Theologizing without Accountability

jordan-davis-picOn occasion, I’ve heard academics complain about “popular” authors and bloggers who pontificate on theological issues without being formally accountable to the academy or to an ecclesiastical institution. A serious Christian intellectual should be writing in peer-reviewed journals and should earn their stripes within the guild. It would take hubris to make grand pronouncements while ignoring the literature and important conversations that already exist. Beyond a self-invested smugness, I’ve heard a genuine concern about accountability in these types of rants. How can we think and speak responsibly apart from communities of accountability? This complaint, made by some academics, has pushed me to think more broadly about theology and accountability. I agree that accountability is important. Nevertheless, I think that the typical complaints reinforce problematic assumptions. The critics tend to assume that the academic guilds and ecclesiastical institutions, of which they are a part, provide sufficient accountability. Yet, what does accountability mean when the majority of these institutions have historically been centered around white masculinity? Does accountability to circles comprised almost exclusively of white male Christians really count as accountability?

I’ve come to see that you can’t theologize for everyone unless you are willing to be accountable to different communities. How can one think and speak responsibly without attempting to connect with groups of people who don’t look or experience the world exactly like you? How accountability is practiced and what forms it takes is another important conversation to have, but the very attempt at it is crucial.

I started to become seriously concerned about many Christian leaders and thinkers because I began to notice that they, by all appearances, theologize without accountability to communities of color, women, and sexual minorities. It suddenly dawned on me: some of these individuals can continue to publish and publicly speak about “Christianity” with a great degree of professional success without ever seriously thinking about black or brown people. In other words, they can continue to be guild gatekeepers and headline conferences representing “American Christianity” without ever learning from or being challenged by the voices of different Christians. If silences are statements, then the unilateral Christianity of some public theologians/philosophers is confirmed by their loquacity on contemporary issues and silence on stuff that happens to women and darker folks in America. Such theologizing, even when it claims to be for the common good, only perpetuates—to borrow a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates—“the irrelevance of black life.” 

In the academy, contextual/liberation theologies—instead of being seen as important for everyone and intersecting with all identities—are still often ignored or consigned to an ideological ghetto. The faith and traditions of Latino/a and Asian Christians et al. are reduced to being a niche topic, reserved for the small amount of minorities that trickle through academic guilds. Even when diversity is embraced, it is managed and marginalized as a peripheral ornament that orbits around a truly "substantial" and "rigorous" center. Yet, we as minorities have no choice but to engage the classical canon, the white-Anglo streams of evangelicalism, Radical Orthodoxy, Protestant liberalism, Post-liberalism, and the Christian speakers/writers of the majority culture, if we are to be taken seriously by the “mainstream.” Minorities who inhabit most Christian institutions in America are constantly accountable to white men; we always have been. Now, to be clear, I am not dismissing white men or their theology. After all, some of my best friends and favorite books come from that tradition, and I have spent a good portion of my life patiently listening to and learning from them. What I am opposed to is a form of accountability that is egregiously unequal. Neither am I trying to dismiss the academy, or ecclesiastical institutions, per se. Those believers who practice a freelance Christianity outside of institutions are not necessarily better at being accountable to communities of color. What I’m saying is not attempting to pit the popular blogger against the academic scholar but trying to highlight the danger of narrow, insulated Christian networks across all lines.

Some theologians will say that they don’t have enough time to engage the theological conversations of these other communities, that this is not their area of expertise or concentration. Subtext of excuses translated: “I don’t have enough time to think about Latino/as; I will let the women think about women.” Accountability does not mean expertise or concentration, but it does mean an engagement and openness to others. Being accountable to others does not mean arriving at a simple agreement or consensus, but it does involve openness to being changed.

A theologizing/philosophizing that is not accountable to different communities cannot be catholic, in the sense of “universal.” I think that it is a mistake to reduce the meaning of catholicity to a cluster of historic beliefs and practices. Catholicity in the church is also about Jesus’ call for people to love one another. A Christianity that ignores the faith and theological witness of women, gays, and Native Americans, can be considered catholic only in a hollow sense.

At this point, someone may object: “Instead of talking about all this accountability to different and diverse communities, why don’t you just make yourself accountable to the bible? The bible is what we are all accountable to.” Scripture, itself, testifies to our need for accountability. The new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples is that they love one another (John 13). Additionally, the story of the early church in Acts can be read as the story of cultural struggles between Jewish and Gentile Christians as they attempt to become accountable to one another. After initially resisting the gentile branch of the church, it is Peter who confesses: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). In our theologizing, we need to be accountable to different and diverse communities because we are called to love one another. Ultimately, dismissing or ignoring the witness of different Christians resists the work of the Holy Spirit.

Theologizing without accountability is a dangerous thing. Theologies, in this country, that are ungrounded, free-floating, completely disconnected from the black and brown bodies of America will remain complicit and unable to respond to the violence perpetrated on these bodies. If one’s entire theology, entire corpus, and entire public commentary can stand as if little black boys or immigrants (or the planet we live on) didn't exist, something is wrong. Acknowledging and talking about privilege isn’t much. What are you going to do about it?