James Cone, Theodicy, and the Cross: pt.3 Critique

This is the third post in the series introducing James Cone’s theodicy(as I mentioned in the first post, I would love any/all criticism or correction):

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IV. Ultimate Concern and Ontological Blackness

Having laid out Cone’s Black theodicy in the last post and the hermeneutic that establishes it in the first, I will now offer my critique his theological system and the assumptions in his methodology.[1] I will discuss three interrelated issues: 1) because Cone’s hermeneutic of suffering monopolizes his exegesis, he ideologically totalizes Black experience; 2) he can only justify his absolute claim of God’s Blackness based on Paul Tillich’s work; 3) his Black theodicy risks self-referential inconsistency since it views itself as radically opposed to White theology.

First, Cone’s hermeneutical principle constricts the shape that his theology can take. Cone’s theology is conceptually reductive in that his use of the binaries good/evil, black/white, and oppressor/oppressed reflects an inability to explore the complexity of oppression; suffering, like creation itself, is always multifaceted. Using a hermeneutic of suffering, Cone’s task is limited to exposing the critical correlations that exist between Blacks and traditional theological categories. On this point, Gayraud S. Wilmore notes that it is appropriate to question whether Cone’s theodicy is simply the “blackenization of the spectrum of white theology.”[2] While claims to seriously consider other value systems and step out of his “axiological grid,” he still believes Black existence exclusively communicates the gospel.[3]

The problem that surfaces from Cone exegesis is that, because he identifies suffering with the Black experience he transforms it into an ideological totality. For Cone, God and Jesus are Black. Appropriately, his choice of phrasing offends White ears, but he also explains that Blackness is an “ontological symbol” for suffering in America.[4] What this means is that Blackness consists of a dialectical relationship between physical and metaphorical Blackness[5]: it describes what oppression means as well as shows with whcom God is in solidarity with.[6] Most problematic is that this conceptual move essentially conflates ontology and metaphysics. Such an over-arching norm disallows meaningful differentiation within Black life. The plurality of organizations, faith traditions, and world-view should result in a much more relativized account of Blackness: no one feature can be categorically descriptive of Blackness. At one point, Cone goes as far to agree with scholars who claim, “the black church is the Black community.”[8] But Victor Anderson persuasively contends, “making suffering [the] essential mark of Black existence trivializes the nature of oppression many blacks genuinely experience by the absurdity that anyone who is black is also oppressed.”[9]

The next issue follows directly from the first. Cone’s claim of God’s absolute Blackness is only made possible by the White, liberal, philosophically based theology of Paul Tillich. While the inconsistency reveals Cone’s propensity for picking-and-choosing when to apply his hatred towards Whiteness, the object of focus here is how Tillich’s concepts are being used and the contradiction to which the logic leads: Whiteness as Blackness’ Ultimate Concern. Tillich is well known for defining God as the “ultimate concern,” and faith as the state of being “ultimately concerned.” Clarifying the difference between God and ultimate concern, Tillich explained, “our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or non-being.”[10]

Cone’s understanding of the nature of theology, theological language, and providence are derived from Tillich.[11] First, Cone adopted Tillich’s understanding that neither God nor culture precede one another in the cyclical process of theology: “Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.”[12] For this reason, Cone is able to say that the particularity of Black suffering exposes the universal message of the gospel. Second, when Cone speaks theologically he is always speaking with a “Tillichian understanding of symbol in mind.”[13] What this means is that words point beyond their ordinary meanings: the symbolic correlation of ordinary language and the ultimate mystery is asymptotic.[14] In this way, “Blackness” would point to an experience of oppression that the term never fully reaches. Finally, Cone is able to understand Scripture as not having a unified concept of evil based on Tillich’s notion of providence. For Tillich, faith in providence is faith in spite of “meaningless existence.”[15] Thus, for Cone, providence is not a statement about the guidance of history into a specific future—about bringing current suffering into a disembodied wholeness—but about how God provides what is sufficient for each day.[16]

The third issue is that Black theology risks containing self-referential inconsistencies. This is only revealed after noting Cone’s reliance on Tillich’s systematic theology. Cone ends up distorting the meaning of his system’s terms because he does not fully appropriate the communicative properties of his Tillichian philosophy. Put simply, when Cone repeatedly claims that Blacks are forced into a Tillichian “risk of faith” wherein “every moment of being is threatened with nonbeing,” he equates Whiteness with the ultimate concern.[17] If blackness is ontologically symbolic of suffering, and Black experience is limited according to White oppression, then Black suffering is created by Whiteness, and Whiteness functions as the ontological ground of Black Theology’s being.[18] If Whiteness is the ultimate concern for Cone, then his theodicy fails to transcend the existential, political, and cultural contexts from which he is seeking liberation: black liberation is inevitably bound by Whiteness. Though this is problem of Cone’s, it is equally an observation of the unrelenting stranglehold that White supremacy continues to have on the Black imagination today. Rather than providing Blacks an opportunity for flourishing and fulfillment, the mode of existence defined in relation to Whiteness only allows for crisis and survival.

A possible solution to this problem is that ontological Blackness and the ultimate concern of Whiteness dialectically interact. If this is the case, then the destruction of Whiteness would liberate the Blacks from their state of being ultimately concerned: being Black. [19] On the other hand, Cone could have led himself into a paradox of thought. And, given the same way that the cross is at once terrible and beautiful, a paradox could lead to salvation beyond all obstacles. Whether the difference between Blackness and Whiteness functions dialectically or paradoxically is left unclear in Cone’s theodicy. Whatever the case, Cone’s method readily expects such difficulties: as put by Neibuhr, “if the gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross.”[20]

V. Conclusion 

In these three posts, I hope to have shown that Cone’s work on the problem of evil encompasses not only the content, but also the method of his theology. I would even suggest that Cone’s Black Theology is, in essence, an extended meditation on the theodical contradiction of God’s love and human subjugation. The value of his work is that it reminds Christians that in Christ, God made humanity’s suffering His own; rather than judge the nature of sin, God became sin in order to abolish it. The divine paradox is that salvation is only offered in suffering. Here, Cone is in unity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another Christian who understood the real difficulty of the good news: “The Bible directs us to God’s weakness and suffering. Only a suffering God can help.”[21]

For Cone, and for people of color in America, the cross is God’s critique of power, where weakness claims victory out of defeat[22]; for White Christians, the cross must lead to acknowledging that White supremacy is still one of America’s great sins. What is invisible to those who benefit from being born according to the privileged ideals is inescapable to those who are involuntarily alienated by those same ideals. The cross is God’s answer to the problem of evil; and, to the privileged, it is not very convenient. The Church today must remember that Job was not rehabilitated from his hardship by spiritual or philosophical principals, but by the material generosity of his neighbors.

Jesus’ death and resurrection is a reminder that contradiction is inevitable: “Christ-like” behavior entails becoming sin rather than simply hating it. Otherwise, God’s messianic activity could not be made incarnate. In this way, “hate the sin but not the sinner,” is more accurately rendered, “become sin in order to love the sinner.” At some point, every Christian must cry out to Du Bois’ Silent God, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Otherwise, the same principalities and powers bolstering American racism have continued to obstruct the truth of the Messianic resurrection.

[1] In this analysis, I am sensitive the fact that a White critique of Black Theology, because it typically tends to re-define Black doctrine according to White philosophical categories, is not always most productive form of criticism. That being the case, I have purposely tried to support each of my points with the perspectives of leading Black theologians and scholars.

[2] Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans, Third ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 250.

[3] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 49, 196.

[4] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 8.

[5] Ibid., 156.

[6] William A. Dyrness, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, ed., Global Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 116.

[8] James Cone, For My People, 99.

[9] Victor Anderson, Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1995), 103.

[10] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Three Volumes in One (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 14.

[11] For this reason, much of Nancey Murphy’s critique of liberal theology applies to Cone as well; see: Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism (New York: Trinity Press International, 2007).

[12] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3.

[13] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Liberation, 8.

[14] An asymptote is a curve that continually approaches but never reaches a point.

[15] As quoted in: James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 86.

[16] Keith A. Bolton, “The Theological Method of James Cone,” 235.

[17] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 19.

[18] These points are adapted from: Victor Anderson, Beyond Ontological Blackness, 90.

[19] As far as I am aware, Cone only makes one very brief mention to Black theology removing the structures of Whites and “stripping [Blacks] of their blackness.” The sentence structure is ambiguous, but given the circumstance—it being in Cone’s first work and located in a section addressing Black suffering—it is almost certain that he is claiming that Whiteness destroys the potency of Blackness. See: James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power, 118.

[20] Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980), 222.

[21] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 361.

[22] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2.

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