Real evil needs a real God?

Radical theology in a third world
The second plenary speech at the 1992 conference was given by Ronald Nicolson, Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Natal, South Africa.

I am glad to be here. I am also nervous to be here in the company of the great! But I would also be nervous about presenting this paper in my home country, South Africa, for different reasons. A paper on radical theology would not be well received.

South Africa may have emerged from apartheid but the theological problems raised by the fact that apartheid is the product of a Christian culture have not gone away. Nor has the suffering grown less. I work in a University in Pietermantzburg, the educational and political capital of Natal, which has been at the epicentre of a violent struggle between rival groups vying for future political power. The violence is fuelled, we think, by army and police. In a town roughly the size of Leicester, something like 2500 people have been killed since 1985. There can be no-one who has not lost a friend, an associate, an employee. This violence is duplicated in many other areas.

In the light of this picture, the struggle for righteousness becomes acute. Many people have seen the Church in South Africa at the forefront of that struggle. Archbishop Tutu, Beyers Naude, Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, are deservedly known throughout the world. It seems ungracious to question the basis of the beliefs which inspire their heroic resistance. But in the light of the picture, hard questions of theodicy can also never be far away.

There is little overt interest in radical theology, meaning a non-realist theology, in South Africa. In a more comfortable North Western world Christianity may seem irrelevant and may need to justify its claims to "cultured despisers" by increasingly liberal forms of theology. But South Africa is a place where traditional Christian belief is seen to have enabled the church there to face real issues and real evils. Liberation theologians may criticize the institutional church for its concern for peace before justice (1), but the Kairos Document never raises the issue of our concept of God. The Church, it is felt, cannot afford the luxury of theological liberalism. Cowdell suggests the issue may be raised about Don Cupitt:

Such a theology would never, we are told, present itself to a third world Christian (say) who instead of doing theology in a room overlooking an Oxbridge quad would have to work out his or her theology in the context of a struggle for liberating praxis.(2)

A lone lecturer at the major Anglican theological college in South Africa who admitted an admiration for Don Cupitt was asked by the Bishops to resign his position.(3) When we face real evil, the argument seems to run, we need a real God.

Archbishop Tutu believes in a real God who will intervene and act directly in South Africa.

God cares, and God will act decisively to bring justice, peace and reconciliation to our land. (4)

We must not doubt that he will take our side, and that he will rescue us and lead us out of bondage, out of our slavery, out of our poverty, out of our suffering...Nothing will eventually stop him. (5)

A critic is in a very difficult position. I have great admiration and affection for Archbishop Tutu. His beliefs have strengthened and inspired him to be an infinitely more effective warrior against apartheid than most of us. Although his views are probably no longer representative of the views of black theologians, many of whom have followed Latin American liberation theology into a sophisticated application of Marxian social analysis to biblical hermeneutics (6), they probably do represent the views of most black Christians, and are of great comfort to those who are living under such intolerable circumstances. It is not my place to tell them arrogantly what they should believe. It is not a responsible action to take away a belief that makes life endurable.

Non-realist theology attracts no interest. Black people, we are told, are naturally religious.

Religion in some form or other appears to be an Africanism.

wrote the American black theologian Deotis Roberts (7), while the South African martyr Steve Biko said

All people are agreed that Africans are a deeply religious race...We all accept without any doubt the existence of a God. (8)

Whether or not this was true of traditional African religion is a debatable point. Certainly an awareness of that which is beyond the material universe seems to have been and still is part of African spirituality. Yet the God of traditional indigenous religion in South Africa seems probably to have been a remote sky god who did not intervene in ordinary affairs. Whatever the truth of this, black theology in South Africa has not paid much attention to the concept of God but has concerned itself with hermeneutics, with the role of the Church, with the liberating work of Jesus.

Yet a liberation soteriology still seems to require a realist concept of God. If Jesus is seen as the embodiment of God's concern for the poor there must be a God whose concern he embodies.

Black theology seeks to depict Jesus as a fighting God. (9)

For all these reasons, radical theology, in the sense of a theology which no longer emphasizes a "real", personal, interventionist God, seems to be a non-starter. To quote an Afro-American philosopher who visits South Africa regularly,

The available black theology constitutes a rigid monolithic theism...a radical shift in theological perspective must occur before humanism is admitted to the black theological circle. (10)

Yet it must be obvious that there are problems.

(i) The problem of arrogance

The belief in a "real" God which has inspired the Christian heroes of resistance also inspired the beliefs of the Afrikaans Christians, no less devout, who believed God had intervened in their time of oppression under Lord Milner and the aftermath of defeat and depression, to rescue them and lead them out of bondage. It prevented them from seeing that their endeavours and their ideology, however praiseworthy in their origins, were of human origin and subject to human sin and fallibility. The belief contributed towards the arrogance of the architects of apartheid.

(ii) The problem of theodicy

Even Archbishop Tutu must wonder why, if God is going to intervene and nothing will stop him, he has stayed his hand for so long. It might be argued that the changes in South Africa now are evidence of the awaited intervention; but millions have already died in humiliation without ever seeing that victory, and where was God for them?

William Jones, the Afro American to whom I referred above, describes himself as a humanist, but not necessarily an atheistic humanist. He pleads for a theism which is humanocentric rather than theocentric, which is concerned with "functional ultimacy", the outworking of theistic language in human behaviour. He believes that issues of theodicy require this.

God, the heart of black theism, has not been sufficiently cross-examined to determine the nature of his responsibility for black oppression. (11)


I contend that the theodicy question as revised by liberation theologians will force Christian theism to the position of humanocentric theism, the form of contemporary theism in which the principle of functional ultimacy is most present. (12)

Since Professor Jones is black, I am emboldened to suggest that a radical concept of "God" will after all be helpful in South Africa, a concept which sees God and God-language as powerful and enactive symbols drawn from a long Christian and theistic tradition which encapsulate and energize our own activity and our own attempts to bring our will, our hopes, our affections closer to an ideal which we have chosen. I take it that this is something of what Jones means by "functional ultimacy". The concept understands religion as a human construct which points to that which transcends the status quo and helps us actualize our vision.

To speak of God is to speak about the moral and spiritual goals we ought to be aiming at, and about what we ought to become,

wrote Don Cupitt at the close of The Sea of Faith. (13)

The point of this paper is to suggest

I plan to deal with the second proposition first.

Non-realism in black theology?

For one thing, it is clear that black theologians mean by liberation a liberation in this world and not the next. For another, hermeneuticists such as Mosala have being saying for some time (14) that it is naive to believe that the Biblical texts point directly to a politically liberating God. The texts are often the products of the oppressors, enshrine oppression, and have to be deconstructed. In other words, although Mosala does not say so plainly, the liberating message which may be derived from the Bible and from the Christian tradition is, like the texts and the creeds themselves, a human construct, an autonomous human interpretation. That is only one step away from saying that the idea of God is a human construct too.

Black theology in South Africa went hand in hand with the black consciousness movement, which was largely initiated by Steve Biko until his horrible death at the hands of the South African Police. For this reason I would like to use Biko as one of my examples. Biko certainly often used religious language, as we have seen already.

Obedience to in fact at the heart of most selfless revolutionaries. (15)

Yet he was impatient with unnecessary theological complication about the nature of God, which he saw as enigmatic, was not convinced of the divinity of Jesus (16), and was aware that Christianity had often

...detracted from the essence of the struggle in which people are involved. (17)

What Biko meant by obedience to God was a selfless dedication to conscientizing black people with a sense of their dignity and self worth. What he meant by black theology was

...a situational interpretation of Christianity [which] seeks to relate the present day black man to God within the given context of the black man's suffering and his attempts to get out of it. (18)

The function of God, or of Jesus, is to encourage and inspire. Biko had no expectation of an interventionist God.

God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people's problems on earth. (19)

Biko was not primarily a theologian, but his work is foundational for black theology in South Africa. (20) The whole thrust of black consciousness and black theology in South Africa was to encourage black people to take responsibility for their own deliverance and not to rely on outside help, either supernatural or from well-meaning but disempowering white liberals.

While the emphasis in South African liberation theology may now be shifting to an emphasis on class consciousness instead (although some would contest that), the basic issue is still the interpretation of Christian soteriology in such a way as to reassure black (or poor) people that God is on their side. But this is not in order to encourage them to expect God's active intervention on their behalf. It has sometimes been alleged that the theology of many of the black independent churches leads to a passive waiting for God to do his will (21), but black liberation theologians (who rarely come from such churches) would be sharply critical of any such theology. The teaching that God exercises a preferential option for the poor is intended to enhance the self-image of black people so that they may take responsibility for their own history. The essence of black consciousness is

...the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression...and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. (22)

The Bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The Bible must continually be shown to have something to say to the black man to keep him going on his long journey towards realization of the self. (23)

The emphasis here is clearly on human action in human history, inspired by stones and symbol words from the Christian tradition, although this is spoken of as God's action.

The only South Africa theologian who has recently written a book about the concept of God is Albert Nolan. Nolan is not black, and his book has been criticized by black theologians. They do not, however, criticize his concept of God, but his right to speak on behalf of the suffering, and his identification of the struggle as a class struggle not a race struggle. The implication is that he is an ANC rather than a PAC man. (24) Since Nolan is a key member of the Institute for Contextual Theology, most people would agree that he identifies wholly with the black struggle and that his theology is very influenced by the opinions of the black persons with whom he works and theologizes. He seems to have a very realist concept of God.

God is angry about the intolerable suffering that is being inflicted upon so many human beings...God is exceptionally busy laying the foundations for a new future...The powers of evil are being outwitted by God...God is preparing the conditions for salvation and bringing the people together in solidarity and commitment, fearlessness and hopefulness, excitement, celebration and power?...God is not dead. Those who treat God as an abstract entity who is absent from human affairs do so in order to close their eyes to the good news about what God is doing and saying in South Africa today. (25)

This seems to leave no place for radical theology. Those who espouse it are, it is suggested, trying to avoid being part of the struggle.

With a closer look at Nolan, we discover, however, that his "realist" God is not so realist after all. Nolan makes it clear that any received traditional theology is not the last word about God. While we cannot make the gospel mean anything we want it to—our experience of revelation is

...formed, guaranteed, and normatively shaped by the message of Jesus to his contemporaries and by all that is revealed about God in the Bible, (26)

nevertheless all human experience is "interpreted experience". Nolan makes a distinction between the "shape" or function of the gospel, i.e. the good news of God's liberating activity, which remains constant, and the "content", the way in which that function is understood and expressed in any particular context. Contrary to what one might expect, it is the shape which is unchanging, the content which changes. Nolan is saying, it seems to me, that theological concepts are contingent human constructions. No doubt most theologians would agree.

The function of his "realist" God, as in liberation theology generally, is not to intervene in human affairs in any external way but to enable oppressed human beings to make their own history. Nolan makes this particularly clear.

In fact, God's salvation appears precisely at the moment when people start becoming subjects of their own history, when they begin to take responsibility for their own future. (27)

There will be change and hope in South Africa when the "objects" of racism become the subjects and co-creators with one another of our common future. (28)

This is in line with our earlier comments about the soteriology of black theology. Certainly Nolan speaks of the mirabilia dei, of God acting in a wonderful way in South Africa, but his examples of the mirabilia are such things as the organization of Trades Unions, of street committees, of grass roots democratic organizations.

They are just as much the wonderful works of God as anything we read about in the Bible... (29)

Traditional theologians could argue that all of this is still God's Holy Spirit working through human beings and evidence of God's intervention. But Nolan will not allow the interpretation that these works are in any way the work of God independent of or distinct from human agency. We cannot distinguish between the work of God and the work of humans.

It is not a matter of co-operation or a joint effort between God and human beings. (30)

The distinctions between God and human seem to have disappeared entirely. To use Jones' concept of "functional ultimacy", clearly what Nolan is talking about functionally is what humans do. This seems to me to be indistinguishable from saying that God language is just a way of talking about human activity.

People in trouble want God to intervene. Speaking of the Hebrew Bible, Nolan says that in the dark hours of Israel's history, the apocalyptic writers naturally believed that

...despite appearances, God was in control, God had a plan, and that everything was happening according to that plan,


God would intervene from outside. (31)

But Jesus, says Nolan, was not an apocalyptic dreamer. He took the apocalyptic language of his time and gave such apocalyptic terms as "Messiah" new meanings. He encouraged people to make their own history.

For Jesus...the reign of God...includes a human initiative whereby people become the subjects or agents in an historical project. (32)

Since we have already noted that Nolan elsewhere is reluctant to draw any line between God's initiative and ours, it seems clear that for Nolan the emphasis is on human activity.

Why then should we speak about God at all? Nolan uses the symbolism of God language to invest the human struggle against oppression with extra significance. The struggle is an expression of hope beyond despair. This defiant hope has nothing to do with any expectation of deliverance from on high. He quotes Dorothee Solle with approval.

There is no hope that drops from heaven through the intervention of God. Hope lies within the struggle. (33)

The struggle itself has

...a kind of religious aura about it. (34)

He is not saying at all that it is a Christian relationship with God which leads to grace, to courage. On the contrary,

The practice of the struggle is the practice of faith even when it is not accompanied by an explicit confession of faith in God or in Jesus Christ. (35)

He does say that he is not reducing theological language to language about the struggle (36), but he comes so close to identifying people's power with God's power as to make the distinction of no importance. He suggests that the familiar greeting of the liberation movement in South Africa:

V. Amandla ("Power") R. Ngawethu ("is ours") is parallel to the liturgical greeting

V. The Lord be with you R. And with thy spirit. (37)

People's power like the power of God is invincible. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the power of the people who are willing to suffer and die for the liberation of others. Nothing can destroy such power. (38)

He is using theological language and evoking theological affective reactions to broaden, enhance and ennoble the concept of people's power.

The almighty power of God is above all other powers and authorities,

he writes, which sounds very orthodox, but the sentence continues

...because, like people's power, God's power is above and beyond all that. (39)

The very orthodox notion of God's omnipotence and transcendence has been turned upside down; it is people's power which is transcendent, and people's power which gives content to what he actually means by God's invincible power.

Again he quotes Solle:

The dignity of human beings is the capacity for going beyond what exists. We are only truly alive when we transcend. (40)

But what does Nolan mean by transcend? To love is to transcend; to hope is to transcend (41), and thus to love or to hope is what Nolan means by experiencing the transcendent God. Love, he says, implies a personal commitment beyond selfishness, and so the most revealing way to speak about transcendence is to speak in personal terms. We speak about God, therefore, as a loving person, though God is not, says Nolan, a person. Nolan's intention is not so much to show how we can experience God as an end in itself, but to encourage us to love and to hope, to be autonomous people, by investing these attitudes with religious overtones. To want to be a person who chooses, to be the subjects of our own history rather than an object who is used by other persons, is an experience of transcendence or of God. (42)

I have tried to show that Nolan is not really talking about a realist God at all. South African theologians who are black will say that my attempt has nothing to do with black theology, since Nolan is not black. But in every way Nolan shares their convictions; about the meaning of liberation, about the hermeneutic circle, about the need for theologizing on the basis of social analysis. Since his is the only detailed work on the concept of God which arises out of these convictions, I think it is fair to say that where he ends up is where black theology logically points.

Non-realism the most helpful option?

My intention is not to be critical of Nolan at all. My only question is, whether it is helpful to continue to talk about God in "realist" terms when the logic of one's position is that a realist God plays little part in one's theology. Some younger black theologians make it clear to me in personal conversations that their reason is that most of their audience do think of God in realist terms, and they want to motivate them to action by talking in their language. Biko said this long ago.

Too many people are caught up in religion for the blacks to ignore. Obviously, the only path open to us now is to redefine the message in the Bible and to make it relevant to the struggling masses. (43)

Says Nolan:

Understanding the events of our time in terms of transcendence makes them much more challenging. (44)

It invests these events with greater significance. But it also carries the danger that we will believe our human construct or interpretation to be divinely revealed and therefore beyond questioning. Nolan is aware that this criticism could be levelled. Direct talk of God makes people

...think of the way Nazis used God to promote their cause or the way the Voortrekkers saw themselves as God's chosen people. (45)

Nolan sees these as abuses of God's name. Those with power use God's name to legitimate their position, but he is encouraging us to use God's name to do the opposite, to enable the poor to overcome oppression. However, the formal doctrine of apartheid was born long after the Voortrekkers. It came into being in the 1920s and 1930s when ordinary Afrikaners were themselves dispossessed and excluded from the country's economy. They adopted a form of liberation theology based on an interpretation of Calvin and Kuyper which taught them that God was on their side in the struggle against international colonialism and capitalism. They understood their God language very realistically and literally. It certainly assisted them to mobilize and to change their history. When they came to power they were (and are) unable to see that their language about what God had done was really language about what they themselves had accomplished. Their victory and the nature of it could not be questioned. Their apartheid plan was not subject to ordinary human fault and error.

In his defence, Nolan, like Moltmann (46), does not only talk of God and salvation in terms of power, but in terms of God identifying with people in their suffering. God is a crucified God (47). The idea seems to be that this in some way helps those who suffer because suffering is something they share with God. This concept also seems to require a "real" God, since only a real God can suffer.

God can be seen in the face of a starving black child...It is not their innocence, their holiness, their religious perfection, that makes them look like God. It is their suffering, their oppression, the fact that they have been sinned against. (48)

They are like God because, like God, they suffer. In my own view it is a very unfortunate concept. It comes close to ennobling suffering, to encouraging the fatalistic endurance of suffering, and at some point raises the question: if all God can do is suffer alongside of us, how is he of saving help. God is absolved of indifference; but his only function is to assure the poor that they matter because God loves them so.

At some point those who have been assured that God is on their side will demand a little more evidence. When nothing changes, despair will set in. Perhaps if the more truthful but more bleak answer is given, that in reality they are on their own in this struggle and must for their own sake retain hope and faith in their ultimate power to become subjects and not objects, false hopes will not be raised and despair may defiantly be kept at bay.

But perhaps, too, this answer is too bleak to be borne. And perhaps, without faith in a real, personal, intervening God of traditional orthodoxy, the God-language to which orthodoxy gave birth will no longer have power to move or to inspire. Denis Nineham at Sea of Faith I made the point that he—and by inference, we—are the products of earlier orthodoxy in our own lives. Religious language still moves us because of that background. He wondered whether those who have never shared in that belief system will still be moved by its language. Can hope really be maintained without intercession? Can intercession really comfort the helpless unless he or she believes that God hears her prayer? Yet when there have been prayers for so long with no answer, is the suppliant not bound to be disillusioned? Here are the two horns of the dilemma for theologians who wish to contribute to the struggle. Intellectual honesty, and a desire keep the revolution human and therefore questionable, require us to come clean about the nature of the "God" that we believe in, as I think Nolan fails to do. But that honesty may in the longer term destroy the power of Christian thought and language to effect changes in the persons for whom our theology is intended. We wish there were a real God to tell us what to do!


(1) "Critique of Church Theology" in The Kairos Document, 2nd edition, Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1987.

(2) Scott Cowdell, Atheist priest? Don Cupitt and Christianity, London: SCM, 1988, p.74.

(3) Torquil Paterson, Why I resigned, unpublished.

(4) Desmond M. Tutu, in John Webster, Bishop Desmond Tutu: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, London: Mowbray, 1982, p.88.

(5) Desmond M. Tutu, quoted in Itumeleng Mosala and Buti Tlhagale (eds.), Hammering swords into ploughshares: essays in honour of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1986, p.66.

(6) Itumeleng Mosala, Biblical hermeneutics and black theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

(7) J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and reconciliation: a black theology, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971, p.82.

(8) B.Steve Biko, I write what I like, ed. Aelred Stubbs, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989 edition, p.58.

(9) B.S. Biko, I write what I like, p.46.

(10) William R. Jones, The case for black humanism", in Jones & Calvin Bruce (eds.), Black Theology II, Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell Press, 1978, p. 218.

(ll) ibid. p.225.

(12) William R. Jones, "Theism and religious humanism: the chasm narrows", Christian Century, vol.92, May 21, 1975, p.29.

(13) Don Cupitt, The sea of faith: Christianity in change, London: BBC, 1984, p.270.

(14) e.g. "The use of the Bible in black theology", in Itumeleng Mosala and Buti Tlhagale (eds.), The unquestionable right to be free, Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1986, p.177 ff.

(15) Biko, I write what I like, p. 235.

(16) ibid. p. 233.

(17) ibid. p. 45.

(18) ibid. p.74.

(19) ibid.

(20) see M.S. Lamola, "The thought of Steve Biko as the historico-philosophical base of South African black theology", Journal of Black Theology, vol.3, no.2, Nov. 1989.

(21) Some independent church leaders strongly deny this. "Generally speaking our members are deeply involved in politics - they are the oppressed of this country." (Archbishop N.H. Ngada, "Politics and healing in the African indigenous churches", Challenge no.3, Feb. 1992 p.3).

(22) B.S. Biko "Black consciousness and the quest for a true humanity", in Mokgethi Motlhabi (ed.) Essays on black theology: black theology project of the University Christian movement", Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1972, p.21.

(23) B.S. Biko, I write what I like, p.45.

(24) S. Maimela, in Journal of Black Theology, vol.3 no.1, May 1989 p.51.

(25) Albert Nolan, God in South Africa: the challenge of the gospel, Cape Town: David Philip, 1988, p.181, 2.

(26) ibid. p.25.

(27) ibid. p.107.

(28) ibid. p.144.

(29) ibid. p.155.

(30) ibid. p.107.

(31) ibid. p.123.

(32) ibid. p.130.

(33) Dorothee Solle with Shirley Cloyes, To work and to live: a theology of creation, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984 p.161, quoted Nolan p.159.

(34) Nolan p.160.

(35) ibid. p.178.

(36) ibid. p.184.

(37) ibid. p.164.

(38) ibid. p.166.

(39) ibid. p. 191.

(40) Dorothee Solle, Choosing Life, London: SCM, 1981, p.68, quoted Nolan p.189.

(41) ibid. p.187.

(42) ibid. p.188.

(43) B. Steve Biko, I write what I like, p. 45.

(44) Nolan p.193.

(45) ibid. p.181.

(46) Jurgen Moltmann, The crucified God, London: SCM, 1974.

(47) Nolan, ibid. p. 66.

(48) ibid. p. 67.

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