Academic Theology Has a Serious Race Issue

Pick a random book or article of theology. Check the references – how many others but white men do you find there? In average, not so many.

Important theologians are white men – is it a problem?

It is a problem because many academic (white male) theologians do not see it as a problem. One refers only to important thinkers who have relevant wisdoms to share. What is wrong with that?

First, what we consider as relevant depends on our life worlds. In my cosy world of European academy, what is relevant differs hugely from what is relevant to Christians in war-torn Eastern Congo.

Second, any reading of any text, including the Bible, is interpretation. It is of great importance whose readings of the Bible are listened to and whom these interpreters of the Bible take as their discussion partners.

Third, no intellectual enterprise is innocent. Even academic theology drives inevitably someone’s agenda. That agenda tends to belong to the theologian. Therefore, it is not meaningless to ask who is on the stage and for whom does he speak. Fourth, even if academic theology often attempts to keep an air of objectivity, in the end it is a pursuit of truth. There is a normative dimension even in cases when it is concealed under an analytical approach. Only important thinkers and issues are analysed. Academic theology influences the training of ordained ministers and thereby the thinking of the churches.

Not only an ethical but also a theological issue

However, the heavyweight academic theologians tend to be white, male and middle- or upper class. That is decreasingly representative for the World Christianity where the demographic shift to the Majority World has been tremendous during the last century. It is no wonder that there are more and more churches, which reject academic theology as completely irrelevant. In this manner, academic theology is gradually losing one of its main raisons d’être. If theology becomes an intellectual chess game of few elected academics, it withers away.

The discussion above has been predominantly ethical and practical. However, even from a theological perspective, the race issue is a problem. Who is listened to in communities of faith and in academic theology reveals through whom we expect to hear the voice of God. This tells us also who we think God is.

In Luther’s terminology, this would be a collision between theology of glory and theology of the Cross. Theology of glory sees God in the powerful and beautiful whereas theology of the Cross sees God through the Cross and suffering. According to theology of the Cross, God creates good out of nothing, and God uses those who are nothing for his work. For Luther, God speaks from the margins rather than from positions of power.

Ways forward

There are many ways of attempting to remedy the representation issue in theology. One is to point out that there are Black, Feminist, Mujerista, Minjung etc. theologies. This is, however, no solution. While women’s or the Blacks’ etc. perspective produces specific contextual theologies, white male perspective produces theology, pure and simple. The position of power and privilege remains.

Another solution is to emphasise the role of experience as a source of theology (as many so-called contextual theologians like Gutierrez, Boff, Mbiti, Nyamiti, Oduyoye, Chung, Pui-Lan etc. do). That is useful but only in case one expands the scope of the experience to the marginalised groups. In many cases, this requires transfer into empirical theology because most theologising outside the academia is never written down.

In Liberation Theologies, one major approach to solve this issue has been through the choice of one’s discussion partners. To whom does one write theology and in dialogue with what kind of realities? Per Frostin (1943-1992), Makumira lecturer and Lund professor, wrote an insightful analysis of this issue in his Liberation Theologies in Tanzania and South Africa, which Cluster will soon republish in South Africa. It will be available for free online.

Yet one solution is to expand one’s use of tradition. Any Bible reading happens in an interpretative tradition. There is a historical continuum, and most often it is limited to one’s ecclesiastic family. However, taking into account the wider Christian tradition that includes also Oriental churches (texts in Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Geez etc.) and in more recent history, African, Asian etc. instituted churches, would widen the theological vistas considerably. Academic theology has a representation issue. It must be recognised, and it can be dealt with. If this is not done, academic theology digs its own grave.

For more on this see my book and the forthcoming book by Sigurd Bergmann & Mika Vähäkangas (eds.).

The views presented in this post represent only the author’s position and are not Lund University or GCIR seminar official statements.


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