Black Theology, Black Bodies, and Pedagogy

Article excerpt

The black body has both economic and religious importance in North America.

I have an interest in theologically thinking through what it means -- epistemologically, institutionally and ritually -- to be African American and religious. Much of my work speaks to my wrestling with this issue through historical and theological descriptions of the diversity that marks African American religious experience, the underlying assumption being that resolutions to the question of what it means to be African American and religious require comparative analysis. I am working from the belief that there are common elements within the various forms of African American religious experience that, when explored, can shed light on my above stated concern. My approach to this, in earlier work, particularly Why, Lord? (1995) and Varieties of African American Religious Experience (1998), revolved around the problem of evil as a way of moving theologians into a discussion of African American religiosity (in all its various forms) through attention to cosmology, doctrines of God, and theological anthropology. I am satisfied with the way in which the problem of evil functions as a way into the thought or belief of various traditions. However, I think there is more to ritual or enactment within African American religions that is not fully mined through attention to the problem of evil. What can those in African American religious studies use to address ritual or enactment?

Within the essay I make an effort to begin addressing this question in two ways -- theoretically and pedagogically: (1) I suggest that my understanding of cultural memory and archaeologically informed theology promote a rethinking of the body as a cultural artifact and as a ritualized space or item that enlivens our understanding of religious ritual; and, (2) I address the pedagogical challenges connected with this conception of the body. My goal is to think through the agenda of my earlier work and extend it.

I begin this discussion with a few contextual comments concerning the nature of Black liberation theology and the correctives I offer through a challenge of traditional assumptions concerning African American cultural memory and ways in which this memory is deciphered and represented. Liberation theology, generally speaking, is committed to the experiential nature of religious experience, and the connections between religious orientations and social transformation. As a natural outgrowth of this perspective, liberation theologies are committed to the cultural production of particular groups as vital material for the construction of theological reflection. That is to say, theological reflection, if it is liberating, must speak from and to the existential and cultural reality of the oppressed community addressed. The difficulties associated with doing this are many. For example, might not direct contact with the context of cultural artifacts, because time continues to move forward and representations replace r ealities, be lost?

Collective and individual cultural memory decays. Whether one argues that the present shapes our perception of the past (social construction) or the past shapes the present (construction through commemoration), the fact remains that a clear and uncontaminated link between the past and present -- the workings of collective memory -- is hard to establish. Cultural memory is again problematic because it is not only composed of cultural artifacts, we also use it to decode and interpret (place in meaningful context) those artifacts.

We have often failed to remember the warning the above should sound. Instead, we fill gaps that allow for the construction of a Black theological program that seems consistent, refined, undeniable. And although undeniably important, it appears to be in part based upon a misuse of cultural resources because it fails to hold in tension cultural memory that is best ruptured. The tendency is to essentialize cultural memory through the few cultural artifacts close to the surface that we grab in our haste to construct a useful theological stance. …