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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:

. . . and so do you.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. When we talk about alternative sources of theology, we usually get a backlash about “heresy” that’s really “don’t disrupt our status quo.” But even the Catholic Church is starting to come around on the finer points of liberation theology.

    According to the Wikipedia page on the subject:

    “According to Roberto Bosca, an historian at Austral University in Buenos Aires, Father Jorge Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) had ‘a reputation as an opponent of liberation theology during the 1970s’ but he ‘accepted the premise of liberation theology, especially the option for the poor, but in a “nonideological” fashion.’ Bosca said Bergoglio was not opposed to liberation theology itself but to ‘giving a Catholic blessing to armed insurgency’, specifically the Montoneros, who claimed liberation theology as part of their political ideology.”

    August 18, 2014
    • It’s true Alex, but honestly . . . if it wasn’t for Catholicism, I wouldn’t know ANYTHING about liberation theology.

      August 18, 2014
      • Oh, I’m not saying I disagree with that brand of theology. I just find it funny how quickly we can shift from “This is Marxist heresy” to “Well, they do raise some good points about the preferential option for the poor…” 🙂

        August 18, 2014
  2. Jayson, thanks for sharing this piece. It was just what I needed at 10pm, something to lie awake thinking about! Kidding…sorta…

    “We need to encourage, enable, and empower a wider understanding of theology.” Any practical thoughts on how we can do this?

    August 18, 2014
    • Thanks for the comment, Matt. I think we need to do a couple things:
      1. We need to read wider.
      2. We need to be open to the idea that there are areas we see as essential that might be our spin. We need to be open to the idea that someone from another culture may see things more clearly than we do.
      3. We need to start speaking up when it comes to our theological conferences and publishing that it isn’t a club for white guys.

      August 18, 2014
      • And maybe even having a list of folks that aren’t white men that you offer as an alternative to yourselves when you are invited to speak – as per Rachel Held Evan’s recent post.

        August 19, 2014
  3. froginparis #

    I would add Richard Twiss to that list.

    August 18, 2014
    • There are tons who should be added to that list. It was off the top of my head.

      August 18, 2014
  4. Jayson, thank you, thank you, thank you. White, male, American culture is not the definitive theology for the intent of Jesus’ words. You’ve given me a whole new reading list upon which to meditate. The only way the Spirit can help keep our eyes and ears open is for us to keep our hearts open and humble to His teaching.

    August 19, 2014
  5. Ryan Robinson #

    My Systematics professor – a Pentecostal woman – made the point a few times simply about how we speak about different theologies. If we say “theology” with no adjective, we mean white, male, European (or maybe North American since WWII), straight, and usually Protestant. If anybody else does theology, it gets an adjective: liberation theology, black theology, feminist, womanist, Orthodox, Catholic, mujerista, queer, and so on. It is a way that we reinforce that the white, male, European/American, straight, and Protestant is the objective baseline while the rest may have some value to them but they definitely are not equal.

    August 19, 2014
  6. Hello,
    Rescuing theology from white European males.
    This post is obviously controversial, and very true to a degree. If I said rescuing Jesus from black North American men, that is controversial also; however gives food for thought and a good debate. Myself, I think and believe we need to just concentrate on saving people by leading them to Jesus. This is the right thing to do.

    August 26, 2014
  7. Janice #

    What in the world are you trying to say here? To read this blog and following comments (especially by the women) leads me to believe I should never trust another white male ever which makes zero sense, especially since, judging by your picture, you are one.

    I really like Stephen’s last two sentences. I want to go with that.

    September 2, 2014

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