Friday, June 20, 2014

He's Losing His Accent

In Christ There Is No
Black or White

Jemar Tisby has followed up his June 16 Blog on the need for an indigenous African American Reformed movement (to which I on June 17 responded) with the June 17 Losing Your Cultural Accent.

A few comments:

(1) Though the title uses the metaphor of "accent," he introduces also the metaphors of "dialect" and "language" to express his concern. I cannot tell whether the use of three metaphors gives away lack of crystallized thought or a confliction about the best metaphor (accent has to do with the way one speaks a language, e.g. Southern accent; dialect with a distinct way of speaking and writing a language, e.g. Black dialect; and language with whole systems of communication involving elements such as a distinct vocabulary, word order, grammar, spelling, and sometimes alphabets peculiar to a country or region or ethnic group, e.g. the Greek language). But Mr. Tisby's concern is clear - the difference between historic Reformed theology and African American cultural thought and speech. 
Culture is a lot like language.  Most of us grow up as native speakers of one language.  A few blessed people are bilingual or become fluent in even more languages.  Any of us can learn an additional language, but it takes intense study, constant practice, and it gets more difficult as you get older.  Most of the time complete immersion is the best way to learn a new language. 
If culture is like language, then as an African American exploring Reformed expressions of theology, I am acutely aware that I may be losing my cultural accent. 
When I learn Reformed doctrines in the cultural language of middle class, educated, white males I am learning a language that, if not completely foreign, has a far different dialect and accent than the people I desire to serve.  And there’s nothing wrong with speaking a different cultural language.  It’s no more wrong than speaking Italian or Greek or French.  It’s just the way we understand each other in our own cultures.
Reformed theology, as Mr. Tisby learned it, uses the cultural language of "middle class, educated, white males." Looked at as the language of a particular culture Reformed theology  is like a literal foreign language, neither good nor bad. You can learn to read it and even to speak it.

But it is not the language of all. For those to whom Mr. Tisby plans to minister Reformed theology "if not completely foreign, has a far different dialect and accent..." I am not clear if Mr. Tisby, who is from Illinois, got his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, and is student at Reformed Theological Seminary, considers himself to have studied in classrooms where he could understand the language (or dialect), though it never felt so comfortable to him as his native tongue (or dialect) or whether, while the language is natural for him, it is not for those to whom he hopes to minister.

(2) If Mr. Tisby is clear about his concern, he seems less than clear about what Reformed theology is:
We can trace Reformed theology all the way back to the Bible.  After all, most of us believe that Reformed theology is simply biblical theology.  But the theology we generally reference as “Reformed’ is highly influenced by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and later periods.
John Calvin
What is Reformed theology other than the theology of the Protestant Reformation in general and of the "Reformed Reformation" (distinguished from the "Lutheran Reformation") of Calvin and his heirs in particular? Yes, the theology is Biblical in the sense that the Reformers studied the Bible and sought to "re-form" the theology (as well as worship and life) according to the Bible. But the reality is that, while Reformed theology is not disconnected from the historical development of theology from the age of the Apostles to the 16th century, there was no such thing as Reformed theology until the Reformation and the writing of such theologies as Calvin's Institutes and confessions such as the Second Helvetic, Belgic, and Westminster. There is no other Reformed theology.

(3) Mr. Tisby calls attention about those who produced Reformed theology:

...Reformed doctrines in the cultural language of middle class, educated, white males
Throughout its history systematic, written formulations of Reformed theology have been overwhelmingly produced by white, educated, Anglo males.  In expressing Reformed theology they did so in their native cultural language.  When you try to use those same cultural expressions in another context, though, much is lost in translation.
Yes, written formulations (more on this below) of Reformed theology have been produced overwhelmingly by (a) white, (b) middle class (c) educated (d) males. But Calvin was most certainly not (e) Anglo. Who else could have produced Reformed theology? Caucasians inhabited Europe where the Reformation took place. The Reformers were, I suppose, to use modern classifications, among the middle class, though it would be more accurate to put them in the "educated class." They were educated - who but educated people can produce creeds, confessions, and theologies? They were males - could they have been females who were generally not educated and who at any rate were not called to be pastors and doctors of the church?  They certainly were not all Anglos, but in Britain who but Anglo-Saxons might have produced Westminster Confession? It is worth noting, that the Apostle Paul, while like Calvin not an Anglo, was a middle class, Caucasian, educated male.

(4) What are the characteristics of the cultural language (or dialect) of Reformed theology?

What are the components of traditional Reformed cultural language? One component is that it is written. Not much of the theology we call Reformed has been passed down in oral form. And as Dr. Carl Ellis teaches, it is a theology that emphasizes the cognitive and epistemological dimensions of theology whereas other cultural languages give prominence to the ethical and intuitive side. The technical jargon used may be alien to many outside of traditional Reformed circles. The questions that Reformed theologians address, oftentimes focused on issues of personal salvation and holiness, may give short shrift to issues of systemic and institutional injustice that affect others more acutely.
    (a) It is a written, not oral, tradition. Just one question: What is the Bible? Even if there were oral traditions that preceded the writing of parts of the Bible, God's Word, in the only way we have access to it, is written. One of the reasons God has given his Word in written form is that we have as he intended it. Oral tradition is not reliable as a testimony to what was said in the past. Ever play the game where everyone sits in a circle and passes around a simple statement? What comes out can bear very little resemblance to what went in. 

   (b) It emphasizes the cognitive and epistemological dimensions of theology in contrast with other approaches that emphasize the ethical and intuitive. (1) I wonder how one can say that Reformed theology is not concerned with ethics. Have   Dr. Ellis and Mr. Tisby noticed the place the Ten Commandments and their exposition have in the Reformed tradition? Have they read Murray's Principles of Conduct? (2) Then, what is meant by intuitive? Intuition has a role in all areas of thought. One has a sense of certain connections, answers, solutions. But it is not enough to intuit these things. These intuitions have to be tested. The intuition that giving a person a person a dead or weakened bacteria might prevent contraction of the disease has to be tested by experimentation. A commander may "see" a battle plan by intuition, but then it has to be put on paper, staffed, and reduced to orders. The intuition of the doctrine of the Trinity as as the way to account for what the Bible teaches about God has to be tested by rigorous study of the Bible and rational debate and then put into written creedal form.  (3) What is meant by "cognitive and epistemological"? Cognition is about knowing and epistemological about how we know (theories of knowing).  What one "knows" whether correct or incorrect may be be arrived at by an epistemology of intuition as well as deduction. But you can't avoid cognition and epistemology. (4) I would be happy to be corrected, but I think the real issue has to do with rationality and the western tradition. Mr. Tisby can reject this. He is free to say this is the way white people handle theology. But then he needs to tell us what he would put in its place. Intuition? Feeling? Oral traditon? That can produce a civilization and culture. But can it produce something the equal of western civilization and culture? I feel not. I intuit not. I think not.

   (c) Reformed theology has technical jargon that may be alien to those who are not part of it. (1) It is not just Reformed theology but the Bible and all Christian theology that has technical language. "Of the same substance." "Trinity." "Justification." "Propitiation." (2) All theology's including Reformed theology's technical jargon challenges even those who were brought up more or less in it. "Ubiquity." "Aseity." "Real presence." "Lapsarian." "Supererogation." (3) All fields require knowledge and understanding of technical jargon. Chemistry and physics, for instance, have technical jargon that is at least as foreign to me as Greek. But, if I want to understand them, I will have to learn the technical jargon. Getting rid of the technical jargon in those fields would destroy them. 

   (d) Reformed theologians have been more concerned with questions of personal salvation and holiness than with issues of systemic and institutional injustice that affect others more acutely. (1) Mr. Tisby does more than compare apples and oranges. It is more like the comparison of apples and beef cattle. The category of systemic and institutional injustice is not of a category similar to, though different, the category of personal salvation and holiness. I will say it boldly: God is far more concerned with personal salvation and holiness than with systemic and institutional injustice. (2) The rich young ruler asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The jailer asked, "What must I do to be saved?" Those questions have to do with personal salvation, not racism or political oppression - of which there was plenty in the New Testament era. The New Testament institutional concerns are about the church - what is it, who is in it, how many are there? The New Testament concerns about systems deal with marriage (husbands and wives), family (parents and children),  households (masters and slaves), and politics (government and citizens), and in each case the issue is with how Christians conduct themselves in those systems. (3) Today there are those who think Augustine and then the Reformers got it wrong about personal salvation. The New Perspective, liberation theology, the social gospel. But the Bible has the twin concerns of personal salvation and of receiving, growing in, experiencing that salvation within the corporate life of the church.   

(5) Mr. Tisby's concern in this follow-up piece, is, as it was in his orginal Blog, is for an indigenous African American Reformed movement and theology that will be arrived at by employing different methods. 
But anyone seeking to do cross-cultural ministry, especially those like African Americans who share a hard and distinctive history, must be vigilant about keeping up with their native cultural language. It is easy to spend so much time immersed in an environment that when we emerge we find that we’ve lost the ability to effectively communicate with our own culture.

African Americans, like all cultural groups, must stay in tune with the core concerns of their own kinsmen. They must learn what questions different sub-cultures of Black people are asking. They must use the theological tools they gained in a culturally foreign land and bring them to bear on the issues that most affect their home culture. And they must learn to read the Bible in a new cultural language without forgetting their first cultural language. Too many gifted African Americans have been rendered unintelligible to their own communities because they learned theology in a foreign cultural language and forgot their native tongue.

We can appreciate and even enjoy learning Reformed theology from its current cultural perspective. There is much to appreciate in Reformed theology as it stands. But as we ethnic and cultural minorities seek to do theology in our native contexts we must be intentional about spending time with the people like the ones we want to serve. In this way we can become culturally bilingual and move between multiple cultures expressing God’s truth in the heart languages of many.
The end of all this is that, while some like Mr. Tisby will be able to understand and move between white and African American cultures, for most African Americans there will be two methods, two sets of concerns (with overlaps), and two theologies (one written and rational, the other perhaps oral and intuitive). One for white people, the other for Black people.

As I pointed out in my previous Blog, Mr. Tisby's concerns are directed not just at classical Reformed theology but at historic catholic Christian theology. Not just Westminster but Nicaea.

But one wonders how this will work out for those like Mr. Tisby who are in the Presbyterian Church in America. Will it mean leaving to form an African American church? Will it mean establishing non-geographical African American presbyteries akin to the Korean presbyteries? 

I think it means that the hour of worship will continue to be the most segregated hour in America. It is difficult to see how it does not mean two churches whether de jure or de facto. One for African Americans, one for whites. And I thought the Apostles settled that decisively when they dealt with Jews and Gentiles. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all - and all that.

My wife and I grew up in the redneck part of
Florida (called by some Lower Alabama), but our teachers were determined that we would learn English as it was taught in the textbooks of vocabulary and grammar. One of the things we learned was how English words are supposed to be pronounced. The preferred or standard (pe-can') and sometimes secondary (pee'-can) pronunciations of words were right there in the vocabulary book. You might have grown up saying "hep," or "thar" but you learned that you were mispronouncing "help" and "there." You might sometimes lapse, inadvertently or purposely, into your old pronunciation (not pro-nounce-iation), but you knew you were wrong, and those who tried to teach you better thought not that you were going back to your roots but that you were going backwards in your education.
Mr. Tisby's direction is not forward but backwards.

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