During this season of Advent, I’ve applied to six Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs in theology. I have three more applications to submit by the end of the middle of the first full week of the New Year. I’m filled with both excitement and dread. Of course, any person applying to doctoral programs may simultaneously experience these emotions. Questions concerning acceptance, funding, and selecting which offer constantly fill my mind. However, my dread does not come from fear of rejection, lack of funding, or attending the “wrong” program. My dread comes from the prospect of engaging extensive study of some of the most complex theological issues our time. Specifically, I’m talking about theological inquiry into the meaning of human sexualities, race, and, gender. And to refract these issues through the lens of Christology and soteriology seems quite foreboding despite the necessity of such theological engagement.
Certainly, I am not the first person (or the last one for that matter) to engage these subjects. Liberationist theologians, namely feminist, womanist, black (male), Latino/a-American, Native, Asian-American, and LGBTIQ theologians, among others have challenged traditional Christian theologies and practices concerning the status of people who are not white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual men in the life of the Church and the world. Currently, liberationist theologians have moved beyond defending the legitimacy of their theological agendas in the theological academy and Church. Instead, they now protest the legitimacy of the authority of the predominantly male-shaped traditions of Scripture and Christian traditions (i.e., Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy). I guess my dread lies in the fact that I very much see myself as a traditionalist. I’m an evangelical Protestant, raised and shaped in the Afro-Baptist tradition. Yet I am a black gay man. How can I defend the faith or tradition which condemns my blackness and sexuality as sinful and evil? How can I accept the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God given the abuses and misuses of the Holy Writ to defame, dehumanize, and spiritually harm many marginalized people? How can I defend any semblance of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ when said theory is used to legitimate Western retributive justice principles which disproportionately affect African-American and Latino/a people living in the United States when enacted? And what of my eschatology and its relation to social justice? How can I balance my heavenly-mindedness with my concern of being of earthly-good?
As I write out these questions, I see that theodicy seeps through them. The problem of evil rightly challenges any triumphalist theologies, whether conservative or liberal. Classically understood, theodicy is the defense or justification of the all-beneficent God in the face of enduring evil. The systemic evils which pervades this world, specifically global poverty, militarism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other ills haven’t been adequately reckoned with in Christian theology. Personally, I cannot do what I intend to do in my doctoral studies without addressing systems of oppression which affect women, non-whites, and queer folk. My evangelical commitments do not blind me to the fact that evangelical Christianity, whether manifested in the Black Church or white Protestant churches, painfully contributes to the spiritual, social, and political marginalization of many people. Indeed, theodicy plays a role in my dread.
I remember having a conversation with my pastor and former professor regarding his read of philosopher William R. Jones’ book, Is God a White Racist?. Pastor Turner said in response to Jones’ scathing critique of the early black theologians’ handling of theodicy in their theology, he replied, “Black Christians’ response to theodicy is [the] black preaching [tradition]. But we must always live with the question of theodicy before us.” Considering the times we live in, especially when African-American women and men are unjustly killed, when black trans women are murdered without justice, when LGBTIQ youth commit suicide because of perceived and actual rejection from their families and communities, I certainly do not want to contribute to the oppression of anyone as I embark on seeking my own theological account of race, gender, and human sexuality in all of their manifestations. My evangelical beliefs and my commitment to full human flourishing (still on the fence to what this really means!) seem to be at war with each other. Dread sucks.
Interestingly, it might be beneficial for me to actually meditate on these things in light of the season. Advent is a season of joy, judgment, and hope. The coming of the Son of God into the world is certainly a time of great joy for many, but it is nonetheless a time of reflection upon the judgment which will come to a world filled with sin and evil done to the “least of these.” There is much in this world that needs change–revolutionary change! Truly, we who are able must seek the good of others and protest the injustices that plague this world–even those done in the name of the Lord! Nevertheless, Advent is a season of hope. Hope doesn’t come in ostentatious, gaudy, consumerist displays of pomp and circumstance. Hope comes in humble form–in the form of a child born to a young girl and her betrothed husband, both members of an oppressed minority group living under Empire. Years later, hope will be tried, condemned, and executed under the authority of this same Empire. It’s a strange way for God to come into the world in order to overcome it’s sinful ways, yet through the eyes of faith, I believe God in Jesus Christ does just that! I may be dreadful of the task that I’m embarking on, but I am hopeful that the Lord Christ will lead me to do theological work that participates in God’s work to bring God’s kingdom into the world.
Come to think of it, dread might just be a reminder of my own contingency and my need for salvation. I am contingent. I am human. I have partial knowledge. I am also a sinner. Dread might be humility that needs to remember the saving grace of God. Dread just might be what I need around for the length of my prospective academic career to keep my feet to the ground and my knees bended. But I cannot let dread consume my life. If I do so, I take my sight off of the coming of God into the world and I abdicate my vocation to teach, preach, and practice the faith. The good news is that when I do find myself on the “wrong” side, God is just, forgiving, and merciful. Therein lies my hope. Thanks be to God!