The Liberation of White Theology

by Frederick Herzog

Dr. Herzog was professor of systematic theology at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, at the time this article was written.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 20, 1974, pp. 316-319. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Protestant theology has largely stood aside from peoples who are outcast, downtrodden, humiliated. It has served the rich, the successful, the property owners. So people who could not afford an enterprise called theology see it as "white theology" standing against them.

Protestant theology in the U.S. has entered 1974 in a strange new mood. There is on the one hand breastbeating and cynicism: nothing important in store for ‘74; on the other an inexplicable resolution: we shall not be moved -- in the status quo. The word is that theologians don’t trust themselves anymore and have abdicated leadership in society. "A foreigner," said Martin E. Marty, "could visit America and, unless he moved in the culture of Sunday morning or entered the enclaves of the revivalists, he would not recognize that a way of life was being challenged or even addressed."

Journalists have lately been writing about the Watergate syndrome in almost apocalyptic terms: as not merely the worst political disaster in U.S. history but also the nemesis of U.S. world power and effective leadership in government at home. Some have voiced surprise that church and theology have not been more loudly critical. But it is not so surprising. Only he can be truly critical of others who first is critical of himself. That stance is not very common in present-day Protestantism. If it were, we might be more wary as to where we are going in church and society. We are dealing with more than the Watergate crisis. The last quarter of the century, futurists say, will be a time of much turbulence. There will be recessions, possibly even a depression -- worldwide; government will become more centralized; today’s energy czar might be the forerunner of tomorrow’s federal economic czar. In any case, 1984 is only ten years away.

There is frighteningly little understanding of what is really at stake. Why? Because of a hardening of the heart or a blinding of the eyes? That explains only a minor part of our obtuseness. In theology we need not weep and wail or do penance in sackcloth and ashes, but anguish would well behoove us. At least, it is in a mood of anguish that I shall try to point to a few failures of nerve -- some of them my own -- in the crisis of our day. I shall point to nemesis, to inevitable destruction. On its present course some of Protestant theology might just self-destruct. Not in five seconds. But who cannot see destruction looming on the horizon -- unless there be change?

The Self-Critique Blind Spot

In the New York Times Book Review of October 14, 1973, Harvey Cox discusses Hannah Tillich’s recollections of her late husband (From Time to Time [Stein & Day, 1973]), and Rollo May’s account of his friendship with the theologian (Paulus [Harper & Row, 1973]). Cox’s piece is -- what can one say but ‘panegyric"? And why shouldn’t it be that? De mortuis nihil nisi bonum -- Of the dead let only good be said. But do these two books contain only good? Is it altogether faithful to say, as Cox does, that they "conjure the figure of a huge man, in presence if not in stature, who lived his life devotedly, even compulsively at times, on all the frightening boundaries of modern life"? Could Tillich himself have been happy with this eulogy?

Some things in the books explain to me my inability to use Tillich’s theology fruitfully in the clash between black and white in the south. Tillich began his work as a religious socialist early in his life. He withstood oppression in Hitler’s Germany. He himself became a victim of oppression. This needs to be acknowledged; it tells of greatness. But for a goodly while now I have been wondering why a segment of American Protestantism -- partly informed by Tillich -- cannot grasp the anger of blacks at being used as objects. Now I find some pieces of the puzzle falling into place, thanks to Hannah Tillich. She writes that she and Paul, not thinking at all "in economic, political, or social terms," once "dared to go to a show" in a Harlem basement. "A nude Negress painted gold, having danced with a Negro twice her size, leaned her body against a post and masturbated . . while her former partner and another girl unmistakably performed the acts of intimate sex. The performance "did not seem vulgar . . . It was filled with the natural vivacity of these beautiful people." Harvey Cox would have us genuflect before this sort of thing. He experiences these two books as "a. benediction." My concern here is not Hannah Tillich; she belongs to a generation almost past. And I, like her, am in the hands of Him who bids us not judge lest we be judged. My concern is Harvey Cox in our generation. Why cannot he exercise his self-critical lights? If he says that it’s all a matter of honesty, the answer is: Fine; but it’s also a question of what your ultimate passion is. Does not the New Testament make us mindful of our body as temple of the Holy Spirit? Is there not a difference between coveting the Spirit’s benediction and the benediction of these two books? Can we no longer appeal to St. Paul, for whom discipline of the body was courageous refusal to let others and oneself become objects? Why adopt the Kleenex mentality that casually discards the sex object after its use? The games people play. . . why must we so frantically try to play along?

The Book Obsession

Of course there are those who realize that things cannot go on this way. The pundits allow as to how a new book might save us from our dilemma -- some day (cf. The Christian Century, January 2-9. 1974, p. 15). There you have the genius of Protestantism: it’s a book-religion. We’re not saved by works, but by words-in-print. The most recent salvation by words-in-print comes in the flights into the Third World -- as though there weren’t enough and too much "benign neglect" of the pressing communal needs at home. Not one of the social problems the ‘60s posed for theology has been solved. Our life was never holistically shaped, with the personal and the corporate as one. Hugo Assmann pleads: "Don’t turn us [of the Third World] into consumer goods to make good some deficiency of your own! Don’t become spectators of the little we are able to accomplish and don’t impose some compensatory image on [us] . . . let each of us commit himself resolutely in his own situation to the common struggle!" Our theological difficulties are as great as those of the Third World -- or greater. But we don’t seem to mind. We keep on writing as though the, old book-model were still in power. The center of power has shifted, though: words-in-print still have to communicate, and, effective theological communication demands a praxiology. The book alone has lost its power. Not: the text is the message; rather: the context is the message. It’s not the book as manuscript that counts, but the book as praxis. And that book will take hard research. The integrity of research will not be surrendered. Only we need to ask to which subject theological research will be given. The greatest theologian the church ever had, Jesus of Nazareth, never published a book, and yet what a book he wrote in praxis! It takes an artist’s mind to grasp the point. Vincent van Gogh puts it well when he calls Christ "the great artist . . . whose spoken words, which . . . he did not even deign to write down, are one of the highest peaks, the highest in fact ever reached by art." As we seek the spirit of the divine artist we may hope to communicate again a little of theology. But it will take theology as praxiology -- that is, the praxiology of solidarity with human need -- to make theology come alive once more. Unless theology begins also with the sharecropper and benefits also the sharecropper, not just the shopper, it’s nothing but a heap of words. The games people play . . . It is the Spirit that makes alive; the letter killeth.

The Apostasy Kick

My caveat against salvation-by-the-book is mostly caused by the widespread attempts to engineer consent to "benign neglect" of liberation. The off-color story, for example, becomes more important than the substantive issue. We generally approach one another in theology as though everything were O.K. in this respect. Don’t we notice that we have reached the status confessionis? A lot is being sold under the label Christianity that is actually the desertion of the Christian faith, nothing less than apostasy. Insofar as it still appears under the label Christian, it has to be understood as counterfeit Christianity.

Much of counterfeit Christianity banks on the fact that heresy-hunting has fallen into disrepute. No one wants to accuse others of bad faith. Part of the problem is that there is no longer any serious unfaith around for someone to take seriously. And who today would want to do battle over homo-ousion?

The really tricky thing is that, now that the very idea of heresy is improper, radical desertions of the Christian faith are taking place and we don’t seem to notice. The tricky dimension is rendered even trickier by seemingly innocent off-color verbiage, which tries to sell the surrogate for the real thing. Let me illustrate with a quotation from Robert F. Neale (The Theology of Play, by Jürgen Moltmann et. al. [Harper & Row, 1972]):

A contemporary cartoon pictures Jesus on the cross. Tortured, ridiculed, abandoned. A broken human being. A broken God. . . . Mary Magdalene steps forward to comfort him with caresses. She succeeds and a foretaste of the resurrection occurs. Jesus the Christ has a visible erection. . . What sign of God’s presence would we prefer to experience at the point of death -- laughter, singing or an erection? And which do you think he would be most inclined to offer? Maybe we should ask him. He would answer us seriously and playfully [pp. 85 ff.].

The enthronement of sex dethrones Christus Rex. How can Neale’s Christ rule as King? Is not Christ on the cross suffering the dark night of the soul because of oppression? And does he not also seek there to overcome oppression in suffering? Nothing else counts -- except that the night of suffering is turned from death to life.

The Staying Power Failure

What with the self-critique blind spot, the book obsession and the apostasy kick, it stands to reason that there is little perseverance in the things of the standing and falling of the church, stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. "Religion in America seems to be a game played by innings," says Martin F. Marty. And the ball park changes from inning to inning. The setting is never the same.

We are often told that in the ‘60s the church learned a social lesson it won’t forget in the ‘70s. I hope that is true. But take almost any neighborhood church. There are small groups, prayer cells, ecclesiolae in ecclesia; but real passion to make the streams of social justice roll? Is it not back to God and Adam Smith? What was really at stake in the ‘60s was a new vision of human selfhood as corporate selfhood -- not identification with success but solidarity with the poor. Yet, as Martin Marty asks, ‘how many movement people knew well even one black, one ghetto resident, one member of the Appalachian poor?" Marty nails down the core theological issue: that you are not just the advocate of the poor, but their friend; and more, that they are your life, and that their cause is your cause. This simple insight loomed on the horizon in the ‘60s, but the idealism and enthusiasm of the church’s New Frontiersmen soon waned. Where have all the clergy gone?

There are exceptions, but few and far between. To get to know one black, one ghetto dweller, one American Indian, one Chicano, one member of the Appalachian poor, and also one prisoner, one exploited woman, one inmate of a mental hospital -- that is still a top priority on the agenda of theology. Only in this way will it grasp its responsibility for the aged and hospitalized and thus also for the healthy and wealthy, the high and the mighty. Theology can no longer be done apart from the oppressed. Apart from the oppressed it is belletristic. I believe it was Adolf Harnack who shelved theology books among the novels in his library. Among the novels is where so many of today’s theology books belong. The context is missing. The invisible poor are still all around us, and worse off than in the ‘60s when inflation and energy shortages were less threatening. The rise in the cost of living is likely to force more families toward the poverty level. In The Pursuit of Loneliness (Beacon, 1971), Philip Slater speaks of "a compulsive American tendency to avoid confrontation of chronic social problems." He might have said the same of much recent theology. Only that now the stakes are even higher. Do we want to continue Social Darwinism forever, always competing with one another, tied to each other mainly through the cash nexus? Or do we see the chance of radical metanoia?

The nemesis of American Protestantism is not the churches per se nor theology as such; it is the theologian. He is afraid of change; I am too. But change there will be.

Liberation of White Theology?

Where can change begin? A first step might be the realization that over the centuries, Protestant theology has largely stood aside from peoples outcast, downtrodden, humiliated. It has served the rich, the successful, the property owners. So people who could not afford an enterprise called theology see it as "white theology" standing against them.

Where lies the core of our misapprehensions? Let us see. Reacting against a few theologians of previous generations, many of us have become fascinated with ourselves as centers of authenticity. As Tom F. Driver writes (Christianity and Crisis, January 7, 1974): "We have all been driven to find our theological identities not in the Other but in refractions of our experience. . . . We do not, cannot, identify ourselves by what we oppose. The world has stormed us, and we have had to look not to our lines of defense but to our centers of authenticity."

Abstract talk about the Other is of course dehumanizing. But could we not come to wrestle more fully with the core of the Christian faith? Is God in Christ merely an abstract Other? What does incarnation mean? Is it not solidarity with the sinner, the outcast, the poor? And is not this solidarity radically different from our usual solidarity with the high and the mighty, the successful, the famous? What if this solidarity were not sheer Otherness, but Sacredness -- the quality of life we moderns have lost? "O Sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down . . ." Could we not begin here to find truth again? Might it not be that we were made to bow before Sacredness as it manifests itself in suffering for the survival of humankind -- on the cross? Who expects us to be our own centers of authenticity? Why could not the infinite qualitative solidarity of Sacredness on the cross be our center of authenticity?

The infinite qualitative solidarity of Sacredness might not be a trifling matter in the view of, say, the 38 Americans in "death row" cells right now. Human life is sacred because of Ultimate Sacredness. Anyone who has been in the prisons of this country knows that it is there that immeasurable suffering -- denial of Sacredness -- takes place, "deserved" and undeserved. It is hard to see why such situations as these could not be centers of our theological authenticity.

In a lecture I gave last March at Eden Theological Seminary, in St. Louis, I explained why I had had to break with Tillich’s theology. That was several months before the publication of From Time to Time. Anyone who has not loved in this regard does not know my agony. Occasionally I think we need to defend the "young Tillich" against the "old Tillich." But I’m not sure. Only time will tell. In any case, now I know even more clearly why the break was inevitable. The poor, the outcast, do not appear at the laying of the hermeneutical foundations of the Systematic Theology. In formulating the ground rules of his system, Tillich took his cues from Schelling, not from any poverty-stricken black or Indian. So Tillich the theologian asks of the educated modern man the questions to which his system is supposed to give the answers. He does not begin with the pain and the hurt of suffering humans on the borders of life. Tillich here lived on the boundary of contemporaneity, not on the borders of human life. And it is precisely on the borders that the cause of contemporary theology’s paralysis lies. The great shift from "the large group of educated people" (Systematic Theology, III, p. 4) to the oppressed as the starting point of theology, though only in its very first stages, is already being strongly resisted. Will the liberation of white theology ever be possible?