How WEIRD is Your Theology?

Over the past week, I’ve been trying to introduce people who visit this blog to various strands of Black (specifically African American) theology and self-reflection: the Spirituals, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Liberation, Womanist thought, and reflections on Black Lives Matter. I did this to amplify Black voices at a time when issues of race relations and specifically anti-Black racism have been at the fore of public attention. But, that doesn’t really answer the question. There are lots of other ways — some far more direct — I could have shown support for the cause of anti-racism. So, why then did I, and do I think that amplifying Black theological voices would be helpful?

Truth be told, most of the readers of this blog are white. And, truth be told, for the most part — unless they have gone to seminary (and even then) — many white Christians have only been exposed to white theology. More specifically, many white Christians have only been exposed to theology written by wealthy (from a global standard), educated, white men. And, the more one reads theology from around the world and throughout Christian history, the more theology written by wealthy, educated, white men (or cultures historically dominated by wealthy, educated, white men) is revealed to be an outlier.

One of the charges white Christians often level against Black theology — especially Black theologies of liberation — is that it goes off script; it doesn’t play by the established rules or look or sound like what they think theology ought to sound like. Black theology’s concern for freedom and justice is political, they say, not theological; we can’t sully our faith and our worship with such secular concerns. But, if you zoom out to look at global theology as a whole, you get a very different picture of what the script is: If you read the theology coming from poor communities in Latin America, you see them speaking of God’s “preferential option” for the poor. If you read the minjung theology of Korea, you see them speaking of God’s presence with and for the masses, the many as opposed to the few. If you read Christian theology coming out of India, you see a focus on the oppression of Dalit (low caste) communities and God’s care for “the least of these.” (In fact, while Dalit communities make up only about 16% of India’s population, they make up 42% of Indian Christians.) If you read African postcolonial Christian theology, you see them talking about God’s concern for the liberation of all peoples. If you read feminist theology, you see them talking about the need to recognize the image and likeness of God in everyone. If you read queer theology, you see them talking about God’s loving concern for the marginalized in society. Even something like the so-called prosperity gospel began as movement of hope for impoverished communities. (It has only in recent decades been co-opted by the wealthy to justify their wealth.)

The point is that the less you look like a straight, white, man from a wealthy society, the more you will tend to see justice as a central theological concern, and the more you will tend to see the stories of the Exodus and the return from Exile, and Jesus’ ethical teachings as central to the Gospel rather than extraneous to it; and the more you will read the Cross as being in continuity with everything that happened before — as God’s final and total identification with the powerless and oppressed. It is only those close to political power who want to punt Jesus’ teachings that bless the world’s losers and ouctasts to some future dispensation or see the Cross as a break from Israel’s story rather than as an exclamation mark to it. The sad fact is that power corrupts, and the comfort that being adjacent to power provides can easily blind us to both the reality most people face and to God’s vision for the world.

This phenomenon is closely related to what has come to be known as the WEIRD problem in the social sciences. The WEIRD problem questions the assumed “universal” conclusions of much social scientific research because the studies on which they were based heavily over-sampled White, Educated subjects who live in Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (and so, WEIRD). Under the (now widely rejected) assumption of scientific objectivity, researchers assumed that this small segment of the world’s population was representative of humanity as a whole. And maybe it was; time will tell as their experiments are tried out in other contexts. But the WEIRD problem points out that social scientists need to check their assumptions and validate their conclusions by casting a wider net.

Similarly, we should be cautious about holding on too tightly to our theology and our readings of the Scriptures if we haven’t checked our own assumptions and validated our conclusions by looking outside our own communities, both theological and social. And this is especially true for those of us who check at least some of those WEIRD or straight-white-male boxes. (I say ‘especially’ because, let’s face it, Black and Indigenous folk and People of Colour have heard white theology; women have heard male theology; and the poor have heard the wealthy’s theology. The same can’t often be said for the reverse.)

This doesn’t mean anyone’s readings are necessarily better or worse than anyone else’s — and we all must be faithful in preaching the Gospel in word and action to, for, and in our own contexts (and, yes, a predominantly white, upper middle class suburb is a context) — but it means we need to have open hearts, minds, and ears, and have the humility listen to what our brothers and sisters in faith are saying within their own contexts. You just never know when you might learn something important. You just never know when you might discover that they are your beaten, bruised, wounded and grieving neighbour that your Lord is calling you comfort, feed, and house.

And I hope this exercise this week has at the very least introduced some of you to some new perspectives you might not have encountered before. I consider myself privileged to have been exposed to these voices over the years and have learned a lot from them — not because it’s their job to teach me, but because it’s my job to listen well.

I honestly don’t know the work of reconciliation in our society will happen. The roots of systemic racism in our culture are deep and thick and will take years of hard work that I pray we — all of us — will have the courage to do in order to hack back and uproot. But one thing I do know is that nothing can get done on a bigger scale unless we tend to our own lives first. We may not be able to rip out the weeds that have gripped our communities, but we can tend to our own gardens. And one way we can do that is to make them a little less WEIRD.

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