The Evolution of Black Theology

"Is Christianity a liberating reality in African American life," Mark Chapman asks, "or is it an oppressive ideology that hinders black freedom?" (3) He seeks his answer in the theological critiques of Christianity offered by Benjamin Mays and Elijah Muhammad from before World War II and Albert Cleage, James Cone, and Delores Williams after it.

Mays -- together with Howard Thurman, the one-time chaplain at Howard University who elevated the contemplative dimension of black Christian faith -- challenged the racist practices of American society, including the white church. Despite the lacerating criticism of Christianity as colonial and racist that they heard during trips to Asia, both thinkers adamantly held that Christianity was the only hope of "democratizing and Christianizing America." Mays, a liberation theologian before the term was invented, held that "nonviolence" was the way of the gospel (40). His encounter with Gandhi in 1936 and his assertion that the black protest tradition reflected in the lives of W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass was one of "nonviolent" resistance, reinforced his advocacy of a pacifist posture confronting white racism. Mays, following the lead of George Kelsey, director of the Morehouse School of Religion, rejected racist interpretations of the gospel and extolled the vision of the beloved community that Martin Luther King would later embrace.

In contrast, Elijah Muhammad's rejection of Christianity as "the white man's religion" and the United States as morally incorrigible signified a vital trajectory of black resistance to American racism and oppression, paving the way for the black nationalist liberation movement and Malcolm X, its most visible exponent. Opposed to racial integration, Muhammad gained popularity among grassroot blacks for assaulting Christianity as the religion that enslaved blacks and indoctrinated them in passivity, an opiate religion that distracted blacks from overpowering material oppression by keeping them focused on heaven (51). His teaching on righteous self-defense on the part of the black oppressed struck a responsive chord among many blacks in the northern ghettoes who felt that Christianity's emphases on love and reconciliation was a pretext for perpetuating black subjugation.

Albert Cleage and James Cone are called on to represent the black theology that followed the call for "Black Power" by Stokely Carmichael (today Kwame Ture). Both Cleage and Cone took the Nation of Islam's critique of Christianity seriously, which led to the emergence of radical black theologies of liberation, encapsulated in Cleage's The Black Messiah, and Cone's Black Theology and Black Power in 1969. Chapman's narrative illuminates the potency of black theology; it emphasizes the contradiction of embracing a religion like Christianity that tolerated racism and sanctioned oppression, even though large numbers of the oppressed were themselves Christian. Chapman also sketches the divergence between pre-World War II black theologians who cherished the ideal of human liberation and those who, like James Cone, emphasized the primacy and supersession of black liberation in their theological critique (132).

Chapman concludes his work with the germination of womanist theology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He cites the life and theology of Delores Williams as representative of the womanist theological tradition, but gives full credit to early womanist critics like Theresa Hoover, Jacquelyn Grant, Cheryl Gilkes, and Pauli Murray. The black theology movement in its initial deliberations, he says, excluded women and was silent on the sexist behavior of black churches. Womanist theology was prophetic in its correction of black theology's exclusive attention to race and feminist theology's neglect of race and class. Further, Williams's openness to other religious traditions provided an important corrective to the exclusively Christian focus of most black theologians (152).

Chapman's survey of black theology in the United States offers many insights, but suffers from grave omissions. He makes no reference to the system of imperial capitalism in America, a superstructure that plagues black youth in particular and black men and women in general. Neither does Chapman mention the dispossessed indigenous people of America, whose land we all live on and benefit from, a topic ignored by all American theologies, including black theology. If Christianity is to be put on trial for its inhumane treatment of black people, its complicity in the genocide of the native people of the Americas must also be indicted.

Finally, Christianity on Trial's omission of any reference to the global dimensions of black theology, particularly in terms of its African continental nexus, results in a parochial view of black religion that reinforces the chauvinism and imperialism fostered by Eurocentric Christianity. How can one talk of black theology in particular, and black people in general, without affirming Africa as the center of black experience? All black theologians need to engage in bridging the experiences and struggles of Africans in America with those of their kin in Africa.


Tormented in the Flame of Abandonment

David Emmanuel Goatley seeks to understand how it is that God appears to be absent amidst the suffering of African Americans and all the world's poor. The classical problematic of theodicy -- how can a good, omnipotent, and just God allow suffering? -- is not his focus; he examines instead the presence-absence dilemma of God in black suffering, as found in slave narratives and spirituals, without broaching the subject of divine attributes.

Insight can be drawn from reflection on slavery's cruelty and Jesus' broken body. The antebellum epoch evidences not simply suffering on the part of black chattel, Goatley claims, but also their surviving and thriving while maintaining faith in God. Likewise, the passion story of Jesus on the cross offers a heuristic paradigm of the human-divine encounter with catastrophic pain. Thus to answer the question "where is God in Godforsakenness?," Goatley offers the testimony of enslaved blacks and the cry of Jesus in Mark 15:34.

Godforsakenness was manifest during slavery in the brutal assault upon African cultural and religious traditions of the sacredness of family relations. Families were separated -- wives from husbands and parents from children. Runaways who departed on the perilous journey north suffered from leaving loved ones. Godforsakenness was manifest as well in physical and psychological violence perpetrated against black bodies. Black women endured the added suffering of sexual exploitation, satisfying the slavemasters' lust and serving as breeders. The question of God in black suffering was further magnified immediately after the Civil War. Slavery, though inhuman, imposed plantation norms and expectations that regularized black-white race relations; both races understood what to do and say. Emancipation, Goatley says, brought intensified uncertainties regarding the future and with them a form of anomie.

Goatley sees African American spirituals as a mode of theological reflection on divine absence-presence. Their themes range wide: ubiquitous trouble, identification with Jesus in his suffering and triumph, direct confrontation with death (whether anticipated, feared, or boldly embraced), the hopelessness of life, the loss of family members -- and rays of hope. Key, in Goatley's estimation, are those spirituals revealing the presence of God during Jesus' suffering. They enabled slaves to transcend their plight.

Within the context of what has gone before, Goatley provides an exegesis of Jesus' cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?." He suggests that the disciples' relation to Jesus adumbrates Jesus' relation with God. In Mark, the disciples' encounter with Jesus has three phases; the disciples are absent, present, and simultaneously absent-present. The connection between Jesus and God parallels that with his disciples. More pointedly for Goatley, just as the women disciples were present and absent at Jesus' tomb, so was the reality of God during Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross. Jesus is forsaken by God while, concurrently, God is there for Jesus to call upon.

The implications for contemporary theology are several. First, North American theology needs to pay more attention to exploring Godforsakenness through investigation of the dynamics of the slavery era. Second, if Jesus' connection to his disciples is paradigmatic of God's relation to Jesus, then African American women disciples "can be understood as a paradigm of God's presence in the apparent experience of absence" (97-98) that afflicts many blacks today. Black women not only constitute the overwhelming membership in black churches; their faithful support amidst Godforsakenness means one can presume divine presence to those experiencing abject suffering. Finally, Goatley suggests that his scholarly project can help answer similar questions for the millions in pain in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Were You There? gives us a careful reading of slave narratives and unveils the complex meaning of diverse spirituals, unveiling their complex import of resignation, survival, and liberation. The author brings into his dialogue a spectrum of (white) mainstream scholarship -- biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, systematic theology. And he models a scholarship which balances committed faith (Goatley is an ordained clergyperson) and academic rigor (he is assistant professor of theology and African American studies at Memphis Theological Seminary). Perhaps his greatest contribution is his adept avoidance of classical theodicy, a quagmire into which theologians and philosophers too easily sink. Instead, Goatley presumes the stance of poor black Christians whose a-priori faith in divine goodness, omnipotence, and justice keeps them sane and on the path to survival and deliverance.

Two queries for consideration might improve Goatley's argument, however. He asserts that his biblical and revelational approach avoids reducing black theology to cultural critique. Though he does not expound on this concern, it suggests that the Bible speaks clearly to the reader. However, every reading of Christian Scripture uses some form of presuppositional social analysis. Each reader is formed by socialization and, hence, brings cultural critique to readings of all texts.

Second, central to Goatley's investigation is the parallel significance of Jesus-disciples and God-Jesus dynamics. Yet, it is not self-evident that this parallel stands logically. Goatley may be correct in saying that Jesus' two most important associations are with the disciples and God. But why does attending to the story's secondary connection to the disciples illuminate "an appreciation of Jesus' primary relationship with God" (81)?


Nitty-Gritty Hermeneutics

Anthony B. Pinn's Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology is exciting, thought-provoking, encyclopedic, and theologically unsettling in its critical treatment of the problem of evil in black theology. According to Pinn, the theodical problem in black theology is that strategies that have a theistic grounding and entail redemptive suffering do not yield an adequate account of black liberation because they undermine human responsibility for enacting liberation (17-18). Pinn situates his case for "black humanism" against philosophical treatments of the problem of evil and theodicy that explicate questions of suffering and moral evil as if they are reducible to problems of logical form and rhetorical explanations (14-15, 113-14). This may clear away cognitive distortions about the meaning of human life that arise from sentimental and emotional reactions to suffering and evil, but it often remains unconnected to the material conditions and historical experiences of those who suffer moral evil. The material, historical reality of suffering and evil become Pinn's primary point of critical departure from the dominant history of theodicy in the West. His argument is cast within thick historical conditions of black suffering and black responses to slavery and its historical effects on black life (13-14, 18).

Pinn argues that the theological question of human suffering remains bracketed from the radical criticisms of Western theology by African American theologians. Although they have subjected classical categories in theology (God, humanity, Christology, sin, and salvation) to critique and revision, black theologians remain bound to Western theological biases because they do not extend their critique to theism itself; they continue to treat redemptive suffering and theism as a priori. Pinn's aim is to explode both categories (17, 158).

According to Pinn, redemptive suffering is a cognitive strategy for reconciling human suffering and moral evil with the Christian theologian's belief in God's absolute agency and moral goodness. Redemptive suffering suggests that God has divine intentions which are carried out and fulfilled not only in the everyday world of nature but also in instances of human suffering that result from human moral agency. Pinn proposes that most attempts to reconcile human suffering with the moral goodness of God have succeeded only by begging the question of God's existence. Rather than advancing a counter-critique of redemptive suffering, Pinn argues, black theologians have taken ownership of theodical strategies that were developed in the philosophical tradition of Western theology. Rejecting the possibility that God does not exist, black theologians have settled for either "rethinking evil's nature, rethinking God's power, or rethinking God's goodness/righteousness" (15). Having played the theodical game, black theologians are left to resolve contradictions between human suffering and divine agency under three strategies: "unmerited suffering is intrinsically evil, yet it can have redemptive consequences; God and humans are coworkers in the struggle to remove moral evil; and Black suffering may result from God being a racist" (15). That God does not exists is excluded from the theodical tradition of black theology.

As Pinn traces the history of African American reflection on human suffering, he sees evidence of theodical strategies in both the spirituals and the writings of black intellectuals and theologians. From the work of African American cultural and religious historians (Clarence Walker, John Lovell, C. Eric Lincoln, Albert J. Raboteau, R. Nathaniel Dett), Pinn elicits the theodical strategy that he believes is most represented in the spirituals: "the sufferings of life are seen as a part of the growth leading to spiritual maturity" (37). In the writings of nineteenth-century black leaders (Richard Allen, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Anna J. Cooper, Alexander Crummell, and Henry McNeal Turner), he finds a consensus that "slavery in and of itself was evil, but it was a providential evil out of which God would bring ultimate good" (50). And the good that was providentially intended by God was the racial uplift of blacks toward "civilization" and the expansion of Christian civilization to African peoples (51).

Pinn concludes his historical argument by examining the writings of twentieth-century theologians and public leaders (Reverdy Ransom, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Emilie Townes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph Washington, and James H. Cone). In none does he find a significant departure from the conventional redemptive suffering argument. He suggests that the failure of African American theologians to exorcize redemptive suffering from their theological vocabulary is predicated on two factors: (1) the close ties of black theologians to the black church tradition, and (2) the fact that theodicy constitutes the "path of least resistance" (88). From his historical review, Pinn concludes that black theodical strategies are a deterrence to black liberation because they do not accept "suffering as unquestionably and unredeemably evil" (89).

Pinn then begins to sketch an alternative to the traditional theodical strategies in black theology. As alternative strategies in black theology, he examines Jones's classic text, Is God a White Racist? (1973), and Delores Williams's Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis Press, 1993). Pinn finds affinities between their perspectives on human responsibility for liberation and his own perspective on "black humanism." The affinities are mitigated, however. Jones' "humanocentric theism," with its "limited God who attempts to work good through persuasion [rather] than a God whose goodness is brought into question by human suffering," does not successfully answer the theodical problem in black theology; Jones's "limited God" remains complicit in black suffering because such a God is its formal cause even if that suffering is a consequence of God's intention to establish human freedom. In the end, Jones remains within the trappings of redemptive suffering (99, 100). Pinn also finds Williams's critique of Christian atonement theories as a means of exonerating suffering commensurable with his own but rejects her attempt to recast the suffering of black women in terms of positive transformations that derive from a life of struggle and survival. Pinn argues that Williams seeks to evade the theodical problem by recasting God's intentions as the survival of the oppressed and not their liberation (109). Rather, liberation must be the intention of human agents (108). In Jones's and Williams's arguments, "suffering persists while God's intentions remain good," and this allows for the continuing feasibility of redemptive suffering (111).

Pinn proposes that the only answer to the theodical problem in black theology is to avoid theodical games altogether (114). He suggests that theological arguments for black liberation which maintain the doctrine of redemptive suffering fail to connect with the "nitty-gritty" experiences of blacks who are themselves alienated from the black churches and have developed in the blues and rap music a culture of self-recognition. In the blues and rap, Pinn sees potential resources for addressing and redressing black suffering through expressive practices that both criticize the ways that traditional black religion has contributed to black suffering and suggest possibilities for self-realization. Getting at these untapped resources, he argues, requires a strategy of what he calls "Nitty-Gritty Hermeneutics," which differs from the hermeneutics of liberative suspicion by its nonrestrictive focus on black suffering. Not hermeneutically limited by traditional theological categories in the interpretation of black experience, it becomes a means of criticizing black theology itself. Nitty-gritty hermeneutics gets deep down into the complex character of black life to "tell it like it is" (116). It discovers in the blues and rap cultures alternative religious resources for black liberation that do not require "theism" for their grounding. In those cultures, the message that black liberation must come from the individual and collective energies of blacks themselves gives cultural support for the black humanism that Pinn prefers (134, 158).

Pinn proposes that a critical black theology must be willing to jettison -- in the interest of human liberation -- belief in God's existence and to exorcize theism itself from black theological hermeneutics. He finds the preoccupation of black theologians with God both a distraction from the sufferings, alienation, and pains of contemporary black life, and a deterrence to black liberation. He espouses a "strong humanism" that denies the existence of God (147) and affirms "no Being outside of the human realm" who is responsible for human liberation (141). "Strong humanism seeks to combat oppression through radical human commitment to life and corresponding activity." The call of black humanism is "to experience life without thought of God -- to be human, fully human" (149). For the humanism he defends, all suffering is evil, the result of human misconduct; theodical strategies predicated on redemptive suffering promote false expectations that some divine "Other" will deliver human beings from the evils that they themselves inflict on each other. In the end, "victories are not won because of or through suffering, but in spite of suffering" (158).

Why Lord? ought to create a long overdue infusion of critical reflection on the meaning of black liberation in light of what Pinn describes as the religious impulse or orientation toward ultimate value and significance (19, 137). There are three issues that I find particularly worrisome, however. First, one may ask whether his insistence that "all suffering is evil" is philosophically sound. Here, the test of cogency may be established by offering a set of counterfactual conditions in which at least some human suffering produces good ends or results in human fulfillment. A second question arises as to whether Pinn's radical disjunction between theism and radical humanism is philosophically and theologically required or necessary. The third issue is the most substantive. Having rejected theism for strong atheistic humanism, can Pinn establish a genuine dialogue with the various non-Christian religious discourses (namely, Islam and African traditional religions) which he suggests are compatible with the humanistic claims that he finds in the culture of blues and rap? These religions, while morally compatible with his humanism, are in the deepest sense theistic. They seem unlikely to find his humanism congenial.


Evil Embraced

As a native of the Balkans who has read many books on the war in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia and has written one of my own, I found that Love Thy Neighbor captivated my attention and provoked little of the irritation that the biases and half-truths of most of what has appeared on the subject arouse in me.

This book is interesting from a number of perspectives. One is the story of Peter Maass himself -- a native Californian Jew with only the slightest awareness of belonging to a minority. He became a Bosnian war correspondent accidentally; because of his pleasant beat in east-central Europe, he was sent to the nearby Balkans with the initial notion that he could cover the unrest in his spare time. Little did he know how profoundly this assignment was going to change his self-perception as well as his view of the world. In Bosnia he came to confront a reality for which even the riots of Los Angeles had not prepared him: he discovered his own Jewish identity and what it means to belong to a despised ethnic minority in a land composed entirely of ethnic minorities who routinely despise one another.

Although Maass shows little or no traditional theological sensibility, he does explore the moral dimensions of interhuman relationships. He is fortunately not satisfied with merely naming the obvious source of the Balkan bloodletting -- Serbian nationalism gone berserk as a result of threatening encounters with other nationalisms. He looks instead at evil from a universal perspective. Regarding the Nazis of World War II and the Serbs of these Balkan wars as the epitome of something diabolical in human nature, Maass contemplates the unleashing of this wild beast. Taking his cue from Rebecca West (others might find their inspiration in Paul, Augustine, or Luther), he discovers that, while part of us is reasonable, practical, happiness and pleasure-seeking, our other half prefers darkness, pain, despair, and devastation. The principle of evil, Maass realizes, takes ascendancy not only among Germans in the form of Nazism or Serbs in the form of national chauvinism but that all people are liable to descend into darkness, hating rather than loving their neighbor. He comprehends the enormity of human depravity and avoids the shallow analysis of those who see only socio-economic causation for cataclysms like that of the Balkans.

What intrigues Maass is why Europe and the U.S. did not intervene to stop the evil after journalists, including himself, had demonstrated what was going on in Bosnia. Maass spares none of the players; the moral collapse of the ideology of law and accountability starts with low-level employees of the State Department, rises to middle-level figures such as Lord David Owen, and reaches the American president, Bill Clinton. He considers them all to have been appeasers and sees no extenuating circumstances for their concessions to and collaboration with evil.

The limitations of Love Thy Neighbor can be found in the morality-play straight-jacket imposed by the author's struggle with moral dualism. One finds no really good Serbs -- the closest being the journalists of the Belgrade magazine Vreme -- or really bad Bosnian Muslims. Maass does not provide a single scene of Serbian suffering and victimization, nor is there a single instance in which Bosnian Muslims inflict damage. Alija Izetbegovic strikes him as an unmitigatedly sad figure and he dismisses the much maligned "Islamic Declaration" as innocuous, leaving the impression that he had not read it. (To this author the "Islamic Declaration" is neither as dangerous as Izetbegovic's enemies have claimed nor as harmless as his followers tend to portray it.)

Maass seems to have fallen prey to the national stereotyping so rampant in the Balkans, though his American background seems to recoil from it. I wish that his wonderment about fair-skinned, blue-eyed and blond European Muslims had not blinded him to the fact that sharing the looks of their neighboring Croats and Serbs may indicate that they, too, are capable of committing horrendous deeds. Historically, all three groups have failed to love their neighbors, a failure that poisoned the historical memory of many in the Balkans. Weakness and not moral superiority has caused the difference between victim and predator: those who were the strongest militarily were the greatest predators and those who were the least prepared were their victims; there is little cosmic profundity in this fact. I also fault him for using the term Bosnians to designate the Bosnian Muslims, while omitting it when referring to Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. That is likely to hinder the understanding of uninformed readers and plays into the hands of those who offer competing claims that they are the most authentic Bosnians.

I am intrigued by how close Maass comes to raising profound theological questions without showing an inclination to push them to their logical conclusion. But whether we are discussing the book of Job, or the Passion Narratives, or Peter Maass in Love Thy Neighbor, it is clear that massive suffering causes us to confront the ultimate question of meaning. It is a pity that so often we avoid dealing with it both in theory and in practice.


Tracking Jesus, Trapping Christ

Christ Is a Native American is Achiel Peelman's attempt to demonstrate the incarnation of Christ among native people in North America, a project that is at once theological and ethnographic. In the course of his research, Peelman -- a French-Canadian Catholic priest and professor of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa -- encounters a young factory worker, identified only as Jimmy, who has recently developed an inclusive sense of religious experience. "I am discovering the true meaning of the word catholic," Jimmy tells Peelman. "Today, I understand in a better way that the word Christ is one title among others given by the early Christians to Jesus. All the peoples of the world are now invited to give other titles to him" (104-5). Unfortunately, Peelman is less interested in exploring and documenting these other titles than in pursuing his christological research through a deductive method in an effort to demonstrate the universal meaning of the Christic mystery.

There is, however, much to recommend this book. Peelman has been conducting field work in native communities since 1982, and this study collects sources and interpretations covering a wide range of contemporary native religious issues. It is also a response to a statement made by Pope John Paul II during his 1984 visit to the Shrine of Canadian Martyrs in Midland, Ontario: "The one faith is expressed in different ways," the pope declared. "Not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian" (13). Peelman uses this papal pronouncement as the springboard for his two-part investigation into the state of the (Catholic) church in Indian country, relying on the notion of inculturation as the basis for his theological analysis.

Peelman begins with an overview of the basic historical, social, cultural, and religious factors that bear on contemporary relationships between native people and Christianity. Peelman has a good sense of the movement toward self-determination, evident now in every area of native community life -- tribal government, economic development, health care, social welfare, education, language preservation -- and he clearly appreciates the way religious considerations animate and integrate these efforts. His survey of native religious traditions rightly avoids a superficial comparative study of doctrines and rituals; Peelman instead wants to identify some basic, generalized qualities of the native religious experience in order to facilitate his theological project. This section is disappointing, however, since Peelman relies on conventional scholarly representations of native religious life as authoritative sources, yet does not seem to possess the ethnographic background necessary to approach this voluminous literature with a critical eye. At one point, for example, he refers to "the Teton Sioux and the Lakota" as if these terms identify two distinct peoples (53), when in fact they are synonyms: "Teton Sioux" is the colonial gloss for "Lakota." The chapter on native responses to "the Canadian missionary adventure" is more insightful. Peelman points out that native agency has often been elided in conventional approaches to the historiography of missions, and he reviews recent ethnohistorical scholarship that demonstrates the complexity of religious encounters in colonial contexts. His survey of historic native religious movements and independent churches highlights the unpredictable vitality of native religious life, and his investigation of contemporary individuals and communities who participate simultaneously in more than one religious tradition documents a complex and widespread phenomenon.

Peelman next explores "the hidden face of the Amerindian Christ" through ethnographic reportage and theological reflection. He understands better than most outsiders the unique dilemma facing native people who choose to identify themselves as Christians, and shows how this dilemma pervades the contemporary native struggle. He illustrates his argument by quoting a number of short testimonies by (mostly anonymous) native narrators, and also includes lengthy selections from an interview with missionary priest Paul Hernou; this chapter is Peelman's most substantive contribution to scholarship on native religious life. The rest of the book follows his effort to construct a coherent theological basis for a postcolonial native Christian identity, a dubious project for an outsider to attempt. He mentions some useful examples of recent efforts at interreligious dialogue, but otherwise falls back on broad generalizations about "pan-Indian" spirituality that simply do not represent the traditional religious practices and beliefs of many native communities. Finally, "Amerindian visions of Christ often focus on the historical person of Jesus," Peelman admits in his last chapter. "It also," he contends, "contains powerful intuitions of the universal meaning of the Christic mystery." (195) This seems to reflect his real objective, which points to what I sense to be a pervasive contradiction manifest in this book: the inescapable tension between theology and ethnography, between theory and description, complicated even further by the role of subject position in theological reflection. Peelman advocates the local/contextual theology paradigm (16), yet seems unable to perceive the implications of this methodological commitment for the kinds of scholarship that might be produced by a sympathetic participant observer. While it may not be possible to disentangle theory and description in any absolute sense, some descriptions are less ideologically determined -- and more realistic -- than others, especially in the study of indigenous religious traditions.


Where Have All the Members Gone?

Thomas Reeves -- professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, political conservative, and orthodox Christian member of the Protestant Episcopal Church U.S.A. -- marshalls contemporary statistics and mines sociological interpretive studies to describe and plot the decline of the old mainline liberal churches, the so-called seven sister denominations: Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Northern Baptists. These churches have hemorrhaged over a period of the past thirty years as they have lost adherents (e.g., the Methodists are now about half the size they were thirty years ago) and cultural power. They have also, Reeves argues, eviscerated the substance of orthodox Christianity.

In Reeves's view, the leadership of liberal Christianity (and of the National Council of Churches) is confused and helpless, stuck in the Sixties. Their social gospel is knee-jerk liberalism and frequently reactive. They propagate a sexual ethic which undermines a family ethic. They have sold out to what is largely a "pick and choose" consumer religion. He couples his reliance on evidence of decline in the mainline churches from standardized sociology of religion texts with chilling (and somewhat one-sided) anecdotes of mainline leadership's flirting with Sophia goddess worship or their promulgating a banal sexual ethics. "Perhaps the mainline churches will continue to exist. . . . but not as Christian. On the horizon, at least in some chic quarters, are blends of New Age religion that include rock crystals, channelling, earth goddess worship and Gnosticism, an ancient heresy that denied the biblical account of the life of Jesus and claimed that truth comes from within the individual" (207).

While he writes in a lively style (and shows sensitivity to the need for an authentic Christian social gospel), Reeves's approach is patterned on sociological studies such as Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney's American Mainline Religion (1987); Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman's One Nation Under God (1993); Robert Wuthnow's Christianity in the 21st Century (1993), and Wade Clark Roof's A Generation of Seekers (1993). Much the same story line was first announced thirty years ago by Dean Kelley in his Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1970) and fiercely defended by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their The Churching of America: 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1992): churches which maintain clear religious identity-markers, sustain tension with their surrounding culture, and exact a "cost of discipleship" grow in numbers; accommodating churches decline. Evangelical churches, by and large, have grown because they sustain orthodoxy, cultural tension and nurture clear communal identities.

Large enclaves of the more orthodox remain in the liberal churches. They resist conversion toward more orthodox evangelical congregations, Reeves claims, for reasons of class ("They are not our kind") and liturgical aesthetics ("Their style of prayer is just too low church and crassly emotional"). What can these orthodox enclaves do to renew the mainline churches? Reeves hopes for a take-over of the mainline churches to make them more "active, missionary minded, demanding, disciplined, distinctive" (209). Yet he knows such hopes rest on meager foundations and cites many who predict further drift and an eventual demise for liberal Christianity. Dean Kelley, for example, predicts a schism if the more orthodox try to take over the denominational leadership and seminaries in liberal churches.

Reeves might have had more reason to hope (and less reason to fixate on denominational executives) if he had mined more carefully a study he cites: Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens's Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers (1994). Hoge et al. look at Presbyterian baby-boomers (drop-outs, stay-putters, returnees to some church). What they find are lay-liberals who wear their denominational loyalties lightly and who are strongly individualistic in their spirituality. Clearly, a new religious landscape of seekers is out there (confronting Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline), more individualistic and consumer-oriented toward spirituality and religion.

Yet these baby boomers do return to churches, seeking from them religious education for their children and support for family life. Nor are they totally relativistic. Many join small prayer groups within churches for spiritual reassurance, nurturance, and a sense of community. Churches can exercise a strong biblical authority, yet still leave concrete applications to the congregants. Moreover, Hoge show, most baby-boomers identify with their local congregation, not with the denomination. In their view, the main flaw of the mainline churches and the cause of their decline was their inability to pass on their religion to the next generation. Clearly, strong religious education programs and the cultivation of vibrant communities needs to be foremost on the agenda for liberal Protestant churches. If they are to survive and flourish, liberal Protestant denominations may need to be revived, one authentic conversion and congregation at a time. But are they any different in this from evangelicals or Catholics -- or for that matter, the early church?


Reviewers in this issue:

Victor Anderson is a member of Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

John A. Coleman, S.J. holds the Charles Cassasa Chair in Social Values at Loyola-Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Ronald B. Flowers teaches religious studies at Texas Christian University.

Stephen R. Haynes is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College.

Dwight N. Hopkins teaches at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

Julian Kunnie is associate professor and acting director of African American Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Anne Lonergan is a staff member of the Centre for Ecology and Spirituality at Holy Cross, Port Burwell, Ontario.

Nancy Malone, long-time co-editor of Cross Currents, has just retired.

Paul Mojzes is academic dean at Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pa.

Shelley Schiff is managing editor of Cross Currents.

F. X. Quinn is a New York editor.

Dale Stover teaches Native American studies at the University of Nebraska.

James Treat, assistant director of the Native American Study Center at the University of New Mexico, teaches American studies.

Catherine Wessinger teaches religious studies at Loyola University, New Orleans.