White Theology

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.

19 thoughts on “White Theology

  1. Wow, Brian! Thanks for your succinct and thoughtful explanation. Clarifies a lot of things, and so important to keep in mind (and not just concerning theology).

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  2. I have finally read your blog on White European imperialistic colonizing privileged theology. I don’t have any issues with it, because no issues were presented in my view. It was a simple truth-naming exercise.

    To me, there are issues that ensue once we acknowledge this truth. How guilty are we to feel, having been privileged? For how long? What are we to do to make reparations? How much? What fears do we entertain about the potential vengeance due us? How do we defend ourselves against these fears? Are they realistic? What may we have to give up? Can we? Will we? And so on. I would like to see the conversation continue at this deeper level.

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  3. I’ve never been comfortable with the descriptors ahead of theology, like liberation, feminist, etc. They seemed to delegitimize and demean. Glad to get a clear picture of why I was bothered. Excellent thinking and description. I’ll pass this one on. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, Jim. It is helpful to hear that those descriptors never sounded quite right to you. It points to the disparity that we have allowed to fester.

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  4. Brian,
    I am new to the area, a retired pastor who was ordained in 1988. I am still a member of another Presbytery, however I have been reading and enjoying your blog on a regular basis. Yes, I’ve been a silent observer. But ok, I’ll put my two cents in for you. Your “White Theology” blog speaks truth, plain and simple. It’s time we stopped worrying about who we may offend, and speak the truth for all those who have been discounted and overlooked in what is a theological caste system. A breath of fresh air to hear from a Presbyter! Thank you!

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    1. Welcome, Phyllis, to our region and presbytery. I really appreciated your comment about it being “truth, plain and simple.” It’s one of the things I have learned to trust over the years. If some seems to true to me then I should trust God to honor it in one way or another.

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  5. I have never understood why, for example, some people had an ethnicity and others didn’t. If we’re going to sort humans on some descriptor, we all need to go into a bin. If not, let’s all be in this enterprise together.

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  6. Every time I think I understand something, you show up to shed a different and important light on it. One thing that is getting to me is the perhaps just criticism of some speakers of truth about racism whose talk is so heavily weighted in guilt-producing concepts. Out of guilt often comes shame, and I don’t believe any good comes out of feeling shame, having nearly drowned in that particular muck many times.

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