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
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
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,
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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solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-97, Vol. 46 Issue 4.