October 27, 2005
Black Theology and Womanist Theology in Conversation
-- Dwight N. Hopkins
Black theology originated when African American male pastors and ecclesial administrators began reflecting on the black church's role in providing religious understandings of the major developments in America during the 1960s and '70s. Womanist theology, created twenty years later out of black and feminist theologies, emerged with black Christian women embracing the positive relation between their faith and their creative, God-given female and African American identities.
Black and womanist theologies maintain their ties to the black church; they share similar theoretical methodologies, developing doctrines on the basis of the Christian experiences of people in churches. Each claims liberation and survival for marginalized communities as essential to ministry, the message of Jesus, and ecclesial mission. Each now proclaims inclusive gender leadership. And as religious movements, black and womanist disciplines have found voices within the academy.
Next week, black theology and womanist theology will be in conversation for the first time on a national platform, at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. The twenty-two speakers at "Black Theology and Womanist Theology in Dialogue: Which Way Forward for the Church and the Academy?" comprise an equal number of men and women. Half of the speakers are pastors and half are professors, with Protestants and Catholics lecturing along with African American gay and lesbian speakers.
An innovative format will foster in-depth debate: Male speakers will reflect on subjects typically associated with womanists, while women will engage themes usually linked to black theology. Topics under discussion include liberation, survival and quality of life, patriarchy in the family, human sexuality, black males as an endangered species, Jesus the Man, Christ as a Woman, global missions, and the future of black theology-womanist theology dialogue in church and academy.
An important principle underlies this conference: All parties -- black and womanist academics as well as female and male clergy -- agree that the discipline of theology entails critical reflection on the message and witness of the church. Theology tests whether or not the church is faithful to what it has been called to believe, say, and do. And the church provides the religious community for whose benefit academics develop theology. Mutual accountability thus obtains: Theology serves the church, while the church opens itself for ongoing theological inspection.
Before now, a conference of this sort has been impossible, as African American women required the space and time to develop their own voices, apart from the dominating and agenda-setting tendencies of earlier male scholars. And previously there did not exist a sufficient number of black women professors to offset some of the earlier, often arrogant, positions of men. In the last ten years, however, womanist scholars and black male theologians, each in their separate gatherings, have spoken of the need for a venue for critical and collaborative dialogue.
Womanist theologians and ethicists have edited volumes calling for African American female thinkers to develop a methodology that starts with the religious beliefs and practices of women, while also embracing the entire constituency of the church (i.e., men and boys, as well). Varieties of womanists' syllabi in various academic institutions cite the same concern. Womanist methodology seeks to be inclusive of the entire community.
Similarly, while the first generation of black theologians wrote as if African American women were invisible in the church and academy or, worse, simply spoke for women, today's black (male) theologians express concern and a yearning for interaction with womanists. A growing cohort of second- and third-generation black male theologians is recognizing that partnerships with black female religious scholars and pastors are crucial for church vitality and empowering theological curricula. Black theologians realize that what it means to be a male theological scholar or church pastor hinges on perceiving one's own humanity as tied to the humanity of African American women thinkers and preachers.
In fact, black male scholars are reinterpreting the gospel message itself as focusing on the plight of, and prospects for, women. Next week's conference affirms a sacred vision that had formerly been rejected: the right of women to reflect critically on their own unique and independent relation to God.
Men's and women's beliefs and theological rationales continue to evolve. With increased openness and a growing desire to forge dialogue and collaboration, the time has come for a conference facilitating conversation between two vital and important movements in contemporary theology.
For further information about "Black Theology and Womanist Theology in Dialogue," please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/conferences/theology_in_dialogue/.
Dwight N. Hopkins is Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.