James Cone's Hermeneutic of Language and Black Theology

By Hayes, Diana L. | Theological Studies, December 2000 | Go to article overview

James Cone's Hermeneutic of Language and Black Theology


Hayes, Diana L., Theological Studies


THE YEARS FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II were ones of great flux in the United States and around the world. Individuals and nations were beginning to look at their situations and to raise questions that, combined with a praxis that emerged from reflecting on their lives and experiences historically, led to revolutionary efforts to change the status quo. In the U.S., African Americans who, despite the end of legal slavery, still lived, especially in the South, tied to the land they worked for others, began to challenge "Jim-Crow" laws that restricted every part of their lives. Those who had experienced the freedom of other countries during the war questioned their inferior status at home and vowed to change things.

In the Christian churches globally, new ideas and understandings were also emerging in the aftermath of the horrors that had taken place during the war. What was the responsibility of the Church in the secular realm? Should it challenge the oppression that continued to exist or work to overcome it? In the U.S. as federal legislation opened the doors to higher learning for many who would otherwise have taken up jobs in the factories and mills of the country, they too began to question their faith and church teachings and practice in company with theologians in Europe and elsewhere. The resulting "raising of conscience" was a factor in the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement for American Blacks and the calling of the Second Vatican Council for Roman Catholics, movements that resulted in changes that swept the nation and the Church, challenging former beliefs and habits while empowering those who had previously been silent and invisible.

In this article, I look at the emergence of Black theology as a liberation movement by focusing on the way in which James Cone, one of the earliest to call for a new way of "doing" theology by critiquing the ideological distortions of the Christian tradition, developed a hermeneutic of language that fostered that emergence. Black theology is grounded in the experience and praxis, most particularly, of those whose ancestors had endured centuries of slavery and second-class citizenship within the U.S.(1) Cone used the language of symbol and metaphor, narrative and testimony to bring about a critically different understanding of the role that Christianity had played and continued to play in the lives of African Americans. He and other Black theologians recognized that "... the task of theology invites not only the critique of nonreligious ideologies that dominate the consciousness of societies, but also the critique of those very ideologies permeating and fostered by religious traditions."(2)

Although several different methodologies may be discerned in the work of Cone ranging from the existential anthropological stress of his earliest writings to the sociopolitical-cultural emphasis of his later work, it is his hermeneutical language which most clearly presents, in my opinion, the importance of the Black historical experience in the U.S. as a source for theologizing.(3)

It should be understood from the outset that Cone has not designated any particular methodology as his own. As with most liberation theologians who theologize from a contextual basis, his starting point is not a method but a people--the lived experience of an oppressed and marginalized group. Thus, his emphasis is not on method but on praxis. The act of doing theology in a viable manner (orthopraxis), living one's faith out in the world, is the first step; reflection on that action, the second step, results in theology. Both steps are of equal importance and, in reality, usually interact.

Rather than speaking of a hermeneutical circle from which such theology emerges, I prefer to speak of a hermeneutical spiral which more clearly reveals that liberation theology does not simply repeat itself but builds upon praxis and reflection leading to greater understanding as well as a change in the circumstances of those "doing" the theologizing at every level. …

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