off the shelf: Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek?

brief reflections on books I haven’t read in a while

As an undergrad, I took a course titled The Problem of God, which juxtaposed dominant theological models with experiences and realities that exposed their limitations. Professor John Thiel remains in my mind one of the smartest people and best teachers I’ve encountered. Flipping through Hood’s Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk, I recalled teaching techniques that I very explicitly borrowed from him as a young teacher, like posting the outline of the class on the board so students knew where they were headed, like pausing to let the right words fall into place before responding to deep questions, like moving dialogue forward not with easy answers but with better questions, like treating students as people and inviting authentic collaboration and dialogue. He was unquestionably enthusiastic about his field, he made theology relevant and accessible to our young minds, and he demonstrated respect for diverse and divergent (and evidence-based — he didn’t let us get away with fluffy opinions) interpretations.

Two big ideas stick with me from the content of that course. The first relates to theodicy, sometimes defined as “the problem of God’s justice,” which addresses the apparent contradiction in the experience of suffering and the belief in God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. If God knows all and can do anything, why would a loving deity permit suffering, evil, and injustice? Some suggest that, because these characteristics are divine characteristics, it’s a mystery beyond our reason, so we’ll never know why. Others go further and suggest that suffering is justified in some way — it’s a form of punishment (so, divine retribution, the lightning bolts from Zeus or the smiting of Sodom & Gomorrah), it’s deserved (it’s something we just have to live with because of what we’ve inherited #originalsin), or, my personal favorite (#sarcasm), the Macchiavellian approach: “everything happens for a reason.” Around the same time I took this course, I started studying the history of anti-Judaism that culminated in the Holocaust and modern antisemitism, and all of these responses to the presence of suffering cumbled in face of the fact that “Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about 1.5 million Jewish children and tens of thousands of Romani (Gypsy) children, 5,000–7,000 German children with physical and mental disabilities living in institutions, as well as many Polish children and children resiging in the German-occupied Soviet Union.” Over time, I’ve come to understand that we’re focused on the wrong problem. The problem is the classical formulation (God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) itself. Like so many theologies, it falls short because it attempts to define the undefinable, projects simplicity and ignores complexity, and prioritizes esoteric knowledge over lived experience.

The second big idea that stuck with me emerged from Must God Remain Greek? Robert Hood was a historian of religion whose own lived experience led to the big question of the book. He was a scholar, an Episcopal priest and leader, an assistant to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a time, and a professor of theology. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but MGRG? was my introduction to cultural chauvinism. Hood narrates the history of Christian churches and new religious movements that are rooted in and reflect the worldviews and practices both in colonized Africa and through the descendents of Africans in the Caribbean and North America. The diversity of splits and schisms in that history points to a fundamental problem for Christianity — its mainstream theology relies on and imposes models of God (like the classical formulation already ranted about) that clash with the worldviews inherited by the converted. Each church reclaimed religious and cultural authority by giving form to African-rooted ideas and deconstructing or diminishing the dominance of European/White patriarchal theology. Hood’s analysis argues for a more nuanced understanding of “unity,” and his analysis helped me articulate a critical piece of my own worldview: unity doesn’t require uniformity.

I started teaching in 2001 with this belief already formed and bolstered by my own experience of difference, and between then and now, school cultures have changed dramatically. I haven’t loved some of it, like the changes responding to national debates about the purpose of, funding for, and accountability in education (#NoChildrenLeftBehind) and the changes that developed from new threats to school safety (I say this seriously: I don’t have the emotional stamina to participate in one more “active shooter drill” in a school). But school cultures have also seen the expansion and iteration that started with fringe “diversity clubs” and has led to various stages of progress in the commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging.

In retrospect, I’m astonished by how forward-thinking, how paradigm-shattering the course could’ve been. Had the whole group been eager to reflect on our experiences and worldviews, maybe the professor would’ve stoked a revolution in theological thinking. Instead, he was stuck with 5 dorky religious studies majors intent on impressing this most impressive teacher and 20 other (mostly white) college kids who were less interested in examining the nuances and impacts of inherited worldviews than they were in securing a keg for Thursday night’s beerpong tournament. I wish we had been more explicit in The Problem of God about the tools we were acquiring, about how the language and history and perspective that fed our critical thinking skills should’ve mobilized us to effect change faster, to engage difference better, to recognize the value of difference (over conformity), of being able to name oneself (over the entitlement to name others in our language), of dialogue and consensus (over chauvinism and imposition). Maybe our professor did emphasize this, and it went over our heads (we were playing a lot of beerpong in those days).



Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator |

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