Black Spirituality and Black Religion

The following essay by the Reverend Doctor Darvin Adams II describes the need to maintain a vision of spirituality in Black religious expressions that resists hyper-individualistic tendencies. Rooted in a strong historical sense of Black Christianity’s holistic approach, Adams demonstrates how spirituality is a vitally important part of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S. and how it should not be separated from a broader social vision of flourishing for Black people and others in our contemporary political landscape.


Going Beyond: Theological Aspects of Black Spirituality in Black Christianity

Since the times of slave masters dropping bibles down to shackled Africans who couldn't read or speak the English language – black people have always developed a deeply personal definition of God and their spiritual identity. Enduring extreme persecution and exploitation, black people took the template of Christianity and customized it to reflect their own interpretation of its teachings. As a result, spirituality became the soul of our artistry, the language of our existence, and the backbone of our communities. It instilled a sense of power and purpose within a race of people who were deemed powerless.[1]


 A Theological Framing      
 

What does spirituality look like in the broader realm of Black Christianity? With the Bible declaring that we are to walk by faith and not by sight, is Black spirituality recognizable to the human eye? Is Black spirituality shaped by the earth or is it birthed in the Spirit? Maybe its origin is founded in both. For a while now, it has been a tendency in certain pockets of the Black Church to frame the organized practice of “religion” over against one's individual/personal need for spiritual development, i.e., their personal spirituality. Unfortunately, most pastors of the Black Church define spirituality as one's personal relationship with God, which has led to a flattening out of the social, economic, cultural, and political dimensions that traditionally been encompassed by Black spirituality in the United States.

church-768x512.jpg

In the proverbial “relationship over religion” discussion, the prevailing notion is that one's need for a developing relationship with God is greater than our more formally organized religious commitments to the institutional church. Furthermore, this particular affirmation of a personal, spiritual relationship is boasted of without defining what spirituality looks like in the material context of blackness in the United States. In other words, it’s not often made clear what personal spirituality has to say to the material meaning of being Black in the U.S. today.

Theologically speaking, the Black Church needs the communal aspects of organized religion and the personal dimension of spirituality working together. To stress the development of a relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit without a conscientious, well developed religious conviction and communal practice in place is nonproductive. Absolutely, we must be reconciled to God on a personal level, but it’s important to place such a personal experience within the framework of Church doctrine and the wider communal bodies of which we’re part.

This isn’t simply for the sake of a denominational body or its own particular take on truth, but, instead, so that black individuals have a substantive knowledge base of what we mean when we say that we are members of the Black Church. In other words, the tendency to stress individualism over against the various corporate structures of the Black Church can leave individuals without a strong theological or historical sense of what it means to belong to, be formed by, or contribute to the wider Black Church. In other words, the Black religious experience for Christians makes the necessary connection between Black spirituality and the corporate aspects of the Black Church in a way that expands the prevailing hyper-individualism to a sense of Black spirituality that takes seriously the holistic experience of Black Americans in the age of Trump.

Black Spirituality in Black Religion

What exactly is meant by the concept of Black Spirituality, particularly if it’s conceived of more broadly instead of in a hyper-individualized manner? First, I agree with theologians Barbara A. Holmes and M. Shawn Copeland when they suggest “that black religion is characterized by its theological diversity and its broad spectrum of cultural nuances.”[2] Moreover, Holmes views the work of the Spirit as an integral part of Black religious discourses on spirituality, holiness, worship, scriptural interpretation and social activism.

As stated in the opening epigraph, Gayraud Wilmore argues that the holiness of the Church, in particular, is evident in the spirituality of the Black Church and that spirituality is a sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world.[3] Black and Womanist theologians alike have shared what they believe to be the Holy Spirit’s directional involvement in the practice and presence of Black spirituality for the holistic well-being of individuals and communities. The consensus is that without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the individual, there would not be a broader Black religious experience or the possibility of liberation from the bondage of oppression. One sees here, in other words, that the personal and the communal can and should work together, as argued above.

Here, the implication is that Black spirituality, in essence, is spirituality proper. In Michael Battle’s book, The Quest for Liberation and Reconciliation: Essays in Honor of J. Deotis Roberts, Delores Carpenter writes, “Spirituality is a belief and hope that one can be a part of the habitation of God, a sanctuary for God, a touchstone. It is the part of a human being that invites the Holy Spirit with a welcoming reception.”[4] Put another way, spirituality connects the Holy Spirit to the human spirit for reasons of order, purpose, guidance, reason, tradition and provision and protection from evil. Using an African spiritual, Diana L. Hayes backs Carpenter’s claim by affirming: 

Spirituality is a rock to hang on to when the world is rushing out of control. It is the unseen force that gives you the courage to push when you’d much rather pull. It shows the way when it seems there is no way. It makes sense out of nonsense and encourages you to have faith –help is just around the corner. It is the balm that soothes and heals your inner wounds. With spirituality, you rest easy knowing that whatever ails you, enrages you, troubles you, or gets on your last nerve, this too shall pass. It’s the map to inner peace on a road that never ends. And it ain’t just about being deep. Spirituality makes you leave the pity party. It lightens you up. All of a sudden, you find that you are laughing at yourself. And   with others. Even when it hurts. Simply put, feeling the spirit brings you joy. And as countless sisters who have gone before you and who are living it every day will testify, spirit is the salve needed to heal and transform. [5]

Furthermore, in Carlyle Fielding Stewart III’s text, Black Spirituality & Black Consciousness: Soul Force, Culture and Freedom in the African-American Experience, he defines Black spirituality in light of the Black experience in the realms of theology, religion and cultural studies. In addition to defining Black spirituality as it relates to what he calls “soul force,”[7] Stewart also relates Black spirituality to the experiences of Howard Thurman’s grandmother, who happened to be a slave. From his grandmother, Thurman describes spirituality as “a ‘growing edge of hope’ that actualizes human potential and sustains awareness of the reality of God. For Thurman, a genuine spiritual encounter with God means increasing the awareness of the self and its capacities, trajectories, strengths, and limitations.”[8]

Stewart III continues:

 Black spirituality, thus, has a humanizing and redeeming function in helping black people keep it all together amid the whirling winds of personal experiences. To pray, praise, shout, sing, and construct and transform social reality according to the entreaties of a spirit-filled culture have been invaluable elements for self-unity and spiritual vitality for blacks in America. Moreover, African-American spirituality has provided an ultimate reference point for meaningful existence, a grid or hermeneutic on consciousness and being that compels black people to actualize themselves as fully integrative beings despite the slings and arrows of their outrageous misfortune. Value, self-worth, dignity, humanity, and power are the nascent gift of African-American spirituality bequeathed to African-American people for the purposes of survival.[9]

Stewart III also highlights the manner in which Black spirituality has “provided black people with a transcendent, spiritual self “ that helps them contend with and resist their “ultimate dehumanization.” The transcendent, spiritual self helps sustain important connections with their “soul center, the organizing element of their lives.” Thus, soul force issues from the Divine, remains the nurturing source of black life, and is maintained through a personal and also communal relationship with God.[10] Hence, black spirituality is the ever-present reminder to Black people that despite the oppressive circumstances surrounding their presence in the United States, the Spirit of God remains with and within them.    

37435.jpg

In addition to this need to integrate “personal” spirituality with the Black Church’s and Black community’s struggle for freedom, Black theologians need to recognize the cultural connection between Black spirituality and the liberating power and works of the Holy Spirit. Through the creative and empowering aspects Black culture, we are able to see the interconnectedness between the suffering of Black people and Black spirituality as a form of individual and communal liberation. In her interpretation of the role of Black Theology among African American Catholics, M. Shawn Copeland claims, “Black Spirituality is communal and expresses itself in social concern and social justice; and this communitarian dimension opens Black Christians to all, excludes none.”[11] Copeland is saying that the cultural matrix in which Black spirituality is practiced is what sustains and enables Black people to see their spiritual worth and to strive toward material well-being.

In his text, Black Theology Today: Liberation and Contextualization, Black theologian J. Deotis Roberts puts it plainly:  

Black spirituality is a reflection upon black religious experience as it encounters biblical faith. Black religious experience has its roots in Africa and was developed in Afro-American religious history. It is holistic—it is concerned with the whole person and the liberation of a whole people. It indicates that redemption is personal and social, spiritual and physical. It is a theology of living black community of faith to be free.[12]

For Roberts, Black spirituality is one way of engaging and encountering the liberating power of the Holy Spirit in the Black religious experience, but one can see from this and other above mentioned descriptions of Black spirituality that this is never purely a personal experience devoid of the communal and cultural dimensions of what it means to be Black. Put another way, Black spirituality encompasses the questions of thriving within social, political, economic and educational contexts, not simply the individual person’s relationship to God, as if such a thing is possible outside of these wider social networks of meaning and life.

Engaging the Spirit of the Unspoken Spoken

Black spiritualities, as I’ve argued above, should reach far and wide and, for Black Christians, should be grounded in the communal dimensions of the Black Church. But what should our spiritualities move us to do? One idea unique to the Black community is the gift of attending to the “Spirit of the Unspoken Spoken.” On the one hand, this refers simply to the reality that there are times and experiences in our lives where we don’t have the “spoken” words to articulate the unspoken depth of the emotional range we feel in our hearts. Words fail us in the face of certain tragedies and injustices. Yet, we still know that our spirit groans and yearns for healing, empowerment, or liberative response. Black folks in the United States, from their vantage of oppression and resistance to that oppression, know the difficulty and resilience of praying and actively working against evil and oppression even when feels it impossible to theorize or wrap words around our experiences.

civilrights_featured-1-2600x1110.jpg

Even when contending with these aspects of our fallen world, we can remember that the Holy Spirit works both in ways that we comprehend and in ways that we will never fully understand (also the “unspoken”) and, especially, even when it seems God’s presence is not in a particular place. This “unspoken” movement of the Spirit, in face of our attempts to frame our desires and needs, is something that the spiritualities of Black slaves, Black mothers and fathers, Black civil rights leaders, Black freedom fighters, etc., know all too well, in that this foundational trust saw many people forward through unspeakably difficult times.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans that, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Rom. 8:26).” Paul explains the groans as an experience with the Holy Spirit. Here, the experience of the Holy Spirit results in what I term as spirituality or a true relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the Spirit.

Another way of engaging the Spirit of the unspoken spoken in a Black theological context is by listening to and imagining what is taking place behind what the scholars are writing. We can pay attention to the actions of the Spirit, those moments that are not necessarily expressed in words, but still see the Holy Spirit working for the good of those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose (Rom. 8:28). Our Black ancestors knew, for instance, the hypocrisy behind the “spoken” word of the slave master, or the slavery-supporting white minister, or the white Christians who condemned the civil rights movement, or even white Christians today who speak negatively of Colin Kaepernick or the Black Lives Matter movement. We have worked to develop a spirituality that subversively listens to what is “unspoken,” left out, ignored, or repressed in certain white, dominant forms of Christianity in our country. This spiritual discernment in itself is a form of Black spirituality.

Throughout history, the Spirit of God called many African slaves and other oppressed blacks to their eternal rest; relieving them of more pain as they were being physically persecuted by their white oppressors. Further, despite being economically, politically and socially oppressed, the power of the Holy Spirit sustained Black people to the point of where they could tell the story. Despite the constant threat of death, neither the lack of education nor the economic resources to acquire material things and live a normal life, Black people still had the Lord on their side in the form of the Holy Spirit, also known as the Spirit of Christ.  Because of their experiences with the Holy Spirit, many Black folks were confident that God would not fail them. Even if it meant dying, the Holy Spirit assured Black people of their safe identity as children of the one and true living God.

Conclusion

Black people have always developed a deeply personal definition of God within their spiritual identity. Black people's spirituality, however, contains a variety of dimensions in addition to the personal. Black people's spiritual identity has always presupposed their educational, social, political and economic condition, and we must not lose sight of that today. In other words, Black people's spirituality has always led them to a holistic concern for the status and well-being of their people.

Here, Black spirituality is concerned with more than just the spiritual condition of Black people, in as much as spirituality is not defined in a holistic way. We are finding again that the spiritual condition and cultural identity of Black folk are ensconced in their social, political and economic misfortunes and perseverance. Black spirituality takes seriously the myriad oppressions that have been experienced by Black people since arriving on American soil some 400 years ago. When done correctly, Black spirituality leads the Black Church beyond the building experience, or that which they encounter within the formal church space, and out into the public square of their various communities. To this point, theologian Stephen Ray speaks briefly about the political concern of Black spirituality.  

Looking at (Vice President Mike) Pence visiting the detention center [along the U.S.-Mexico border], I was reminded of one of the great ironies of human social existence. Evil requires religious people for atrocity to become mundane. It requires people whose habits of life and faith subordinate the material well-being of others to some higher “good.” This is one reason I try hard to never be religious. I fear too greatly that I will come to believe God requires something of me greater than the love and care of my neighbor; particularly, when they are the least among us.[15]

Vice President Mike Pence visiting a detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vice President Mike Pence visiting a detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Such a thing seems possible precisely for the wider practice that I’ve described of some Christians wanting to separate a public or communal spirituality from a personal, hyper-individual spirituality. Religious people can participate in social evil, for instance, precisely because the things that make for a “good Christian,” in many evangelical forms of Christianity, hinge only upon so-called “private” or personal or non-social virtues.

One can be a “good Christian,” so this logic goes, while supporting or enacting devastating and oppressive social policies. Holding tightly to religious forms that are rooted in hyper-individualism means that the well-being of our neighbors is often rendered secondary to “the love and care of my neighbor.” For Ray, doing the right kind of theology benefits the public square and the Black Church, reminding us yet again of the need to conceptualize Black spirituality in a way that doesn’t focus solely on an individual relationship with God over against the public or social implications that such faith should have.


[1]     Julian Mitchell, “God Over Everything: Black Spirituality and the Paradox of Religion” huffpost 10/23/2015 Updated Dec 06, 2017.

[2]     Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 4.

[3]     James H. Evans, Black Theology: A Critical Assessment and Annotated Bibliography (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1987), 171-172.

[4]     Michael Battle, Ed., The Quest for Liberation and Reconciliation: Essays in Honor of J. Deotis Roberts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 162.

[5]     Emilie M. Townes, Ed., Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation & Transformation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 25.

[6]     In Dr. Larry Murphy’s Fall 2010 African American Religious History course, I responded to his one of Murphy’s inquiries by way of an interpretation of Martha Fowlkes’ essay, “Everyone is Welcome”: North to the Promised Land”. Here, I posited that the Black southerners’ creative way of dealing with the discriminatory treatment of the Black and white northerners was a form of Black spirituality. Here, Black spirituality was an important part of the religious experience for newly freed, Black southerners traveling north.

[7]     Carlyle Fielding Stewart III, Black Spirituality: Black Consciousness: Soul Force, Culture and Freedom in the African-American Experience (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999), Front Cover.

[8]     Ibid., 5.

[9]     Ibid.

[10]   Ibid.

[11]   Gayraud S. Wilmore, ed., African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989), 242.

[12]   J. Deotis Roberts. Black Theology Today: Liberation and Contextualization (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 186. This summarizes Roberts’ conclusion to his chapter on Black Ministry: Spirituality and Liberation.

[13]   Ernest F. Scott, The Spirit in the New Testament (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1923), 131.

[14]   Ibid., vi.

[15]   Stephen Ray Facebook July 13, 2019


IMG_2525.JPG

The Reverend Doctor Darvin A. Adams I completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. A native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Dr. Adams is a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and an elected city councilman in Hopkinsville (Ward 1). His research interests are Contemporary Theology, Black Theology (first-generation) and Poverty, John Wesley and the Poor, Pneumatology, Black Culture, Black Religion, Slavery, Marxism and Late Capitalism, and Poetry