There was an underlying seriousness to it, but at the time it was almost tongue-in-cheek.
I am referring to an event during my first year in seminary—1986 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. My particular seminary class had more women than men and as we began taking Reformed Theology classes many of us, led by the women, started referring to the class as “European white male theology.” I remember at the time seeing their point, but having no interest in signing on as a rebel for the cause.
But I loved theology.
San Francisco Theological Seminary is part of the eight-member Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Twice a week I took the van over to Berkeley to take classes in theology at one of our sister seminaries. I dove into feminist theology and liberation theology. I took classes on the theology and philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I immersed myself in the theologies that developed post-Holocaust in both Christian and Jewish traditions. I surveyed process theology and theologies rooted in co-creation models.
As I graduated, I came away with one distinctly clear revelation—
- All theology is contextual.
- All theology is seen through the particular experience of those who write it.
I recalled that this past week as I watched a program referred to me from one of our congregation’s members. She has been trying to understand the issue of structural racism in the church. The one-hour program, White Savior: Racism in the American Church, reminded me of those early comments in seminary when we teasingly but seriously started referring to Reformed Theology as European white male theology.
The program (link here) highlighted how any theology that wanders from what we consider the norm gets a descriptor before it. Thus, theology written by women is not just theology, but it is feminist theology. Theology by and about the black female experience is womanist theology. Theology from base communities in Latin America is liberation theology. Theology by gay and lesbian persons is queer theology.
But theology that is written through a Western European male lens gets to just be called theology. We think of it as the norm. Any other theology is labeled as an alternative. Any other theology is read with the disclaimer “Demographic bias assumed.”
Only European white male theology doesn’t have to reveal its context or offer a disclaimer of cultural, gender, or socioeconomic bias. Only white theology gets a pass on having to reveal its European imperialistic colonizing patriarchal roots.
I know some who read this are going to feel an attack on their faith. I do not mean it that way. My only attack is on the ongoing assumption that we are the only people who don’t have to name the specific context of our theology.
We can no longer dismiss the theology of others by saying, “Well, it’s the feminist perspective or the black perspective or the marginalized perspective or the gay perspective or the new age perspective” without also admitting that ours is the privileged perspective. Our perspective has been shaped by generations of white privilege rooted in an assumption that an imperialistic colonizing patriarchal society mirrored an imperialistic colonizing patriarchal God.
Saying we have a white theology is not a put down. It’s a descriptor.
We are not the norm. But, we are the powerful and the privileged. And that is the context of white theology.
We don’t own theology.
We only own our European imperialistic colonizing patriarchal version of it.
If we require others to name the context of their theology then we have to do the same thing.
The future of America depends on it.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
In Memory of Breonna Taylor and all who feel their lives don’t matter.