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The Lack Thereof… Intellectual Black Religious Communities

I think I’m going to start a new series, not that I’ve been super successful with my others, but alas, here goes.

I know it’s pretty doom and gloom to write about the “lack thereof” particularly in the black communities of this country, or even various other cultural observances, but I do believe that if we never recognise the lack, or even recognize the absence as a lack that needs to be addressed then we’re doomed from the start.  So, for this inaugural post, I’d like to discuss the broad topic of sustainable black intellectual communities.

This has been one of my new talking points obsessions.  You know the type of thing you’re really feeling at the time that you find away to insert your various key phrases into a conversation.  At one time, it was me using the word “anti-intellectualism” another time I was referring the the “barbershop knowledge” that far to many blacks relied on for real factual information, and now I’m just going to refer to “the lack of sustainable intellectual communities in the black community.”

Same thing more or less, different words.

Now, I’ve more or less been against this anti-intellectualism from the beginning.  Once I developed my blogging voice, and as Rippa from Intersection of Madness and Reality pointed out to me on a Twitter DM, that I was indeed a writer and not necessarily a blogger, that I began to flesh out the fallacies that many of live in in the context of black communal life.

Stick with me, I’m going somewhere.

Fact of the matter is that in the black community, we’re not all that tolerant of the other.

We think we are because we so clearly identify with the Democratic National Party and many of their social ideals, but as I remembered a story posted on the FreshXpress last year, many of us will only go so far, particularly on issues of religion.  And this is my point of departure.

Brian McLaren, a name I’m sure most of my black readers have never heard of, who self-identifies as an evangelical has recently published a book entitled A New Kind of Christianity that has rocked the world of evangelical theology, specifically those who are members of the Southern Baptist fellowship.  You can read the full story as NPR covered it here, but just for excerpts sake here’s some food for thou

Consider the core evangelical belief that only Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is doomed. That may have rung true for his grandparents’ generation, he says, but not now.

“A young evangelical, Roman Catholic [or] mainline Protestant growing up in America today, if he goes to college, his roommate might be Hindu,” he says. “His roommate might be Muslim. His roommate might be Buddhist or atheist. So, suddenly the ‘other’ is sleeping across the room.”

McLaren is onto something here, says David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. His surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That’s because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society.

“And, it’s really hard to condemn someone to eternal damnation on the basis of their religion when you know them well and have come to love them,” he says.

Campbell adds that young believers are more flexible about Christian doctrine in general.

“We also know that — particularly within the evangelical community — the younger you are, the less likely you are to take the Bible literally, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant ‘word of God,’ as compared to a book of moral precepts,” he says.

Surveys by Campbell and others show young evangelicals differ from their elders in a lot of ways. They pray less often, read the Bible and go to church less often. And they’re more open to culture and social issues, such as evolution and gay rights.

Well, I guess because I fall into the younger crowd, this makes perfect sense to me.  But let the record show, the majority of my peers, my age, who are church goers, would probably disagree with me.  Why? Because they’re black and Christian.

Is it as simple as that Uppity?

Yes, to me it is.  Do you know why? Here’s the reason why, Brian McLaren is white and in the white religious community, religion is not solely Christianity. Fact of the matter is that white folk read more than us-folk. Not only do they read more, they read actual books.  Trust me, McLaren’s book is going to do just fine. Whether the white folks read it just to disagree with it or to actually embrace new thought patterns, they’ll read it.

What do black folk read?

If we pick up a book…

..we’re going to read Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, or we’ll read some other books that have probably been ghostwritten with the names like T.D. Jakes or Eddie Long slapped on the cover page.  Or even the Chicken Noodle Soup series, which yes, may have bits and pieces that help us in some weird day-to-day occurrences, but seriously, we’re not reading for the sake of intellectualism, but merely reading to satisfy our own personal musings and to shore up our own core beliefs.

This goes not just for laypersons but also clergy as well.  Black clergy seem to be enthralled by books that speak about dynamic leadership and church growth and about how to take a ministry to “the next level.”  We wouldn’t ordinarily pick up the book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled Outlier and discover that yes, talent and some amount of charisma is necessary for fame, but that coincidence, maximizing opportunities and actually sheer dumb luck actually play heavily into the equation.

Especially in the South, there isn’t much atmosphere to engage in core theological disagreements.  The idolatry of the biblical text is far to great, in my opinion, to have any sustainable intellectual conversation. Somehow one’s argument must begin and end with the Bible. Yes, in my post-biblical approach at times, it comes off as heretical. My close friends are used to it, but at times in class, I really want to speak out, but I know the response I’ll get: none. It’s highly frustrating to suggest an idea and sometimes not even the professor will engage the thought-process, let alone the other students.  I think the frustration is compounded because in the white Christian religious circles, such thoughts have a much better chance of finding some traction versus that of the black Christian religious community.

I mean just ask Brian McLaren.

Then ask Carlton Pearson.

One white, one black.

Bishop Pearson had to convert to New Thought in order to still have a following, because the black religious community has given him a resounding HELL NO to his “gospel of inclusion.”

As I’ve said before, not just on the issues of core Christian theology, but black Christians have miles to go in order to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to having real dialogue.  Too many Christians are too arrogant and fail to see that the biblical text isn’t authoritative for everyone. Which means they’ll use Scripture to justify a response, while the other party is trying to figure out how by quoting the Bible makes them right?

If I never say it again, let me reiterate: our idolatry of the biblical text will be the downfall of humanity.  Enough white religious communities are able to poke some holes in the biblical text and deal with the tension that the various voices of the Bible speaks from, but blacks….smh….right along with the evangelicals most certainly believe in the infallibility of the Bible, and far too many believe in the inerrancy of the text.  At this point, if I were having a conversation with someone who believed in the inerrancy of scripture I’d have to change the topic.

I personally think it’s quite simple on how to rectify this problem: pick up a damn book and read!  And read something other than damn Purpose Driven Life or Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul. Granted white liberalism is a foreign language to black liberalism, it’s probably nothing more than a dialectical difference after all is said and done.  The topics are not so foreign that one cannot grasp it.

At this point, I’m not even attempting to try and change anything. I doubt I’d see that in my life time, but in an age when denominational churches need to seriously think their existence in the next 100 years, we need to at least be having the conversation.  We need to be having the conversation that engages postmodern, and most certainly postcolonial thought. No those words need not scare you, but feel free to look them up and learn something–don’t run away from new ideas.

I think black intellectualism exists, but it exists on an individual level.  It’s not easy to find a community of them that meet on a regular basis.  And I would dare say that if they are members of a church, they’re intellectualism is only going to go so far and probably exist well within modern thought.  Cornel West is truly and exception.  And I will say this, what are the progressive thinkers of the previous generation doing to foster new thought and new ideas in the younger generation.  Seriously, creating mini-mes is not what’s up.

Black culture is still caught up in the “gotta pay your dues” which is really nepotism and brown-nosing 101 masquerading as a meritocracy.  If I’m under 30, and I think the way I think, I am fully persuaded that there are others who think just like me or at least have the wherewithal to engage my ideas on a certain level.  But, the old guard has said HELL NO, you must do it a certain way in order to be taken seriously.  Honestly, as me and The Critical Cleric bemoaned last night that after eight full years of schooling post-high school, I’m tired of listening to someone else and reading other books–when is it my time to write and publish. And the prospect of having to play the politicking game at the doctoral level, and then get on at an institution, and then wait for tenure just to publish what you want to publish and do what you want to do sounds absolutely ludicrous.

Lord deliver me.

This was clearly a rant and ramble.  Have fun in the comment section if you must.

(And yes, I’m aware I talked about all this from a very male perspective, I did so because why? I’m a male. ‘Nuff said.)

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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13 thoughts on “The Lack Thereof… Intellectual Black Religious Communities

  1. Another great post. One thing though: the lack of intellectual pursuit in the Black community is not limited to the everyday church goer. Its more pervasive than I would like to admit at times.

    I definitely co-sign on your last point though: there is way too much “paying dues” and jumping through hoops to have a point heard. The Black activist community went from the ethos “I am somebody” to “Son, who the hell are you?”

    Its like you got to be “degreed up” in order to get a hearing. The Ph.D grind actually ruins more potential writers than it helps. (Yes, a bold assertion, I am ready for the fire)

    Great post overall though.

    • @ Marc

      This was some lazy writing on my part. And I know I can be long winded. But yes, I couldn’t agree more than lack of intellectual pursuit goes farther than the church goers in the black community, I was just to lazy to flesh out the religious from non-religious issues–and I didn’t want it to me some super long post. I know by 1500 words I’m losing my audience, lol

      • LOL! Its not a big deal. It was a worthy read. Its sad that if you post anything longer than 1000 words a lot of folks start turning away. Keep it up, Uppity.

  2. I read everything you post from beginning to end and I find your posts very refreshing and I find that you frequently echo my sentiments regarding the black community. Keep up the good work man.

    -Warren

  3. i agree that the black church has helped in hindering, if not altogether halting, intellectual religious thought. as a non-religious person myself who is black, it is damn near impossible to find another non-religious person, let alone someone that actively questions and engages in conversations about religion, let alone their particular religion.

    on another note, it seemed at some points in your post that you almost were trying to compare the black community to the white community. (“see, this is what the white community does, and this is what we should start doing too…”). i don’t think you can really compare the two. if something is beneficial or progressive, then its progressive, and it shouldn’t be put forth along the lines of…. “they do it, and so should we…”….it should be put forth simply because it s progressive and beneficial to our community.

  4. To carry your speculation to its furthest extreme, the issue of atheism is relevant.

    Atheists are widely misunderstood, but being white I apparently have a thin layer of “cover.” Last year I went to a talk given by a guy (I’ve forgotten his name, unfortunately), who related what it was like, from his point of view, to be black and atheist. And as you’ve alluded to the intolerance of the “other” in an inter-faith context—and even intra-faith—he declared that if you tell someone you’re an atheist, you might as well tell them you’re a card carrying member of the KKK.
    Sure, he was playing that statement for laughs (which he got), but there’s presumably some truth there.
    My point isn’t about atheism itself, but rather that in this context it would present the most acute demonstration of what you’re talking about.

    There’s nothing you write about here that isn’t equally true in white circles, religious-related or not. (It’s tempting to say that much of the hate and rancor is limited to politics, but the truth is that EVERY-freakin’-thing has become politicized in this environment) In general, it seems like we’re sliding backwards into an Age of Unreason.

    But the difference is that whites aren’t restrained by cultural insularity as DEFINED by race—i.e. “White people don’t do that.” (Whatever remained of that, Eminem made short work of it.) I suppose this is part of what is meant by white privilege—i.e. race being completely irrelvant to how one views himself.

    The fewer boxes someone puts themselves in, the more breathing room their brain has.
    In the comment above, Nell decried what seemed to be a point-by-point comparison of “whites do this/blacks do that.” Whites have plenty of boxes they put themselves in. God knows. But the box of race seems to be a particularly tight one, given what you’re discussing. How the box got there is one matter—and of course that’s an ugly subject. But removing the box is another, and I suppose it’s comparable to climbing down a tree after climbing up it—-much harder.

    • @ Marbles

      The only reason I speak the way I do categorizing by race is really to just show how limited my perspective is. I speak generally from “black church” perspectives because that’s what I know. Anything outside of that is totally from an outsider looking in.

      As far as meso- and mega-cultural phenomenon there is some overlap just because blacks are indeed Americans, but still even then I speak with caution. It’s easy for me speculate, but since I don’t want outsiders to speculate about my life and my reality, far be it for me to do the same thing.

  5. You’ve already heard me rant on this topic for years now, so I won’t use this medium as an opportunity to rehash my thoughts on the subject.

    However, let me just say that I consider the development of vibrant African American religious intellectual communities to be of significant importance to the future of African American communal life. And if Cornel West is correct that African American prophetic Christianity is the water to the roots of American democracy, then the vitality of A.A. intellectual communities is fundamental to progression of democracy as well.

    This being the case, I hope those of us with like spirit and motivation (not necessarily like-mindedness) need to mobilize our efforts and support one another’s intellectual endeavors.

    If we do not rise to the challenge, only God knows where our community will end up

    • i think the black community needs to move more and more away from religion. while there have been some standout religious figures that have helped the struggle, such as religious leaders like MLK and Malcolm X, i think overall religion has been one of the biggest detriments to the black communities.

  6. I enjoyed your critique of the lack of intellectualism in the black community. We are illiterate, in the sense that we know our ABCs but we can’t decipher texts, hidden meanings, or see the power-knowledge structure seeking to maintain social control. People (especially blacks) have been bamboozled by religion. I’m a very well educated African American man, and I’ve just realized that the religious programming I received as a kid has really stalled my intellectual development. I started reading when I was 3, so I read the bible for myself and saw the holes and irrationality of its myths and legends. I knew the eternal damnation of non-Christians was xenophobic, but this was reinforced so often that I couldn’t have a truly epistemic break in search of a more objective truth. Now, I acknowledge the depths of false consciousness and the extent of hegemony at the core of our most basic ontologies. So, I see it now, but I can’t save my family or humanity. They are so deep in false consciousness, as are the majority of people around the globe. We spend our lives hating people and killing others in the name of invisible things and ideas, and we end up with nothing. Black people don’t save or teach our kids how to care for themselves. We just give it to Jesus. Instead of being in the land of the living, we dwell on death and invisibility. Carter G. Woodson was so right. The Negro is miseducated, world wide, and the problem is religion. I suppose it’s also spiritual (in the sense that it rests in “l’esprit”/the mind/psyche. Now, I’m a Theist, but spending all hours of the day serving an invisible Lord, allows the lords (rulers) on earth to keep us mentally colonized and enslaved. Wake up black people. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” We have to connect our consciousness with humanity and with the spirits of our ancestors in order to move forward into the future. Our ancestors called it Muntu, some call it Ubuntu. Overall, though, if we remain illiterate and ignorantly stuck in magical mysticism, we are doomed for generations to come.

  7. “Well, I guess because I fall into the younger crowd, this makes perfect sense to me. But let the record show, the majority of my peers, my age, who are church goers, would probably disagree with me. Why? Because they’re black and Christian.”

    It is unfortunately ironic that the good points in this article are eclipsed by the very same sloppy use of the intellect you say you decry wholesale. Not only does your endorsement of the non sequitur which lies in the research cited by McLaren portray this sloppiness, but even more so your conclusion that what gives rise to the disagreement among your peers over said issue was that they are “black and Christian”. If you were going for rhetorical effect, it certainly didn’t play out that way in the subsequent paragraphs as you tried to provide warrant as to why that was so. Essentially you seem to be arguing as follows:

    All intelligent people should hold to universalism, as it is clearly the intellectually respectable position

    Black Christians by and large do not hold to universalism because they are not all that intelligent

    Clearly, if black Christians read more, they would not be so naive as to accept religious exclusivism, as exclusivism clearly is born out of ignorance

    Therefore, the solution to Black Christians who endorse exclusivism is reading more books (save self-help devotional style books).

    None of these premises enjoy even prima facie plausibility, let alone are truth value. The sad thing is is that I agree with the notion that there is no vibrant intellectual tradition and status in black Christian circles. We both probably see it as a goal to somehow reverse this unfortunate fact, but it is the impetus, direction and final destination upon which we differ. However, displaying the same lack of careful thinking won’t help you progress toward that goal.

    As far as universalism goes, it has nothing to do with intellectual enlightenment (on the contrary, i would argue the endorsement of Christian universalism is symptomatic of intellectual vice, but that’s another topic). One can be an exclusivist IN VIRTUE of being well-read, intellectually with-it or however you choose to characterize those who are supposedly thoughtful, respectable people. I’m not an exclusivist because I stay holed up in some backwoods Independent Baptist church where people still believe Jesus’ birthday really is Dec. 25th. I’m an exclusivist (and staunch anti-universalist/pluralist) because I’ve thought through the issues and concluded that its true and that universalism displays the same folly theologians worried by Positivism displayed in decades gone past. I would even commend Alvin Plantinga’s “In Defense of Religious Exclusivism” to you to juxtapose your own views against.

    In short, your analysis totally misses the mark. If you wish to evoke change and not just bemoan the sad story that is black Christiandom (and I sincerely think you do), it would help to zero in on what the real causes of anti-intellectual are in black Christian circles, not harp on a particular point of doctrine you are disappointed not more people embrace.

    One clear solution is for black Christians to understand the proper place and role of the life of the mind, that intellectual honesty and exploration are virtues, not vices, born out of the Imago Dei, This is something white Christians are quickly gaining ground on, that blacks are still in the dark about. Solutions like this and others are what will really bring change.

    • This comment seemed to be an excuse to trot out your anti-universalist thought. You seemed to mask said reason in garbled logic that had you arrive at these circumstantial ad hominem claims. I never said that following of universalism was a paragon of intellect. But seeing as how you somehow inferred that, you made the false claim that I was calling blacks non-intellectuals because of their non-adherence to universalism.

      The claim that I am making is that black religion practices a brand of exclusivism, to use your specific terminology, that does not enter a dialogue with the other. I said that in my blog and I stand by it.

      It seems like your interpreting this statement as though this was an excuse to put down the majority of the black religious and church-going community for the sake of elitism that embraces universalism and a certain brand of intellectualism over that of orthodox Christianity as we understand it here in Western society and what I perceive to be ignorance.

      I stand by the claim of ignorance however.

      I write about the black church experience because that’s what I know and have studied. Based on your comment it seems as though, at best, you’ve have a glancing knowledge of black religious life in this country.

      If you feel as though I’m saying that you’re not fully qualified to speak on this matter, then your correct in that assumption–and that assumption alone.

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