opening chapter:

The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America.  Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration.  Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.

The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.  It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it.  Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny.  Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.

Dorrien details four versions of the black social gospel.  First was the Booker T. Washington group that sought "a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks."  The second was the "path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration."  The third group engaged in protest action and called for "a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice."  The final group "advocated civil rights activism while relating more diplomatically to Booker Washington and Bookerism."


See, we need a robust theological worldview

This article is further evidence that we need a robust theological worldview to counter the bad theology in the article.  The American Reformation of the 18th century which led to our nation's founding first defended liberty against this sort of bad neo-Calvinism before it defended liberty against the British government.

And we have a robust theology.  Folks like Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson, for instance, who aren't even academic theologians.


Adams, Liberal Christianity, Moral Virtue, and Democracy

John Adams
I'm rushing through Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy but am woefully behind in my blogging I want to do about it.  So, let's begin trying to catch up.

The first full chapter was on John Adams as a paradigm example of the development of liberal Christianity out of Puritan Calvinism in the 18th century and how that liberal Christianity was connected to the development of democracy.

Back in college I researched and wrote some on this topic and now want to find those papers.  I remember reading about Adams' pastor Lemuel Briant and Briant's role in introducing Adams to John Locke.  Though I had read this, I've never encountered the thought again anywhere, so was glad to see a discussion of Briant in this book.  I had also written a college paper exploring how a phrase of Locke's had entered the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.  That led me to the Cambridge Platonists, who also are discussed in this chapter.  Dissidents on both sides of the pond were reading and interacting with each other as liberal Christianity and democracy were developing hand-in-hand.

Part of what spoke to me as I read this chapter was the importance of the moral virtues.  My reading solidified thoughts I've been having that in the unvirtuous Age of Trump we must focus upon the cultivation of the virtues.

She writes that Adams grew up in a home with a "lifestyle of simplicity, modesty, and charity, and the regular enforcement of Christian order at home."  Adams did not continue the strict Calvinism of his father but she boils down his moral ethic as "one that valued the common good over self-interest, extolled the pursuit of knowledge as a way to worship God and his creation, and insisted on both the divine right of private judgment and the related, God-given 'dignity of human nature.'"  Yes, we are in sore need of those virtues.

Another valuable thought--"Human limitations are woefully apparent--and this is why liberty matters.  It is the necessary precondition for the fight against sin."

18th century liberal Christianity developed three rules for right reasoning:

The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth.  Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin.  Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.

The second rule taught the critical thinking necessary to discern between doctrines.  Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere.  They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims.

The third rule of right reasoning directed the Christian to consider the effects of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity.

Elaborating the final point (which according to the narrative in the book ultimately becomes Jamesian Pragmatism in the late 19th century) she writes, "in the American Reformation, the right of private judgment pointed to a duty of public expression too, evaluating the results of holding this or that belief by measure of the virtue or nonvirtue such a belief produced."

As I get time this weekend, I'll try to catch up with further blogging.


Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of GodStand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing read, this theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin with an analysis of America's founding myth of Angl0-Saxon exceptionalism and supremacy and how the black faith tradition points to a future beyond this violent myth.

There were times in part one, the analysis of the myth, that I disagreed with nuances of the historical interpretation, but the book soars in the second part as it engages the black faith tradition both as critique and as hope.

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The Freedom of God

An excerpt from Kelly Brown Douglas' Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, a theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other young African-Americans.

The transcendent freedom of God is essential for a black faith born on the soil of the oppressor's faith, directed presumably to the same God.  It was an awareness of God's transcendent freedom that enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God.  They recognized that their enslaver's God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies.  Their enslaver's God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.  The black enslaved knew that this was not the God who encountered them in their free African lives.  They were certain, furthermore, that this was not the God they encountered in the Bible.  The God of their enslavers simply was not free.  The God of the enslaved, which they soon understood to be the God of the Bible, was free.  Doubtless, it was the African religious heritage of the enslaved that facilitated their profound understanding of God's freedom and transcendence.


Cobb Quotes

From John Cobb's Jesus' Abba

The modern scientistic vision leads to concluding that there is no such thing as reason or thought [because of determinism], no distinction between truth and falsehood, and nothing that could be called 'meaning.'  Most adherents of the modern worldview do not press consistency very far in this direction.  There is, of course, no empirical evidence for these conclusions.  They follow from a rarely examined metaphysics.

***

I believe that Abba is in every cell in the body calling it to do its part for its own well-being and for the well-being of the whole.  When we pray for healing for ourselves, we are aligning ourselves with Abba's working within us.  We are also directly affecting our bodies, encouraging the cells to be open to what Abba wants to do in them and with them.

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Mutual respect cannot mean that we hold that every opinion is worthy of equal respect.

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A good education involves a continual expansion of awareness of possibilities not previously imagined.


Jesus' Abba

Jesus Abba: The God Who Has Not FailedJesus Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed by John B. Cobb Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Succinctly and in a confessional style John Cobb gives a passionate, intelligent presentation of of the key theological and philosophical positions of process theology. This might be a great introduction to that school for those who don't know it.

My favourite line fits paradoxcially with the subtitle. In a discussion of prayer and divine power Cobb writes, "My guess is that God often fails."

Process thought has been arguing for more than a century against traditional notions of divine power, and you can sense some frustration on Cobb's part that these arguments still have to be made. Just yesterday I saw a post of a friend's on Facebook angry about what he perceived as God's role in a friend's illness and why some were suggesting prayer. I wrote that I had a different understanding of prayer and rejected that understanding of divine power. I agree with Cobb that the great mass of humanity would be liberated into new thriving and greater, problem-solving community if we would just rid ourselves of bad metaphysics, particularly the Greco-Roman notion of divine power that is actually alien to the Judaeo-Christian notion.

I once heard Cobb asked if someone had to learn all the details of process theology, and he answered no that it was sufficient "if you believe that God is not a jerk." Though he doesn't use that line in this volume, that's what it is about--Jesus' vision of a God who is loving parent of an infant and not a jerk.

And so divine power is the lure, as Whitehead called it, or "the call forward" in Cobb's phrase. God is that Spirit which calls us forward to the ideals. Anyone sitting in my congregations will realize that I use this language all the time--without getting into in-depth exigesis of process philosophy and its sometimes difficult terminology.

This volume is probably the last published work of a wise, compassionate soul, his final hopeful message for the world.

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The Much More

Enjoyed this paragraph from John Cobb's Jesus' Abba in my reading today:

In these and many other instances people realize that the world contains possibilities that cannot be measured in terms of degrees of pleasure, enjoyment, or satisfaction.  There is something more, something much more, a treasure or many treasures that belong to a different dimension of experience.  These moments of blessedness feel like a gift.  It is natural to give thanks.