Academic journal article Theological Studies

James Baldwin's Challenge to Catholic Theologians and the Church

Academic journal article Theological Studies

James Baldwin's Challenge to Catholic Theologians and the Church

Article excerpt

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

--James Baldwin (1)

MY AIM HERE is to contribute to the developing conversation between African American intellectuals and US Catholic theologians that Mary Doak initiated in these pages. (2) White supremacy constitutes US society's most persistent, damaging, and hidden social sin. (3) So this conversation is essential if Catholic theologians are to unmask white supremacy's social and intrapsychic workings and influence on their work. It is essential for a church that has declared reconciliation to be the heart of its mission, as the Catholic Church has done. (4)

This conversation also exemplifies the encounter that is foundational to Bernard Lonergan's understanding of conversion--and conversion is the heart and key to theological method as he presents it. Without a commitment to the demands of conversion (intellectual, moral, and religious), Lonergan maintains, theologians will not produce the "cumulative and progressive results" that authentic method yields. Instead, their personal and communal biases will distort the challenge and promise of the gospel.

How do these biases come to light? "No problem is at once more delicate and more profound, more practical and perhaps more pressing" than this one. Lonergan continues:

How, indeed, is a mind to become conscious of its own bias when that bias springs from a communal flight from understanding and is supported by the whole texture of a civilization? How can new strength and vigor be imparted to the detached and disinterested desire to understand without the reinforcement acting as an added bias? (5)

He answers: we become conscious of our biases only by means of encounter, since "encounter is the one way in which self-understanding and horizon are put to the test." Encounter means "meeting persons, appreciating the values they represent, criticizing their defects, and allowing one's living to be challenged at its very roots by their words and deeds." (6) Theologians need "others" who offer the gifts and graces necessary for conversion and genuine progress in the academy, the church, and the world. (7)

Like Doak's Cornel West and Massingale's Malcolm X, James Baldwin (1924-1987) is an "other" for US Catholic theology. Like West, he was not a Catholic, and like Malcolm, he was neither a practicing Christian nor an academic. In fact, Baldwin did not even have a college degree. He saw himself as an artist, not as an intellectual. For him, this entailed a heavy responsibility. To be an artist demanded ruthless honesty with oneself and others. (8) The artist's task was not to entertain, but to expose the soothing illusions by which people evade the harsh realities of their individual and collective lives and then to tell them some hard truths about their social, racial, and sexual selves.

Baldwin was so faithful to the demands of his calling that he came to be described as a prophet. When the inner-city riots broke out in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968, it seemed as though Baldwin's predictions in The Fire Next Time (1963) had come true. (9) Today, nearly 25 years after he died, he still participates in what passes for our national conversation about race. The Library of America keeps his works in print, and the recent publication of The Cross of Redemption (2010) shows that he still has much to teach us. Facing Baldwin's challenge, I contend, is crucial for the credibility and integrity of US Catholic theology and for the mission of the US Catholic Church. Baldwin would certainly not deny that there has been some progress in racial justice since the upheavals of the late 1960s. If he were alive today, even after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, he would not be surprised by the suffering that our laws, social structures, and "racial framing" continue to inflict on people of color in this country. …

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