The End of God Talk
By Dr. Ebony A. Utley
On December 27, 2012 At 11:32 pm
Responses : 27 Comments
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According to Anthony Pinn, God has outlived God’s usefulness. Imagine a forced retirement party. The CEO of the universe has made a few missteps—misrepresented his enterprise, mismanaged his employees. God’s questionable decision-making forced what was once a private operation to go public. Middle management is handwringing. They know they haven’t represented God as well as they could have. They foresee a hostile takeover but fear there is nothing they can do. Because the majority stockholder is now an African American nontheistic humanist theologian who is convinced that God is too dated to do the universe any good. He presents God with a plaque thanking him for several centuries of service and politely acknowledges that it’s time for him to go.
God’s ouster is the premise of Pinn’s The End of God Talk. He isn’t disrespectful to or dismissive of Christian theism, he simply posits its uselessness while rescuing some of the structures of theology for organizing the lives of African American nonthesitic humanists. Pinn begins by exploring photography and architecture as the places where one can find theology. His most convincing argument for the place where African American humanist theology can develop is in the sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and relational conversations that occur within a barbershop. Pinn describes the barbershop as a safe space where patrons are invited to freely explore “the large questions of life” thus providing the theologian with “vital source material.”
The camaraderie found within the barbershop reflects the importance of community for Pinn but only on a superficial level. He argues that the organizing principle of African American nontheistic humanist theologizing is not just a community of living beings or structured social interactions but community also recognizes “the integrity of the quest for complex subjectivity.” Without God at the helm, the foundation of African American nontheistic humanist theology is the push forward, the search for more, the rejection of restraint, the acceptance of struggle, and the embrace of what Pinn describes as “and…”
The rejection of a transcendent God as well as beliefs about heaven and an afterlife necessitate an emphasis on human embodiment and the now. The wholeness and fullness that accompanies the quest for complex subjectivity demands an embrace of the body typically rejected by Christian theologies. Although the body is fragile and its presence temporal, Pinn argues for the body’s meaningfulness though close readings of the distorted human figures in the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Pinn locates beauty in the historically oppressed black body as a “fundamental interest in life” and the “sheer force of will.” This persistence in the face of trouble and struggle also reflects the ethics of African American nonthesitic humanist theology. The pursuit of justice is paramount and only tempered by the recognition that humans often fall short of their ideals.
Throughout the book, Pinn celebrates the mundane and the ordinary as religious. In his chapter “Humanistic Celebration as the Ritualizing of Life” he writes: “Every activity, every location has the potential to be consciously arranged as a p(l)ace for encountering and celebrating the depth of our being, and our being in connection to other realities.” Pinn’s rescue of the mundane as religious is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.
Whereas Christian theism has urged adherents to detach the soul from the body to look up to God, and to anticipate an afterlife, Pinn offers an alternative—embrace the beauty of the body, look around, and live right now. Pinn plainly presents his alternative.
African American nontheistic humanist theology seeks to present something less dramatic and instead simply notes that the symbol God, as organizing principle, has never contained any “real” substance and does not serve a purpose. That is to say, God does not “die” in that God never lived. God, in other words, is simply an age-worn bit of theological vocabulary. God must be replaced with a symbol capable of generating a different and more productive response and organizational pattern to life.
The only problem with replacing God is that God will not go gently into the good night. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman authors of How God Changes Your Brain argue that once God is introduced to the human consciousness, the neurological concept never goes away. Pinn critiques other theologians for their shadow references to God because declaring God dead acknowledged God’s existence, and yet Pinn’s call to replace God always already acknowledges that there was once a previously powerful signifier.
Whether God is real or rhetorical, God is a powerful symbol with which humans have aligned themselves for the purposes of both good and evil. God’s relationship to power is so, well, powerful, that it would very difficult to simply replace. God is an age-worn bit of theological vocabulary because of the victories secured, the injustices righted, the populations conquered, and the money made in the shadow of God’s presence. Fear of God’s righteous vengeance comprised the core of the African American jeremiad that black rhetors from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama have used in various forms to advocate for justice. Whether God is real or not, God, as a signifier and a symbol has been rhetorically useful for people vying for power. Since oppression still persists, perhaps God has not yet outlived God’s usefulness.
Pinn’s desire to replace theism with a nontheistic humanist theology not only raises questions about whether Pinn minimizes God’s symbolic usefulness, but it also raises questions about his conceptualization of humanity. Pinn never describes humans as perfect, but he plays down humanity’s penchant for evil. Although he acknowledges slavery and situates his African American nontheistic humanist ethics within Harriet Tubman’s determination to move black bodies to freedom, there is no mention about the evils African Americans have inflicted upon each other or how his ethical system would account for those who traffic bodies toward places of desperation and despair.
And while Pinn should be acknowledged for including Tubman, the practice of spotlighting a woman suggests she was an exception to the rule. In all fairness, Pinn cites many womanist theologians as well as bells hooks and Alice Walker. However, his primary case studies privilege the work of men like Richard Wright, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass. Furthermore, he mentions no comparable woman centered space akin to a barbershop where African American nontheistic humanist theology can be found. There is also no mention of sex or pleasure. Entire sections of the book are devoted to rescuing the body from Christian theologies with no mention of physical pleasure which was the most notable human expression/form of communication harnessed by the church. Pinn seems to gloss some very important aspects of the human condition. If replacing God does indeed include wholeness and fullness, humanity should be represented wholly and fully as well.
Perhaps, the moral of the story is God’s outster as CEO does not change the corporate climate. Management is still patriarchal. The business plan has not been fundamentally altered. Instead of a hierarchal leadership, Pinn proposes a horizontal one. For now. But normally one hostile takeover precedes another. We’ll see how long the end of God talk will last.
Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D. is an expert in popular culture, race, and romantic relationships. Her critically-acclaimed book, Rap and Religion: Understanding The Gangsta’s God, addresses all of the above by closely examining the juxtaposition--and seeming hypocrisy--of references to God within rap music. In her other research, Utley examines how Americans talk about race and racism, asks probing questions about women’s experiences with infidelity, investigates beliefs about marriage, and explores the tenuous relationship between hip hop and love. Her writing has appeared in a variety of high-profile publications including Black Women, Gender, and Families, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Huffington Post, Marriage and Family Review, Ms. Magazine, Truthdig, Religion Dispatches, and Women and Language. In addition to national radio, print, and online appearances, Dr. Utley lectures at universities across the country and is an associate professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach.
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