Picture
Picture

Divinity School professor leads
revival of black theology
 

In his Swift Hall office, Dwight N. Hopkins sits surrounded by shelves of theological texts, illuminated by sunshine on one of Januaryís few bright days. The words of the 45-year-old U of C associate professor of theology may be softly spoken but their meaning is full of fire and brimstone, for the intent of his subject-black theologyís not about holding back. "The majority of churches are losing sight of their mission," he says.

 ìA lot of churches are in survival mode or focused on a theology of prosperity. What they arenít doing is talking about a prophetic word and witness for the least in society-because that would involve taking the risk of becoming politicized. The challenge is to take the risk."
Hopkins plans to pose that challenge to a group of scholars from a variety of disciplines and universities at the Divinity Schoolís first national conference on black theology. Organized by Hopkins, "Black Theology as Public Theology: From Retrospect to Prospect" is scheduled for April 2 & 3 and will be open to the public. Presenters will include Stephen Carter, a professor at Yale Law School; Emilie M. Townes, AB'77, AM'79, DMN'82, a professor at St. Paul School of Theology; Rebecca Chopp, PhD'83, the provost of Emory; and Gay- raud Wilmore, a professor emeritus of Atlantaís Interdenominational Theological Center and a founder of the discipline.
ìI thought it was important to pull together the founders and leaders of black theology with voices from other disciplines to debate the issue," says Hopkins, an ordained American Baptist minister. "This is going to be a sober assessment of black theology in the last 30 years and where we go from today. I think we will be surprised and challenged by what we hear."
Black theology emerged, as Hopkins explains, on July 31, 1966, when black church leaders published an ad in the New York Times seeking to link Christianity with the goals of the Black Power movement. The statement was signed by some 48 members of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, now named the National Conference of Black Christians. Gayraud Wilmore, then a preacher at United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in New York, was among those who signed the manifesto. The church leaders called on black civic and religious groups to take a stronger stand on issues affecting black Americans.
"We must move from the politics of philanthropy to the politics of metropolitan development for equal opportunity," the committee declared.
The ad was followed three years later by what has become the touchstone text of black theology-Black Theology and Black Power, by James H. Cone. The Divinity School conference celebrates the upcoming 30th anniversary of the book, which sharply distilled the tenets of black theology: Christianity is concerned with the liberation of the world's least powerful populations, and the least powerful are blacks and the poor. Cone, now a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, will give the Divinity Schoolís Aims of Religion Address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel following the conference on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Cone's text galvanized the country on this issue," Hopkins says. "It was as if Cone were in a chapel tower, and stumbled, and grabbed the cord that rang the bell the whole village heard."
In the 1970s, Hopkins continues, black theology moved from preachers" pulpits into ivory towers as academics began to further articulate its meaning. Then in the 1980s, he says, the movement expanded to encompass the distinctive voices of black women writers, theologians, and philosophers, such as Emilie Townes, who created what is now known as "womanist theology."
"The study has begun to mature and broaden from the issue of race," says Hopkins. "Today black theologians are also raising issues related to ecology, gender, sexual orientation, AIDS, physical challenges, and the globalization of public policy. We do not have a one-note constituency."
Hopkins" own work has focused on identifying the roots of black theology and on recurring issues of faith and justice in the history of the black church. Born in Richmond, Virginia, Hopkins received his B.A. from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary, where he studied under Cone. Before joining the Divinity School faculty in 1996, he taught at Santa Clara University.
In Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology (Orbis Books, 1993), Hopkins explains the grounding of todayís black theology in slave religion, black womenís spirituality, black cultural folklore, and the social visions of major black political leaders, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and King. He challenges the modern church to reflect on the movementís original goals, writing: "With some exceptions, white and black churches have failed to respond to the conservative consolidation of structural dislocation of African American and poor people in the United States. Too many white churches tend to retreat into the realms of "we're not so bad" and "thank God we have a place to feel good." Though victims of systemic racial discrimination, most African American churches fall short in identifying evil and Godís presence in larger social analyses and visions. Preaching promises of a better life in the hereafter and fostering the (impossible) possibility of sharing a piece of the American pie miss the Christian mark."
More recently, Hopkins has co-edited Changing Conversations: Religious Reflection and Cultural Analysis (Routledge, 1996), a collection of essays in which he argues that theologians should reflect not only on lofty philosophical questions aimed at explaining the meaning of life. They should also, he suggests, borrow from the social sciences methods of cultural inquiry that lead them to a specific understanding of how the poor and the marginalized actually live their lives.
"Rarely is there a separation between the reputed secular and sacred worlds; instead, all life is religious," he writes. "Ultimate concerns reside in the flesh of everyday life."
Currently, Hopkins is working on two more books, both due out next year. His Introduction to Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books) will seek to explain black theology to a mass audience. Constructive Black Theology from Slave Religious Experience (Fortress Press) will draw on history to show how black Americans can construct self-affirming identities from their religious and cultural heritage. In addition, Hopkins plans to edit a book compiling the lectures of the Divinity School conference speakers.
"I'm concerned that there is historical amnesia about the whole point of black theology," he says. I want to clarify where it came from. My agenda is to facilitate a conversation among black students, clergy, faculty, administrators, other scholars, and the larger public beyond two days in April 1998."-C.S.

[Revival] [Fat Goes Cerebral] [A Heavenly Halo] [Codes of Conduct] [Citations]