Why You Need To Read White Men to Be A Proper Theologian

A friend shared this article a couple of days ago from an English professor who was explaining to Yale undergrad why they have to read a basic canon of racist and colonialist and even misogynist literature to be considered properly educated in their field. Some Yale students were complaining about course requirements, calling on the university to diversify their offerings. First, as the article points out, Yale has a staggering amount of diverse offerings in English literature. But that doesn’t change the fact that you have to read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Yeats and a vast lineup of other white men, too. It’s not fair, but it’s history. They are our literary ancestors, whether we like it or not. Yale would cease to be a top-level liberal arts institution if it didn’t require that you find your place amid the dominant voices of history, even and maybe especially when you disagree with them.

And the same is true for those of us who attend seminary. The vast majority of Western Christian theology has been written–thus far–by white European men. Some of them are boring. A lot of it feels outdated. You will find much with which to disagree. But you should read it anyway: Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth (although it’s too much to ask anyone to read ALL of Barth!). Read the early church fathers, and learn about the nit-picky arguments that happened at the church councils, and get a general idea of the history of the succession of popes, even if you’re not and never will be Catholic. And then read Jonathan Edwards and Schleiermacher and Bultmann and Tillich and the Niebuhr brothers and Walter Rauschenbusch. Obviously, read Moltmann. And honestly, you’ll have no idea why Moltmann is so great, or even what he’s talking about, if you haven’t read all the other German guys that came before him first. What’s he trying to innovate, anyway? What is he casting in a different light? If you haven’t read his predecessors or his contemporaries, you’ll miss it entirely. It’s like starting in the middle of a group text and trying to figure out what everybody’s discussing. You have to scroll back and get the context before you can add your voice.

When you read Gustavo Gutierrez, and James Cone, and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza (and you should), you won’t appreciate them half as much if you don’t recognize the bravery, clarity, and insight they needed to say what they said in the theological milieu in which they located themselves. Reading all of those white men doesn’t make them less potent, but more so. They became powerful voices because they contributed to the ongoing conversation even as they were rejecting it, upending it and calling for its reformation. They didn’t refuse to sit at the table. They didn’t write letters to the powers-that-be about the table linens. They sat at the table and changed the menu, because they were theologians who knew their stuff enough to argue for a better way. And because they did that, they’re now included in the canon of theological works that future seminary students will be required to read. That’s how history changes. Not by rejecting the past, but by entering into it and then discerning how to make your own mark.

Because the point is, no theologian has ever spoken into a vacuum. We are all weaving into a history that long preceded us. And whether we like it or not, much of that history has been woven literarily by white men. If we care about the tradition we inherit enough to want to improve it with integrity, we first have to know our roots. We have to know how we got here, and where we misstepped, and what theological assumptions have been passed along to us that may or may not be worth keeping as we go forward.

We have to know where we came from if we want to shape where we’re going. 

I’m bothered by a sense of old=bad that seems to pervade a number of left-leaning arguments these days. It’s a little ironic to call history elitist when the person saying it happens to think he may be smart enough not to need Plato. You think you’ve got theology figured out better than Aquinas? Well, you’re probably wrong. Aquinas was smarter than most of us, so we will all just have to deal with the fact that he is a white Catholic man and read him anyway.

These men were far from perfect, but one thing they didn’t do is sit around with their privilege and eat bon-bons. They used the education given to them (and yes, denied others) and they produced enduring works in their fields. They thought critically and deeply about matters that we, too, care passionately about. They were limited by time and space just like the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have vitally important things to tell us. I even think Calvin has some beautiful things to tell us, and I spent half my time reading the Institutes wanting to punch the nearest wall. After both volumes were completed, though, I had to admit something that every seminary student (and human) is better off after realizing: we had more in common than I would have thought. I still disagree vehemently, but it is dismissive and elitist and ridiculous to say I cannot and did not learn something from him. Of course I did, and I’m the better for it. I thought Bultmann’s demythologizing project was preposterous, but it wasn’t until I spent a couple of years studying it that I could explain why, or what the problems were, exactly. And sure, while reading Barth I often felt incensed about how awfully he treated his wife, but I was also forced to admit, once again, the uncomfortable truth that wisdom can come even to those of us who are broken. So, as Katy Waldman said in her article, “The canon is sexist, racist, colonialist and totally gross. Yes, you have to read it anyway.”

It’s possible to get through seminary by only reading white men, and that would be a shame. You’d be trained to be a theologian, but one who is far too limited to the world of the past.

But it’s also possible to get through some seminaries without reading any old white men, and that, too, would be a shame. You’d be trained to be a contemporary theologian with no roots to give your work the gravitas of the innovators that you so revere.

The truth is, we need all of their voices. If we’re in favor of diversity, that includes a long line of white European men. It just doesn’t only include them.

So by all means, I hope seminary students take the opportunity to read Kwok Pui-Lan and Musa Dube and Ida Maria Isasi-Diaz. I hope they read mystics and misfits and fringe thinkers, too. I just hope they aren’t so elitist and easily offended that they don’t navigate the terrain of our theological past first, even when that means reading a few hundred pages of Augustine.

1 Comment

  1. Yes, yes, yes and amen!

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