Karkkainen`s chapter on Native American theology represents

Veli-Matti Karkkainen, The Doctrine of God
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), chapters 22-25.
Telford Work
for November 15, 2004
Karkkainen’s twenty-third chapter, on Native American theology, represents
Native American Christianity as an embrace of Yahweh as a god indigenous Americans
have recognized from their long experiences of mystical and sacramental presence (203204). Wouldn’t de Lubac be pleased! From God’s oneness to God’s agency in creating
and sustaining all things, guiding history, covenanting promises, deliverance, spirit of
prophecy, and even ability to become flesh, it seems that “the religious worldview and
focus of religion of ancient Israel have much in common with those of Native America”
(204-205). Q: Is Israel special? Or does God covenant directly with each people? Is this
a more ‘Muslim’ than ‘Christian’ sensibility? Q: Would Gunton be pleased too?
African America tells a different story: God is black. James H. Evans describes
“the ungiven God” who both identified with and remained absent to the west Africans,
and maintained relationship with America’s slaves as he identified with the Hebrews in
their descent into and exodus out of Egyptian slavery (212ff). This God can seem morally
ambiguous in his transcendence, yet an even stronger African-American conviction is
that God is still partisan – gracious – in his immanence (213-214). Some of these themes
are taken up into the broader, and more recent, context of liberation theology by
theologians such as James H. Cone. (Others are left behind, making black liberation
theology a movement often disowned by the very people it speaks for.) One might adjust
the terms somewhat and say that Cone represents a movement to subsume black
American theology into the older categories of liberal Protestantism that arise in
Schleiermacher and travel through Paul Tillich. These schools privileged experience as
the basis of secure knowledge and treated language as allegorical, symbolic, rather than
literal (see Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology). Cone would disagree, pointing to
both the body of African-American spirituality and the categories of incarnational
Christology as his heritage. Since the black American experience is one of oppression,
God is experienced either as an oppressor (thus the long question blacks faced, “Is God a
white racist?”) or a liberator (211). Q: Does black equal Jewish? How appropriate is the
identification between the God of Israel and the god of African America? For Cone, the
choice is a black-and-white one (pun intended): “The black theologian must reject any
conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as God of all
peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience
becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism” (A Black Theology of Liberation,
63, quoted in Karkkainen, 211). Q: Is Cone’s argument really supported
(Karkkainen unfortunately restricts his view of Hispanic American theology to
one Protestant, Justo Gonzalez, though the Hispanic American Christian tradition is
overwhelmingly Catholic with only relatively recent exceptions, and does something
similar with Asian immigrant Christians. Let’s revisit the rest of this chapter in the future
when we examine Latin American and Asian theologies; it will fit better there.)
Chapter 24 concentrates on feminist theologies. These are a cluster of movements
that reflect the rise of feminism in the west. While they splinter into factions along
liberation theology’s other fault lines (class and ethnicity), they retain an overarching
The same features that characterize Cone’s black theology of liberation –
privilege of the experience of a particular oppressed group, the treatment of language as
essentially symbolic and thus malleable, and a dichotomy between oppressed and
oppressor – characterize mainstream feminist Christian theology, but now the dichotomy
runs along gender rather than racial/cultural lines. But this produces a very distinct rather
than parallel dynamic in feminist theology. Where Israel in Egypt offers a central
metaphor for African-American self-understanding, God’s liberation of the enslaved
Hebrews, the prophets’ remaking of class-stratified Israel, and arguably, the coming of
the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ all still leave patriarchal structures in place. The
church’s biblical, theological, and historical canons seem far more problematic to gender
oppression than to ethnic or class oppression.
Thus Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology describes all God-talk as
“metaphorical.” It only points toward its object indirectly, while truly affecting our
perceptions of it. The dominance of patriarchal metaphors has distorted Christianity’s
theology, and demands alternative ways of describing God such as “mother,” “lover,”
and “friend” (227-228). The goal of these moves is to expose and correct the inherently
distortive qualities of anthropomorphic language about God while preserving and
advancing its inherently helpful qualities. Q: How does McFague’s scheme relate to the
positive/negative theological dialectic in Thomas Aquinas and de Lubac? How do
Gunton’s “Scotist” warnings of the resort to Hellenistic abstraction and stasis apply, or
do they?
While some of these treatments (such as Letty Russell’s and Catherine Mowry
LaCugna’s) are determinatively salvation-historical, the dominant trend in feminist
theology is nominalistic, reconceiving and reimagining God with a broad range of names
that transcend or deconstruct traditional patriarchal categories and advocate wholisms of
one kind or another (human, ecological, or even pantheistic).
Q: Is language primarily symbolic? Is the language of the Bible primarily
symbolic? Is this a modern allegorizing to wiggle out from culturally problematic texts
along the lines of the patristic allegorizing through which Hellenists defended their
convictions against the more Hebraic speech of the Bible? Was it all right then, and if so,
is it all right now?
Womanist and mujerista theologies synthesize feminist, racial, and class analyses
to privilege the experiences of poor African-American women (who allegedly identify
with Hagar in the wilderness, 236) or poor Hispanic American women (who allegedly
identify with Shiphrah and Puah, 238). Common to these approaches is the unqualified
repudiation of suffering as redemptive. Salvation comes from suffering through
solidarity, not from unity by means of suffering. Q: Is this actually the faith of the
oppressed women who these theologians claim to speak for?
Chapter 25 poses a question I asked as I read these chapters, and that we might
ask ourselves: Is there anything coherent or commonly American about these schools of
theology and visions of God? If so, what is it?