Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Look at God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone - Part 1

This past semester I took a fascinating course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Black/Latino(a) Theologies at seminary. My instructor was Rev. Gabriel A. Salguero, a current Ph.D. student (ABD) at Union Theological Seminary, New York. (Salguero has since accepted a position to serve as the director of the Hispanic/Latino(a) Leadership program at Princeton Theological Seminary and recently blogged over at Jim Wallis' God's Politics blog.) One of the books he assigned in class was God of the Oppressed by his professor and mentor, James H. Cone.

In many respects Cone’s book is unlike anything I have ever read. Its content “deals with the social basis of theology and is concerned with, among other related matters, the problem of the particular and the universal in theological discourse.”[1] Its central thesis “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.”[2]

Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas and raised 14 miles away in Bearden, “a small community with approximately eight hundred whites and four hundred blacks.”[3] He grew up in the Macedonian African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) and received his theological training at Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University. His perspective is that of a black theologian writing in a segregated North America during the civil rights movement in the mid 1970s.

Why is this biographical information relevant to the content of his book? The answer to this question reveals the uniqueness of Cone’s approach. “Because I have lived the Bearden experience, I cannot separate it from my theological perspective. I am a black theologian! I therefore must approach the subject of theology in the light of the black Church and what that means in a society dominated by white people.”[4]

Instead of adopting the white Euro-American approach to theology, one that has reigned and pervaded the theological landscape for centuries, Cone brazenly challenges the hubris of the status quo and its right to speak sovereignly, and adopts an approach to theology that speaks to and springs from his own experiences and concerns as a black American living under white oppression. The questions and sources traditional theology had worked with were not the same as those of non-white races and cultures. This created a tension for Cone and his particular socio-religious community. He writes,

I encountered head-on the contradictions of my seminary education as I attempted to inform black students about the significance of theological discourse. What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as nonbeing? What is the significance of Nicea and Chalcedon for those who knew Jesus not as thought in their heads to be analyzed in relation to a similar thought called God? They knew Jesus as a Savior and friend...Indeed the heart of the problem was the relation of the black religious experience to my knowledge of classical theology…What was needed was a new way of looking at theology that must emerge out of the dialectic of black history and culture.[5]

Cone’s project, as described above, is to create a theology that speaks to black people and uses their history, literature, and other indigenous sources. “Black theology is a theology of and for black people, an examination of their stories, tales, and sayings. It is an investigation of the mind into the raw materials of our pilgrimage, telling the story of how ‘we got over.’”[6] Yet it also entails a dethroning of the exclusivity of white theology.

Somewhere along the line, the white approach to theology became the right one; the white experience became the universal experience, and any theologizing that did work not under the guise of the status quo was dubbed illegitimate. Here Cone points out that “other people also have thought about God and have something significant to say about Jesus’ presence in this world.”[7]

Theology, he argues, is human-talk about God. It is inseparably tied to one’s historical and cultural setting and is limited by the language and experience of those espousing it. Hence, quoting Feuerbach, Cone accents this dictum: “theology is anthropology.”[8] Accordingly, these “anthropological undergirdings” should be acknowledged by all, for “[w]hat people think about God cannot be divorced from their place and time in a definite history and culture.”[9]

(Part 2)
___________
[1] Ibid., 7.
[2] Ibid., 14.
[3] Ibid., 1.
[4] Ibid., 4.
[5] Ibid., 5-6.
[6] Ibid., 16.
[7] Ibid., 14.
[8] Ibid., 37.
[9] Ibid.

No comments: