In my last post I tried to explain why I previously alluded to the concept of “white theology” when I wrote “American, Reformed, and Not White.” I explained that “contextual theology” was coined within the liberal mainline Protestant and post-Vatican II Catholic traditions, with “white theology,” in particular, coming out of Black Liberation Theology. Then I clarified that while I do not closely identify with any of these traditions, I still think the concept of “white theology” might serve the church. So I tried to qualify my definition of “white theology” and explain both what I meant and did not mean by using the term.
In summary, by “white theology,” I simply mean theology (though not static or monolithic) that comes out of a white cultural context, with neither explicitly negative nor positive connotations. Simultaneously, my belief in the existence of such a contextual theology does not comport with a relativist understanding of all theology.
Now, in anticipation of certain objections, I’d like to further explain why I think the notion of “white theology” might serve evangelicals and even the Reformed, who I personally identify with.
The four most basic and common objections that I’d like to address are practical, ecclesial, missiological, and theological. In this post I will address the first two objections, and it looks like I’m going to need a Part Three to address the theological objection.
Practically, what’s an example of “white theology”?
This is a fair question and probably the most common objection I received, despite my admission that a white anything could never be static or monolithic. So, my undoubtedly unsatisfying answer remains that I can’t give you a solid answer. However, the absence of a static or monolithic quality need not imply nonexistence. To articulate an example of a single “white theology” was not my point. My point was that just as we are open to the existence of Asian, Black, and Latino perspectives, so also should we be open to the existence of white perspectives, and the reality that perspectives assist our theologizing. In so many conversations I’ve had with people of other races, I’ve prefaced my thoughts and perspectives with: “As an Asian American…” I believe that this has been a generally helpful qualifier for those with whom I interact.
My plea to my white sisters and brothers is that they learn to helpfully qualify their thoughts and perspectives similarly. And brothers and sisters amongst the ethnic minorities of Western evangelicalism, I urge you to be patient with our white co-heirs. Paradigms don’t shift easily.
Ecclesiologically, doesn’t this “racialized” understanding of theology divide the church?
Galatians 3:28 and similar verses needs to be taken seriously. We are all one in Christ, so why mention race? “In Christ” is our fundamental identity, right?
In Galatians, when certain Jews insisted that adopting the Jewish culture was a prerequisite for justification, Paul responded that cultural identity was not a precondition for inclusion in the New Covenant community. When he insisted that we are all one in Christ, I doubt that the “neither this, nor that” language was literal. Surely Paul acknowledged that there were genuine differences between those he listed. His direct imperatives toward men, women, and slaves as well as his explicit distinction between Jews and Gentiles elsewhere evidence this acknowledgement of genuine differences.
Paul’s primary concern is that no single culture monopolize the gospel’s promises. In fact, I think he has a vision of the gospel in which Jesus Christ is embraced in both united and diverse ways by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation as people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Being “in Christ” and being part of a particular tribe, tongue, or nation are not exclusive. Hence, I believe that acknowledging the realities of race, however complicated it may be from a social and historical standpoint, actually allows us to see a more beautiful picture of unity, rather than a homogenous picture of uniformity to some supposedly acultural norm. If we’re honest with ourselves, acultural norms are actually a dominant/majority culture’s norms. As Abraham Kuyper said, “[T]he drive of our age toward uniformity is such a dubious feature — I dare say, the curse — of modern life” (“Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, p.20). In uniformity, Kuyper saw the world’s counterfeit of God’s intended cosmic unity.
So, we need to ask what it means to be “in Christ.” I think that to be “in Christ” is to be everything that God intended us to be as His image bearers. To be “in Christ,” is, as Dr. Doug Green impressed on me, to be “truly human.” Can someone be truly human apart from their race? Is race irrelevant to our human identities? I don’t think race is irrelevant. To strip being “in Christ” of its racial component is to make being “in Christ” less than “true humanity.” The gospel does not dismiss human and cultural identity, but fulfils it!
In line with this notion that the gospel, rather than dismissing one’s cultural identity, actually fulfils it, a world-renowned scholar in Missions and World Christianity and Yale faculty member, Lamin Sanneh, commenting on the earliest Gentile converts to Christianity, writes:
Converts were not cultural orphans…By a process of fresh combinations and permutations new believers expanded Christianity’s multicultural horizon. Materials that so recently defined the world of non-Christians were retrieved to serve a new function.” (Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, p. 12)
So to answer the question above: The church is not the church unless it is racialized (ethnicitized?) in a redemptive way that reflects God’s new creational intention. Recognizing race (ethnicity?) allows for both unity and diversity within the body of Christ, whereas ignoring race most commonly leads to a blind uniformity that contradicts God’s new creation intention. Therefore, I believe in a gospel that offers me a narrative by which I can be truly and fully Chinese and American in the best and most authentic ways which God intended for me personally, while still in harmonious unity with all others made in His image!
For a far more detailed discussion on ethnicity, I highly recommend Mark Kreitzer.
Two more objections to address in the next post!
UPDATE: I apologize for my ignorance over the complexities of what qualifies as race vs. ethnicity vs. people groups, but hope my use of “race” (especially in the last major paragraph) is understood in a loose and broad way with an emphasis on the reality that people groups exist and have real differences.