Inspired by C. E. Moore‘s review of The Decline of African American Theology, I wrote this essay. I’ve posted just the first three pages below. A non-printable pdf of the essay is here.
The Decline of African American Theology
Pamela Hood, PhD
San Francisco State University
I just read a terrific review of Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology. I definitely will get a copy of the book. Sight unseen, three significant things about the topic and Anyabwile’s findings, or at least his thesis stand out.
First, it should be clear by now that even with the presidential election of a constitutional law professor, one worthy of teaching at the University of Chicago, the US is still deep in the grips of anti-intellectualism. I cannot express adequately the heartbreak this causes me. And, no, I’m not being melodramatic. This is not hyperbole.
I started to read several books on the topic of American anti-intellectualism. I had to stop. I was becoming morbidly depressed. The only things that snapped me out of it were my job and my students. Somewhere in America people did care about thinking, if not doing it professionally, at least doing it for large chunks of time throughout the school day and beyond.
As a sign of how desperate I am, I actually exclaimed in my Plato and Aristotle seminar that I longed for William F. Buckley. The one student old enough to know who Buckley was couldn’t help but laugh. You see, I grew up thinking. One of my favorite activities from my pre-teen years onward was to watch Buckley’s Firing Line. I watched it religiously. I watch You Tube clips of it still. For me that show was the equivalent of roller derby (which I also loved watching) and wrestling (which I didn’t enjoy watching). Later, when I was 8 or so and learned how to play chess, I’d imagine Buckley as various chess pieces.
Everything would be going along swimmingly for his opponent and then, WHAM! Black knight stomps on the hapless White Queen. Buckley’s ferocious intellect was not used in service of cheap and tawdry “gotcha” politics and what masquerades as commentary today. Mostly, I disagreed with Buckley’s views. But wow! I loved to see the guy make mincemeat of his opponent. Perhaps my recollections here are too pugilistic. Fine. I heartily enjoyed Buckley pushing and probing his interlocutor. Testing him (and they were nearly all “him’s”), challenging him to go to the end of the interlocutor’s thesis. I never got the sense that Buckley would oppose a view, simply “because”. Show him a good reason, show him the reasoning behind something, show him that the view leads to something consistent with his closely held principles and values, show him something that was in addition to these, good and just. I have no doubt that Buckley would have been a co-signer right then and there.
The problem from the opponents’ perspective (or mine) was that this rarely, if ever, happened on Firing Line. If you want to see perhaps the sole final checkmate against Buckley, check out the magnificent video of his 1965 debate at Cambridge University with James Baldwin. The topic of the debate was “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro”. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Why the preamble about Buckley? I affirm the Nicene Creed. I also affirm the genuine gift of human thought. I also recognize that with this gift comes the responsibility to nurture the gift and to use it for my own good and the good of others. In short, it is because I am a “thinking theist” that I am so disheartened by the paucity of thinking persons in public fora. This includes the Christian church.
One only needs to browse quickly through the holdings at any reputable seminary library or university library to realize that there has been not only a decline in African American theology, there has been a decline in American theology in general. And, to come full circle: there’s simply been a decline in thinking in America.
Name any early Church Father; yes, I’ll even let you include the borderline heretical cases. Any one of them could mop the floor with any televangelist of the past 50 years. Maybe that’s not saying much. But I would also submit that they could obliterate most every pastor — black, red, yellow, pink, cerise, whatever — in America today. (I thought about swapping out “obliterate” for “eviscerate” but decided it was too graphic. You nevertheless can tell where this is going.)
Who among the pastors today could possibly match the sheer knowledge of philosophy and theology that Augustine had? Or Origen? Or Clement? The power of the Word they preached was fueled by logos in all its dimensions. The Logos as Lord, but also the logos as thought, argument, account, and reason. The image I frequently offer my Religion classes is that of a character I call “Bible Bob”. This may or may not be his real name. Bible Bob was a guy who came on to the SFSU campus back in the late 80′s and early 90′s (at least) carrying a huge Bible and a plastic milk crate. He’d set up shop in the main quad and he’d let ‘er rip!
I would try to imagine Augustine approaching Bible Bob and attempting to converse with him. I never had the idea that Bible Bob and Augustine would soon begin shouting at each other. My imaginary meeting always ended in one of two ways. Augustine would leave poor Bible Bob stammering as Bob grabbed his milk crate pulpit and ran off campus. The other was a vision of Augustine slowly walking away, shaking his head in disbelief and sorrow. Why? Because one could not intelligently engage Bible Bob. There’s not much hope of having a conversation with someone whose best punch is to scream Scripture, and nothing much more, at you.
I bring Bible Bob up in class to make three points: 1) I’m a thinking theist; I am not Bible Bob. 2) If your essays are filled with nothing but Oprahisms or Scripture verses be prepared to flunk this class. 3) If all you can do is to rant against Oprahisms, trivialize religious belief, or mock religious scriptures, you should also be prepared to flunk the class. It is a philosophy class after all. So while non-theists or non-religious believers in the class needn’t be afraid of engaging critically the phenomena of religious belief for fear of “hurting my feelings”, neither should the religious believers think they’ve got a free pass to blather on about how Jesus helped them find their lost cat or how Jesus saved their mother from breast cancer.
Again and again I say to them: I could care less about what you feel or believe. I only care about what you think.
The point I am making, in an admittedly long-winded way, is quite simple: We are in the grip of a severe case of anti-intellectualism. It is no wonder, then, that there has been a decline in theological thinking.