In this essay, Andrew Prevot, Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston College, tackles the issues raised for Black Christians who practice their religion in a tradition which has often used darkness as a metaphor for evil and ignorance. While seeing value in the darkness of God in apophatic mysticism and the blackness of God in black theology, Prevot argues for a third theological approach. He writes:
Instead of opting for either mystical theology or black theology, I propose a constructive synthesis of the two, not unlike that found in the works of James Noel.There are several reasons to prefer such a unified approach. On the one hand, mystical themes of unknowing, cruciform experience, and transformative closeness with God play important roles in the black spiritual and cultural traditions that inform black theology. Greater attention to mystical theology could help black theology better appreciate these aspects of its own sources. On the other hand, unlike other mystical traditions, black theology draws needed attention to the historical tribulations of darkly colored bodies and God’s loving concern for them. Moreover, black theology emphasizes a point that mystical theology seems to leave ambiguous, namely that God is not the secret agent behind these experiences of oppression but rather the liberator who promises victory over them. The first section of this article argues that a unified approach to mystical theology and black theology is conceivable because it is already to some extent actual, as Howard Thurman (among others) illustrates. This section makes the case that black theology is best understood not as a tradition separate from mystical theology but rather as critical continuation of it that develops it in ways that are vital for the whole church.
Having identified the possibility of a unified approach to mystical theology and black theology, I shall then turn in the second section to consider certain obstacles that arise for such an approach. First, there is a danger of equivocation. Despite some interconnections, the darkness of God that mystical theology associates with unknowing and purgative suffering is not synonymous with the blackness of God that black theology associates with liberating solidarity. “Dark” does not equal “black.” To address this concern, the second section investigates the similar and different ways that these traditions employ darkness and blackness theologically. A second obstacle emerges from this investigation: in different ways, mystical theology and black theology are able to affirm the darkness and blackness of God theologically only because they define darkness and blackness in terms of some sort of negation—whether this mainly means apophasis and ascesis, on the one hand, or oppression, on the other. The problem is thus that the dark and the black do not seem dissociable from the negative even in those Christian traditions that appear best equipped to challenge such an aesthetic assumption.
In the third section, I seek to address this problem by pursuing a phenomenological disclosure of the night and of darkly colored human flesh, as well as a theological interpretation of these positive phenomena as beautiful avenues of possible encounter with God. A positive theology of this kind, which includes darkness and blackness in its affirmative praises, is crucial to any potential overcoming of the aesthetics of white supremacy. Although mystical theology and black theology have made strides in this direction, they have not sufficiently specified the need for such a via positiva of darkness and blackness or developed it phenomenologically.
The final section of this paper argues that, although such a via positiva is necessary, it remains insufficient without an interrelated via negativa that can give a spiritually viable interpretation to the opacities of black life that are also phenomenally manifest. The unknowing, suffering, and oppression that have fallen on black human beings in a very particular way because of the aesthetics of white supremacy demand theological attention. The approach to mystical theology and black theology that I recommend seeks the liberating presence of the hidden God in these “opaque” circumstances, that is, in intersecting modes of darkness and blackness that have been caught up in the negations of history.
The article is available for free to SSCS members who receive online access to and a print copy of the journal Spiritus as membership benefits. Others can get the article through their library’s interlibrary loan service using this citation:
Prevot, A. “Divine Opacity: Mystical Theology, Black Theology, and the Problem of Light-Dark Aesthetics.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol. 16 no. 2, 2016, pp. 166-188.