In an earlier post, “American, Reformed, and Not White,” I offhandedly alluded to “white theology”.
I soon found myself seeking to win the favor and approval of this new white-dominated world…I even found myself believing that white churches’ theology and practices were purer and more biblical than others. I mean, when have you ever heard of an Asian church (even the Korean ones!) described as TR (Truly Reformed). And yet when it came time to hang out with…my Asian and black classmates, or my black pastors, I felt free to relax and be myself. In truth, I preferred this, regardless of what I was beginning to believe about the purity of the white church’s theology.
This paragraph was an honest expression of what was going on in my head and heart during some of my time in Philadelphia during seminary. That being said, my allusion to “White Theology” was rather cavalier and I never elaborated. What is “White Theology”? I want to thank my new friend, Kevin Chen, an assistant pastor at Christ Church Ann Arbor, for calling me out on this term and I hope my next two or three posts can clarify what I meant.
Where did it come from?
The concept of “white theology” is most clearly traced to the Black Liberation Theology of theologians, such as James Cone. I am no expert on Black Liberation theology, but I think that in its essence it is a theology that emphasizes the Exodus and liberation as the key themes of Scripture, while applying these themes to the historical and cultural context of African Americans. At its best, it acknowledges the reality of oppression against Israel and her Messiah, it offers solidarity with the Suffering Servant to society’s oppressed, and it prophetically speaks against the injustices carried out by the powerful (particularly against black Americans). At its best, it’s a theology that is sensitive to the black American experience and context. At its worst, it ignores the multi-faceted identity of Christ (He is more than just a Suffering Servant), it reduces the black identity to “victimhood,” and it becomes an exclusively social gospel, dominated by Marxist principles. At its worst, it subordinates Scripture and its interpretation to the authority of human experience (for more on this see Anthony Bradley’s article). “White theology,” then, as it was originally conceived, was Black Liberation Theology’s foil. “white theology” was the theology that the Southern (Baptist and Presbyterian) slaveowners upheld with a dominant, oppressive, and exploitative posture. It was an un-Christian theology that the majority of Christians held – or perhaps still hold. It was a theology that promised eternal life to “pious” slaveowners, and yet did nothing for black American slaves in their cultural context – a context of suffering.
Is this what I meant when I alluded to “white theology”?
Well, not exactly.
What did I mean?
Although James Cone and Black Liberation Theologians are to be commended at certain points, my allusion to “white theology” was not meant to identify with their theological construction. However, while I do not identify with Black Liberation theology’s notion of “white theology,” I still do believe that “white theology” is real. Most simply, for me, “white theology” is theology that comes out of a “white” cultural context. To be even more simplistic: it is theology that is done by white people (and often adopted by non-whites for various reasons, both knowingly and unknowingly).
At this point, I imagine that I may have just opened up a can of worms. So let me make a few things clear.
First, I know that “white culture” is a highly contested concept. It would be a mistake to conceive of an abstract “white theology” as a single, static, and monolithic concept as Black Liberation Theology seems to do. “White theology” is but one layer of multiple, complex contextual theologies, just as “Asian Theology” would be a more general layer than “Chinese Theology.” By employing the language of “white theology” I am not seeking to ignore the particularities of different theologies held by white people. After all, I know that John Piper and Joel Osteen are white, but very different! At the same time, by employing this language, I am seeking to highlight that there is a sense of cultural unity and a shared racial, cultural, and contextual experience – however minimal it may be – amongst white people who do theology. All of reality comprises of unity and diversity, and my allusion to “white theology” highlights the aspect of unity amongst white people doing theology, as well as the diversity of contextual theologies, such as Asian, Latino, black, and white theologies.
Secondly, let me also clarify: “white theology,” is not an utterly wrong theology. I certainly do not believe that all theology that is done by the white race is wrong, unhelpful, and oppressive. Nor is it necessary to even say that most of it is. “White theology” need not be seen as “bad theology” or as an oppressive theology akin to Walter Brueggemann’s “royal consciousness.” Nor should we view “white theology” as totally irrelevant for non-whites. In fact, any critique that I level against “white theology” will be dependent, in part, on the “white theology” that I’ve accepted. God has revealed Himself to every tribe, tongue, and nation that they might know Him truly. This includes white people. We can and must continue to learn from the perspectives of white people doing theology. They, like non-whites, do theology under the sovereign reign of King Jesus and by His Spirit.
Thirdly, I am aware that the field of contextual theology, which speaks of particular ethnic theologies originates from the liberal Christian tradition (see James Cone), and is far more prevalent amongst mainline Protestants (see Fumitaka Matsuoka) and post-Vatican II Catholics (see Peter Phan and Stephen Bevans), neither of which I specifically identify with at a confessional level. I do not intend to relativize theology and subordinate it to culture and human experience. Theology is not unilaterally and authoritatively defined by culture and community, nor is it subject to human experience. The finiteness and sin of humanity do not render our transcendent God incapable of revealing truth to us. In fact, He created us to know Him and His will. There is only one gospel that God has communicated to humanity. There is only one Word of God, the Logos, in whom God has spoken to us in these last days. As such, there is a principle of cross-cultural universality and transcendence in theology since it communicates not only an immanent man, but a transcendent God in the person of Jesus Christ. Also, I believe that language is capable of communicating this to us by the sovereign providence of God. Hence, for example, I am not of the opinion that people, today, who don’t share the cultural context of the Puritans necessarily need to abandon their subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith as merely a “white theology.” God’s sovereignty over history and the language employed in His Word guarantee His communication to us.
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.
That being said, I still think that discussing the notion of “white theology” can benefit the church, and I hope to explain why in my next post by answering some objections. I know this is a controversial topic, but I hope you’ll also indulge my next post, if you’ve read this one with (even negative) interest. Feel free to comment and help me in my continued theological reflection. I am still very open to conversation on this issue and willing to be proven wrong!