Theology: August 2007 Archives
Thabiti Anyabwile has responded to my critique of his discussion of race. In several places, I think he has misunderstood my view or gone beyond my argument to attribute to me a view that I do not hold and that does not follow from what I said. In some places I think we just disagree about something fairly fundamental. I'll address each of his points in order
1. The issue of the image of God is largely irrelevant to the main issues. I just thought some of the way Thabiti was speaking had implications that I didn't think he would welcome. That seems to be a correct assessment. He doesn't welcome the suggestion that God has a body, but he wants to say that some of what the image of God constitutes is manifested in our bodily reality (both male and female). I don't have any problem with the idea that God worked into us certain capacities to carry out the mission of representing him, and some of those capacities have to do with our physical being. I do in fact think that's the case. I'm skeptical whether those capacities constitute being made in the image of God, however. I certainly would agree, however, that there are no people who are more in the image of God than others, as if white people represent God more fully. But I don't think you need to see the image of God as partially reflected in our bodies to say that. So I think this issue is largely a distraction from the issues we really do disagree about.
2. Thabiti clarifies that he presents his argument against the reality of races as a way of getting to the sections of his article that I agree with, not as a way to respond to the wider literature on race. I though I already knew that, so I'm not sure how this is a corrective to my understanding. He also says that once you accept race, you cannot get out of that trap. He doesn't want to enter it to begin with. I disagree. It depends on what you take race to be. I can acknowledge the existence of what I think race to be without falling into the trap of admitting to the reality of what he thinks race is supposed to be, because what I think race is isn't the same thing as what he thinks race is supposed to be. But that issue comes out in his subsequent points, so I'll look at the details further there.
3. I never claimed that races are like refrigerators in every sense. I simply claimed that the principles that something doesn't exist just because it isn't talked about in the Bible is false. It's no argument against something's existence just because it isn't in the Bible. I did give other examples of social categories that are more analogous to race, e.g. political conservatives or university students. Nothing biological determines whether you are a university student. Social practices determine that. But the category exists nonetheless. Since races are socially-determined categories, they are more like that. The difference is that people are classified according to characteristics at least some of which are biological, and that is not true of all socially-constructed categories.
There is a big difference between races and leprechauns. Leprechauns are people with some very strange properties, and no one actually has the properties of leprechauns. But they are concrete individuals. There just aren't any of them. Races aren't concrete individuals. They are categories based on classification schemes. Even if the criteria used for determining who is in what category are biologically arbitrary, there does exist a set of classification practices, and the people who are members of the races do exist. The criteria that are used rely on realities, and those realities include some biological differences (even if they are somewhat arbitrarily chosen in terms of the biology). Those realities include real social and historical facts, including severe mistreatment of entire populations of people. Those realities include somewhat reliably-identifiable properties that people do in fact use to categorize people.
Justin Taylor sent me an email asking me to comment on Many Ethnicities, One Race by Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the forthcoming The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accomodation. This article is a Christian argument for an increasingly-common view today that races are not real, following by a biblical theology lying behind a call to end segregated congregations.
When I saw the links to a bunch of pieces on race on Justin's blog, I looked at a number of them and got a sense of what they were about, but I didn't pursue most of them (with John Piper's as a key exception). This was one I didn't look at in much detail, largely because what I initially saw seemed to me to be pretty far from what I think is the correct way to look at these issues. I must say (now that I've read the whole thing) that the second half of his piece was much more in line with my own thinking, but his initial arguments are very much not. Since Justin asked for my thoughts, here they are, and perhaps they will be helpful to others besides Justin. I'm not going to repeat the arguments in the article but will assume you have read it.
One worry I have is that I see no biblical warrant for taking the image of God to be anything more than being given a mission to represent God (which is what an image does for a god in the ancient near east). It is thus the same as being given the mandate to steward creation as God's representative on earth. Anyabwile rests a lot on his more expansive view of what the image of God is. all the while complaining that people's views of race go way beyond what the Bible actually says about race.
I'm a bit disturbed at the idea that our bodies could have something to do with being in the image of God to begin with. The only reason God has a body is because he incarnated himself in his second person as a human being. But that is in time after the creation of Adam, who is nonetheless made in the image of God. Even if being in the image of God is more substantive than the view I hold, it cannot have anything to do with having a body, since God does not have a body in any sense other than in the second person's incarnation, which is to reflect what human beings are like and not the other way around (although the new creation does reflect what Christ is like, but that's another step removed).
I think his general argument form is fallacious. It basically notes that the modern notion of race isn't in the Bible and thereby dismisses it. But the modern notion of a mailman isn't in the Bible. The modern notion of a refrigerator isn't either, nor is the modern notion of a university or the modern notion of a conservative. But all those things exist.
Another problem I have is that he keeps speaking of "races rooted in biological difference". Most race theorists who accept the existence of races do not think that races are a necessary implication of biological facts. They think social and historical factors have produced racial categories that rely on biological features in terms of how we classify people, but the root is in social and historical factors, not in biology. The fact that they are not rooted in biology doesn't mean they're nonexistent any more than the fact that categories like "conservative" or "university student" aren't rooted in biology doesn't make them unreal.
I was reading an old entry from 2008central.net that I'd saved in my RSS reader until I had more time. It includes some of the Democratic presidential candidates' discussions of religion. I have a few comments on three of the candidates, but I'm going to treat them in separate posts, starting with John Edwards.
O’BRIEN: What do you say to all the people — and there are millions of people who go to church every Sunday and who are told very clearly by their pastors that, in fact, the Earth was created in six days, that it’s about creationism? Are those people wrong? Are their pastors wrong?
EDWARDS: No. First of all, I grew up in the church and I grew up as a Southern Baptist, was baptized in the Baptist Church when I was very young, a teenager at the time. And I was taught many of the same things. And I think it’s perfectly possible to make our faith, my faith belief system consistent with a recognition that there is real science out there and scientific evidence of evolution. I don’t think those things are inconsistent. I think a belief in God and a belief in Christ, in my case, is not in any way inconsistent with that.
Is that even coherent? I mean everything after the "No" is coherent, but given the question asked, and his initial answer, can he coherently say what he goes on to say? I'm having trouble imagining how unless Edwards is a relativist about religious truth such that these people are correct in their six-day creationism while he is correct in his acceptance of evolution as consistent with his faith.
One reason I worry that that's going on is his answer to the question about gay marriage. He goes on to say that he has a personal belief against gay marriage but doesn't think he could as president enforce his personal religious views. I'm sure that's how many Christians will view these statements, but I think it's a mistake.