“Vision of God” as Onto-Theology in the Systematic Theology of James H. Evans Jr.

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In Chapter 3 of We Have been Believers (1992), James H. Evans Jr. argues that God is “ungiven” for African-Americans on what I find to be two essential fronts: the idea of God and language about God. The former is, as Evans proposes,” is rooted in concrete human experience,”[1] while the latter “is experiential, metaphorical, analogical, and functional”[2] –in Evan’s view, the African-American experience provides for a unique idea of God which is articulated through specialized language about God. Though I am initially compelled to believe that Evans is over-generalizing and making the African-American experience a monolithic one, there is, in fact, merit in his argument. What Evans is arguing is that the African-American vision of God is developed from a uniquely problematic experience –an experience that W. E. B. Dubois characterizes as a double-consciousness[3] –and shaped by a specific mode of existence. From that mode of existence, which Evans discusses more in-depth in chapter 5,[4] there is a need to create a vision of God that directly relates to the Duboisian “two-ness”[5] of the African-American experience.

To say that the African-American experience presents a vision of God as an “ungiven God” suggests, in my view, a reconstitution of the idea of God in order to reappropriate that idea by what I would describe as meaning based on the subjective objectification of what is deemed as true.[6] In other words, rather than passively accepting the traditional Christian notion of God,  the African-American experience dictates the necessity to actively grope for and find a subjective vision of God that is meaningfully objectified in reference to what God is to and what God does for the African-American. This is my best extrapolation of Evans’s argument. In this respect, the African-American “vision of God” is a way of theologizing a “God” that, instead of maintaining the status quo, intends to push against that status quo –instead of perpetuating the problem with a “given” God, the “ungiven God” symbolizes a means of solving, then transcending the problem.

The “ungiven God” as a “vision of God” is based on an individualized encounter with God, which Gilles Deleuze would regard as an immanent event, one that is “actualized in a state of things and of the lived that make it happen.”[7] The “state of things” for the African-American, as I am sure Evans would agree, is construed through a living experience shaped by racism, oppression, and marginalization. What these problems have done is made the African-American keenly aware of the differences that defer them to places of inferiority by way of a process that Jacques Derrida refers to as “differánce.”[8] Consequently, what “differánce” yields, in my view, is a kind of being that is, essentially, what Emmanuel Levinas proposes as “otherwise than being” or “being’s other.”[9] In effect, this is very important in understanding the African-American experience as a sense of being which, just as Evans contends, is relegated “in a world where African-Americans [are] defined primarily in terms of their ‘otherness’ [so that] their identification with the God who created them required that God be seen as embodying that otherness.”[10] Here, what Evans is suggesting, I would argue, is something more than just the relatedness between the otherness that African-Americans experience in American society and the Otherness of God that transcends all humanity.

In Evans’s otherness-Otherness relation, which he asserts is foundational to the African American “vision of God,” I find it possible to, then, draw a more important connection between African-Americans’ “being” and God’s “Being.” That is, developing a vision of God that is not longitudinal, but lateral –a vision that is, respectively, not concerned with the Heideggerian being-in-the-world as it is filtered through the Christian notion of God, but, rather, with God’s transcendent Being and the possibility of ontotheology.

This is what I believe is at the heart of Evans’s argument about the African-American “vision of God.” It is a “vision” that is ontotheological, where it is just as much ontological as it is theological. For Martin Heidegger, anything “ontotheological” is concerned with “the metaphysical concept of God [and the] metaphysics must think in the direction of the deity because the matter of thinking is Being.”[11] So, I propose that any “vision of God” is preoccupied with God’s Being as the Being of beings. And, as Heidegger would likely agree, God as the Being of beings involves “the separateness and mutual relatedness of grounding and of accounting for [so that] Being grounds beings, and beings, as what is most of all, account for Being.”[12] To that end, is it possible to suggest that “the ungiven God” is not created exclusively out of the African-American experience, but arises from the universal need to develop a sense of Being that grounds and accounts for being? In other words, if any “vision of God,” as I would argue, is systematically ontotheological, is it safe to say that the “ungiven God” is the ideological creation of a given set of experiences that are not race-centric?

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[1] James H. Evans Jr., We Have Been Believers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The suggestion, here, is that African-Americans share a double-consciousness with both their Blackness and their Americanism to the point that they do not truly belong to either. I would argue further that this is critical to what Evans is arguing, because it is through this experience of double-consciousness that the African-American vision of God is construed. I find this to be particularly relevant when considering that Dubois feels that this double-consciousness provides a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903), 3.

[4] In this chapter that is entitled “On Being Black,” Evans discusses the African-American experience in terms of social, political, historical, and cultural contexts which all, more or less, come to bear on what it means to be Black as what I would call a “mode of being” or “mode of existence” in American society.

[5] W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903), 3.

[6] Here, I am referring to Soren Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity is truth.” My point, in short, is that the definition of truth, as Kierkegaard suggests, “must include an expression of the antithesis to objectivity… this expression will at the same time serve as an indication of the tension of inwardness.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs, Translated by Alastair Hannay (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 171.

[7]  Gilles Deleuze, Immanence: Essays on a Life, Translated by Anne Boyman (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2001), 31.

[8] Derrida describes “differánce” as an economic concept designating the production of differing/deferring.  Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998) 23.

[9] “Otherwise than being” is, for Levinas, transcendence that is passing over to being’s other. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, Translated by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1981), 3.

[10] James H. Evans Jr., We Have Been Believers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 57.

[11] Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, Translated by Joan Stambaugh (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 60.

[12] Ibid., 69.

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