Rescuing Theology from White European Males
Do a Google Image Search for the word “theologian,” and you’ll scroll through page after page of white men (punctuated by the occasional non-white Orthodox icon or otherwise out-of-place image). When we think of many of history’s greatest theologians they tend to be white European males. I don’t know why so many of my white male counterparts get so defensive when I bring it up, but they do.
I find it incredibly strange that the Bible, written in large part by marginalized, and often oppressed people would be almost entirely interpreted by their sociological opposites. One has to wonder if South African and India would have had to put up with British Imperialism for so long if there were more Africans and Indians being read by Christians.
Would the abolition of slavery have taken so long if we weren’t waiting on white guys to be the church’s conscience? Would women have voted in America sooner if the church had courted the opinions of women on social issues? How could more culturally diverse theological voices helped fill the ideological vacuums filled by Maos, Castros, and Stalins?
What could we be missing?
How would our theology be different if there were more voices being represented. Could we be missing out on important ideas and perspectives?
Just think about the metaphors we use to describe Christ’s work. The Bible does use so legal word pictures, but our dominant European theological system has commandeered those metaphors (because we’re comfortable with them—whether or not the western equivalent of those metaphors might obscure the original point) and fashioned substitutionary atonement (particularly penal-substitution).
Is that wrong? Not necessarily—but I wonder what images, metaphors, and similes we’re missing out on with this one perspective? To many in the church, to question substitutionary atonement is to question the gospel itself, but it’s really one perspective we’ve received by theological gatekeepers.
I’m convinced there are worlds of understanding we miss because we’ve limited theological voices.
Are you kidding me!?
I had a pastor tell me once that liberation theology was heresy. But come on, those are the words of one white guy to another white guy about a theology they have no need to understand.
Now when I read theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, I feel like I am reading the words of someone so much closer to the ache of first-century New Testament readers.
When I think about how my wife and I can experience the exact same biblical passage and walk away with such vastly disparate perspectives, it speaks volumes to me about how important all voices are to the biblical narrative. To assume that the gospel is complete when taken from one frame of reference seems entirely illogical and completely dismissive of most of the world.
But much of evangelicalism is so steeped in white European male theology that often the perspectives of others (back to liberation theology for instance) is instantly seen as suspect. Theologians from other people groups or genders are seen as having an extra-biblical agenda. Never mind the extra-biblical agenda and status quo that we’re trying to protect.
I know it’s not intentional
Part of the reason people get so defensive when you talk about this issue is because they think you’re accusing someone of intentionally marginalizing others. I don’t think it’s intentional—at least, I don’t think it’s willful. But at the point where there’s an obvious discrepancy that we’re not trying to remedy, there’s a problem.
When you look around worldwide, who has the best access to schools that will teach them theology? Who typically buys theology? Who runs most of the theological publishing houses? If you’re honest, the game is rigged. Whether we mean to or not, others are marginalized. We need to be intentional about giving others a voice.
We need to seek out other theologies. We need to let publishing houses know that we’re interested in other’s approach to the Scriptures. We need to encourage, enable, and empower a wider understanding of theology.
My interest is not just in aiding them—I know I need it.
I need voices like:
- Christina Cleveland
- Howard Thurman
- Justo Gonzalez
- Martha Simmons
- Emmanuel Katongola
- Ada María Isasi-Díaz
- R. S. Sugirtharajah
- Katie Canon
. . . and so do you.