Thinking for the Sake of Thinking
With no apparent connection, two scholarly books reveal how established fields of study dealt with the push for racial revolution.
By Angela P. Dodson
Black Faith and Public Talk:
Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power
by Dwight N. Hopkins (Editor), $24.95,
Paperback, Baylor University Press
(August 2007), ISBN-10: 1602580138, ISBN-13: 978-1602580138, 262 pp.
Race Relations: A Critique
by Stephen Steinberg, $17.95, Paperback, Stanford University Press (September 2007), ISBN-10: 080475327X, ISBN-13: 978-0804753272, 208 pp.
It is merely a coincidence that these two books landed on my desk at the same time and that I read them in tandem. The more I read, the more similarities I saw and the more challenged I was by the ideas set forth.
Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins, a theology professor at the University of Chicago, edited nine essays by a roster of thinkers, including but not limited to theologians. The collection grew out of a University of Chicago conference, “Black Theology as Public Discourse: From Retrospect to Prospect,” held in April 1998 in anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the publication of James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power.
Three decades ago, Cone’s premise was that Christianity had failed to be Christian in its dealings with the Black and poor of the world and that it had evaded the mandate to seek justice and had aided/abetted White domination.
In Race Relations: A Critique, Dr. Stephen Steinberg, a professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, wrote a provocative analysis of how the field of sociology, specifically its branch on “race relations,” has dealt with, or mostly not dealt with, obvious racism and oppression in the last century or so.
As Steinberg paraphrases a comment made to him by the late, great economist Gunnar Myrdal, “What did sociology do while Rome burned?”
Both works, then, are about institutions that are, by self-identification, charged with locating and, especially in the case of religion, treating the racial, economic and social maladies of the world.
Each book examines the core missions and philosophies of those institutions over time and finds them wanting. Finally, both describe scholarly fields too often preoccupied with thinking for the sake of thinking at times of severe crisis and mostly oblivious to the real conditions of society, much less engaged in bringing about real racial change.
Cone, who earned a Ph.D. in systemic theology in 1965 from Northwestern University, and a self-described “angry Black man,” then teaching at Adrian College in Michigan, published his book in 1969. It defined liberation of the oppressed and the poor, Hopkins writes, as “the sole definition of what it meant to be a Christian” and argued, “Jesus was God, becoming human for the poor, the marginalized and the broken-hearted.” Until that time, the book argued, organized religion took a kid-glove, mostly hands-off, approach to civil rights, human suffering and injustice.
“It was as if Cone had entered a dark bell tower, stumbled, accidentally pulled a bell rope and awakened the entire village population,” Hopkins says in the introduction. “The reverberation of the bell, inadvertently pulled, not only changed the course of theology and our perception and belief in God, it also impacted the global process of doing theology.”
Voices as sharp and as distinct as those of Princeton professor Cornel West, Yale law professor/novelist Stephen L. Carter, Columbia history professor Manning Marable, Roman Catholic sister and theologian Jamie T. Phelps, Baptist pastor J. Alfred Smith Sr. and biblical professor Silvia Regina de Lima Silva examine what has happened inside our churches since then. Something, but not enough, appears to be the consensus.
Cone addressed the conference, April 4, 1998, on the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the collection ends with his remarks.
“The challenge for Black theology in the 21st century is to develop an enduring race critique that is so comprehensively woven into Christian understanding that no one will be able to forget the horrible crimes of White supremacy in the modern world,” he challenges.
For Steinberg’s study, the moment of truth came in the 1963 presidential address to the American Sociological Association in which Everett Hughes pondered why those in his discipline did “not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate, full integration into American society?”
Ironically, Steinberg notes, Hughes asks this on the day those actively engaged in the civil rights movement were advancing on the threshold of the establishment at the March on Washington. That speech apparently did not reverberate as loudly as Cone’s book. Neither was it the turning point it could have been, Steinberg argues.
Steinberg describes sociology as “a discipline that did not want to see the big picture,” lulled into subjective blindness by ignorance and wishful thinking. He concludes that sociologists “have used the tools of science, with its mystique of objectivity, to defend White supremacy and to advance their own ethnic projects.”
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