return to religion-online

I’ve Known Rivers: Black Theology’s Response to Process Theology

by Thandeka

Thandeka is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132. She is currently writing a book on Schleirmacher’s Dialektik.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 282-293, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


William R. Jones, Theodore Walker and Henry James Young share a worldview which is not readily apparent. This essay will identify their common vision and demonstrate that much of their vision cannot be interpreted by process categories. Most process theologians are unaware of this worldview. Reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, many process theologians seem to have said, "there is no there there." Nevertheless, this worldview poses a basic challenge to process theology. The goal of this paper is to demonstrate why this is the case.

The procedure of this essay is straightforward. This paper will analyze the arguments by Jones, Walker and Young in support of their contention that process theology’s current theodicy is inadequate. As will be seen, Jones, Walker and Young agree about the problem. They disagree about the solution. They agree with Whitehead that "When the description fails to include the ‘practice,’ the metaphysics is inadequate and requires revision" (PR 13/19). They disagree as to whether process metaphysics is sound enough to incorporate the revisions necessary to make process categories applicable to the lives of the oppressed.

Their conclusions diverge widely. Jones: Process theology is inept as a theology of liberation, It works at cross-purposes with liberation theology about 40 percent of the time. Walker: Process categories provide black liberation theology with a viable metaphysical foundation. Young: Certain process categories are useful in constructing a theology for Black liberation.

This paper will weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments presented in support of each conclusion. Internal inconsistencies plague some of these arguments. Nevertheless, all of the arguments presuppose a central shared vision. This paper will bring their shared vision into bold relief. By clearly delineating their world-view, this paper offers process theologians a ground for reevaluating the nature of their own ‘world-loyalty" (RM 59).

Seven years ago, John B. Cobb, Jr., suggested that process theologians needed external criticism from Black, political and Latin American theologians. Cobb hoped that such criticism would "force [process theologians] to further self-criticism" (PTPT 152). Seven years later, William Jones is amazed by how little in-depth self-criticism has come from such encounters. External criticism, it seems, is rarely welcomed, even when invited.

I

According to Theodore Walker, Black theology’s central challenge to process theology is that the God of the oppressed must be embraced as more inclusive than the God of all. In his essay, Walker throws down his gauntlet as a black liberation theologian and then picks it up as a process theologian. Walker’s attempt to harmonize these two roles fails.

Walker, as an African American theologian, argues that oppression, i.e., suffering, is the most fundamental fact of life for most of the world’s people. As a process theologian, he knows that process theology, if it is to be creditable, must identify oppression "as among the most important, if not the most important of the relevant empirical facts used to illuminate the value problems of personal and social life." Walker’s self-appointed task is to accomplish this.

Walker’s efforts are based on his belief that Hartshorne’s principles are entirely consistent with the agenda of black and liberation theologians. His article is an attempt to demonstrate why this is the case. Logically, his proofs are valid. The truth of his arguments, on the other hand, is dubious.

Walker, for instance, employs Hartshornean logic to prove that the God of the oppressed is more inclusive than any abstract vision of the God of all. Walker must prove this in order to support his claim that Hartshornean and black liberation theologies are absolutely compatible.

Employing Hartshornean logic, Walker proves that the concept of the God of the oppressed is more inclusive than any abstract vision of God. By Hartshornean definition, this is very easy to prove because the concrete is always more inclusive than a merely abstract notion. As Hartshorne readily acknowledges, the concrete state of a thing, i.e., its actuality, is always more than bare existence (MFA 329). Walker simply has to define the God of the oppressed as containing the contingent actuality of the real lives of the suffering masses. Walker then has only to define the God of all as a merely abstract, universal notion. So stipulated, the God of the oppressed is greater than the God of all. This conclusion follows directly from Hartshorne’s own principles of method.

But Walker’s definition of the God of all is clearly inadequate. The God of all can quite legitimately be thought of as the God who is constituted by the actuality of the oppressed and the oppressor. The God of all thus includes the actuality of both oppressor and oppressed. This God is clearly more inclusive than the God of the oppressed. This is the opposite of what Walker wishes to prove.

Further, by defining the God of all as an abstract, universal notion, Walker reduces the actuality of the oppressor to an abstract notion. If Walker did not do this, he would have to acknowledge the actuality of the God of the oppressor as well as that of the oppressed. To reaffirm the oppressor’s actuality, one must deconstruct Walker’s scheme. Otherwise, the oppressors of the world take on the lurking transparency of Ralph Ellision’s invisible man who mugs in the dead of night.

Walker further argues that the God of all is also the God embraced by African Americans throughout their religious history. As Walker points out, African American history affirms this. Walker nevertheless maintains that God must be understood, foremost, as the God of the oppressed, i.e., God desires the liberation of the oppressed. Walker turns to Hartshornean and biblical theism for evidence to support his claim. The brunt of Walker’s evidence falls upon his appeal to God as the God of all. According to Walker,

when God sacrifices some interests in favor of others, it is always for the sake of promoting the greatest liberty for all. Thus, while our perception may, on account of its limited scope, indicate otherwise; nonetheless, the truth is that God never fails to promote the greatest liberty for all.

But if God never fails to promote the greatest liberty for all, then God, by this argument is the God of all which is a God more inclusive than a God "simply" of the oppressed. This patently contradicts Walker’s intended conclusion. Nevertheless, this conclusion does follow from his premises.

The fault lies in Walker’s premises. They are too broad [e.g., "God experiences all experience."]. They allow for more than Walker’s one conclusion. Further, his entailment premises ["To suffer from oppression entails a desire to be liberated from such suffering," and "Being an oppressor entails a corrosion of one’s character and well being as well as that of one’s community"] are simply not true. All oppressed persons do not desire their freedom. Some, for instance, become sadomasochists.

What we end up with, if we hold fast to Walker’s Hartshornean, black liberation theology is an "in the by-and-by" theology. Freedom eventually, but not now. But as Jesse Jackson has said, justice delayed is justice denied. Walker, the process theologian might disagree. Walker the black liberation theologian must disagree. As such, Walker’s central challenge to process thought becomes his own theological struggle for coherence in a metaphysical scheme that denies what he affirms as fundamental to a black liberation theologian, i.e., that the most inclusive concept of God is the God of the oppressed.

Walker’s most basic error is that he fails to take into adequate account the partisanship undergirding Hartshorne’s metaphysical position. Hartshorne, himself, is very clear about the "personal element [that] stubbornly persists" in his philosophy (CSPM xiii).

In the preface to Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, Hartshorne celebrates "our English inheritance of critical caution and concern for clarity"; he seeks to learn more from Leibniz, "the most lucid metaphysician in the early modern period," as well as from Bergson, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Whitehead, "five philosophers of process of great genius and immense knowledge of the intellectual and spiritual resources of this century. Hartshorne also has a deep and abiding conviction "that idealism (here taking Ewing’s definition: the belief that reality can be explained in terms of the mind) has more to teach us than most contemporaries realize" (CSPM xiii).

This is a very different perspective from the one presented by the narrator of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula:

What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal -- for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental -- life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was askew -- only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as "natural" as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide -- it was beneath them. (S 77-78)

Morrison’s narrator is not an heir to European idealism. She does not believe that reality can be adequately grasped and explained by the mind. Her experiences have taught her that there is always something veiled, dusky, hidden, opaque, obdurate, and impervious to human knowledge. Her eyes are open to a worldview lurking beyond the grasp of the "enlightened" European mind.

Perhaps, John Cobb, Jr.’s burgeoning awareness of this more elusive world contributed to his "distress about the dominant intellectual climate of the contemporary world in general and its institutionalization in the university in particular" (RR

3). In his 1988 address to the American Academy of Religion, Cobb described his experience of 19 years ago, when

his eyes were opened to the fact that the modern world was destroying the Earth, that it was and is fundamentally anti-life. I could not, of course, deny my identity as a citizen of that modern world and a participant in it. But since 1969 that participation has ceased to be a source of satisfaction and has become a source of guilt. (RR 5-6)

Most African Americans could readily understand Cobb’s distress. As historian of religions Charles H. Long has pointed out, America has always presented a "bizarre reality" for the slaves and their progeny. While they were being shackled, beaten, sold, raped, and murdered, white men spoke of inalienable rights. The slaves’ lives were "a radical contradiction within the dominant culture itself" (SSI 177). The African American’s life was and inditement of the other’s world. This experience, Long argues, is the cornerstone of religious consciousness for African Americans.

The black community in America has confronted the reality of the historical situation as immutable, impenetrable, but this experience has not produced passivity; it has, rather, found expression as forms of the involuntary and transformative nature of the religious consciousness. (SSI 178)

Long calls the involuntary structure of this religious experience its opacity. The opacity of the African American’s religious symbol is buried deep in this religious consciousness. This involuntary structure must be deciphered in the context of the African American’s present experience. The "deciphering" of this symbol reveals a worldvision, very different from process models based on the adventures of ideas.

The African American’s worldview, like the world of the oppressed, is hard. As Long affirms, this world "often appeared as a stone."

This hardness of life was not the oppressor; the oppressor was the occasion for the experience but not the datum of the experience itself. . . . The matter of God is what is being experienced . . . . This god has evoked a new beat, a new rhythm, a new movement. It is a god that must be commensurate with both the agony of oppression and the freedom of all persons. (SSI 197-8)

The "matter of God" is hard. Impervious. Severe. Long’s reasoning is certainly in keeping with images of the angry God of Mt. Sinai. The wrath of this God is experienced. This God has hard edges. This God is not the source of the two "great" rational religions (Christianity and Buddhism) celebrated by Whitehead (RM 42).

Whitehead’s rejection of the Semitic concept of God is of interest here. This God is "completely outside metaphysical rationalization," and it is impossible to devise an adequate proof for such a God’s existence (RM 68). True. The God of the oppressed is not a God akin to the God of the ‘finer religions’ which Whitehead celebrates (PR 347/527).

Whitehead’s God (its consequent nature) does not combat productive force with productive force, or destructive force with destructive force. Rather this God’s role "lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization" (PR 346-526). Whitehead’s God has the manners of an English gentleman. The God of the oppressed has the hard-edged rage of random injustice, awesome power, inexplicable suffering and steadfast love.

The tension in Walker’s argument reveals the battle between these two incommensurable views. 2 This tension points to a vision at odds with the rationalism emphasized in much of process thought. Walker’s vision as an African American liberation theologian gives his essay its strength, and tears asunder his harmonious vision of Hartshornean idealism.

II

Henry James Young is acutely aware of the Eurocentric bent of Whitehead’s worldview. According to Young, Whitehead’s understanding of consciousness seems extrapolated from the cultural norms of "the white majority social group." Whitehead’s belief that reality is ultimately rational and that God saves the world through the overwhelming power of rationality ignores an element basic to Christian theology and is woefully inadequate as a liberation theology. Reason alone is not enough. "[W]e need to find viable models and social strategies for holding people accountable for perpetuating systemic oppression . . . . The immediate need is to move with unprecedented pace toward the transformation of social structures." Whitehead’s scheme provides neither a blueprint nor strategy for this transformation. Young concludes that Whitehead’s metaphysics "paves the way." It "points in the right direction." But it does not achieve its aim and finally must be left behind. "We must seek to push beyond [its] limitations."

According to Young, the good news about Whitehead’s theodicy is that God’s role has been reconceptualized. Now God functions in the world as a co-partner and co-creator with humanity. So conceived, God is not an immutable, unchangeable, divine overlord. Rather, God feels. God suffers the feelings of the oppressed.

God is an "infinite, caring, loving, redeeming, reconciling agency affecting social change in the world." One need no longer ascribe to God the "many forms of systematic suffering and social malfunctioning in the world which continue to oppress Black Americans, women, Africans, American Indians and other social groups . . . ." Theodicy no longer pertains solely to divine agency. Now, human agency must be taken into account.

For Young, the bad news is that Whitehead does not provide the means to appropriate, analyze and comment on the theological relevancy of this theodicy for the actual world. "In the realm of infinite possibility God overcomes suffering. But what does this mean in the here and now? Whitehead’s theodicy is missing an essential element: God’s transformative power. This power is "the result of salvation, regeneration and sanctification." This is an essential element if humans are to deal effectively with the problems of suffering.

Rationalism, by itself, will not save humanity. Faith is also essential for salvation and liberation. Whitehead’s worldview, Young believes, does not take faith into adequate account.

Young is interested in Whitehead’s worldview, because it is organic. As such, Whitehead’s philosophy has a deep and abiding affinity with both the African and Christian roots of African Americans. They integrate the spiritual and physical dimensions of life.

Young uses John S. Mbiti’s book, African Religions and Philosophy, to discuss the African roots of the religious consciousness of African Americans. Paraphrasing Mbiti, Young suggests

that because religion permeates all aspects of life in African society, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, the religious and non-religious, or the spiritual and the physical. (ARP 343)

According to Mbiti, "To be is to be religious." The entire universe is religious. Mbiti summarizes this traditional African worldview in the final chapter of his book.

It is religion, more than anything else, which colors their understanding of the universe and their empirical participation in that universe, making life a profoundly religious phenomenon. To be is to be religious in a religious universe. That is the philosophical understanding behind African myths, customs, traditions, beliefs, morals, actions, and social relationships. (ARP 343)

As Charles Long notes, the persistence of African elements in the African American community is a hotly debated issue.3 Long does not try to resolve the issue. Rather, Long reorients the inquiry. Like Mbiti, Long finds a structural unity underlying the diversity of African cultures and tradition. Long suggests that the common situation of the slave might have provided the means for "the persistence of an African style among the descendants of the Africans" (SSI 176). From this perspective, the issue is not what specific African elements survived the Middle Passage. Rather, the inquiry now concerns the way in which the African mode of religious consciousness, i.e., the African worldview, informed the worldview of African Americans. What are the primary elements which ordered and transformed reality for Black Americans (SSI 35)?

Young tugs at African roots. His liberation agenda is informed by Christian biblical theism and a worldview very different from the European constructs which inform Whitehead’s vision. For Young, "The integration of the spiritual and the material becomes essential for oppressed persons to attain a true sense of freedom." Young applauds Whitehead’s vision of freedom as something lodged within the very structure of each occasion in the world. This vision serves as "a viable point of departure for oppressed persons, suggesting that in the quest for liberation oppressed persons must claim their freedom." But Young’s vision peers deeper and carries him beyond the realm of Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Young notes that much of Whitehead’s metaphysics, like much of Christian theology, has imbibed platonic dualism. But reason alone cannot give an adequate account of evil. Human greed, pride, selfishness, self-centeredness, and alienation "make it necessary to combine faith and reason in the quest for transformation and reconciliation."

For Young, the great value of Whitehead’s "beautific vision" is that "it helps liberate us from our fixation on the immediacies of our particular existential plight. In other words, the panoramic vision of God is the big picture . . . . [S]uch a vision gives a new sense of hope, optimism and release."

Nevertheless, Whitehead’s panoramic vision is never available to finite individuals. "People can only see the light that comes from their respective paths." Young concludes that "we must find ways for our sense of the panoramic vision to have impact on the context of oppressed persons."

Young’s conclusion points to the heart of his criticism of Whitehead’s vision. Whitehead’s vision does not touch the immediate lives and needs of the oppressed. Its reach not only exceeds, but does not include the immediate material concerns of the oppressed. A theology of Black liberation, on the other hand, must integrate the spiritual and the material. It must attend directly to the liberation needs of African Americans. Such a theology must be site specific. It will have a panoramic vision, but one very different from Whitehead’s? The two visions are worlds apart. They cannot be brought together unless both are subsumed under a greater whole, i.e., a whole which consists of distinct experiences which cannot be adequately interpreted by one general scheme of ideas.’ Process metaphysics does not allow for this possibility, and in this regard, is radically monistic. Process metaphysicians wish to coherently, logically and adequately explain all possible experience by means of a very precise and specific scheme of things. This is problematic.6

In this regard, part of John B. Cobb, Jr.’s treatment of liberation theology in his book, Process Theology as Political Theology, is a case in point. Cobb puts himself in the position of judging when the liberation of the oppressed should have top priority and when it should not. He arrives at this standpoint by first claiming that the actual form and practice of liberation theology attends only to the concrete liberation of specific groups (PIPT vii-viii). Next, Cobb subsumes these concrete concerns under process categories. Cobb does this because of the "natural emphasis of process thought . . . on finding ways for all to grow together in freedom and richness of experience" (PTPT 149). Now, Cobb is in a position to make judgments about when the liberation of the oppressed is appropriate and when it is not. This strategy has dire consequences.

Cobb, for instance, has to affirm Whitehead’s position that the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire might well have been too high a price to pay. Most process theologians, Cobb suggests, are likely, reluctantly, to follow Whitehead in this judgment because their perspective is based on the "realism" of the actual viable alternatives confronting a society. Process theologians support the best of the imperfect options available. They are not willing "for the heavens to fall." Cobb concludes that it is "the task of the Christian imagination to generate visions of what is actually possible that can give realism to efforts guided by the passion for justice" (PTPT 151). For Cobb, this task falls to Christian, process theologians.

The basic error in Cobb’s reasoning is that he has used a worldview fundamentally in conflict with the worldview of the Roman slaves to determine the slaves’ plight. Cobb has failed to see that the worldview of the Romans (in this case, the best possible situation for all in their domain) and their slaves (immediate liberation for themselves no matter what the consequence to the dominant society) are incommensurable.

Cobb, inadvertently, has taken on the worldview of the Romans. He has done so by overriding the desire for liberation of the Roman slaves. As William Jones notes in his essay, "The Case for Black Humanism," "the overriding purpose of a theology of liberation is to exterminate oppression . . ." (CBH 225). Cobb, by overriding this purpose has taken on the worldview of the oppressor. Cobb has made this error because he has attempted to universalize a partisan standpoint to include all others.7

Elsewhere in his book, Cobb freely acknowledges the natural bias of process theology because most of its proponents are white, North American men (PTPT 15). But in the above example, Cobb fails to realize the extent to which the global view bequeathed to him by the white conquering world has given process thought a global view which tends to sublate and colonize the views of others. Cobb does acknowledge that "our task is to become aware of how we, as citizens, as theologians and as churches, share in sustaining and strengthening the structures of oppression and destruction which govern our world." This requires, Cobb freely acknowledges, "the politically self-critical stance that is essential to political theology" (PTPT 15). This also requires the reevaluation of a strategy that attempts to interpret all experience from one philosophic perspective. Otherwise, process theology risks imperializing the particularity of other standpoints under the flag of its own rationalism.

The point of this extended digression is that these worldviews are incommensurable. Cobb recognizes this in his criticism of John Hick’s efforts to find a neutral position different from all the received traditions (RR 10). Writes Cobb,

Apparently only the modern philosopher, standing aloof from all religious traditions, can point to the noumenal ground of these manifestations! For my part I fail to see the neutrality. Are not philosophies, in any case, as much caught up in relativity as are religious traditions? (RR 10)

Process theology often seems to seek the same "neutral position." The particularity of one position (process thought) is generalized and becomes a framework within which every element of experience can be interpreted.

The non-Western, non-biblical roots of African American liberation theology cannot be adequately interpreted within this framework. Whitehead’s vision and the vision of black liberation theology address separate realities. Each is a vision which has been universalized. The failure of process theologians to recognize and acknowledge these two irreducibly distinct and separate realities prevents them from doing the kind of internal self-criticism necessary for a truly pluralistic vision of the world. As Cobb freely acknowledges, solutions to global problems based only on the experience of white, North American men, "are unlikely to lead to the indivisible salvation of the whole world" (PTPT 153).

III

William Jones’ position is very clear. He is interested in the phenomenology of oppression and the criteria is necessary for its elimination. The one overriding purpose of a liberation theology is to eliminate oppression. (CBH 225) Accordingly, liberation theology establishes guidelines and patterns which must be given priority in theological construction. Jones uses these guidelines as a "grid" in order to evaluate process theology’s compatibility claims with liberation theology. He also uses internal criticisms to evaluate the overall theological health of process theology.

One major focus of Jones’ assessment centers on process theism with regard to process theodicy. The driving force of Jones’ assessment is his understanding of liberation theology as "an extended theodicy." Theodicy, according to Jones, is "the controlling category" for any theology which seeks to eradicate economic, social, and political oppression.

Jones’ assessment of process theology can be divided into four parts.

First. Process theodicy is inapplicable to ethnic suffering. Jones singles out suffering because it is inextricably interwoven with oppression. He argues that ethnic suffering is a problematic notion for process thought. Ethnic suffering "demands the accommodation of the maldistribution of suffering in particular groups. Process thought does not make a distinction between suffering endemic to the entire human race and suffering which is meted out by one ethnic group to another. This is problematic. If a theodicy wishes to address oppression, it is "severely limited in how it can treat suffering." Ethnic suffering must be included in any theodicy that claims compatibility with liberation theology. Process theodicy does not have adequate categories to delineate and discuss the nature of ethnic suffering. Process theodicy, accordingly, is not a liberation theology.

Second. Process theology does not align God with the oppressed. Rather, it aligns God with everyone. How is God’s alignment with the oppressed ranked in relationship to others? For Jones, process theology does not have an adequate answer.

Third. Process theology’s humanocentric theism in recent process thinkers makes a demonic God as equally probable as a good God. This theism gives humans co-determining power with God. This makes God aware of evil but humans responsible for it. God, in this scheme, chooses to be self-limited. By such metaphysical maneuverings, a demonic God is as equally probable as a good God. How do we know that God self-limits itself for good reason rather than ill? Only by a stipulative definition that God is good. Jones concludes that this is little more than question begging.

Fourth. Process theology removes moral clout from God. Once humanity is given the stature of moral creator, how can one continue to argue for God’s moral clout without begging the question? One can’t. Jones concludes that for many, the idea of God inevitably becomes meaningless.

Donald W. Sherburne would certainly agree with the last two of Jones’ four points. Sherburne has repeatedly challenged the soundness of the Whiteheadian concept of God. As Sherburne notes in his article "Whitehead, Categories and the Completion of the Copernican Revolution,"

it is inconceivable that a God drawn along the Whiteheadian lines, with a total grasp of the possibilities unfolding before the progressive advance into chaos and with a direct pipeline to the "ear" and "conscience" of each and every emerging actual entity, could not have found for the world a way around such unspeakable suffering [as that which occurred in the Holocaust]. (WCC 382)

Sherburne’s solution is to get rid of the baby but keep the bath water. He argues for a Whiteheadian cosmology without God. This cosmology is, nevertheless, in keeping with "the Whiteheadian existential stance . . . [which] is ultimately religious, buoyant, optimistic" (WCC 383).

Jones is in agreement with Sherburne that a God is not needed for an adequate metaphysical account of the world. Sherburne’s non-theistic stance is in keeping with the heart of Jones’ own position as a humanist theologian and his ongoing campaign "to justify humanism as an authentic expression of black religion" (CBH 217/8). Jones and Sherburne are certainly in agreement that Whitehead’s God should be retired.8

Jones, on the other hand, would also scuttle Whitehead’s theology. About 40 percent of it. On a scale of 1 to 10, Jones predicts that process theology will tally 6 points of compatibility with liberation theology’s gospel and mission of economic, social, and political liberation for the wretched of the earth. This score, Jones suggests, is in keeping with the social location of process theology’s advocates. Further, process theologians’ compatibility claims entail "an implicit apologetic" that it is not ensnared and blindsided by the values and interests of its own social location. Jones rejects such claims. Process theology, in spite of its claims to the contrary, is not very compatible with liberation theology and in fact often works at cross purposes to it.

According to Jones, there are two concepts essential for the maintenance needs of oppression. They are quietism and anti-powerism. The distinguished marks of quietism are conformity, accommodation and acquiescence. Quietism "is a refusal to reform the status quo, especially where traditional institutions and values are involved" (RLC 200). The logic of anti-powerism, on the other hand, is that power is evil. "To the degree that the oppressed accept the logic of anti-powerism . . . . they will regard their deficit of power as good and as necessary for their highest good" (RLC 209).

Jones promises, in future dialogues, to identify instances of either quietism or anti-powerism which he has found in the works of process theologians. Hopefully, Jones will examine the implications of (1.) Whitehead’s celebration of "the element of quietism" in rational religions (RM 42), and (2.) Whitehead’s depiction of the stock of general ideas in Christianity as an outstanding evolutionary victory of "the development of the races of Northern Europe" (RM 34).

Jones’ worldview also takes into account the African theological roots of the African American religious experience. His overall agenda for a black liberation theology is informed by this vision. According to Jones,

1. Indigenous African sources have not been considered as primary theological materials by the major African American theologians. These sources should be examined and taken into account. (CBH 218)

2. Liberation theology "is obliged" to provide African American theologians with the guidelines for theological construction. (CBH 225)

3. Black religion should not be equated with black theism (regardless of the form of theism expressed). (CBH 222/3)

In constructing a black liberation theology, Jones’ vision returns him, in the words of poet Langston Hughes, to "rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

Jones, Walker, and Young affirm the importance of African sources in any adequate construction of a black liberation theology. According to Walker, "Traditional and ancient African religions are resources which are essential to black theology." These three theologians are not advocating a simple return to African traditional religion. Rather, each is acknowledging the role of African religion in his worldview. Nevertheless, Jones correctly suggests that the grid of oppression must also be used to assess these African religious sources. This worldview must be informed by the immediate liberation needs of African Americans today.

The integrity of the worldview of these three theologians prevents much of it from being broken down and subsumed under process categories. Their worldview has the integrity of the hard-edged hope of the oppressed. This hope is not idealized or polite. It is not an adventure of ideas. Rather, their worldview is the pathway of a people moving toward liberation. To the extent that process theologians understand this, they will be forced to acknowledge the partisan nature of their own metaphysical claims. This acknowledgment should bring forth a reevaluation of the implicit paternalism that allows process theologians to maintain a comfortable intellectual separation from the lived experiences of the oppressed.

 

References

ARP -- John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970.

CBH -- William R. Jones. "The Case for Black Humanism." Black Theology II. Ed. Calvin E. Bruce and William R. Jones. Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 1978.

CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. La Salle, IL: Open University Publishing, 1970.

MFA -- Charles Hartshorne. "What Did Anselm Discover?" The Many-Faced Argument. Ed. John Hick and Arthur C. McGill. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967.

PTPT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Process Theology as Political Theology. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982.

RLC -- William R. Jones. "The Religious Legitimation of Counter-violence; Insights from Latin American Liberation Theology." The Terrible Meek: Religion and Revolution in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Lonnie D. Kliever. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987.

RR -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "Responses to Relativism: Common Ground, Deconstruction and Reconstruction." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, IL, November 19-22, 1988.

S -- Toni Morrison. Sula. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.

SSI -- Charles H. Long. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

WCC -- Donald W. Sherburne. "Whitehead, Categories, and the Completion of the Copernican Revolution." The Monist 66:3 (1983).

 

Notes

1I am grateful to Professor Donald Provence of San Francisco State University for helpful discussion with regard to Walker’s premises.

2Charles Long’s statement concerning the conflict with theologies of the oppressed is of interest here. According to Long, the theologies of the oppressed "do not wish to claim simple ethnic goals or superiority; they do not wish to be another and obverse example of racism and exclusiveness. In every case, the claim of these theologies is more than an accusation regarding the actions and behavior of the oppressive cultures; it goes to the heart of the issue. It is an accusation regarding the world view, thought structures, the theory of knowledge, and so on, of the oppressors. The accusation is not simply of bad acts but, more important, of bad faith and bad knowledge. It is indeed a battle of theology" (SSI 194).

3Concerning this, Charles Long writes, "The issue of she persistence of African elements in the black community is a hotly debated issue. On the one hand, we have the positions of E. Franklin Frazier and W. E. B. DuBois, emphasizing the lack of any significant persisting elements of Africanism in America . . . [B]ut even a protagonist for the loss of all Africanisms, such as E. Franklin Frazier, acknowledges the persistence of "shout songs," African rhythm, and dance in American culture. Frazier, and in this matter, DuBois, while acknowledging such elements did not see these elements of ultimate significance, for they could not see these forms playing an important role in the social cohesion of the black community" (S 175).

4Traditional African religions, as Mbiti has noted, are not universal. They are always tribal or national, "Each religion is bound and limited to the people among whom it has evolved . . . . Each society has its own religious system, and the propagation of such a complete system would involve propagating the entire life of the people concerned" (ARP 5).

5 Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, God is Red (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973, 78), is very clear about the need for a new vision and understanding of the task at hand. Writes Deloria: "The world . . . is not a global village so much as a series of non-homogeneous pockets of identity that must be thrust into eventual conflict, because they represent different arrangements of emotional energy. What these pockets of energy will produce, how they will understand themselves, and what mini-movements will emerge from them are among the unanswered questions of our time. If we believe that religion has a presence in human societies in any fundamental sense, then we can no longer speak of universal religions in the customary manner. Rather we must be prepared to confront religion and religions activities in new and novel ways." [emphasis added]

6Thomas H. Graves recognizes this problem in his essay, "A Critique of Process theodicy from an African Perspective" [Process Studies 17:2 (Summer 1988)]. Graves rightly notes the "irrelevance and incongruence of the values of Western theodicies in relation to the traditional cultures of southern Africa," Graves calls for "a heightened sensitivity in the future development of process theodicy so that the needs and worldview of the third-world citizen might not he ignored." My paper has a slightly different emphasis. I am suggesting that process theologians give up belief, now and in the future, in the universal applicability of their worldview. Only then can process theologians approach the ‘world-loyalty’ claims of others with appropriate modesty, respect, and openness.

7As Juan Luis Segundo notes in his book, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, New York: 1976, 25), "Every hermeneutic entails conscious or unconscious partisanship. It is partisan in its viewpoint even when it believes itself to be neutral and tries to act that way."

8With wonderful wit, Sherburne comments on God’s retirement in "Whitehead. Categories, and the Completion of the Copernican Revolution": "As a true British liberal . . . [Whitehead] cannot accept unemployment as a policy, even at the level of deity . . . . In rummaging around in the system, Whitehead turns up a few odd jobs for God -- a metaphysical WPA program. I suppose that is all right on a temporary basis -- after all, railroads kept firemen on the job long after engines went diesel. It is now getting to be time, however, to recognize that it is not only possible, but philosophically desirable, to philosophize in the Whiteheadian mode without falling back on the notion of God" (WCC 379).

9Taken from the poem by Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" [The Negro Caravan, eds., Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, Ulysses Lee (New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1970), 367]. The first lines of this poem are:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Viewed 7568 times.