A COUPLE YEARS AGO, when the CENTURY asked some leading theologians to name five "essential theology books of the past 25 years," J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008) was one of the few books mentioned more than once and the only one that was published in the past five years. Last year, the American Academy of Religion gave its Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion to Willie J. Jennings's The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010). These two influential works, together with Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010), by Brian Bantum (who studied at Duke with both Carter and Jennings), represent a major theological shift that will--if taken as seriously as it deserves--change the face not only of black theology but theology as a whole.
What is revolutionary about these three black theologians is that they rely heavily on dogmatic texts from the patristic period to the Reformation. Why is this novel? Because nonwhite male theologians have historically been hesitant to trust these sources--and for good reason. In the worst of times, classic theological texts have been used to oppress persons of color and women. In the best of times, the overwhelming attention given these particular voices obscured other voices, giving the impression that the only Christians speaking and writing about God for the last 2,000 years were European men. Those who did not fit that description simply did not know how to relate to a tradition that claimed to speak for but did not reflect them.
James Cone, considered the father of contemporary black theology, expressed these frustrations four decades ago. "American theology," he wrote, "is racist.... It identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of 'the tradition,' unrelated to the suffering of the oppressed." The result, Cone observed, was that "an increasing number of black religionists are finding it difficult to be black and be identified with traditional theological thought forms." Disconnecting themselves from the Anglo-European white tradition, black intellectuals looked to other sources to describe how African-American Christians talked about and related to God.
Many Western theologians in the last few decades have returned to premodern theological sources, representing an intellectual renaissance of sorts as Christians look back to classical theologians from Augustine to Maximus the Confessor to Catherine of Siena for expressions of present-day faith. This was not entirely unexpected as Christianity tried to free itself from the hold the Enlightenment had on the church for so long.
However, what is quite surprising is that persons of color and women are increasingly finding their way to these sources. This shift in black theology's relationship to traditional Christianity means that the rest of the church can no longer ignore black theology's claims. So long as black theologians felt that they had good reason to pursue nontraditional and extra-Christian sources in such secular social theory as anthropology, cultural studies, sociology and political science, white theologians could keep black theology at arm's length. When black theology championed the black church as the location of God's preference and accused white Christianity of heresy, white theologians only saw secularism run amok. Or at least they could claim as much, allowing them to dismiss much black theology outright no matter how scripturally anchored it was.
Black theology's return to pre-Enlightenment sources is also surprising in that the Enlightenment has often been credited with overcoming oppression. In a fascinating reversal, Jennings, Carter and Bantum turn the Enlightenment's claim of liberation on its head, locating in that movement a basis of oppression and looking instead to ancient and medieval Christian theology to free us from contemporary racism. …