Guest post by harry samuels
As I was reading further and further into Dr. Kimberly K Smith’s African American Environmental Thought, I cam across the section of the first chapter whose heading read “Slave Cosmology” which discussed a number of points related to this topic and , as one might predict, included their brand of Christianity. Observe the following:
“ [Lawrence Levine] contends that slave religion reflects a fundamentally African consciousness. He points to evidence that slaves retained many of their animistic beliefs, synchronizing them with the folk beliefs of white Americans. The persistence of African beliefs made slaves’ version of Christianity distinctive. Slave religion, according to Levine, does not differentiate material and spiritual reality as sharply as does the Christianity of white Americans. Rather, like West African animistic beliefs, slave religion conceptualizes the spiritual and material world as intertwined. Spirits inhabit this world alongside men and animals, rather than transcending it. Eugene Genovese, elaborating on this point, argues that ‘African ideas place man himself and therefore his Soul within nature, ‘ and that Christian slaves similarly rejected ‘other-worldly’ understandings of the soul and Heaven. For example, he contends that references to Heaven in slave spirituals should be interpreted as referring to both a spiritual condition and a physical place (such as the North) where slaves would enjoy freedom.”
Now, if you ask me, this sounds awfully similar , in some ways, to what our Emergent friends like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell are trying to drive American Christians to – embracing the the wonder/the Divine intrinsic to life and what’s around us and making Christianity less about some Pie In The Sky faith about getting into a far-off celestial city. But how many Christians ( or Americans period) know this about Christian slave beliefs!? Oh and let’s not forget about Peter Rollins – the existential theologian with a penchant for intellectual snobbery. Based on his last little snafu with a female theologian blogger and the general trend for white Emergent church leaders’ disdain for any practice of Christianity they deem to be too “primitive” or lacking their own standard of “intellectual rigor”, Peter Rollins, nor any other of the Emergent church “fathers” would even BEGIN to look , let alone take seriously the theology of Christian slaves. Now before you say that I’m just ranting just to rant, re-read the quote above, and then read the following quote from one of Peter Rollins’s blog posts on www.peterrrollins.net ,
“In contrast to this the work of theologian Paul Tillich reveals a different approach. For rather than seeing the sacred as some distinct thing (even the greatest thing), one can see it as the name we give to the affirmation of a depth dimension that can be found in all things.
In this way one does not attempt to place the sacred alongside reason, ethics or aesthetics, but rather sees the sacred affirmed in our heartfelt commitment to these. From this perspective, insofar as we affirm the world as wonderful, we express the sacred. It is as we show loving care and concern for existence, and as we participate fully in life, we proclaim the sacred even if we are not aware of it. This is somewhat similar to the way that everything we see proclaims the existence of light even though we likely have no direct cognizance of the light (for we are focused on what the light illuminates).”
Read the full post here
Or look, even THIS post – about modern notions of the divine and demonic being separate from reality
Sure, it was Christianity fused with animism, but the result was a form of Christianity that was as tangible to them as God became through Incarnation. My point in all of this is the fact that in all of an existentialist’s thoughts and scenarios and constructs, could it not all be alleviated by simply LISTENING to people whose experiences are radically different from your own? If we think about how some existentialists arose in response to the horrors of World War II , we might note their anguish and complete loss of hope in everything- when really that everything what just modernity. Wasn’t math, science, and reason ( enlightenment values) suppose to solve all our woes? Wasn’t it about progressing humanity- as time moved on and we amassed more reason and knowledge, wasn’t mankind supposed to get smarter/ more reasonable? The glaring fact of the matter was that World War II ( or war as a human practice in general) was seen as very unreasonable. There could be no rationalization for the horrors wrought by (from help and math and science, mind you)such things as the Holocaust and/or bombings.
The brand of existentialism then ( and the brand that Rollins and friends stick most closely to) that arose in response to this, grew out of cynicism , skepticism, if not utter disdain for enlightenment values of modernity. To them, we had seen it all, we had made as much progress as we could have made and figured it all out, so for this to be the result, must mean that reason and certainty are tenuous and there really can be no certainty. These thoughts they processed without considering the experiences of the people marginalized by the malaise of modernity- the Jews, the African slaves, the Native Americans,etc. I can not help but feel that some existential crises could be abated by simply listening to more voices than those you’ve been exposed to all your life. For these reasons, I am beginning to believe that perhaps existentialism is primarily the burden of the modern white man.