“Black Theological Education and Liberalism, and The Shortcomings of Conservative and Evangelical Seminaries and Divinity Schools” (Part I)
The majority of black theologians and biblical scholars, and clergy in the United States are trained in the nation’s most liberal seminaries and Divinity schools, resulting in serious weaknesses in theological thinking, biblical exegesis, and ministerial practices in black congregations.
While those institutions may provide considerable advantageous resources, better networking, and human support and connection, contributing to a solid intellectual (theological) education of the future black scholar and minister towards the common good, some of these theological and ministerial centers have fostered in modern black theological education a distinctive expression of black theological liberalism and a crisis in black theological thought that bluntly reject biblical authority and the exclusive salvific message of the Gospel through Christ’s satisfactory atonement through his shed blood, and interrogate the relevance of the historic confessions of the Christian faith in black life and black ethical practices in the contemporary moments.
Nonetheless, as any theological worldview, there are many merits of or good things we can learn from Black theological liberalism. First, Black theological liberalism in the contemporary intellectual enterprise accentuates the imperative of black freedom and black agency in a society that constantly doubts the value of black existence and challenges the merit of black dignity and humanity. Second, this theological category or system seeks to promote the hoslitic welfare of black people and sustain the notion that the black life in the modern American society is worth safeguarding and that black people as a collective (human) race deserves the protection and care, not the constant surveillance and monitoring of the black body or existence, of the American government. Third, black theologians operating within the tradition of black theological liberalism embrace the promises of the Social Gospel Movement to envision an alternative life for black folk in America in which equal opportunity and access to better employment and housing opportunity, better education, healthcare, job promotion, and economic mobility are also granted to them. Fourth, Black theological liberalism draws from a wealth of sources and traditions for theological reflection and imagination, and the Bible is not its sole authority in matters of faith and practice. Finally, this theological tradition in black highlights black voices and agency, as well as those of non-European theological traditions and canons in the theological exegesis of the Biblical text and theological eisegesis of the contemporary American culture toward black and human flourishing.
Moreover, the five-fold tenets of Black theological liberalism, which I proposed above, are both the direct and by-products of non-conservative and liberal seminaries and institutions, which train most of black theologians and clergy in the United States. In the same line of reasoning, there are at least five major reasons accounting for the (Black) preference to be educated and formed in non-Evangelical and conservative schools:
1. Lack of racial diversity and inclusion, and faculty and leadership representation in the faculty-staff body of these schools.
2. A closed theological curriculum or program that does not represent the rich diversity and plurality of Christian scholarship and thought, considering the manifold contributions of a wide-range of Christian thinkers (i.e. Black, Hispanic, Asian, non-White European descent) to the Christian ministry and the discipline of theology and religious studies–even within the Orthodox theological (Evangelical) tradition.
3. The human dynamic and atmosphere in those schools are not often welcoming and friendly to the so-called minority students and students of color; some black students believe their presence is not wanted in these closed circles.
4. Black students and students of color are interested in non-Evangelical and non-conservative schools because of the promise of future and better employment opportunity (especially to those who are preparing for a career in the academia as professors and school administrators), greater financial funding and support, the educational and intellectual prestige associated with those schools such as Harvard Divinity schools, Union Theological Seminary, Boston School of Theology, Candler School of Theology, University of Chicago Divinity School, etc., and the close affiliation of (named) seminaries and divinity schools, for example, with renowned (named) universities and world-class faculty.
5. Unlike most Evangelical and Conservative seminaries and Divinity schools, most non-conservative and liberal schools intentionally pursue greater gender and racial inclusion in their faculty-staff make-up, promote and incorporate greater ethnic diversity and plurality of thought, worldview, and praxis in theological education and ministerial formation, and they train their students in the highest rigor of the social sciences and the humanities, critical theory, and multicultural education; also, these schools strategically and ideologically prepare their students to become cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and intersectional Christian activists, human rights advocates, public intellectuals, social critics, scholars, and ministers and pastors.
As a black Christian minister and (Evangelical) theologian who embraces the historic confessions of the Christian faith, I value many of the merits and benefits of Black theological liberalism, as they address serious issues of equality, fairness, justice, representation, and equity in our culture and theological schools. These are also Gospel issues. On the other hand, there lies a profound dilemma in black theological education, black theological thinking, and ministerial practice, which are arguably a direct failure of Evangelical and conservative seminaries and institutions.
I hope the leadership of those (conservative) schools would be intentional about the theological training and ministerial formation of black seminarians and students of color, which could eventually contribute to more effective and biblically-centered black christian leadership and ministers, as well as strong and healthy black and ethnic churches in this country.