A Lesson on Theological Conversation from Tony Jones

A Lesson on Theological Conversation from Tony Jones May 17, 2013
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Tony Jones has been accused of making offensive statements and he’s come to his own defense in his post “I’m Tired of Being Called a Racist”. If we are interested in clear and clean communication within the theological community, then there are few lessons to be learned from this unfolding story.

1. It might be time to look inward if we have been accused of something more than once. Actually, Jones has been accused of saying things that were “borderline racist.” That’s not necessarily the same as being called a racist. But there is systemic racism that white males are complicit in and that no matter how hard we try to think, speak and act free of it, we are entangled in a racist system that is still breathing. I believe it is humble, honest and helpful to admit this before we move forward in our theological conversations.

2. The cries of discrimination must be considered valid immediately, especially when rising from those who are or even feel discriminated against. There is no way to move forward if accusations of discrimination are dismissed, excused, explained away or defended against. If you take some time to read the over 174 comments to the above post link, there’s some good reading there. I don’t want to labor those points all over again.

But the one issue I really want to address is what I believe started the whole thing. Here’s a summary (I’m getting these quotes from Jones’ own article). He said,

“We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today.”

The person who responded to that statement, an African-American woman, said,

“As a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices… Most blatantly, the statement violates the metaphor of the interdependent and multifaceted body of Christ. How can a gospel that is mostly (if not entirely) interpreted and articulated by a homogenous group of people (in this case, white, well-educated males) be the “better version”? But in a more subtle way, his statement sent a clear and powerful message to all of the diverse people in the room (e.g., women, people of color, people without advanced degrees, etc.). No need to join our movement; we don’t need diverse voices. We’ve already got the best version of the Gospel and we only needed white, well-educated men to figure it out. Diverse people need not apply.”

Another incident where Jones claimed that Pentecostal theology “isn’t the best theology out there”, a woman, also African-American, responded:

“To say that the Pentecostal theology is weak and that the American theology is sophisticated, I just, I cringe at that. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned here at Fuller…I’ve learned that all theology is contextual, and to say that your American theology — and you have to think about the fact, I mean, I hate to bring up race, but, I can’t avoid it, I’m sorry but, as a Caucasian man living in America, to say that your theology is sophisticated and to say that the theology of Latin America and South America is weak, I mean, it’s appalling, it’s shocking for me to hear that, it’s offensive, it’s borderline racist, and it’s very closed-minded.”

Jones’ shouldn’t have said “better”. He responds that at least he didn’t say “best”. But this is exactly the problem. If one theology is better than the other than the implication is that smart people will choose the better one, which is presumably his. I suggest that we need to consider all theology as cumulative. We are all contributing to the conversation and hopefully to a good conclusion. Like all good processes, nothing is wasted but folded into the further development of what is best. Jones, as well as the woman who responded to his ideas, are both potentially engaged in the evolution of a better theology.

Actually, in my opinion, the woman sounds more concerned for inclusivity in the theological process than Jones who sounds more competitive in that statement. If we are working for diversity in the theological community then no one should claim dominance over but rather submit contributions to the conversation. What is every school of theology bringing to the table? Let’s submit every word from every corner to corporate judgement. This isn’t a race.

If we want to build a better theological community then first of all we need to humbly give and receive criticism about the foundations that are still riddled with structural flaws such as racism. The theological machine driven by straight white males is beset with blind spots. And the problem with blind spots is that we aren’t aware of them until we cause an accident and someone gets hurt, as Jones should have discovered and we as witnesses should learn from.

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  • Tim

    If nobody is supposed to say their theology is “better” than any other theology, then theology itself becomes meaningless. All theologies would thus be of equal quality, which is a nonsensical statement, IMO.

  • Adam Julians

    Hmmm intersting. i would agree with the sentiment about being better not being a wise choice of words and in that light all theology being contextual being an appropriate response. So better yes, is competitive. Different might be a more suitable adjective. Saying something is better without convincing evidence for that assertion is a weak argument. I would also ask – is the response to that proportionate to any offense caused?

    I hear the concern for building a theological community and the need for humility in the giving and receiving of criticism. I agree. I’m not convinced of either contribution to discussion that has been quoted displaying humility or inclusivity. i think both could benefit fomr consideration of how contibutions have been made in the aim of building a theological community with healthy dialoge.

    Not easy to achieve that in a culture which is by nature highly competitive, Which is what American culture is. But then when was it ever easy to bring about good things?

  • carla rae

    Tony was talking about two different occurrences, and I think you’re confusing the two. The response you gave that spoke about Pentecostal theology was something from a presentation at Fuller Seminary several years ago. Tony’s “better version of the gospel” was more recent and prompted a different response of exclusion.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • Jones’ statement and that response are not from the same event. Jones’ quote was from a talk he gave in Missouri last month, and the response you quoted was from a completely different talk given two years ago. You may need to reread his article.

  • DoctorDJ

    No, you’ve hit it exactly. All theologies ARE of equal quality.

    They’re all nonsense.

  • Actually Tim it isn’t helpful for someone to say their theology is better than someone else’s. My point is that we contribute our part to the conversation and it is judged on its merits.

  • Thanks Naomi and Carla. For some reason when I posted it there was a whole section that I missed in the cutting and pasting, and when I edited the final version in the post I totally overlooked this error. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I think I have the story right this time.

  • klhayes

    When we start to say that something we prefer or are comfortable with is better, we lose the ability to criticize our own groups. I read an article on a nine year old girl in the Middle East who was to be married off. Someone paid for that not to happen. Of course everyone was talking about how Islam promotes pedophilia. But pedophilia is a world wide problem that occurs in all cultures and religions (*cough*Catholic church). It may not happen in the form of child marriage but it still happens. People were so Islamaphobic that they could not see that such behavior was no more inappropriate than the abuse of nine year olds in other parts of the world.

    And when we look at other as inferiors, we can be very cruel to them and think we are still righteous. Christians post some of the most venomous stuff on facebook and in comment sections. I always want to ask “Do you come up with your best vitriol on Sunday while sitting in church?”

  • “Judged” and “merits” strike me as incongruous terms when “better” has been decided to be inappropriate. When I contribute my part to the conversation, what merits might it display? What is the process for judging my part against those merits, and which party to the conversation has the privilege of judging my contribution?

  • Of course we have to believe our ideas that we present have value and perhaps even better, as long as we also assume this is temporary and provisional. I mean, I’m not going to give an idea if I don’t think it’s a good one. And sure I have to think it is best if I believe it and offer it. But it’s HOW we present it and WHAT WE SAY. We can’t say, “My way’s better!” because that shuts down the process. I’m talking about the integrity of theological conversation.