Theo-cultural Amnesia

african lords supperIn response to my recent post, Disputing About the Body, one my friends commented, “you cannot separate theology from history.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  If theology can be characterised as ‘faith seeking understanding’, history is the study of that which has come to shape both the faith and the understanding of the one who is seeking it.  Both the historical and theological enterprise are shaping and defining endeavours and the one necessarily includes the other.  The historian who refuses to account for God loses the thread of meaning that ties all of history together and this results in its own perversions. History takes its full meaning only within the framework of Gods’ action in the affairs of men. For the moment however I will confine myself to the theological side of things. The theologian who fails to come to terms with his history, and the history of his community cannot truly do theology.  The term ‘his history’ is key here, because the theologizing task is not a disinterested study of whys and wherefores, but is an intensely personal endeavour wherein man and God stand, as it were, face to face in dialogue; a dialogue that necessarily includes all that is in, of, and about the past of the theologian.  It is an ongoing engagement and not an antiseptic analysis.  In fact, theology without this history collapses into ultimately meaningless philosophy; a fate I suspect far too often befalls both students and faculty of theology schools.

When the separation of theology from history is translated into preaching, pastoring, and liturgy, it begets all manner of deformities of practice and ultimately fails to address the real essence of the human person in his socio-historical, cultural and spiritual reality.  It is this failure that I term, ‘theo-cultural amnesia’; a term by which I intend to capture the notion that Gods’ action in the particular affairs of this that or the other cultural group has been forgotten.  This theo-cultural amnesia is particularly potent in religious communities that have, through choice or force, been alienated from their theological and historical heritage.  Such alienation occurred by choice in the case of American Evangelicalism, which is at least part of the reason for its current crisis, for Americans generally, in seeking to carve out their own way and new identity, have always disdained and dishonoured history.  Consequently the American church has been simultaneously innovative and faddish (which is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing), and is now increasingly becoming irrelevant to the population at large.

This alienation has been particularly pronounced in the Black American church which has, because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, been more or less forcibly cut off from its pre-American roots.  While there is an exceedingly rich legacy of theological engagement with the cultural realities of Black life in America, much of that legacy is handicapped by the lack of a pre-slavery historical consciousness on the part of Black peoples.  This is not to say that pre-slavery (i.e. African) cultural modes were entirely extinguished by slavery and racial oppression.  Certainly not.  There is still a substantial, though often unacknowledged and even unconscious, continuation of African cultural ‘DNA’ within the practices of the Black church.  What I mean to suggest is that most of the formal theologizing of the Black church is dominated by the discourses arising from the social, economic, and political consequences of slavery and post-slavery America.    This is true to a lesser extent in other post-colonial contexts where, at least from a Euro-Western perspective, the prime contributions to theology are ‘Liberationist’, a term that implicates the realities of colonial and neo-colonial political and economic systems.  However valuable this contribution to the global theological conversation, it is necessarily deficient because it is still theology done in the context of modern, Euro-Western frames of reference, albeit negative ones and does not deal effectively enough with the divine-human engagement prior to the European encounter.

The Black American case is worse though, for while Asian, African, and South American theologians still have access in most cases to their pre-European theo-cultural experience, Black Americans are almost entirely cut off from their own pre-slavery history.  Efforts to revive that connection have been limited mostly to secular academics and thus of little theological consequence.  Others, seeing Euro-Western Christianity as complicit in the destruction of African peoples and cultures, have rejected Christianity entirely as inimical to the interests of Black peoples and a barrier to cultural reconnection and have consequently embraced other religious / spiritual practices perceived to be more compatible with their Black identity.  Still others, the vast majority in fact, ignore the need for exploration of the connection, instead clinging to a very ‘Bible focused’ theology with roots no deeper than the modern era while continuing to half-embarrassedly retain some pre-slavery African derived and influenced cultural practices.  In other words, we’ll shout, jump, and dance, but lack the theological language and historical self-consciousness or cultural confidence to talk about it.  Those who attempt to do so often fail embarrassingly.

I will add that a similar dynamic seems to obtain within the Asian American church which is dominated by a very conservative Protestant theology that has left little room for extensive engagement with the history of the divine-human encounter in the Asian past, except to reject it as ungodly and idolatrous.  Unlike the Black church however, the existence and continual engagement with broad, diverse, and well established non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions means that the Asian American church cannot as easily import Asian cultural practices into the church without seeming to threaten compromise of the faith itself.  When the demands of culture do intrude, as with certain holiday observances,  the ‘culture’ is forced to stand alone, and separated from its full religious and philosophical foundations – such dichotomization itself a modern Euro-Western phenomenon foreign to Asian cultural consciousness.  So while the Black church exists in a theological universe where the Black man as homo-religiosus did not exist prior to slavery, the Asian American church lives with her religious past locked shamefully away as one would an elderly racist relative – invited to join the family during the holidays but forbidden from talking about certain topics.

So what are the consequences?  If, as Kwame Bediako (of blessed memory) says, conversion entails the ‘turning to Christ and turning over to Christ of all that is in us, about us, and round about us that has shaped us when Jesus meets us so that the elements of our cultural identity are brought within the orbit of discipleship’, then the conversion of Black Americans and Asian Americans may be said to be incomplete insofar as those churches live with an unconverted past.  The past cannot be turned over to Christ if that past is locked away as a relic of a shameful non-Christian past or if it is defined only in terms of the realities of slavery and post-slavery America.  It is no wonder then that Black churches and Asian American churches, while thriving in so many ways, have such struggles.  They exist theologically, without any history separable from the European encounter, thus leaving them adrift and consequently subject to the varied currents of contemporary culture and unable to effectively engage the onslaughts of post-modernity, ghetto nihilism, materialism, and cultural decay among others.  This is, as I’ve said, not unique to them for we see the same thing in the broader American church except in that case there seems to be a lack of awareness that there is anything in the past that needs converting.  The recognition that conversion is an ongoing process seems to be a lesson too frequently applied by Western theologians only to individuals and not to cultures, at least not to their own – as if the whole fabric of Euro-Western history and culture is intrinsically Christian and has thus already been turned to Christ. 

Practically speaking all of this leaves the church weaker than it might otherwise be.  To renew our strength it is necessary to seek for the old paths, to inquire more diligently into what it means that God… in ages past spoke to our ancestors through prophets, and that he speaks now to us through Christ.  What was the human – divine conversation and what does that conversation mean for us today?  Who were we, who are we, and where are we going?  If the Black church and the Asian American church in particular are to effectively fulfil their mandate of the declaration of the gospel, we cannot afford to ignore our histories and the lessons our ancestors have passed to us.

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

6 thoughts on “Theo-cultural Amnesia”

  1. This is a thought-provoking argument. Are there works on “the divine human encounter” in the African cultural context before European encounters that you’ve found helpful? I would love to hear more about what difference you think this could make in the Black church.

    1. There are none that come immediately to mind that I’ve read. I’m only just beginning to make the exploration and it is an ongoing project among African theologians. The legacy of William Wade Harris, a West African prophet in the early 19th century points at least to some of the ways in which the gospel message in its rawest form resonated with African peoples. The late Bediako in his seminal work, Theology and Identity, looks at parallels between the ways African theologians try to make sense of their own pre-Christian past and the efforts of some early church fathers to do the same (e.g. Clement of Alexandria). The Journal of African Christian Thought is probably a good place to start.

      As for the difference it would make to the Black church… well that’s a good question worthy of further exploration. Minimally though, I believe such a theological remembrance might begin to free the church from a cultural theological captivity to Western history. If we remember that God did speak to us as people before the slave encounter, then it means our identity as Black Christians can be defined in terms deeper and broader than that encounter — without therefore having to embrace other non- Black theological traditions (like Reformation Calvinism)

  2. Since the Nestorians have come and gone in China, and their orthodoxy was questionable anyway, for Chinese Christians a lot will depend on cultivating a certain ritual continuity with the classic standards upheld by the Confucian school and, perhaps, using some of the visual vocabulary of the old rites.

    1. I think I follow you, but it seems at least from my limited experience, that there is a deep aversion to anything ‘non-Christian’ in the Asian past, though more explicitly tied to Buddhism than to Confucian philosophy. The Confucianist ethic seems to continue to permeate at some level, familial relationships, but as I understand (and I readily admit my ignorance), the more ‘religious’ underpinnings of Chinese philosophy are thoroughly disdained by Chinese (and other) Asian Christians, at least overtly.

      1. A lot of work remains to be done to recognize what was valuable in the Chinese theological understanding and ritual experience of God. Especially in the first generations of any large-scale conversion of the heathen, we see an impulse to reject whatever looks like the old religion. Sometimes this is right, sometimes not, but the key is to analyse the issues critically without causing unnecessary offence or confusion to faithful Christians.

        In the history of the Book of Common Prayer in England, we see that the 1552 book draws back the greatest distance from the unreformed books, but it nevertheless retains the catholic doctrine of the Apostles and the spirit of the ancient liturgies. Over time, in 1559, 1604, and 1662, there is a bit of rebalancing and enrichment of the 1552 book, giving us the book that is still in force by act of Parliament.

        The worship of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and local deities has to go, indisputably. The worship of ancestors is quite analogous to the unreformed veneration of saints, and has likewise to be reformed in a way that satisfies the desire to honour parents and ancestors decently without making concessions to superstition. I have some ideas of my own, if they will be heard.

      2. Make sense and I think it gets at what I am trying to say in my post. Key to the whole enterprise though has to be a recognition that God was not absent in the pre-Christian past. This is a truth evident in scripture particularly as we see God’s involvement directly and indirectly in the affairs of nations such as Babylon and Persia be acknowledged by those pagan kings. In other words, despite their idolatries, there was an acknowledgement of the Highest God — a Supreme Being who, although linked to the Jews, was not seen as their exclusively property.

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