Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm

By Thomas, Linda E. | Cross Currents, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm


Thomas, Linda E., Cross Currents


Womanist theologians can bring the experience and knowledge of the marginalized to the center by standing aside to let the community speak for itself.

Womanist theology is an emergent voice of African American Christian women in the United States. Employing Alice Walker's definition of womanism in her text In Search of Our Mothers' Garden, black women in America are calling into question their suppressed role in the African American church, the community, the family, and the larger society. But womanist religious reflection is more than mere deconstruction. It is, more importantly, the empowering assertion of the black woman's voice. To examine that voice, this essay divides into three parts. First, I look at the overall state of womanist theology. Its development denotes a novel reconstruction of knowledge, drawing on the abundant resources of African American women since their arrival to the "New World," as well as a creative critique of deleterious forces seeking to keep black women in "their place." Next, I sort through a womanist reconstruction of knowledge. In an intentional manner, I unpack the contours of the knowledge-formation claims which undergird womanist theology. And last, based on womanist theology as an instance of new knowledge and based on a conceptual investigation of some epistemological presuppositions, I advance a new anthropology of religion paradigm for the continued development of womanist theology.

Womanist Theology in the USA

Womanist theology is critical reflection upon black women's place in the world that God has created and takes seriously black women's experience as human beings who are made in the image of God. The categories of life which black women deal with daily (that is, race, womanhood, and political economy) are intricately woven into the religious space that African American women occupy. Therefore the harmful and empowering dimensions of the institutional church, culture, and society impact the social construction of black womanhood. Womanist theology affirms and critiques the positive and negative attributes of the church, the African American community, and the larger society.

Womanist theology's goals are to interrogate the social construction of black womanhood in relation to the African American community. The normative discourse among African American women creates the space for an energetic claiming of the life stories of African American women and their contribution to the history of the United States and the African diaspora. An additional way of achieving this goal is to engage in a critical conversation with black (male) theology so that a full theology for the African American community can emerge from that dialogue. Likewise the pursuance of the black family's sanctity ranks high on the womanist's theological agenda. Another the goal of womanist theology is to unearth the ethnographic sources within the African American community in order to reconstruct knowledge and overcome subordination. And, finally, womanist theology seeks to decolonize the African mind and to affirm our African heritage.

Womanist theology engages the macro-structural and the microstructural issues that affect black women's lives and, since it is a theology of complete inclusivity, the lives of all black people. The freedom of black women entails the liberation of all peoples, since womanist theology concerns notions of gender, race, class, heterosexism, and ecology. Furthermore, it takes seriously the historical and current contributions of our African forebears and women in the African diaspora today. It advances a bold leadership style that creates fresh discursive and practical paradigms and "talks back" (hooks 1988) to structures, white feminists, and black male liberation theologians. Moreover, womanist theology asserts what black women's unique experiences mean in relation to God and creation and survival in the world. Thus the tasks of womanist theology are to claim history, to declare authority for ourselves, our men, and our children, to learn from the experience of our forebears, to admit shortcomings and errors, and to improve our quality of life. …

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