A Black Theology of Liberation
by James. H. Cone
Chapter 3: The Meaning of Revelation
According to Cone, every community must ask “How do we know that our claims about God are valid?” In introducing the concept of revelation, he says that in our world with so many sharply divergent perspectives, it is not possible to know what constitutes superiority. He warns that the gospel offers no assurance of winning – and questions what winning really means. He maintains that the only real question for Christians is whether their actions are in harmony with their knowledge of God, and that one can know that their assertions of God are valid only because of revelation.
Quoting Tillich, Cone says “every epistemological assertion is implicitly ontological.” He chronicles the interpretations of revelation from the 20th century to African-American theological perspectives. He begins with the Protestant Christianity, the Barthian school and the radical reinterpretation of the idea of revelation. According to Barth, there is a “wholly other God descending on humankind,” and revelation is disclosure of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Prior to this, Schleiermacher, one of the most influential religious thinkers of the 19th century, said that theology was “an explication of the meaning of communal self-consciousness.” Cone points out that European theology of revelation didn’t help the American context, and that white theology ignores liberation. He says that revelation must mean more – where revelation is God’s self-disclosure in the context of liberation, a radical encounter with structures of power.
Considering the Bible, Cone points out that revelation is inseparable from history and faith, and that the God of the Bible makes divine will known through participation in human history. Revelation is inseparable from those with faith to perceive it. Cone differentiates between general and special revelation, and says that a theologian’s task is to point to God’s revelation in current events. According to black theology, to say that all persons know God means human oppression is contradictory to the idea of the holy. Barth defined the idea of special revelation, taking a stand against natural theology – Jesus is the revelation of God, and through Christ – but then his stand changed as the times changed: after WWII, Barth wrote [of the] Humanity of God. Black theology offers a different perspective on revelation: through Christ, blacks are able to perceive the nature of black being and destroy forces of non-being (white racism).
Cone then brings in Bultman’s form-critical school and his view of New Testament revelation, which made Jesus relevant for today, abandoning all attempts to find the historical Jesus. Revelation is “an occurrence that puts me in a new situation as a self,” where we know our authenticity and our limitations. Revelation is, to Bultman who was influenced by existentialism and the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger, a “personal address.” Again, Cone’s difficulty with this is that it fails to express the idea of liberation. He quotes Tillich, “the courage to be… is the key to self-understanding.” Revelation in black theology is both “my own individual self-understanding and self understanding of community which sees God at work in history… the courage to be black in spite of racists.”
I found harmony with this perspective on revelation from James Cone not only within my own belief and understanding of revelation but also in what Evans has to say in We Have Been Believers: that revelation is dynamic and multidimensional. Evans, of course, speaks to the biblical witness, and says that the revelation – where God has revealed Godself to the black community - is inseparable from the historic struggle of black people for liberation. Evans speaks to the call of Moses (Exod. 3:1-17) and the missiological declaration of Jesus (Luke 4:16-30) – the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, and the existential situation of the enslavement of Israel.
My own belief of revelation may not be found in Evans’ scriptural basis, but I fully agree with his statement that “God’s revelation is also contingent, partial, and incomplete… as human history is yet unfolding.” Revelation is not what I possess, but what possesses me, and there is dynamism in the revelatory moment. I also found agreement with Cone, when he states that the only real question is whether [our] actions are in harmony with [our] knowledge of God.
While revelation for me with my Hindu advaita (non-dualistic) perspective is a peeling of layers to Self-Realization, Evans lays out the differences in my understanding of revelation from that of African Americans. Evans states that “African-American Christians have consistently resisted the tendency to divorce the fact of God’s revelation from the identity and social location of those to whom it is given.” God’s revelation is a personal encounter, often with a date and time stamp. However, I couldn’t completely reconcile what I read about black theology of revelation and liberation from either Evans or Cone, to my experience of it in class. Some of my classmates in the group project on Revelation felt that revelation is an intervention, and in Marcia Bonds’ words, “Any revelation... comes from outside of oneself.” Revelation as multidimensional and dynamic includes my understanding of revelation as immanent and internal, unlike this viewpoint. Possibly this comes from a dualistic perception of God, but as Evans says, “God’s revelation is multidimensional because it is essentially a personal encounter.” So while we may not agree on what we perceive as revelation, black theology, like Hindu theology, accounts for all our views to be valid.