Most white philosophers of religion generally presume that philosophy of religion is based on what is a false universality; whereby the white/Western experience is paradigmatic of humanity at-large. The fact remains that Howard Thurman, James H. Cone and William R. Jones, among others, have produced a substantial amount of theological work quite worthy of consideration by philosophers of religion. Yet this corpus of thought is not reflected in the scholarly literature that constitutes the main body of philosophy of religion. Neglect and ignorance of African American Studies is widespread in the academy. By including chapters on Thurman, Cone and Jones, the present book functions as a corrective to this scholarly lacuna.
The context for this chapter is a debate on the Russell Crowe’s cinematic production of Noah and the presentation of Noah as a white man. The overriding question in this chapter becomes, does the substitution of a “Black” Noah address an omission in history or does it provide an alternative religious legend? Answering this question is a concern respecting the Noah/Flood account and its locus as history or legend. If it is located as legend it follows that it makes no significant historical difference that Noah is either Black or white. Noah’s race would be the stuff of legendary account and not historical accuracy. The cinematic presentation, in turn, could not be viewed as a documentary account but rather as an artistic expression of literary license. However, if it is presumed to be a historical matter—whether Noah is Black or white—there is a need for justifying such an assumption. Such a justification would also include establishing the status of the Bible as a historical text.
Furthermore, if the Noah/flood story is historically true, does it not follow that God is responsible for genocide? Given the presumptions about God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good then the responsibility for initiating the flood is an act of God and hence God is responsible for genocide. The philosophical question before us becomes: what philosophical difference does a Black Noah make when we are faced with the reality of divine genocide?
In this chapter, our prime objective is to demonstrate the legitimacy and validity of Jones’s locus within Black liberation theology. I am to clarify how Jones’s contributions—as philosophical theologian—to Black liberation theology indeed transgressed and accordingly transformed the conventional boundaries of Black liberation theology. To speak in more colloquial terms, we contend that Jones was not only a player in the game but he also proved to be a major, if not the major, game changer. In his pioneering text, Is God a White Racist? (igwr) Jones radically and decisively surveyed the burgeoning landscape of Black liberation theology (blt). With respect to blt, Jones unabashedly opined, “Its own practitioners were still unclear about what it entailed for theologizing and even less clear about how to translate its theological theory into concrete strategies for economic, social, and political (esp) reconstruction.”
In the aftermath of the publication of Jones’ provocative text, nearly everyone—in the ranks of Black theology—responded to igwr with less than enthusiastic acceptance. The pervasively lukewarm reception, to put it mildly, that accompanied igwr was in large part due to the fact that Jones (in his deliberations on blt) not only elected to abstain from Christian-centric theology but also subjected conventional Christian theological categories, methodologies, and doctrines to sharp critique; even in view of the fact, these neoteric efforts were generally presumed as oppositional to the racist white (Christian) theology. Jones, himself, was a stern critic of what he termed as “mis-religion” and even characterized racist white Christian theology as “Whiteanity.”
It is important to note, Jones’ critique of “mis-religion” was not singularly focused on “Whiteanity.” In Jones’ view, all theological beliefs, values, and attitudes, even those that serve as groundwork for Black Christian theology—that is to say theologies within the conventional blt boundary lines—were also open to rational assessment and critical self-inspection. The embrace of Black theology as such was not a sufficient condition to declare that one had reached the objective of constructing a liberatory viewpoint capable of overturning oppression.
Although we embarked in chapter one on the question of our method of investigation and in chapter seven with William R. Jones’s locus within Black liberation theology—along with our corresponding philosophical assessment of Jones—it is crucially important in this chapter to return to this vital question of method as it pertains to Jones’s critique.Jones’s vaccine/antitoxin approach to Black liberation theology accents that his method is prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. By that we mean Jones is not content on outlining (describing) the historical development of Black theology and thus assuming that Black theology as it has been traditionally practice has sufficiently served as an approach to Black liberation. Such an interpretation of Black Christian theology generally presumes that Black Christian theologians, ministers, and churches have historically been beacons for Black liberation. In light of what he views as significant impediments toward the development of a theology of Black liberation, Jones seeks an alternative to the varied traditions of Black Christian theology and this particularly includes Christian proponents of Black liberation theology.
We are also concerned with the clarification of theoretical concepts and their repercussions for Black liberation, yet our concern goes beyond the scope of theology. Hence, we offer an external (ideological) critique of Jones as well as concerning the general thrust of Black Christian liberation theology; this is particularly so with regard to Black liberation theology’s attempts at establishing itself as a kind of political project.1 We think the transition from theology to politics is problematic and it is beset with a number of conceptual pitfalls. The primary conceptual pitfall is the translation of theological concepts into economic and socio-political categories.
The conclusion is a summary treatment of the text as a whole. The conclusion provides a summary by way of articulating what is the big picture the grounds our conversation. In sum, the big picture frames why our conversation is an important aspect to comprehending the need for a philosophical evaluation of Christian beliefs. Consideration of Christianity as a belief system from a philosophical perspective, we think, is the beginning of expanding the scope of our vision as to where and how Christianity fits within the broader structure and framework of the African American experience and its future development. In sum, it helps us answer the question, what value does Christianity have for African Americans?
In the third chapter, we are in conversation with the works of the theologian and philosopher, Howard Thurman. Our tasks are framed within the context of philosophy of religion, with a particular eye on disclosing the methodological problems associated with Thurman’s historical reconstruction of Jesus and his teachings. Because Thurman works through a myriad of biblical and extra-biblical sources, we examine how he views the personhood of Jesus in his full humanity, as religious organizer; thus leading a social yet principally spiritual movement among the oppressed Jewish people. An integral component of this task is explicating Thurman’s conception of religion and its relationship to Christianity—as it ought to be—where prescriptive Christianity is the spiritual reflection on the teachings set forth by the historical Jesus.
Thus the primary task in this chapter is a philosophical appraisal of Thurman’s investigation into the subject of the historical Jesus and its implications for the meaning that we can attain for grasping what he views as the substance and scope of Christianity. This viewpoint on the substance and scope of Christianity goes against the norm as found in many churches both white and African American. Therefore, when we refer to Thurman’s concept of Christianity we employ the term prescriptive Christianity to distinguish it from conventional descriptive Christianity, i.e. the description of how we find Christianity to be in most Black churches today or the practice of the predominantly existent Christianity.
Our notion of prescriptive Christianity is normative in content and this is because in Thurman’s view this is what Christianity ought to be. It should be grounded in the presupposition that the historical Jesus (and his teachings) constitute the substance of Christianity. What Thurman often refers to as the religion of Jesus contra religion about Jesus.Consequently, we submit Thurman’s prescriptive Christianity takes on a different view from that found in today’s conventional Christian perspectives. What is especially noteworthy—with regard to Thurman—is how the Judaism of Jesus becomes pivotal to the conception of Christianity. We think there is a considerable distance between Thurman’s approach to the historical Jesus and what James Cone presents to us. Thus, when reading chapters three and four, the reader will discover contrasting theologies in play. Thurman thinks it is important to do away with metaphysical, mythological, theological assumptions found classically in Christian thought. Cone, on the other hand, remains more in the classical tradition. Jesus of Christian faith is more prominent in Cone’s theology.
We began our last chapter with the observation that Cone’s thesis—the Old Testament is a history book—is indicative of a long held African American tradition. For a considerable number of years there has been an African American tradition that upholds the Bible as a history book; the persons engaged in it sought to write history books in accordance with Biblical Scripture. In fact, this African American tradition included both the Old and New Testaments as primary historical sources for grasping Black history as biblically ingrained. Although historians have studied this tradition with some depth, philosophers have paid scant attention.
Our critical review of the African American tradition is not just a stroll along memory lane, or another work on demonstrating that Black thinkers in the past were actively engaged in writing history. Instead, our sights are set on doing a critique within the domain of the philosophy of history. The very concept of history and history book is our point of departure. Consequently, we do not presume that inquiry into the past is synonymous with conducting historical research or carrying out the writing or interpretation of history. Given the overall presumptive context, the astute reader is no doubt aware that this exploration is in many respects a continuation of our last chapter. Here we are expanding from one person—James H. Cone—to the broader African American tradition about the Bible as history book on which Cone stands.
The fourth chapter in our conversation is a philosophical critique of the African American presupposition that Biblical Scripture is a historical text. James Cone argues that what we have with the Old Testament is a history book, which documents the struggles of the Israelites to gain their liberation from oppression. Cone neglects to distinguish between the factual character of history books and the fictive makeup of the mythic text that constitute the Old Testament. With regard to the presupposition at hand, our critique encompasses two crucial issues. One issue, in effect, centers on what forms the essential nature of theological claims vis-à-vis the substance of historical claims. We explicate why this distinction is a necessary conceptual divide, which subsequently has an immediate ontological as well as epistemological impact on our understanding of history. By ontological, we mean what is the reality behind what we call history or the historical record. And by epistemological impact, we are asking how do we know when we have knowledge of history. On the one hand, historical claims bring to light, the ancillary problem of how to conceptualize history, with respect to the requisite criteria for disciplinary inquiry. The erection of mandatory criteria for the writing and research of history, in its strictly disciplinary character, facilitates our establishing the ontological (real) contours for specifying, what is history in contrast to other modes of dealing with the past.
On the other hand, our examination of theological claims is concretely attentive to theological claims on history. Here we scrutinize the epistemological implications that are attendant with how theological presuppositions come to influence the manner by which we achieve (or fail to accomplish) the stage of comprehension, which amounts to identifying when we have obtained knowledge of history. With the aid of an epistemological (knowledge based) framework for history, we are able to recognize that all interpretations and viewpoints (inclusive of theological claims) on the past are not necessarily knowledge of it. Wherein knowledge is a state of cognition, which follows from the reconstructed past state of affairs; assembled from research based on empirically reliable sources and sequential verification.
Our other focal point of discussion includes evaluating the import of mythic and historical texts, which involves their respective purposes as dissimilar genre. From the standpoint of the particular genre of text, the interpretation of the past is conducted along the lines of specified measures. In demarcating how specific genres are relevant to historical interpretation, we undertake to explain why fictive accounts of the past (such as those found in biblical mythic texts) are vitally unlike the process ancillary with texts shaped from the historical reconstruction of past events or sources on which to build an interpretation. We submit the Bible belongs to the former—fictive accounts—and not the latter grouping.
It may seem curious to some that an argument rejecting philosophers and philosophy would be found in Biblical Scripture. How can philosophy ‘spoil’ a good Christian? In fact, how can we determine what is a good Christian? Perhaps philosophy is a viable intellectual tool for making such a determination. Now assuming that we can answer such a question—the matter what is a good Christian—what are the dangers that are inherent in philosophical thinking to Christian thought? Are not Christian beliefs open to public examination? Should not Christian thinking offer rational justification for its core beliefs? Indeed, asking such questions is a philosophical mode of inquiry. Asking questions is essential to effective communication.
Successful communication in conversations about African Americans and Christianity mandates grasping how method of presentation relating to our ideas and beliefs are firmly based on our method of investigation. In turn, many of our underlining assumptions and presuppositions are also linked to our method of investigation. Method of investigation involves the issue of how we go about the process of finding answers to our questions. In other words, it concerns us with the procedures and criteria for carrying out the search for knowledge. It follows that our definition of knowledge—the subfield of philosophy called epistemology—is crucially a matter of what we embrace as underlining assumptions and presuppositions.