Saturday, May 12, 2018

"They enact but the latest chapter in a long-running quest that has no foreseeable end"

I am ashamed that I didn't hear that James Cone, the eminent theologian who may arguably have been said to have discovered Black Liberation Theology died on April 28.  It isn't shocking that someone of his eminence and importance would have gone largely unnoticed in the news, as a Black scholar and a theologian it would have been entirely atypical if they had noticed his death.  His life was largely ignored apart from the notice he got after the estimable Bill Moyers had him on his show.

Time will tell if the declaration of Anthony B. Pinn at the often ironically named Religion Dispatches is true, "With James Cone’s death, comes the death of Black theology."  Time will tell, but I doubt it.

But, as those who never read theology would be entirely shocked to hear, "death" doesn't mean in that context what it does in the banality of materialist-industrial-scientistic thinking.  Pinn continues:

This statement is hyperbolic in that a variety of theologians—some trained by Cone and others not—will continue to write theological texts and teach black theology, and will do so in light of the tremendous wealth of scholarship Cone offered. In this way, the material production dependent on the vocabulary, grammar, and ethical orientation of Cone’s work will persist. And, this is as it should and must be.

However, with the loss of Cone a certain way of thinking and doing black theology—a certain posture toward the work—might have come to an end. This statement has several meanings. First, theology reflecting a mode of (de)construction—first and foremost in conversation with a so-called “dominant” tradition marked out intellectually by figures such as Karl Barth—is no longer the bedrock of black theology’s explicit critique.  Perhaps this is as it should be—a component of the decentering of whiteness in its variety of forms.

Still, Cone wrestled with Barth and his contemporaries and reworked Christian theology in light of his response to their allegiance to a death-dealing whiteness. By so doing, Cone refused the ability of white supremacy to claim the “tradition” of theological discourse as its own. He exposed and challenged the assumption that theological discourse had no identity politics, no commitment to the black nature of life. He signified status quo-supporting theological strategies by turning theology on its social-ethical head: blackness is not the questionable margin of religion and its theological voice, but rather blackness is the only legitimate starting point for religious engagement and theological pronouncement.

know enough about theology, especially theology in the past century to know what James Cone did was pretty much how theology was done pretty much from the beginning.   The most ridiculous thing atheists say about religion is that, unlike science, religion doesn't do self-criticism.  I don't know what they think they're talking about when they talk about religion but it's certainly not the monotheistic tradition which is full of the most stringent of internal criticism carried on in some of the strongest of language.  And included in that internal criticism there is all manner of self-doubt, self-questioning, self-criticism.  The Hebrew prophetic tradition pretty much invented social criticism out of that, in so far as we have a record of the practice.

It's nothing unusual in religion for the language and forms of thinking about God and what flows from it to change drastically.  In  her book, Quest For The Living God,  Elizabeth Johnson gives some "rules" of how to do the kind of theology she is engaged in, many of them flowing out of the contingency forced by the fact of God's incomprehensibility and infinitude.   The consequences for theology include this:

Like millions of plant and animal species, many religions have gone extinct in the course of time  Studying this phenomenon of obsolescence German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg made a poignant observation:  “Religions die when their lights fail,”  that is, when their teachings no longer illuminate life as it is actually lived by its adherents.   In such cases, the way the Holy is encountered stalls out and does not keep pace with changing human experience.   History's dynamism is inexorable.  Some people will cling to the old views, but eventually most will move on, seeking ultimate meaning in a way that is coherent with their current experience of life.  Then the lights of the old religion dim out; the deity becomes irrelevant.  This phenomenon is not a case of human beings dictating to God what they want in a deity, as some fear.  Rather Pannenberg argues, it is a test of the true God.  Only the living God who spans all times can relate to historically new circumstances as a future continuously arrives.  A tradition that cannot change cannot be preserved.  Where people experience God as still having something to say, the lights stay on. 

As this book aims to show, the fact that in our day multiple, rich Christian theologies have been seeking and finding the living God in ways coherent with our changing times testifies to this particular Way remains a vital, viable option.  It is true that none of these theologies speaks the last word.  They enact but the latest chapter in a long-running quest that has no foreseeable end as long as human beings continue to exist.  Nevertheless, their insights open up fresh ways of relating to the living God in prayer and praxis that deeply satisfy the desire for a meaningful life in our day,  both for individuals and for the community of disciples that is the church.

If James Cone's theology, growing out of the experience of Christianity by Black People, the heritage and traditions that come out of the experience and response to racism, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching etc. stays relevant to other people is what will decide if his work continues and continues to illuminate the understanding of people younger than him.   I doubt that his work will ever be irrelevant to people,  Black People. members of other groups who experience similar oppression.  That the Exodus story is the basis of so much of it, that it, all these scores of centuries after that story was first written down still instructs, still illuminates experiences of people in the 21st century is a pretty good indication that James Cone's work will always be relevant.  I will point out that in his lectures and sermons, James Cone noted that many different theologies were necessary as they addressed other experiences of life, including the feminist and womanist, etc. theologies that Elizabeth Johnson and so many others work in.

In discussing his sermon, The Cross and the Lynching tree with Bill Moyers, James Cone talked about how important the scandal of lynching was to how we can think of the Resurrection of Jesus.  He had an exchange with Bill Moyers that I'm going to leave as the last word on this, he points out what he did in his work, I think it's why it will continue.

JAMES CONE: And the lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that's why the cross and the lynching tree belong together. That's why I have to talk about the lynching tree. Because Christians can't understand what's going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree with black bodies hanging there.


JAMES CONE: Because what the Christian Gospel is is a transvaluation of values. Something you cannot anticipate in this world, in this history. But, it empowers the powerless. It is-- what do you mean by power in the powerless? That's what God is. Power in the powerless.

BILL MOYERS: But, the victims of lynchings are dead.

JAMES CONE: No. Their mothers and fathers aren't dead. Their brothers and sisters aren't dead. I'm alive. I have to give voice to those who did die. And all of us do. That's why we can't forget it.

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