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The untold significance of African American spirituals

June 6, 2011 14 comments

I was prompted to write this short reflection after reading two very rich and insightful posts written by Sonja and Katie, two of my friends over at Women In Theology: and  I recommend reading these, if you have a chance.

The question on the table was how to evaluate the singing of so-called “ethnic” music–and, particularly, the spiritual songs of the African-American tradition–in predominantly “white” churches.  On the one hand, both Sonja and Katie suggest that this practice is often well-intentioned (i.e., motivated by a desire to respect and cultivate diversity in the body of Christ).  On the other hand, however, both argue that, in various ways, this practice can also be problematic, precisely to the extent that it does not address (and may even  support) the regnant power dynamics which are constitutive of racism,  white privilege, and white supremacy.  The take-away points for me are these: (1) singing supposedly non-white songs in churches that are mostly white is to be recommended only when combined with a rigorous ecclesial struggle against racism and (2) in the absence of such a struggle, this performance of multi-cultural worship is likely to entrench what it superficially appears to resist. 

I agree with these points.  I would, however, like to take a step back and think about the songs themselves.  The crucial question to me seems to be whether we are supposed to understand them more fundamentally as ethnic music (i.e., music belonging to and expressing the core of a particular culture or people) or rather as prayerful music (i.e., as music which, even in its particularity, potentially discloses something about the meaning or the stakes of prayer as such). 

Of course, the spirituals are both.  However, it strikes me that, because they are always and everywhere classified as the former, they are seldom recognized fully as the latter.  Decisions are made about them largely on the basis of their ethnic status.  This is the case not only among those who would use this status as a justification for excluding them from “mainstream” worship, but also among those who want to include and celebrate them for the sake of diversity.  Even those (like Sonja and Katie) who powerfully deconstruct these first two possibilities discuss the spirituals as though the decisive factor has to do with ethnicity (or culture or race): that is, with the way particular groups of people have been organized in history.    

This is no doubt an important locus of conversation!  Don’t get me wrong.  But it doesn’t get to the heart of the spirituals, which, like the psalms, are deeply revelatory of the mystery of prayer as such–in its historicity, its physicality, its beauty, its hope, its sorrow, its urgency, its power.  James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues brings out this essentially prayerful aspect of the spirituals, but I still think Cone prioritizes the ethnic or racial question in such a way that many readers are likely to overlook what they are actually saying.  It seems to me that those who first sang the spirituals were less interested in being black or in expressing their particular culture than they were in raising up their sufferings and their hopes to the almighty God.  I say this as someone who understands myself as black but also and more fundamentally as a human being who tries frequently (and sometimes unsucessfully) to pray.   

So let me propose that the first criterion for the use of the spirituals by anyone has to be a readiness for prayer. 

And yet, this is not the only important criterion.  Another criterion is certainly that racism must be resisted.  But I’m also inclined to assert that the power of racism takes root precisely in our society’s collective deafness to the more-than-ethnic significance of these songs.  It is as though, because people with darker skin first sung them, their meaning has to be defined thoroughly by the politics of skin color.  But this pervasive outlook implicitly takes something away from their ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing, sense.  Prayers which are worthy of the name will take place in a particular linguistic, social, bodily event of space and time, but they will also be able to mediate a posture of openness to God across the greatest geographical and temporal expanses.  They will be recognizable, translatable, always and everywhere pray-able.  Consider the psalms (again); consider Augustine’s Confessions (and let us not forget that this text was written by a north African); consider Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; consider any great classic of prayer.  Consider the spirituals.  In order to resist racism, it is necessary to let the spirituals be received as an important part of a general canon of Christian witness and devotion.  The dignity of those who first sang these songs is denied if this tradition is restricted to the status of cultural property.

No doubt, it is important to remember that those who composed and carried on the tradition of these beautiful lamentations and hymns have been treated for centuries as though they were less than human, as though they were unloved by God, and as–at best–a uniquely gifted but marginal (“ethnic,” “diverse,” “racial”) people.  In many ways, this unjust treatment continues today.  The awareness of these facts gives the spirituals additional poignancy and political significance, which more often than not probably goes unnoticed by many who, encountering them only rarely in the midst of a Sunday liturgy, are never prompted to stop and think about them in their original and contemporary contexts.  The solution to this, however, would seem to be to let their presence and their importance resound more powerfully and more frequently in the church as a whole.  The solution cannot be to lock them in a file to be used only when a certain percentage of blacks are around.  Such an approach merely underscores the status quo.  It devalues the spirituals.  It even invites African Americans to interpret the songs in a misleading way, as though they were to be valued as cultural elements existing alongside the catholic tradition rather than as integral features of it. 

If what so-called white churches need is a greater awareness of historical and ongoing racism, let us work to increase this; but what better place to start than by unpacking the significance of the spirituals (perhaps in a homily now and then . . .), and by incorporating them more robustly into mainstream liturgies everywhere? 

Do many people often feel awkward when singing these songs?  Yes.  But get over it.  Let it go.  Try to enter into the experience.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Step out of your comfort zone for a few seconds.  Use it as a chance to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity, not only with African Americans, but also with all those who, even though they pray, have not been respected in their humanity and have not been welcomed as the children of God that they are.  This will probably not come easy for some; it will be challenging.  But I see it as an indispensable part of our vocation as Christians: to allow ourselves to be enriched by prayers coming from all parts of the body of Christ.

Who has a right to sing these songs?  Only those who attempt to pray genuinely with them, to contemplate the depths of prayer which they vocalize, and–on the heels of this experience–seek greater justice and love in our still racially and ethnically torn world.

The end of historical theology

April 7, 2011 7 comments

To what end?  This is a question not heard often enough.  The ultimate aim of theology, I take it, must have something to do with the end as such, with the eschaton, with the reign of God.  Not that theology has the power to bring this about.  But theology, nevertheless, despite its somewhat astounding ineffectiveness, has to be oriented by this end, moved by it and toward it, if it is really going to live up to the name “theology.”  “Knowledge for its own sake” therefore does not suffice as a maxim.  Theology is not, in the end, about establishing a kingdom of knowledge but rather about seeking, through knowledge, to enter into, prepare for, remember, increase, participate in, or in some other way affirm the final victory of divine justice and love.  Have I, have you, forgotten this?–perhaps not, but I raise this question as a prompt for self-examination.   

However, the particular issue which I want to discuss at the moment is this: What difference should this end make to the labors of historical theology?  I should clarify that I believe that all theology is historical, at least insofar as it presupposes a careful analysis of texts–and, through them, events–that have come before.  But I am thinking in particular here of those areas of theology that are more self-consciously content with the study of (biblical or ecclesial) history–even though I by no means want to exclude, for instance, that field of more recent historical theology which often understands itself as “systematics.”  A few points come to mind:

1.) In addition to demonstrating knowledge of something in history (e.g., a document, a theologian, a movement, etc.), it seems necessary, at some point, to make the case that this work is relevant to the end of theology, the coming of the reign of God. 

2.) To make such a case, the blanket claim that scripture and tradition are normative, though certainly valid, does not suffice: more specific reflection is needed regarding the substance of the research in question and how it pertains to the end.  It has to be clear, in other words, why this particular matter warrants thorough retrieval. 

3.) A successful case will not be able to abstract itself from the present context of theology, whether this is understood as modernity, postmodernity, the underside of modernity, or some other contemporary situation.  The more adequately one makes sense of the difficulties, complexities, and possibilities of the present moment, the stronger the case will be that theology, and not merely history, is at work.

4.) To be sure, something like a division of labor seems inevitable; there will always be an unsynthesizable plurality of voices in the theological conversation; and every small contribution is to be welcomed.  At the same time, however, it seems important to assess the limits and the scope of  any such contribution–and perhaps consider, at times, whether more attention is needed elsewhere, for the sake of the end of theology.       

In sum: a study which interprets faithfully something of the past is a good thing.  But its significance as a work of theology, defined by the end of theology, will depend a great deal on the extent to which one is also able to clarify its value for the task of affirming the reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation.  Theology is defined by history only while at the same time being defined by the end of history.  I, therefore, declare a moratorium on all so-called “theology” which operates (whether explicitly or not) under the assumption that history suffices as theology. 

Too bold?  Perhaps not.

Notes on the Trinity

April 4, 2011 7 comments

Over the last few years I have made a few “mental notes” on the topic of the Trinity.  I share them here in case they are helpful or stimulating to others.  Eventually, perhaps, I will be able to develop these inchoate thoughts into a more compelling project or argument.  But for now, here they are: 

1.) The inappropriateness of appropriations.  Supreme knowledge and love are proper to the divine  nature.   But there is a long tradition in the West (from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Rahner, and beyond) according to which knowledge is “appropriated” to the Son/Word and love is “appropriated” to the Holy Spirit.  My question is this: what is the point of these appropriations?  Do they, in fact, clarify or illuminate anything?  I am inclined to be rather sceptical.  For where is compassion more clearly shown than in Jesus?  Where is wisdom to be found if not in the Holy Spirit?  I simply fail to see the point of suggesting that the knowledge/love distinction maps onto the relation between these two divine hypostases.  The only reason to insist on it seems to be that it could shore up the idea that the human mind (composed, in a unified way, of memory, intellect, and will) is constituted as an image of the Trinity.  But this brings me to my next point.

2.) The banality of the 3-in-1 structure.  It is not especially difficult to come up with examples of three things that are really one thing, at least if one is willing to let the rules of counting be somewhat flexible.  Memory, intellect, will; lover, beloved, love; wife, husband, and child; three leaves of a shamrock; etc.  If an image of the Trinity is going to be compelling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, it would seem to require more than a 3-in-1 structure.  One needs a sense of how each one of the three is like a particular divine person, along with a sense of how the one in which they are united is like the unity of God.  But then the question of an imago Trinitatis has to be fundamentally concerned with the determinate characteristics, relations, or manners-of-being of the triune God and, therefore, not primarily with the 3-in-1 puzzle.  Perhaps a case could be made that the Son/Word is more like knowledge and the Holy Spirit is more like love, but I don’t see how this can be done without implicitly deemphasizing the love which Jesus embodies or the knowledge which the Spirit grants.   

3.) The ambivalence of the economic/immanent distinction. The significance of this distinction differs depending on whether the question on the table is one of access or of positive doctrine.  Let me explain.  Any insight into the Trinity to which we have access in this finite, created, historical, and fallen world belongs to what is called the “economy,” that is, God’s action for us, the divine life ad extra.  Within the economy, God’s innermost nature remains unknown, incomprehensible, ineffable.  This is the constant theme of mystical theology, of the doctrine of analogy, of genuine Christian apophasis.   But this means that there is no access to the immanent Trinity as such but rather only to the Trinity as mediated by worldly conditions of knowing or thinking.  Hence, our access is wholly economic.  However, there is no implication here that the Trinity itself is only economic.  On the contrary!  As a question of positive doctrine, it is necessary to affirm that God is not absorbed by the world, realized only within it, or finally subjected to its laws.  In short, the distinction between economic and immanent is important to maintain as a teaching, even though we cannot abstract ourselves from the economy–which is to say, even though our only knowledge of the Trinity is mediated, worldly, dependent on God’s free external self-communication.  The recognition that the economy is the inescapable condition of our Trinitarian reflection is important.  It keeps one from thinking, falsely, that apart from a more narrow understanding of economy (limited to the images and stories in scripture) there would be some sort of access to the immanent Trinity (provided by conceptual notions of relation, etc.).  The latter are (epistemologically) no less economic than the former, and in fact become more and more questionable to the extent that they depart from or no longer interpret faithfully what is disclosed in scripture.

4.) Abstract and concrete sociality. That God is revealed as three persons in loving and self-giving relation provides the highest level of support to the idea of sociality (mutuality, reciprocity, intimacy-in-distinction, difference-as-communion, etc.).  However, it does not follow from this (admittedly important) point that any sort of specific understanding of proper relations among human persons should be derivable from reflections regarding the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit.  There will, in any case, be more difference than similarity in any analogy which might be drawn here.  But no less important is the fact that the relations among human beings are extraordinarily more diverse, if only because much more numerous, and this excess of complexity warrants careful attention.  The Trinitarian validation of the abstract ideal of sociality is not something to be taken for granted.  But the significance which the Trinity has for our concrete relationships depends, it seems to me, much more on the particular ways in which the triune God is encountered in the midst of these relationships  than it does on the mere fact that God is a unity of persons.

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Cornel West as prophet

March 30, 2011 3 comments

I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.

Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power.  It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world.  I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:


Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.