Living the Intersection

I appreciate that my training in clinical pastoral education is giving me reason to enter into a beautiful reading list. I’m covering by necessity pastoral arts, theology, history, and supervision. I’m spending my time becoming a better minister, a slower thinker, a deeper educator of servants, and hopefully a person more responsive to these gifts in a clinical encounter, whatever form it takes.

As I’ve mentioned on my blog, I’m reading, and in an effort to “keep more of what I’m reading,” this review is, in part, in order for me to see again some of the words of the writers I’m encountering. This book, Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology is a book on theology, particularly womanist theology in contradistinction to afrocentricism.

The contributors draw upon their reading of Molefi Asante’s use of Afrocentrism. His conceptualization is widely read and has been a persistent critique to Christianity and Islam with regard to black people. The description of the concept is in the book, so I won’t completely summarize their rendering of Asante. Still, one of Asante’s basic assertions according to the editor of Living the Intersection is the mistaken notion that Christianity is a historically acceptable religious option for African Americans. His basic critique is the mismatchedness of the Christian faith and the better natural fit of, presumably, African Traditional Religions. His notion of Afrocentrism is in conversation in this book with thinkers from the womanist theological posture.

Womanist is a term from Alice Walker who in the novel The Temple of My Familiar “has taken some of her womanist ideas and tried to run them through narratively.” As Gilkes says in the collection, Walker gives writers a rich term to capture her own artistic attempts to debate humanity and reject racism in order to push “for a larger, relational, humanist vision.” Walker used a word (i.e., womanist) started something. Note that she was moving toward a vision. I think that’s an evocative theological motive: vision.

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

To be fair, most will tie Alice Walker’s literary genius to the conceptual offerings of others before her. Living the Intersection does the same. Deborah E. McDowell does this in her chapter on “Slavery as a Sacred Text.” McDowell reminds us of the tenuous relationship between black people and already-determined-and-already-decided-principles-of-somebody-else’s-interpretation, saying, that “Scripture is not sacred as an untamperable given; it is rather a set of texts to be questioned, negotiated with, and variously interpreted” (p. 82). Womanist interpretation is tied to the experience of a slave being told what to think and how long to think it relative to being “free in Christ.”

Youtha C. Hardman-Cromwell connects womanism to the wealth of poetic contributions written by black women. She decorates her chapter with pieces from Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou among others. She’s doing what the biblical psalmists did: pointing to the poetic, musical expression of a sister in order to underline some truth about life and God. Womanist theology comes out of poetry.

Given their nod to the historical connections leading to womanism, the contributors in Living the Intersection give much respect to Walker for snatching up the spirit of such fruitful work in Walker’s careful word choice. Edited by Cheryl J. Sanders, these writers are connecting language with spirituality and theological reflection in order to pursue a vision of beauty and wholeness. “We are here because we believe we have a story to tell to the nation, and our experience has something special to say to the world.” (p. 22) I wish that was on a t-shirt worn by all the people I love: I have something special to say to the world.

Living the Intersection is an anchoring text for those interested in listening to tones and songs of black women teaching foundational theology for the purpose of telling a story of faith which changes lives and builds people. This book, among those I’m reading as I study in CPE supervisory education, is about how we understand God, how we understand the lived experience of black women, and how we take cues from those two understandings for life.

Theology is God talk, language we use to express who we think God to be. It is necessarily risky. After all, theology is language about God. It relates to us, to those God has made, but it starts in relation to the One for whom words could forever be written and read. Eventually that linguistic effort ends in wholeness. Kelly Brown Douglas in the book delineates that wholeness is about triumph over oppression “so that the individual is whole even as she or he struggles for the community’s wholeness.” And “wholeness for a community indicates that it is not divided against itself and that is free, liberated from oppression.” (p. 68)

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

As students, we draw from our various sources to unearth, examine, and interrogate the ingredients of faith, to critique forms of faith, to inspire better uses and practices of faith. In the language of Sanders, our work is about the “survival and wholeness of an entire people” and about the “affirmation, assertiveness, and actualization of women.” The book says enough times for the reader to get that the affirmation of women is never akin to the diminution of men. There is a holistic vision that womanist theologians are pushing us toward, one that names the general and boldly wrong unnamededness of women. Encouraging the regular procurement of black women’s identity from themselves (Hardman-Cromwell), we are “moving the black community toward wholeness” (Douglas).

In this book, womanism stands next to afrocentrism, and the sister theologians–from a decidedly black, feminist, ethical, theological, and literary sphere–offer us an introduction to the foundational elements of womanism as a way of doing theology.

Doing theology is important. I can’t recall what I first meant when I started using that phrase, just after my seminary days. When I use the phrase now, I intend to mean that theology is immediately and always practiced. It is reflection with a purpose. It is considered and expressed language that is Spirit-empowered, generative, constructive, and prophetic. Theology is ethical because it meets the practice of our lives; it tutors us, trains us to be. We don’t simply write theology. We do it. We live it.

This beautiful book is full of my sisters and aunts and mothers, and they are all writing me into becoming…

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