The ‘spectacle’ of church has been a heavy presence in the upbringing of a lot of second-generation Africans and Caribbeans in the UK. Sometimes it feels like our churches take on the worst of Western (or colonial) Christianity and the worst of our indigenous religions, leading to the grotesque hybrids of foot-stamping, tithe-gathering, prayer-hollering belief that you may be familiar with if you’ve ever attended certain African or Caribbean churches.
When confronted with some of these more extreme religious experiences, the only logical reaction is to renounce faith entirely or to seek out more rational forms. So in recognising that, I understand the appeal of Reformed Theology to those of us trying to exorcise false religion and warped doctrine from our psyche, and there is much about Reformed Theology that I like. The history of the Reformation being birthed out of stubborn opposition to abuses committed by the Roman Catholic Church is admirable and of great encouragement. The focus on the powerful grace of God and the authority of Scripture over the fickleness of human opinion beautifully simplifies a faith that can otherwise be weighed down by human complications.
But there are aspects of Reformed Theology as it translates today that I’m not comfortable with. The first thing being white middle class men constantly telling me that I “ain’t s–t!” (that’s me paraphrasing). I do believe that we are all inherently sinful and in need of the saving grace that Reformed-types bang their Bibles about, but I don’t believe that living in a constant state of reproach is helpful. There are certain demographics who may have been socialised to believe that they are the centre of the universe and nothing can be denied from them, and for them persistent doctrines of humility may be very necessary, but not for me. Growing up as a little black girl in a white Western society I’ve been told with varying forms of delivery that I am lesser than. Our history is still too fresh with the reality that these same doctrines were used as a weapon to break and bend us into submission. So, yes, I get it – but I’m not here for the constant sackcloth and self-flagellation.
It also worries me that this attitude towards sin provides a convenient get-out clause that people are not above using. Meaningful discussions about important issues can be swept aside by reminders that we are all sinful. Justice now is postponed by the assertion that divine justice is coming, eventually. Such dismissals benefit none but those who already benefit from the status quo, and seem far from the movement’s early cries for reformation in every aspect of life.
Then there’s the chill I get from some who adhere almost vehemently to Calvinist positions on predestination. On a personal level I find their views often translate quite callously, but there is also a dangerous precedent set with the belief that some are hopelessly and quite deservedly damned. It bothers me that this is the theology that sailed across the Atlantic and landed in a place where subsequently 95% of the indigenous population was wiped out. Unsurprisingly, unyielding views on deserved damnation and the spiritual superiority of “the elect” work well with white supremacy. While I’ve read essays by Reformed Christians praising aspects of Puritan life, none have addressed the reality that Puritan theology had its own part to play in one of the most horrific genocides in history.
Can we judge a theology by what it compels its students to do?
What does it say when we take it to its logical conclusion?
But then again, perhaps people are just practising it wrong?
I came across the Reformed African American Network some months ago. I was encouraged to see writing earnestly interrogating issues of race, the church, wider society and theology by African Americans from a Reformed perspective. While their adherence to Reformed doctrine is not merely incidental, I appreciate that the tone is not weighted with the dogmatic arrogance I have come across previously. Though I don’t always agree with every position presented, the sincerity is evident. A theology that doesn’t interact with every aspect of our lives is a useless one, and a theology that ignores the burdens of those it is meant to save is unreasonable and oppressive.
Theology is essentially what we humans propose about God, and those propositions and ideas can never be entirely divorced from the culture and collective experience that they are formulated in. When people put forward ideas about God you always have to consider the perspective that they are approaching God from. I still struggle fiercely with some things that are bundled under the banner of “Reformed Theology” and I probably always will. However, the actual nature of God is not bound by what we’ve been told or what we (mis)understand about Him*, and for that I am extremely grateful.
(* Now God as a male entity, that’s another discussion entirely…)