Sylvester A. Johnson
Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.
Should Christian theology be interested in mysticism? A strong current within contemporary theology believes it should be, linking up with an older tradition holding that the mystical dimension has always formed the deepest current in the flowing river of Christianity and its theologies and doctrines, even if some have failed to recognize that. This article explores this modern current, its “founders,” its motivations, the questions it raises, and its accomplishments. Mystics are acknowledged as witnesses to the originary experiential source of Christian doctrine and theology.
These modern pioneers explore possibly constant features of the mystical element, and emphasize the “turn to experience” as a central feature.
The contemporary discussion has moved in the direction of exploring as holistic a view of experience as possible, stressing its constructed nature, and employing a lexicon emphasizing consciousness, practices, participatory awareness, and performative utterances.
One typically thinks of mystics who have written classic articulations of their journey as “the” mystics. This is natural, as these writings are the time-tested paradigms that have founded the science of mysticism. But might one be a mystic whose form of expression occurs through art, or through the prophetic struggle for justice, or simply through the humble and often unnoted life of selfless love? Perhaps most mystics remain unknown!
All forms of Christian mysticism are related to Jesus but take varying forms: a kingdom-centered and Father-centered focus, echoing somewhat the liberating focus of Exodus and the Gospels; a Logos mysticism, who indwells believers and whose indwelling unites all disciples (John 17:20–24); a spousal mysticism, echoing the bride and bridegroom theme in scripture (Hos 2:16–20; Mark 2:18–20; John 3:29; Eph 5:23–33). Paul’s letters are a treasury of participative mysticism (koinōnia), celebrating fellowship with fellow disciples in the body of Christ and being “with” and “in” Christ (1 Cor 10; Rom 6). As the trinitarian belief and doctrine gain clarity, one increasingly comes upon a more trinitarian style of mysticism (e.g., the Rublev Trinity icon).
The relationship between theology and mysticism appears to be mutual: Christian sources and beliefs influence theology, but the mystical vivid experience of God’s presence keeps belief and doctrine anchored in a rich experiential soil. But it is suggested, by way of a heuristic for further exploration, that this mutual, back-and-forth interplay between mysticism and theology or doctrine is asymmetrical as well. That is, mysticism may be thought of as the originary and even paradigmatic source of theology (and formal doctrine). This would echo an older tradition voiced, for example, by Evagrios in patristic times and Vladimir Lossky and Karl Rahner in modern times.
One way of understanding this would be to begin with the phenomenon of spirituality and to view mysticism as spirituality’s radically transformative expression. Spirituality derives from the work of the Spirit, who renders our life “Spirited” (1 Cor 2:15).
Spirituality can take on a range of theological and doctrinal forms, as the human faculties needed for this are gradually enriched and transformed by the Spirit. At times the mystics become paradigms of theology and doctrine, through the radical transformation of consciousness and action.
An important by-product of this model is that theology and spirituality are never really separated. When one begins to think in this separationist way, it is a signal that one’s experience and understanding are suffering from a certain narrowness and distortion.
Finally, Christian mysticism and theology (along with doctrine) have been and are continually challenged by seismic transitions in human history, as is Christianity in general. These are never really left behind, even when their challenges are more or less successfully met. At best one can build on them and continually seek to integrate their enduring lessons. The key transitions that the mystic is challenged to learn from and integrate include: “primary”/cosmocentric challenges; biblical; Classical; sapiential; Far Eastern; Muslim; medieval; Renaissance and Reformation; modern; late modern; postmodern; globalization; neocosmocentric; and ecological challenges. The traditional mystic stages and states, for example, will undergo important transformations as they pass through these various transitions. To the extent that the mystics meet these challenges, they become the paradigmatic theological explorers and guides for the rest of us on our journeys.
In the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, black Christian thought helped to undermine the white supremacist racial system that had governed America for centuries. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world. Key to the work was a transformation of American religious thought and practice in ways that deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with Gandhian notions of active resistance and “soul force,” as well as secular ideas of hardheaded political organizing and the kinds of legal maneuverings that led to the seminal court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The civil rights movement had legislative aims; it was, to that extent, a political movement. But it was also a religious movement, sustained by the religious power unlocked within southern black churches. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. In similar ways, the Mexican-American farmworkers’ movement drew on the mystic Catholic spirituality of Cesar Chavez and brought to national consciousness the lives and aspirations of an oppressed agricultural proletariat that lacked the most elementary rights of American citizens.
American civil rights movements drew from, and were in part inspired by, the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s movement deeply influenced black Americans who visited India from the 1930s to the 1950s and who brought home with them a mixture of ideas and practices deriving from sources as diverse as Gandhi and the 19th-century American progenitor of nonviolent civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. American civil rights movements subsequently became a model for any number of freedom movements internationally, notably including the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. There, religious figures such as Desmond Tutu became international symbols. Also, the black American freedom struggle based in the American South moved protestors in places as diverse as Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination and Chinese students staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the post–civil rights era, some suggested that America had moved into a “post-racial” era, despite the overwhelming statistics documenting racial inequality in American society. Thus, activists who have mined the connection between religion, civil rights, and social justice will have plenty of work to do in the future. The struggle continues through such contemporary venues as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
William A. Mirola
Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures.
A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts.
Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.
Matthew S. Hedstrom
Liberalism describes an interrelated set of political and religious frameworks that grew out of the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, though the term itself dates only from the early 19th century. Liberalism values individual rights and freedoms, secular rule of law, and reasoned public discourse, and has become the dominant political and economic philosophy of the Western democracies. Critics argue that there are oppressions entailed in this dominance, especially for women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities—members of groups that stand outside liberalism’s implicit, normative subjectivity—while proponents contend that liberal individualism has provided the conceptual framework for civil and human rights movements.
Liberalism has shaped religion in the West in two interrelated senses. As a political philosophy, liberalism considers religion to be a matter of personal conscience and free association, and advocates broad (if always imperfectly applied) religious freedoms. The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution represent the quintessential legal forms of liberalism regarding religion. Liberalism has also greatly shaped religious thought and practice, especially among European and North American Protestants. Religious liberals have sought to apply reason, modern scientific and scholarly advances, and notions of minority rights and freedom of conscience to theology and ethics. Religious liberalism has shaped mainline Protestantism and related religious movements such as Unitarianism and Quakerism most especially, but also laid the groundwork for the growth of post-Protestant and post-Christian forms of spirituality. Given the historic dominance of Protestantism in the United States, Protestant liberalism has determined the nature of American secularism and thereby required theological and political adaptation from religious minorities, most notably Roman Catholics and Jews.
The South still commonly appears as the land of the Bible Belt, of evangelical Protestant hegemony. Despite the rapidly increasing immigration from all parts of the world to the region, there is still justification for such a view. To study religion in the South, then, is to examine the influence of a dominant evangelical culture that has shaped the region’s social mores, religious minorities (including Catholicism, Judaism, and non-Christian immigrant religions), cultural forms, charged racial interactions, and political practices. In no other widely dispersed region, save for the Mormon regions of the Rocky Mountain West, does one family of religious belief and expression hold such sway over so many people and throughout such a large area. The biracial nature of evangelicalism in the South, as well, lends it a distinctive history and culture that alternately puzzles, repulses, and fascinates outsiders.
The South may be the Bible Belt, but, like Joseph’s coat, it is a belt of many colors, embroidered with a rich stitching together of words, sounds, and images from the inexhaustible resource of the scriptures. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, southern religious influences lay at the heart of much of 20th-century American popular culture. And it contrasts with a rapidly changing contemporary South in which Buddhist retreat centers and Ganesha temples are taking their place alongside Baptist and Methodist churches.
The Sōka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist movement, originating in Japan, that bases its religious practice and worldview on the Lotus Sutra-centric teachings of the Kamakura-era priest Nichiren (1222–1282). Following Nichiren, members of the Sōka Gakkai consider the practice of reciting Namu-myōhō-renge-kyō—the Daimoku, or title of the Lotus Sutra—to a copy of a character mandala (Gohonzon) originally inscribed by Nichiren to be the fundamental means for attainment of enlightenment. Also modeling themselves on Nichiren, the membership takes an active interest in the social and political realities of this world. In Japan, this engagement has taken various forms, including electoral support for a political party made up largely of Sōka Gakkai members, and globally, as activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, human rights education, and humanitarian assistance.
Founded in 1930, the organization was suppressed during World War II. In the postwar era, its rapid growth, driven by a campaign of aggressive proselytization, as well its ongoing involvement in politics, has generated considerable controversy within Japanese society. Even as the organization has matured institutionally, and in its relations with other faith traditions, an exclusive commitment by members to a single faith practice makes it an outlier within the Japanese religious landscape.
The Sōka Gakkai in Japan currently claims some 8.27 million member families, making it the nation’s largest and most active religious movement. Outside Japan, under the rubric of Sōka Gakkai International (SGI), official statistics give membership totals of 1.75 million in 192 countries and territories, with 94 organizations incorporated under local national laws. More than half of the membership outside Japan—slightly more than 1 million—are said to be in Asia and Oceania, with South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore among the sites of large and active memberships. Other countries with significant national movements include Brazil, the United States, India, and Italy.
While the Sōka Gakkai was originally associated with the Nichiren Shōshū sect, long-standing tensions over the respective roles of priesthood and laity came to a head in a decisive schism in 1991, since which the two groups have pursued independent paths. Following the schism, the Sōka Gakkai has given more central emphasis to the “mentor-disciple relationship,” in particular as this relates to the first three presidents of the organization: Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871–1944), Toda Jōsei (1900–1958) and Ikeda Daisaku (1928–).