A Black Perspective on Interdisciplinary Work

By Ashby, Homer U., Jr. | Currents in Theology and Mission, June 2004 | Go to article overview

A Black Perspective on Interdisciplinary Work


Ashby, Homer U., Jr., Currents in Theology and Mission


In the mid-1980s Pete Pero and I taught a course together on the integration of theology and psychology. Our sense was that theology needed psychological insights in order for it to address the human situation with any integrity and that pastoral care needed to be more closely aligned with theology than with psychology if it sought to honor its desire to care for the soul. Neither of us had done anything like this before. But each of us liked and wanted to learn from one another. Even more important, we felt that our students needed to be engaged in this examination of the two different disciplines so that their knowledge of theology and of pastoral care did not suffer because of the absence of such a conversation.

The course was a great success and a lot of fun. We looked at the ways in which any theological understanding of the nature of human beings necessarily carried within it an understanding of human psychology. We struggled with why pastoral care in the middle of the twentieth century turned toward psychology rather than theology as its primary theoretical partner. We wrestled with whether or not Paul Tillich's correlational model was adequate for the cross-disciplinary work we were doing. (1) And we even looked at whether or not denominational theological perspectives (Lutheran and Reformed) influenced the way in which theology and psychology could be examined together. Needless to say, we ended with more questions unanswered than answered.

One of the questions that was not even asked by us was, What implications did the fact that we both were black have on our investigation? The postmodern concern for and interest in social location had not yet come into full flower. And, while it was on the horizon, we had not grasped it as a primary concern for our investigation. Yes, we were aware of our blackness, and that probably had some influence on our work, but the fact that we were both black did not emerge as a primary element in the course. Rather, we were two colleagues who enjoyed each another's company and wanted to experiment with an interdisciplinary course where we both felt safe and comfortable. (That, in and of itself, could be identified as reflective of our social locations).

On the occasion of this Festschrift in honor of Pete Pero I want to return to that class, some twenty years later, and examine this issue of black perspective related to interdisciplinary work that was not a part of our original investigation. Developments over the past twenty years in the fields of both theology and pastoral care suggest that careful attention must be paid to interdisciplinary work so as to understand where it is we are today in each of the fields; and to better understand what possibilities exist for future collaboration between the fields in the future.

From systematic to contextual theology

When Pete and I taught our course we borrowed predominantly from the historical theologies of Luther and Calvin, the then more recent systematic theologies of Tillich and Karl Barth, and the emerging postmodern theologies of Langdon Gilkey and David Tracey. (2) Deconstruction was occurring all around us. In theology Gilkey was trying to name the whirlwind of postmodern theology. In the field of religion and psychological studies Peter Homans was pointing out the destabilizing blow that Freud had applied to modern theology. (3) In our own way Pete and I were trying to make sense of two disciplines whose recent integration in the modern age was in flux. Our motivation was not to deconstruct premodern and modern theologies but to make connections between what one might call classic theology and modern psychology in ways that were not too reductionistic to either discipline.

We had observed that pastoral theology had been so coopted by modern psychology that pastoral-care practitioners were suspicious of the church and its groupthink. We also had observed theology's rejection of the work of black theologians such as James Cone, whose theologizing from the psyche and lived experience of black America was unacceptable to many prominent theologians of the day, both black and white. …

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