Matthew Johnson’s profound book The Tragic Vision of African American Religion sheds new light upon the distinctive nature of African American religion. Adequate interpretation of this topic requires understanding the traumas inflicted upon Africans sold into slavery, their existential predicaments before and after emancipation, and the ongoing plight of their descendants whose psyches have been indelibly scarred by this traumatic history. Johnson avails himself of the resources of philosophical theology, psychoanalytic theory, and literary criticism to argue his thesis that African American religion expresses a tragic vision of reality. Besides providing an illuminating analysis of the traumatic experience underlying this religious vision, Johnson presents a compelling constructive proposal as to the broader implications of his thesis for Christian theology at large.
As a student of David Tracy and Langdon Gilkey, Johnson sees the necessity for rigorous philosophical reflection in theology. Because the spirituality of the black church stands in some real tension with the traditional theological categories inherited from Europe, Johnson proceeds with “a phenomenological orientation grounded in a philosophical hermeneutical approach” that allows him to excavate the traumatic experiences informing this spirituality (4). He skillfully uses the concepts of mourning, loss, longing, and desire developed in psychoanalytical theory to probe the significance of trauma for grasping the dynamics of African American spirituality. He engages literary criticism and argues convincingly for a distinction between “tragedy” as a literary genre and the tragic vision it articulates. Indeed, the tragic vision is prior to tragedy. The tragic is not the encounter with meaninglessness per se but “the always already aesthetic representation of the encounter, which preserves its terrible truth in a transfigured vision of reality” (6). This vision affirms life while facilitating “the recognition and embrace of the darker, more fundamental truths of life” (7).
Cognizant that other theologians have declared the incompatibility of Christian faith with a tragic vision of reality, Johnson believes otherwise. He insists that the tragic is fundamental to human experience as such, although it is frequently evaded by strategies of foreclosure—including those of Christian theology—that falsify the experience. Yet the distinctive thing about the black religious experience is the way African Americans made the Christian faith [End Page 215] their own by transforming it at a deep spiritual level through their tragic vision. Mildly critical of previous formulations of black theology, Johnson contends that this involved much more than the affirmation that God cares about the sociopolitical liberation of oppressed people. The Christian tragic vision of the black experience offers the possibility of a new basis for “theology in an African American key” (6). Since he understands himself primarily as a Christian theologian, however, Johnson addresses an audience consisting of more than fellow black theologians. He rightly highlights a profound truth that white theologians have largely failed to grasp: the contribution of the black church “transcends the confines of African American culture to speak meaningfully to a Christian faith struggling to remain viable in a meaningful way” (10).
James Cone once issued this challenge: “Why don’t white theologians make racism their issue?” White theologians who ponder Johnson’s book will begin to understand the full import of this challenge: by opening ourselves unreservedly to the pain of our black sisters and brothers, we may discover anew the meaning of that genuine humanity to which the gospel summons all people. A theological reformulation of Christian faith as tragic in the light of the traumas of the black experience could occasion a much needed reformation of the white churches in America.