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date: 19 October 2020


Abstract and Keywords

As an academically informed enterprise, African American theology began in the late 1960s when African American scholars and progressive pastors sought to shape the religious nature and meaning of social transformation in the wake of the major successes of the civil rights movement. African American theology—which includes black theology and womanist theology—arose as a theological and religious response to injustice. It revolved around epistemologies, ontologies, and other ideas that were meant to speak theologically to the lived experience of African Americans. This book explores sources, doctrines, internal debates, current challenges, and future prospects concerning African American theology. It discusses the Christian tradition, scripture, culture / cultural production, African American history, and African American experience in relation to African American theology, along with doctrines of God, Christology, womanist theology as a corrective to black theology, the importance of embodiment in African American theology, the nature and meaning of liberation, ontological blackness as the marker of African American identity, and the meaning of globalization for African American theology’s concern with economic justice.

Keywords: African American theology, black theology, womanist theology, African Americans, Christology, embodiment, liberation, ontological blackness, African American identity, globalization

African American theology as an academically informed enterprise began in the late 1960s through the effort of African American scholars and progressive pastors to shape the religious nature and meaning of social transformation in the years after major successes of the civil rights movement. Ministers and academics took a public stand against injustice and demanded a re-envisioning of life in the United States that took seriously the humanity of African Americans—and they found no contradiction between this demand for material advancement and the demands of the Gospel of Christ. From a New York Times piece proclaiming a “Black Theology” as the proper theological and religious response to injustice, to the formulation of an academic theological discourse based on the high and low points of the civil rights movement, African American theology as a theology of liberation gained voice and public attention.1

It went from a somewhat informal articulation of theological claims that were relatively isolated to the community of the like-minded—that is, African Americans committed to a shared agenda marked by the particular concerns of African Americans—to a systematic articulation of justice in light of religious sensibilities and a (albeit weak) social theory expressed to the world. It shifted from a primary home within religious organizations to being grounded within the structures of the academy, with trained scholars (many with church affiliations) in charge of developing and articulating its major points. Now African American theology reads the Bible and the Christian tradition through a lens of radical social change.

African American theology revolved around epistemologies, ontologies, and so on, each meant to speak theologically to the lived experience of African Americans.2 It meant to alter the prevailing theological anthropology that positioned African Americans as “less than....” In order to do this, African American theology drew from past conversations (e.g., civil rights theology) to represent African Americans (p. 2) through imago Dei and tied to this a scripturally expressed commitment on the part of God to the transformation of social arrangements in light of this creation in the image of God. “Whiteness” became the grand narrative of oppression that had to be exposed and dismantled, and it was argued scripture, the true Christian tradition, and the cultural worlds of African Americans provided the tools for doing so.

In some instances this theology involved a blending of the social gospel orientation of figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., with the social analysis and critique of those like Malcolm X.3 What resulted was a demand to rethink the nature and meaning of blackness over against a sense of white supremacy that had fueled religious trauma tied to political-social and economic inequality. To accomplish this, certain theological categories were put aside, and others—in particular a “blackened” Christology—were highlighted as framing the very meaning of both God’s demand for justice and the importance of black humanity.4 The cultural heritage of African Americans was drawn into this work as a way of expressing the manner in which human imagination and creativity speak to the large and pressing issues of black existence in a country preoccupied with “whiteness.” Religion, culture, history, experience, and sacred texts also framed the doing of black theology of liberation and in this way grounded theological analysis and discourse not in the abstractions of faith but in the world.

Inspired by social gospel theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American theology—in its two incarnations—developed into a modality of constructive theology whereby the primary consideration is the earthy impact of theology on pressing social issues. And, with this done in a way that privileges the integrity of human life over doctrine and creed, it has at times run afoul of religious (particularly conservative) communities.5 Yet what some consider a healthy tension between a need to privilege justice and at least a mild interest in religious tradition has marked much of this discourse. The downside of this approach, however, is clear: those outside Christian communities (even Muslims and practitioners of African-derived traditions, for example, lay outside the typically recognized content of religious community for many of these theologians) have often been marginal to the normative structures of this discourse.

From the first generation of these thinkers—including an array of theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Major Jones; ethicists such as Peter Paris and Preston Williams; historians like Gayraud Wilmore; philosophers such as William Jones; as well as ministers such as Albert Cleage—black theology grew to include at least two, depending on how one counts, additional generations of scholars/ministers committed to the basic framework of a theologized social agenda. These new generations have maintained a similar agenda, theological vocabulary, and grammar, but have fine-tuned certain dimensions of the discourse.6 Examples of this include a push to theologically recognize the religious pluralism that has always marked African American communities, including the theologizing of humanism and/or atheism as intrinsic to African American experience. Furthermore, the effort initiated early in the development of black theology to engage other modalities of liberation theology for the sake of global solidarity was further advanced by those Cone and others (p. 3) trained. That is to say, while the first generation of scholars working on the black theology project outlined its basic structure and commitments, those following them (typically trained by them) refined this work without, in most cases, radical departures from its primary parameters. Yet there was a difficulty: the scholars tended to be men, and the work did not extend far beyond race and racism.

While this theology did heavy lifting with respect to public discourse on race, it cast the dilemma and the solution in terms of an unchallenged masculinity and maleness as normative humanity—the proper lens by means of which to view life. Much of this could have been anticipated in that the theological frameworks used were drawn from the training received by this first generation—training taking place within cultural worlds that privileged men.

Their theological models—Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr among others—grew out of a deep suspicion concerning human conduct, but also a sense of hopefulness that humans could do better based upon the presence of a caring and capable God. The actors working in the world upon which they based this assessment were overwhelming men—the political figures, the economic leaders. This is not to say women weren’t in positions of power, but there lingered something of the cult of domesticity that clouded the capacities and perceptions of women. At best, black theologians attempted some sensitivity by suggesting that addressing race as the dominant modality of injustice in North America would produce an environment in which other forms of injustice—vaguely defined in most cases—would have to fall. In short, get race together first.

Although places like Union Theological Seminary in New York City produced women doing liberative work from within the African American tradition, black theology through the 1970s lacked sustained response to issues beyond the socioeconomic, political, psychological, and religious impact of racism. Like the Church, Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Cannon, and Delores Williams pointed out, black theology failed to recognize the complexities of life within the United States, and truncated the nature and meaning of oppression—rendering it synonymous (only) with racism.7

Drawing from literature and other forms of cultural production by African American women, Grant, Cannon, Williams, and others reread the Bible and the Christian tradition in such a way as to recover the voices and perspectives of women—without which a sense of injustice and liberation are at best incomplete. Taking the name of this new approach to theologizing from Alice Walker’s theory of the womanist, these scholars pushed for a more complex sense of African American religious experience, theological discourse, and ethical conduct that measured out the many ways in which African Americans are dehumanized—by sexism, racism, class, and more recently in terms of sexuality and environmental destruction.8

Women trained within the context of this early, academic black theological discourse provided much-needed alterations. Simply asserting a different existential arrangement of life, however, was not sufficient to turn this critique into alternate theological programs and projects. Doing so also involved the incorporation of preferred theoretical and methodological tools that made possible a healthy handling of (p. 4) selected source materials. Much of this theoretical grounding is drawn from Walker, whose presentation of the womanist provided different centering points for anthropology, distinct framing of social theory, and a more robust and diverse sense of ethics. Sources were used in ways that focused attention on alternate positioning of theological categories—for example, a rethinking of Christology—and new moral and ethical tools of conduct (and methodology) drawn from black women. In making these moves, womanist scholarship has been able to also expose with greater clarity and detail the “web of oppression” afflicting us.

This challenge to the metanarrative of race surfaced for the careful reader and listener a more robust theory of oppression—a sense of oppression as weblike in nature—as well as an alternate epistemology of oppression. Noteworthy in this process has been increased attention to the need for African American theology to involve a synergy of disciplines that allow the theologian to add nuance and complexity to her work by engaging research outside theology, and for that matter, outside religious studies more generally. This framework opened a way to continuously integrate theological work so as to be sensitive to the layered nature of suffering. African American theology—its form and content—has needed to evolve in order to speak a word of transformation to African Americans encountering the harshness of life in so many different and interconnected ways.

Greater and more explicit attention to postmodern thought has also served to expand both black and womanist theologies with regard to issues of sexuality, embodiment, globalization, and the dynamics of sociopolitical and economic formations. For example, explicit and implicit appeal to Michel Foucault has lent energy to issues of sexuality and embodiment, with greater complexity and in ways that challenge old notions of the subject, transcendence, and liberation among other core categories framing African American theology. The pragmatic sensibilities of others—for example, Cornel West—have helped refine theories of and engagement with history, and in this way force African American theology to move beyond romanticization of particular strategies of struggle against injustice as well as uncritical perceptions of the role of religion in the world.

This is all to say that African American theology—black and womanist theologies—has matured over the years. Its structure and content has shifted to reflect the changing existential arrangements of life for African Americans. With such changes, participants in the construction of African American theology have periodically stepped back to reflect on the work done.

Volume Structure

Self-evaluation in the form of reflection and introspection has taken place, and one finds it in published form in a variety of ways. For example, this is certainly one way (p. 5) of reading Cone’s intellectual autobiography or his Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968–1998 (2000). Or J. Deotis Roberts’s review of his contributions to black theology’s development in the form of Black Religion and Black Theology: The Collected Essays of J. Deotis Roberts (2003). More recently, theologians from the second and third generations of black and womanist theologies have contributed to this moment of introspection through a variety of Festschrift-styled volumes and other publications reflecting on the work of the first generation. We have in mind, for instance Michael Battles’s The Quest for Liberation and Reconciliation: Essays in Honor of J. Deotis Roberts (2005) and Dwight Hopkins’s Black Faith and Public Talk: Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power” (2007).9

In addition, Stacey Floyd-Thomas’s publication, Deeper Shades of Purple, and Layli Phillips’s Womanist Reader provide similar reflections on the development of womanist discourse. These projects and others like them by second-generation theologians are palimpsestic in nature, but the work of first-generation theologians not only bleeds through, but also tends to shape the tone and texture of more recent writings. The challenge entailed by this situation involves the meaning and practice of introspection—too many assumptions continue and through the years are given the weight of certainty, of “truth.” Such reified thought can be difficult to alter, in spite of good intentions. Introspection, in this way, can morph into celebration and the safeguarding of tradition.

The reflective work up to this point has been highly descriptive. However, what is necessary in this historical era is an interrogation of African American theology—a self-evaluation and internal critique that lays out its structure, content, and logic, with an eye toward its future. This approach is consistent with the stated demands of African American theology.

Mindful of this need for critical engagement, this volume surveys the academic content of African American theology by highlighting in five sections, its (I) sources; (II) doctrines; (III) internal debates; (IV) current challenges; (V) future prospects, in order to present key topics related to the wider palette of black religion in a sustained scholarly format.

Every effort was made to include both Protestant and Catholic contributors so as to represent a rich sense of how the Christian faith is expressed in this discourse. In addition, we have included thinkers from outside the Christian faith who are sensitive to Africa-derived orientation as well as nontheistic orientations. Hence, both the topics covered and the range of contributors foster a volume that is layered and representative. Readers will discover that some of the essays provide more contextual information than others, and some provide more general attention to the theological, philosophical, and historical context for black and womanist theologies than others. This should not be understood as a problem, but rather as a necessity—a reflection of the manner in which African American theology borrows heavily from a larger tradition, but also that African American theology has initiated new directions and dimensions of theological (p. 6) inquiry. Furthermore, some of the topics within the volume required contributors to address the interdisciplinary nature of African American theology by, on some occasions, highlighting a discussion of those disciplines informing it and in other instances foregrounding the very nature of this interdisciplinarity. The goal, however, remains consistent across the essays: to provide a thick and rich description of the nature and meaning of African American theology. Finally, what we offer in this introduction provides a sense of what these sections contain and what they are meant to accomplish.

Section I

The first section describes the sources used in the development of African American theology. These eight essays constituting the lead-off division of this handbook give attention to the Christian tradition, scripture, culture/cultural production, African American history, and African American experience. In addition, however, our sense of African American theology also points to the application in both explicit and implicit ways of other categories that seem foundational to this theological discourse. In presenting these other categories—reason, theory, and methodology—the volume points out the manner in which the “how” of African American theology develops over time, and in conversation with other discourses concerned with what we know, how we know it, and how we articulate such meaningful knowledge. Some might argue these three categories better fit elsewhere in the volume, but we understand them to serve as source materials for many in African American theology. That is to say, reason, theory, and methodology do not simply constitute tools, but rather our reading of African American theology suggests they also represent the “material” used to develop this theology.

In addition, they have another function as well; hence, presenting these other three categories—reason, theory, and methodology—within the section on sources also points out the changing posture toward theological inquiry over the course of generational shifts from the first generation—for example, James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Katie Cannon, and Delores Williams—to more recent scholars who maintain something of the original commitment to theological inquiry premised on pressing issues of social justice, but who seek to further unpack the assumptions and fine-tune the processes by means of which African American theology is conceptualized and actualized. Through these eight categories we do not assume we capture all the various layers of source material and basic framing for the doing of African American theology; rather, we see these descriptive essays as presenting some of the foundational considerations that have informed this mode of theological discourse.

(p. 7) Section II

The second section presents major theological categories and concerns that define this modality of theological discourse. While they have had varying degrees of importance over the course of the contemporary presentation of African American theology, they all seem to figure into its basic vocabulary and grammar. There are eleven essays in this section that move from doctrine of God to Christology, which has often been considered the basic look of African American theology: it is in significant ways an extended articulation of the contemporary significant of the “Christ Event.” From these categories, African American theology has found a way of talking about other key dimensions of theology. The second coming of Christ (the eschaton) is related to the restoration of human flourishing marked out by righteousness and justice. Salvation, primarily as a matter of social transformation over against personal spiritual renewal, draws from the commitment of God to the well-being of humanity and demands the mechanics of the Christ Event as God’s “yes” to human flourishing called salvation. In this volume, salvation is treated as synonymous to liberation and social transformation. For many African American theologians, salvation in some ways resembles what Martin Luther King, Jr., understood as the Beloved Community. In certain ways, there is some overlap between the notion of salvation and that of liberation as used by African American theologians—both black liberationist and womanist theologians. As salvation is typically addressed as a corporate reality, so are evil and sin. That is to say, they are connected to moral misconduct involving the participation in various forms of injustice as opposed to notions of personal shortcomings one might find in church doctrines and creeds—for example, premarital sex and adultery.

Humans have an obligation to help bring about transformation, and for some African American theologians the Holy Spirit plays a role in gaining the insight and capacity to struggle for liberation. Heaven and hell are played out in African American theology, as the essay addressing these categories suggests; but they are not understood primarily in a literal sense. The former—heaven—more typically has something to do with transformed mundane life, and the latter representing the experience of injustice. This all takes place within the context of material life—within the basic parameters of the world.

African American theology has not been particularly clear with respect to how the world has come about, or for that matter the creation of humanity. Yet, it is safe to say, a literal reading of biblical creation accounts does not work within the context of this theological discourse. It does not seem opposed to evolution, although this explanation is not explicitly addressed by most, but there is a sense there is a divine spark or logic undergirding the unfolding of the world and the production of human life. The basic community for many, but certainly not all African American theologians, in which all of this theologizing is worked out, remains the Church. And (p. 8) this organization—its mechanics, intent, and capacities—has received attention (not always critical) from African American theologians.

Section III

The seven essays making up the third section highlight some of the more significant developments within African American theology, developments that challenge many of the assumptions made by African American theologians with respect to source materials and theological categories outlined in sections I and II.

While womanist theology is instrumental and discussed in the first two sections, we wanted to give it more explicit and careful attention in this section. We do this because it is a mode of African American theologizing, but also there are ways in which it has functioned as a corrective to black theology. This complexity needs to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, while most African American theologians work from an assumption of theism, from the 1970s moving forward the usefulness of this assumption has been tested and challenged. That is to say, this section also points out the ways in which African American theology has involved attention to nontheistic modes of meaning making and the emergence of a godless mode of theologizing not restricted to the “Death of God Theology.” Another advancement over the past few decades has been greater attention to bodies and embodiment as the “space” in and out of which African American theology emerges. Therefore, this section gives attention to both the importance of embodiment in the doing of African American theology, as well as the possibility of African American theology as an embodied theology.

Related to this issue of embodied bodies, the growing attention to issues of sex and sexuality is serving to reshape African American theology in important ways—ways that not only change the nature and meaning of liberation but also allow for the emergence of an African American theology that addresses explicitly the voices of gay and lesbian African Americans. Such expansion of African American theology is not limited to these issues; there has also been a strong and important challenge to the Christian bias of much of this theologizing. Hence, we give attention in one of the essays to religious pluralism (but without a turn to atheism) as theological discourse—being sensitive to the decades’ call for greater consideration of the diverse religious landscape of African American communities. Finally, while African American theology has involved scholarly conversation, it has also begged two important questions over the years: who is the audience for this work and how do we teach the concerns and findings of African American theology?

(p. 9) Section IV

The fourth section, composed of six essays, explores some of the more significant areas requiring continued attention. From its effort to think about social transformation without sustained attention to social theory, to the assumption of ontological blackness as the marker of African American identity, to the meaning of globalization for African American theology’s concern with economic justice, this section points out some of the holes in African American theology’s structure, while also noting ways in which these shortcomings are being addressed. In addition, other identity issues are brought into play through attention to what it means for African American theology to understand the hemispheric nature of the realities it seeks to address, as well as the basic question of how Africa and African-ness figure into the self-description of African American theology.

Section V

The final section presents new directions in African American theology. These are not challenges as presented in sections III and IV, but rather new and emerging areas of interest. For example, does the growth of the prosperity gospel alter African American theology in significant ways? In raising this question, the volume offers readers an opportunity to wrestle with the nature and meaning of the prosperity gospel over against the self-description of the purpose and function of the gospel message presented by many African American theologians. This section also explores more concretely the sense of public life or the public arena assumed within much African American theology as the proper arena for religious organization and theological discourse. That is to say, how and where does African American theology do its best work, and what is the public function of religious organizations, if they have one? We believe the shifts and changes within African American theology, in part stimulated by the changing nature of religion within the United States, also push for greater clarity concerning culture and the cultural context for this form of theologizing. So this topic is addressed. The three essays in this section do not provide all there is to say concerning future directions for African American theology, but they do provide readers with at least a rough sense of how its growth has nurtured a new range of questions and issues.

Purpose of the Handbook

By means of these five sections it is not our goal to provide attention to every category, every topic, and every theme that has surfaced in African American theology (p. 10) over the years. Based on a thematic and topical structure, this handbook provides scholars and advanced students detailed description, analysis, and constructive discussions concerning African American theology.

When this volume is taken as a whole, the nature, structures, functions, and purposes of African American theology—black and womanist theologies—become clearer. And the complexities—including a Protestant orientation and a Catholic orientation—involved in forging a new theological discourse can be better appreciated. While African American theology still remains somewhat “marginal,” it is a recognized dimension of the religious landscape of the United States and is addressed as such by both African American thinkers and Euro-American thinkers alike. Its vocabulary has become part of the general makeup of theological discourse in the United States, and its proponents have held major positions within the professional societies associated with the study of religion in the United States. But it is a theological story centuries in the making and still in process. It’s an ongoing effort to make theological sense of the world and what it contains—a story that requires ongoing and careful attention.

Our effort to tell this story, at this particular stage of its development, has been possible only with a great deal of help from a variety of people. Although it is common to include these remarks in a separate section titled “Acknowledgments,” we want to end the introduction with an expression of gratitude as our way of indicating how central to the conceptualization and production of this volume was the assistance and encouragement we received over the years it took to bring this volume together.

We begin by thanking our editor, Theo Calderara, for his patience and good humor as the length of time necessary for completion of the project continued to grow. We would also like to thank our students who helped with a variety of tasks necessary to bring this volume to completion. Of these many students, we must express particular appreciation for the work done by Christopher Driscoll to make certain the manuscript was properly formatted and consistent with Oxford University Press style requirements. As always, we both have friends and colleagues without whom this project would have been more difficult to complete and less rich. Among them, of course, are the contributors to the volume. Finally, we offer special gratitude to those who paved the way, who provided the initial efforts that now constitute this robust discourse.


(1) . See the documents in James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966–1979 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), parts 1–2.

(2) . See, for example, Cheryl Sanders, “Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5, no. 2 (1989): 83–112. Monica Coleman has recently published a volume based on an alternate perspective on womanist thought and womanist identity that for many is deeply problematic: Ain’t I a Womanist Too? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

(3) . Examples include James H. Cone, Martin, Malcolm, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992); J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

(4) . James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986) is a prime example, an early articulation of this structure. This strong attention to Christology filtered through African American experience is also present in Jacquelyn Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) and Kelly Brown Douglas’s The Black Christ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993). It’s important to recognize that Cone served as dissertation advisor for both Grant and Douglas.

(5) . See James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1980–1992 (Maryknoll, NY: 1992), part 2.

(6) . For a sense of this development, see, for instance, Dwight Hopkins, Introducing Black Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999); Hopkins, Heart and Head: Black Theology—Past, Present, and Future (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Anthony Pinn, Liberation Theologies in the United States: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2010), chapters 12; Diana L. Hayes and Cyprian Davis, Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

(7) . Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993); Grant, White Women’s Christ; Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Altanta: Scholars Press, 1989). For general introductions to womanist thought see Stephanie Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002); Stacey Floyd-Thomas, ed., Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, and Angela Sims, eds., Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011); Layli Phillips, A Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2006).

(8) . Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (New York: Harvest, 1983).

(9) . James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of Black Theology of Liberation, 1968–1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); J. Deotis Roberts, Black Religion, Black Theology: The Collected Essays of J. Deotis Roberts, ed. David Emmanuel Goatley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003); Michael Battles, ed. The Quest for Liberation and Reconciliation: Essays in Honor of J. Deotis Roberts (Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005); Dwight Hopkins, ed., Black Faith and Public Talk: Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).