Is existentialism solely the burden of the modern white man?

Guest post by harry samuels

Peter Rollins in Belfast, 2007

Peter Rollins in Belfast, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I was reading further and further into Dr. Kimberly K Smith’s African American Environmental Thought, I cam across the section of the first chapter whose heading read “Slave Cosmology” which discussed a number of points related to this topic and , as one might predict, included their brand of Christianity. Observe the following:

“ [Lawrence Levine] contends that slave religion reflects a fundamentally African consciousness. He points to evidence that slaves retained many of their animistic beliefs, synchronizing them with the folk beliefs of white Americans. The persistence of African beliefs made slaves’ version of Christianity distinctive. Slave religion, according to Levine, does not differentiate material and spiritual reality as sharply as does the Christianity of white Americans. Rather, like West African animistic beliefs, slave religion conceptualizes the spiritual and material world as intertwined. Spirits inhabit this world alongside men and animals, rather than transcending it. Eugene Genovese, elaborating on this point, argues that ‘African ideas place man himself and therefore his Soul within nature, ‘ and that Christian slaves similarly rejected ‘other-worldly’ understandings of the soul and Heaven. For example, he contends that references to Heaven in slave spirituals should be interpreted as referring to both a spiritual condition and a physical place (such as the North) where slaves would enjoy freedom.”

Now, if you ask me, this sounds awfully similar , in some ways, to what our Emergent friends like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell are trying to drive American Christians to – embracing the the wonder/the Divine intrinsic to life and what’s around us and making Christianity less about some Pie In The Sky faith about getting into a far-off celestial city. But how many Christians ( or Americans period) know this about Christian slave beliefs!? Oh and let’s not forget about Peter Rollins – the existential theologian with a penchant for intellectual snobbery. Based on his last little snafu with a female theologian blogger and the general trend for white Emergent church leaders’ disdain for any practice of Christianity they deem to be too “primitive” or lacking their own standard of “intellectual rigor”, Peter Rollins, nor any other of the Emergent church “fathers” would even BEGIN to look , let alone take seriously the theology of Christian slaves. Now before you say that I’m just ranting just to rant, re-read the quote above, and then read the following quote from one of Peter Rollins’s blog posts on ,

“In contrast to this the work of theologian Paul Tillich reveals a different approach. For rather than seeing the sacred as some distinct thing (even the greatest thing), one can see it as the name we give to the affirmation of a depth dimension that can be found in all things.

In this way one does not attempt to place the sacred alongside reason, ethics or aesthetics, but rather sees the sacred affirmed in our heartfelt commitment to these. From this perspective, insofar as we affirm the world as wonderful, we express the sacred. It is as we show loving care and concern for existence, and as we participate fully in life, we proclaim the sacred even if we are not aware of it. This is somewhat similar to the way that everything we see proclaims the existence of light even though we likely have no direct cognizance of the light (for we are focused on what the light illuminates).”

Read the full post here

Or look, even THIS post – about modern notions of the divine and demonic being separate from reality

Sure, it was Christianity fused with animism, but the result was a form of Christianity that was as tangible to them as God became through Incarnation. My point in all of this is the fact that in all of an existentialist’s thoughts and scenarios and constructs, could it not all be alleviated by simply LISTENING to people whose experiences are radically different from your own? If we think about how some existentialists arose in response to the horrors of World War II , we might note their anguish and complete loss of hope in everything- when really that everything what just modernity. Wasn’t math, science, and reason ( enlightenment values) suppose to solve all our woes? Wasn’t it about progressing humanity- as time moved on and we amassed more reason and knowledge, wasn’t mankind supposed to get smarter/ more reasonable? The glaring fact of the matter was that World War II ( or war as a human practice in general) was seen as very unreasonable. There could be no rationalization for the horrors wrought by (from help and math and science, mind you)such things as the Holocaust and/or bombings.

The brand of existentialism then ( and the brand that Rollins and friends stick most closely to) that arose in response to this, grew out of cynicism , skepticism, if not utter disdain for enlightenment values of modernity. To them, we had seen it all, we had made as much progress as we could have made and figured it all out, so for this to be the result, must mean that reason and certainty are tenuous and there really can be no certainty. These thoughts they processed without considering the experiences of the people marginalized by the malaise of modernity- the Jews, the African slaves, the Native Americans,etc. I can not help but feel that some existential crises could be abated by simply listening to more voices than those you’ve been exposed to all your life. For these reasons, I am beginning to believe that perhaps existentialism is primarily the burden of the modern white man.

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0 thoughts on “Is existentialism solely the burden of the modern white man?

  1. RodtRDH

    Some provocative thoughts, Harry! A couple of comments, first, on the Smith quoting Levine: I feel as part of Levine’s white privilege, he is able to use a problematic, imperialist category such as animism. To talk about God’s presence everywhere (whether it is pantheism/panentheism/divine omnipresence) is not the same as animism. Animism was used as a derogatory term used to discuss the cultural hierarchy of white Europeans over the colonized people’s & their religions.

    As for WWII, WWII is a direct result of the results of WWI, and with that, white empires fighting for the right to be white industrialized empires. It wasn’t science and math and the approval there of, but race and racism and colonialism that caused both wars.

    1. Harry

      Thanks for the heads up about the animism – actually I had an issue subconsciously about even considering it “animism”. I appreciate your insight about his position of white privilege and other points on the matter

      I would agree with you for sure about the racism and colonialism that caused both wars and if I could change one thing about this post, it would probably be to discuss that a bit more… however, I guess my intention was not to demonize math and science , but to demonize white empire’s notion that math/science/modernity granted them the rights to define “progress”. I think this helped to in part fuel/intensify their racism ( viewing Africans and Natives as “uncivilized” savage beast who hadn’t progressed much).

      This being said, my main point is that an existential theologian ( Peter Rollins) who has admitted (though it’s evident anyways) to being influenced by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre coming to the same conclusions about theology as a group whose experiences is as different from his own as an African slave in America, to me, proves that his approach , though filled with brilliant rhetoric, is over-complicated, and instances such as these make me wonder how many other examples we will find that they are coming to similar conclusions – all this “critical thinking” and fancy “existential thought” seem to only be result of the one from within the group of the oppressor who seeks to behave differently but doesn’t think to ask the oppressed group. I wondering if that’s the only reason existentialism even exists!

  2. Curt Day

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about similarities between the preaching in White and Black churches. Unfortunately, I have to do far more guessing regarding what is said in Black churches but I will draw on what I know of Bonhoeffer’s experience. I hope this adds to what has been written and I apologize if it does not.

    My guess is that comforting the flock is a central theme in both churches. How that comfort comes across depends on the audience, however. I would add that how this comfort comes across depends on which end of the whip the audience lives and which whip is being referenced. I am guessing that for Black churches, comfort for those oppressed was, if not still is, a central theme in the preaching. Parishioners had to be soothed over the social beatings and repression that were a part of everyday life.

    In White churches, submission to all authority figures along with messages to pre-emptively comfort the consciences of the parishioners aimed acquitting them of all guilt for the plight of those socially below them because they are enjoying the benefits of a system whose success relies on exploitation. This pre-emptive comfort usually takes the form of misdirection where the parishioners are told to focus more on their internal and private struggles and to ignore social ones.

    But some White parishioners see themselves at the other end of the whip too when they decry the removal of God from society. Here, these parishioners see themselves as oppressed by the sins of others even when those sins have no actual effect on the believer.

    I see the White man’s burden as presented to the middle class as what is necessary to keep the status quo. And the status quo is necessary not just for keeping one’s social standing and material goods intact, it prevents the White middle class from seeing, up close and in person, the faces of the victims of the system that benefits the them. In fact, in order to prevent this exposure, the burden of maintaining the status quo might be presented as from a necessary evil to a hidden blessing for those who are spiritually less fortunate. This should be seen as a different White man’s burden than that experienced by the rich. For their only burden lies in what they have to sacrifice to obtain more and maintain control.

    I hope that this is not too far off. And I apologize for not being able to connect this to existentialism, animism, and WWII. I have to do some further thinking on this.

    1. Harry

      I appreciate your insights! I can tell you that comfort for the oppressed is certainly a part of many black parishioners ( at least today, obviously) but in addition to this – overcoming that oppression and becoming something greater- shining in the midst of the struggle is really more what I would call central – which I guess is a bit more proactive than mere “comfort”.

      White man’s burden as keeping the status quo was quite informative to me and I would imagine feeling this pressure to maintain it could be burdensome for sure – I’ve seen this with some of my white male friends.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Seth Callahan (@S8th)

    Wow! What an interesting post. I am glad to see the information about Slave Religion as it sounds really cool. I would love to find more information, and am very open to whatever avenues of research you can offer.

    Now, I’m a white American male in the (lower)middle class, but I don’t see what the issue is with Rollins. I agree that dialogue with diverse conversation partners is the way forward in our entirely too dualistic nation, but, the way I see it, there’s only so much change a person can digest at one time before things turn into blind colonizing. That sentiment is what I find in Rollins. Granted, I have blind spots that you may not, but if that’s the case, please enlighten me. I am all ears and would love to hear your further comments. To start, here’s a pertinent post recently made by Rollins:

  4. Harry

    I’m actually learning Seth! I had only stumbled upon that passage earlier this week ( as part of my Summer-long Aquaman/ Environmental justice blog series). The quote came from Lawrence Levine’s ‘Black Culture and Black Consciousness “. I can say it doesn’t surprise me though as I attend a black pentecostal church ( Church of God in Christ) and I can tell you that much of their traditions( theological, musical, etc.) do echo a lot of Christian slave theological convictions, though flushed out a bit more, I guess. The late BIshop G.E. Patterson has some great sermons out there, Dr. James Cone is quickly becoming one of my favorites who speaks extensively about just being black in America ( especially at his youth) having similarities to being a Christian. In addition to looking for scholastic texts though, you can get a sense for slave religious sensibilities from their spiritual song lyrics. They are seemingly simplistic but they mean a lot. I know this is random but I also suggest searching Joshua Tongol, a Philippino Christian who has very interesting perspectives.
    Now let me be clear about Peter Rollins – I actually adore a lot of what he says, I think he’s right on about much of what he says and that he’s an incredibly sharp guy, I like to hear him speak/ read his writings! I guess my beef with him was just how he says all of this and once stated his interest in those “who’ve had their tongues ripped out” , yet he admitted to not reading women on feminism and behaving as if he were impervious to accusations of “sexism” or “racism”. He has since recanted to some extent ( says he gave himself the silent treatment) , I believe ina blog post shortly after the retaliation in the Theo blogosophere, and I forgive him anywyas, but I had stopped reading him from quite some time. The link you posted was great! I think the point he makes is a great one and similar to what I’m saying the answer is – listen to everyone ! But really, I think I’ll end my boycott on Rollins, it’s just when I first started reading his stuff it was so provocative and intellectual, I was capitvated. Keep reading him! The purpose of my post however was that as brilliant as he is, he seems to be coming to the same conclusions as people who aren’t as “intellectual” as he is – I just don’t think it’s good to get so hung-up on that is all.


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