Charles Long and Black Religious Experience Essay

Charles Long and Black Religious Experience Essay

This is a short critique of Charles Longs proposal that sociological and theological discourse should take into account of the specific historical experience of the blacks, which is meant to instigate a reform in theology. The paper argues that Longs proposal, though well-meaning, should not hope for theological reform, and that it should limit itself to the arena of sociology.

In order to address the exclusion of Black Americans from the mainstream of Christianity, Charles Long has proposed that the particular religious experience of the black community be taken into account. It is suggested that such a fresh approach will lead to reorganization of social and religious structures that are more accommodating to black experience. The implicit aim is to alter theological discourse in the context of Christianity in America, and ultimately to overcome the black/white divide in the Church. If this be the case, then Longs aim is flawed and unrealizable. Religion is strictly a lived experience, and as such is not subject discourse. The differences between black and white theologies may be studied as a sociological project. But it cannot hope to effect religious reform, because this remains impervious to discourse.

Christianity was at first an imposition on the slaves, and despite a process of naturalization, it must be said that the black community has adapted the faith to its own experience, rather then the other way round. In this way the Gospel is made to translate black experience, which necessarily includes the religious experience from a pre-Christian existence. Here lies the root to black theology, as something distinct from the mainstream version. It points to an inherent contradiction, which Long describes as persisting in conventional discourse. [W]hat we have in fact are two kinds of studies, he says, those arising from the social sciences, and an explicitly theological apologetic tradition (Long 55). The sociological dimension to the discourse compounds differences, so that it concentrates on black identity and liberation, while the apologetic tradition denies difference and works towards unity. It is due to this inherent contradiction that there arises a failure to perceive certain creative possibilities in the black community in America (Ibid).

What Long identifies is a serious incompatibility between Black experience and the traditional norms of Christianity. And it must also be pointed out that such an incompatibility needs to be properly articulated, and that in the past such issues have been diplomatically glossed over. The situation of slavery and segregation meant that in the past blacks lacked the voice that would have allowed them to articulate their cultural and religious aspirations. According to the design of their white masters, they were meant to embrace Christianity as a mark of being civilised, and therefore were meant to jettison all forms of native beliefs. It is only now, when blacks are able to express themselves fully, that we are finding out that the conversion of the blacks did not occur according to white designs, and that native black experience has never been erased, and remains extant in religious life of the black community. As Zora Neale Hurston points out poignantly: Nobody knows for sure how many thousands in America are warmed by the fire of hoodoo, because the worship is bound in secrecy (185). Voodooism finds its origins in the African continent, and was transplanted to the American continent along with the slaves (Mulira 35).

Long, among others, questions how far Black Theology takes cognisance of these issues. If the object of this theology be to embody black experience, then Anthony B. Pinn believes that it has lost sight of this objective, while embracing comfortable institutional structures and traditional rhetoric and [is] becoming theologically numb to the changing African American context (191). He warms to the mission of Long to effect a reform in theology, so that blacks may be able to incorporate their own experience in their religious practice. Long sees such a discourse taking place in the academic departments of sociology, and he wants to see it come out of this confinement and be tackled by ministers and theologians. To facilitate this process, he asks for religious meaning to be sought in more places than the church and ecclesiastic circles. He suggests that personal faith be given a more important position than conventional norms and practices. In this context he says, The Christian faith provided a language for the meaning of religion, but not all the religious meanings of the black communities were encompassed by the Christian forms of religion. . . . Some tensions have existed between these forms of orientation and those of the Christian churches, but some of these extra-church orientations have had great critical and creative power. They have often touched deeper religious issues regarding the true situation of black communities than those of the church leaders of their time. (Long 7).

As such, Longs message contains acute revolutionary undertones. Indeed, what he has to say bears striking similarities to what Martin Luther had to say about the Catholic Church in the times of the Protestant Reformation. We may even go as far as to say that Long wants to bring about a Lutheran reformation in the context of black religious experience.

Long identifies the problem correctly, however he fails to address it. The proposed solution of Long is flawed in the same way in which the academic and sociological project is. By insisting on a new methodology, Long is actually giving precedence to sociology over theology. Long thinks the old methodology inadequate because, though it takes into account the political and sociological aspirations of the black community, it ignores the religious experience. Indeed, it denies a separate religious experience at all, deeming black and white alike to be Christians. Long would have the methodology acknowledge a different religiosity for the blacks, and thereby trigger a reform in theology, one that is more accommodating to black experience. In other words, Long intends to use theology to question the faith itself, and as Tillich points out, this is not allowed. Theology can only describe the religious experience of those within the theological circle (qtd. in Kaufman 2). It cannot instigate a different faith altogether. Put in another way, religion does not come through discourse, but through lived experience. As Shiva Naipaul puts it so aptly, Gods ought to exude out of the pores like sweat. They ha[ve] to well up from the inside (Naipaul 104). Sociological discourse, therefore, should not try to impose gods, because they remain counterfeit and useless.

In conclusion, Longs effort to modify Christian theology, by taking into account the specific black experience, though well meaning, is ultimately flawed. Theology can only hope to describe faith, but not alter it. Long may well choose to study black religious experience, and how it relates to both Christianity and Voodooism. But to conflate such a study with theology is ill advised and dangerous.


Hurston, Zora Neale, Mules and Men. New York: Perennial, 1990.

Kaufman, Gordon. An Essay on Theological Method. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979.

Long, Charles. Perspectives for a Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States. History of Religions. 11.1 (1971): 55.

Long, Charles. Significations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986.

Mulira, Jessie Gaston. The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans. Africanisms in American Culture. Ed. Josephy E. Holloway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Naipaul, Shiva. Love and Death in a Hot Country. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Pinn, Anthony B. Rethinking the Nature and Tasks of African American Theology: A Pragmatic Perspective. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy. 19.2 (May 1998): 191-208).

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