Hearing Past the Pain: Why White Catholic Theologians Need Black Theology

By Wondra, Ellen K. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Hearing Past the Pain: Why White Catholic Theologians Need Black Theology


Wondra, Ellen K., Anglican Theological Review


Hearing Past the Pain: Why White Catholic Theologians Need Black Theology. By Jon Nilson. New York and Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2007. 120 pp. $16.95 (paper).

Black theology emerged as a major voice in constructive theology with the publication of James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power in 1969. Had they been looking, white theologians would have seen indications of the development of an African-American theology drawn from the life and practice of the black community and the black church in the work of culture critics such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, as well as in the sermons, prayers, spirituals, and practices of African-American churches. But white theologians weren't looking. And, according to Jon Nilson, largely we're still not. Forty years later, black theology is still an add-on for most theologians (as are Latino/a, feminist, Asian, womanist, liberation, and other theologies): something to be attended to once one has mastered the "basics" of a theology that has purported to be universally applicable, or at least to speak to "common human experience." It has been widely, frequently, and persuasively noted that this theology is deeply influenced and inflected by the socio-historic locations and contexts of those who have developed and teach it. Still, in divinity schools and seminaries, college classrooms and ordination exams, the largely tacit notion of "real" and "special" theologies remains.

Hearing Past the Pain focuses primarily not on the contributions of black theology-though this is a theme throughout the book-but on the unexamined racism, or assumption of white superiority, that runs through Roman Catholic theology in the United States. (While Nilson focuses on Roman Catholic theology, his work should give notice that a largely similar book could be written about any mainline denomination in the United States and its theologians.) In other words, Nikon's assumption is not that black theology must demonstrate its value and interest to white theologians. Nor does he assume that white theologians are unaware of black theology. Rather, Nilson assumes that white theologians know that black theology is "out there," and they may even recognize its value, at least to some extent. The issue, Nilson says, is that "the ways in which we white Catholic theologians define and do theology express our clear though implicit conviction that black theology has nothing substantial to contribute to the work of Roman Catholic theology" (p. 12). The place to begin is white racism and superiority-and to approach it as a social, systemic, and ideological phenomenon rather than an instance of individual moral wrongdoing or failing.

In a brief first chapter, Nilson documents the racism of white Roman Catholic theology-again, something that can readily be done of Anglican, or Lutheran, or Presbyterian dieology as well-before turning to a lengthy analysis of the roots of enduring racism in the individualist cultural orientation of the United States, the realities of continuing segregation, and the reluctance of ethnic white Roman Catholics to cross cultural and religious lines. This approach is common in discussions of racism, and will be needed as long as white superiority continues to predominate.

But Nilson also makes another claim here, one that is well worth pondering. That is, CathoUc theologies-Roman, Eastern, Anglican, and others-have a characteristic preference for a sacramental view of the world in which epiphanies, events of grace, and the Incarnation are central emphases. At the same time, there are two other major orientations favored by other traditions: theologies of proclamation (rather than manifestation) and theologies of historical activity. …

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