Good Religion, Spirituality, and African Americans


by Harold Dean Trulear, professor of church and society at New York Theological Seminary and associate pastor, Community Baptist Church, Paterson, N.J.

Much of the scholarly and popular attention given to African-American religion in general and to the black-church tradition in particular falls into two categories. First, there is an ever-growing body of literature that focuses on black religious movements and social protest, rehearsals and analyses of the role of religion in the struggle for racial justice, civil rights and human dignity in American society. Connections are made, and rightly so, between the religion of enslaved African Americans and resistance to the institution of slavery, the black independent church of the nineteenth century and the genesis of Black Nationalism, the moral power of the black-church tradition and the civil rights movement, and the communal ethics of black religion and economic development.

Second, there is increased attention given to the worship tradition of African Americans, so far as it reflects the more dramatic and emotive styles of its free-church traditions, and more recently, in keeping with perceived continuity with and retrievals of an African spiritual heritage. In this vein, scholars, journalists, and other interested souls provide a window to the world through which to view the dynamics of spirituals and gospel music, the fervor and depth of the preaching event, and the drama and intensity of corporate praise and prayer.

In both cases, certain concepts of spirituality emerge. In the former, spirituality comes to mean the clear appeal to a religio-social value system that contextualizes all claims to justice. The inherent critique of racial conventions takes on prophetic dimensions as religious moral norms become the background against which society is judged. In the latter, spirituality is found in the freedom of a demonstrative worship style that serves as a rehearsal of eschatological identity. The church context provides this freedom not solely for cathartic purposes, but in demonstration of the reality that there is a place and space of freedom where persons may celebrate their God-given dignity and worth, values not necessarily ascribed to persons of color in a world dominated by the cultural hegemony of the majority.

At the same time, both concepts are susceptible, and may even lend themselves, to distortions or excesses which point to a degeneration of tradition that one might call "bad religion." Such terminology is not foreign to the ears of a tradition that lays claim to the African-American spiritual, "Have You Got Good Religion?" Such a question implies norms and standards by which religious faith and its expressions may be judged, evaluated, and critiqued - perhaps even rejected. Good religion and its attendant spirituality are therefore discernible and/or recognizable - to be sought and desired.

In the spiritual, the text contains two signal criteria for good religion. The first, conversion, reflects the community's understanding that persons must embrace an alternative worldview in order to have good religion. There is a need for a new way of looking at self and the world. The lines "Have you been baptized? Certainly, Lord," point to the necessity of metanoia, a change in thinking that enables one to revisualize life under the auspices, care, and, even, superintendency of God. Conversion involves a shift in consciousness that helps persons to see and consciously experience the presence and activity of God in the world.

The second criterion, an ethic of altruism and commitment, ushers forth in the lines, "Do you love everybody? Certainly, Lord." It signals the reality that good religion is interpersonal. Good religion can be discerned in the treatment human beings give one another. Good religion extends this love beyond the boundaries set by social convention; the question is, "do you love everybody?"

Both criteria point to the common element of transcendence in religious experience. Indeed, it is argued here that transcendence, the God-given human capacity to imagine beyond the self and its own desires and interests, is the essential stuff of spirituality in general and historic African-American spirituality in particular. The spirituality of African-American religion, whether viewed through the lens of social protest or divine worship, is most prone to degeneration and distortion when the forces of human predicament and social reality work against and threaten to obfuscate the human capacity for self-transcendence.

Without transcendence, social protest can degenerate into base group self-interest. Calls for "inclusion" replace cries for "transformation." Groups lose sight of the moral ground offering context and mandate for social transformation, and come to see the goals of protest as ends in themselves, valued now primarily for their benefit to the protestors.

This is not to suggest that self-interest is plainly immoral; rather it is to question whether a truly transcendent ethical response to social evil can end with the inclusion\integration of the protesting group without that group's looking toward forms of inclusion for others. A sense of transcendence enables a people to use their own experience of oppression as a window to the ontic existence of oppression, thereby creating solidarity with others who are oppressed. As such, an "out-group" that has an authentic spirituality will work for justice for other peoples as well.

Without transcendence, the drama of the rehearsal of eschatalogical identity is vulgarized into emotional catharsis that may feel good but does not produce meaningful life. If worship is the rehearsal of eschatalogical identity, it is also the celebration of the author of the eschaton, the One Whose presence is the guarantee of new life, as well as the ground of prophetic critique of the old. The consuming pursuit of relevance in religion often unwittingly combines with the growing alienation and isolation of contemporary culture to inhibit our ability to see "beyond" and thereby reduce religious ecstasy to simple emotion.

The emotion of the moment becomes the experience to be pursued, rather than the Transcendent Source of true ecstasy. Black religious thinkers as disparate as philosopher Cornel West and Pentecostal Bishop T. D. Jakes lament the cultural erosion of transcendence. West links the loss of transcendence to the loss of relationality. In an essay on popular music, he points out that "the roots of the Afro-American spiritual-blues impulse are based on the supposition that somebody - God, Mom, or neighbors - cares." The loss of the sense that there is someone who cares, of quality relationships between God and humanity, leads to a lack of hope, and participation in rituals that "parody transcendence itself."(1)

Relatedly, in a recent sermon, Jakes declared, "If all God does in a worship service is make you feel good, then he's nothing but a pusher." Jakes went on to draw parallels between the experience of true religious ecstasy and transcendence on the one hand, and the futility of narcotic efforts at transcendence, whether they be substance-induced or religiously invoked. It is a false transcendence that excites the senses, but fails to bring worshipers into the world of conversion.

Good religion, then, in the historic African-American context, consists of a spirituality that is grounded in transcendence. It involves a conversion to a worldview where God is the central reality. It calls forth relationships of love and justice. It reflects the communal dimension of faith rehearsed in the spiritual as the words are sung in call and response between leader and people. "Have you got good religion? Certainly, Lord."

1. Cornell West, Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, year), 187.

2. T. D. Jakes "Going From Oil to Light," sermon preached at the consecration of Bishop Donald Hillard Jr., Ocean Grove, N.J., November 1995.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-97, Vol. 46 Issue 4.