| Aug 19, 2014
BY SEKHMET RA EM KHT MAAT (MCALLISTER) Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by Sekhmet Ra Em Kht Maat (McAllister), a second-year Master of Arts in Religion student at Louisville Seminary. Having completed graduate studies at Temple University in the Department of African American Studies, Sekhmet’s teaching and research interests include traditional African cosmologies and philosophies, Africana queer theology and African-centered theory and methodology for Africana studies.
Can an African-centered theology serve the spiritual and socio-cultural needs of African American Christians? Jawanza Eric Clark, a 2008 Ph.D. degree recipient from Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, writing in his 2012 Indigenous Black Theology: Toward an African-centered Theology of the African American Religious Experience
, seems to think so. In just under two hundred pages and across five chapters, Clark builds his argument toward an African-centered theology that is grounded in an Akan theological anthropology, defining the relationship between the human condition, ancestors and the creator within the philosophy of the Akan of Ghana, West Africa. In doing so, Clark outlines a theology that, in his estimation, is a radical departure from the Protestant Christian “doctrine of sin and the doctrine of Jesus Christ as exclusive savior.”1
Because for Clark, “the belief that human beings are born with an ontological defect is (in fact) alien and antithetical to all indigenous West African religions.”2
Therefore, African Americans must reconsider the cultural implications of the doctrine of sin and salvation. Given this idea, Clark opens the text with a quote by Malcolm X stating, “You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself,”3
proposing a theology, then, through which he hopes African American theologians, African American Christians and African American church folk in particular can seriously begin to redefine themselves in line with an African conception of salvation and find human value, again, in the African religious thought of their ancestors.
Clark contends that African Americans suffer from a cultural and spiritual crisis that emerges from their ongoing engagement with Protestant theology. Unlike in the Caribbean and South America where the saints, symbols and rituals of Catholic enslavers fostered room for enslaved Africans to remember and transmit Akan, Yoruba, and Bakongo African religious systems across generations, the Protestant preachers, slave masters and church folk in North America attempted to curtail enslaved Africans’ incorporation of West African deities and theological constructs into Protestant liturgy and Christian life. For Clark, Protestants taught enslaved and free Africans in America, especially after the Great Awakenings, an interrelated theology that African culture, people and religions were sinful and that it was only through Jesus Christ that one could be saved from sin. As depravity, according to this theology, defines the human condition, Protestants viewed Africans in particular as heathenish creatures who were most specifically and naturally outside of the scope of salvation. Furthermore, Clarke also finds that the eighteenth and nineteenth century categories of sin, in relationship to the human condition, outlined in the doctrinal theologies of John Calvin, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, are truth-claims that even eighteenth, nineteenth and surprisingly some twentieth century Black nationalists found very difficult to refute. African American Baptist missionary John J Coles, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne, and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, for instance, were avid supporters of the Christianization of “heathen” and “uncivilized” indigenous Africans.4
Clark’s overall point in the expanse of chapters outlining African and African Americans’ relationship with Protestant theology is that it is through the Protestant doctrine of sin and salvation and its resulting anti-Africa sentiment that many twenty-first century African American theologians, clergy and church folk, similar to their Protestant and Black nationalist predecessors, continue to define and understand continental Africans in relationship to themselves. In the final analysis, for Clark, traditional African religion, cultural and spirituality remain sinful, inhumane and therefore (anti-Christ)ian for African Americans because of the Protestant doctrine of sin and salvation.
Clark’s response to this crisis is to offer an Akan theology that attempts to shift contemporary African American Christians’ thinking about sin, salvation and themselves. In his section on “Akan Anthropology,” Clark reviews the spiritual components comprising the Akan body, all of which are an extension of Nyame the creator. It is this notion of the “oneness of being” within Akan ontology and anthropology that allows for Akan people to suggest that the purpose of human existence is to reach the ancestral realm in which one continues to work on behalf of the community. Humans, then, come into existence with a destiny that is linked to the community and the creator, and humans are therefore already divine by their very existence. This is the reason why each Akan is given a Kradin
(soul name) depending on the day one is born, as each day comprises one of Nyame’s specific energetic qualities. Kwame
(biological male) and Ama
(biological female), Kradin for Saturday born, for instance, signifies the creative potential of Nyame. So the destiny of Kwame and Ama are to work out acts of creative potential within their communities. (Hence, ancestor Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, the first president of Ghana in 1957 and along with other Ghanain pan-Africanists, challenged British colonial occupation of the territory.) The idea that human beings are born in sin and are in need of salvation from sin is improbable within the Akan anthropology because the Akan worldview holds firm to the idea that human beings are spirit endowed expressions of the source of existence, that which is all oneness, all possibility and all consciousness.
Becoming an ancestor, however, requires that one lives in accordance with the most optimal ideals within the Akan cultural reality. For the Akan, this includes cultivating a balance between one’s ego and destiny, mastering one’s spirit in the face of adversity and working on behalf of the survival and sustenance of one’s community.5
This view of the human condition, then, does not require a “deity” to save one from depravity, according to Clark. Given this anthropology, Jesus becomes, for Clark, a model
of an ancestor for whom one can aspire, not unlike many African ancestors who have lived the highest ethical ideals in the midst of chaos. It is Clark’s hope, it seems, that African American theologians and church folk can find promise
in their West African ancestors by beginning to reorganize their lives in accordance with these ideals; this is salvation. Clark’s work concludes that all who are interested in bringing about salvation in their lives can seek Jesus as a model for ethical living. Indigenous Black Theology
is in direct conversation with new constructive theological projects. A new generation of African American theologians is beginning to take seriously the key role a traditional African worldview(s) plays in how African Americans can (re)create their religious lives. These new theologians are exploring the plausibility of (re)creating Christian-inspired theologies that include specific
aspects of religious thought. For instance, using the Akan term Sankofa
to ground his Christology, also writing in 2012 Brad Braxton writes that, “Christ - and by extension Christology - should be understood more as a process than a person. Rather than simply being Christ, the human Jesus faithfully yielded his life to a Christ-process that resulted in deification.” 6
What is radical here about Braxton’s Christology is that Jesus’ life-death is the process of becoming one with the Spirit (God). Likewise, challenging Christian monotheism that positions non-Christian religious traditions as the “other,” Vanderbilt educated theologian Monica Coleman critiques this rigid perspective as that which is non-pluralistic and dismissive of the multiplicities of the divinity in human experiences. Using Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy model, she concludes that the Yoruba “model of gods,” in other words, the orisha
(deities) Shango, Oya and Yemoja, for example, from within the cosmology of the Yoruba cultural grouping of Nigeria, West Africa, can open the door for theologians to become more inclusive of that which is divine and to reconsider the need for religious pluralism within twenty-first century American religious life.7
Following within this theological tradition, Clark too wishes to offer a perspective that contributes to the call for ecumenicism within Christian thought and life, urging Christians in general and African American Christians in particular to reconsider the significance of Jesus, remember themselves as Africans and redefine, then, what it means to be Christian.
As a second-year Master of Arts student with a concentration in Black Church Studies here at Louisville Seminary and as one who attempts to foster an appreciation for varying religious interpretations of God, the universe and human existence, several questions come to mind, several of which I ask our Seminary community to think about and comment on below in the comment section of the blog:
•Do African Americans in general and African American Christians in particular suffer from cultural and spiritual crisis as Clark proposes? If so, what cultural and spiritual healing could this theology provide for African American Christians, in particular, who are unfamiliar with their African ancestral cultural and spiritual traditions? Is this theology necessary?
•Is Clark’s argument and proposal of value to not only African American Christians, but to the larger Christian community who seek an ecumenical approach to building Christian community and ethical living? What would this framework add to mainline Christian theology and African American theology and ideas about freedom, destiny and human, social and personal responsibility?
•In line with the thinking one of my favorite Seminary colleagues, I ask further, if Christ becomes an ancestral exemplar for ethical Christian living, is this perspective still a Christian perspective or another belief or tradition?
I definitely do not propose to have any definitive answers, but maybe we should all think about what would Jesus say in response to Clark’s theology? Was it not Jesus who urged his Hebrew sisters and brothers to return to their most optimal ethical traditions in the face of cultural, spiritual and political colonization?
Jawanza Eric Clark, Indigenous Black Theology: Toward an African-centered Theology of the African-American Religious Experience
(New York: Palgrave, 2012), 2. 2
Ibid., 16. 3
Ibid., xvii. 4
Ibid., 46-51. 5
Brad Braxton, “’Every time I feel the spirit’: African American Christology for a Pluralistic World,” in Radical Christian Voices and Practice: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland
, ed. Zoe Bennett and David B. Gowler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 189. 7
Monica A. Coleman, “From Models of God to a Model of Gods: How Whiteheadian Metaphysics Facilitates Western Language Discussion of Divine Multiplicity,” Philosophia
35 (2007): 329-340.