We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology, James H. vans, Jr. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992. 192 pp. $12.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8006-2672-9.
A central task of systematic theologians is to interpret their community's religious experience. For Evans, this task is a "response to the autobiographical impulse" emerging from the need of the African-American church to discover "who we are, and where are we going?" (p. 1). What is striking about We Have Been Believers is Evans's clarity of style in articulating this impulse on behalf of the African-American community. It is a book sufficiently sophisticated to appease the appetites of theologian and theology student, but at the same time palatable to the intelligent layperson.
The formal contour of the terrain Evans traverses is familiar: revelation, scripture, God, christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. But a good many of the details of that terrain are not so familiar, at least to the many theologians operating outside the African-American community. This is largely due to the twofold premise from which this work begins, namely, "that God has revealed Godself to the black community and that this revelation is inseparable from the historic struggle of black people for liberation" (p. 11). Not surprisingly, then, one thread woven throughout compares and contrasts African-American and Euro-American theologies. Take hermeneutics, for example. Although beginning with the same scriptures, African-American hermeneutics is constituted on the basis of an "epistemological break between white Christians and black Christians in America." The difference represented by this break is the difference, says Evans, between being a master and being a slave, so that although both "black and white churches proclaim to profess Christ, their religious visions of the world are radically different" (p. 23). Similarly, a chapter "On Being Black" provides a convincing critique of and alternative to Euro-American anthropology. Evans demonstrates, for example, that the African emphasis on community is radically different from and preferable to the Euro-American emphasis on individualism.
At times, Evans is willing to engage African-American interpreters with whom he disagrees. Like many others, he criticizes Joseph Washington's Black Religion as fundamentally flawed because Washington "fails to appreciate the African antecedents of black religion" and because of his "Eurocentric perspective" (p. 20). But for the most part, his aim in each chapter is twofold: first, to provide a concise review of the wide diversity of African-American literature on a given doctrine, without a great deal of critical comment; and second, to weave into a single cloth these various threads of black theology. In addition, Evans occasionally engages black female voices in conversation, in regard, for example, to the status of Christ as well as to the status of women in the African-American community, although on these matters he offers few hints about the direction this conversation might or should take (pp. 93-95).
But for all of its strengths, and there are a great many, as indicated above, a critical ambiguity underlies We Have Been Believers: Is an African-American systematic theology possible? …