Friday, May 11, 2007

A New Black Liberation Theology

Ben Brubaker
African-American Religion and Liberation

Essay: A New Black Liberation Theology

“And I fear that what I saying won't be heard until I'm gone
But it's all good, Cause I didn't expect to live long
So if it takes for me to suffer for me brother to see the light
Give me pain till I die but please lord treat him right”
-DMX, Prayer

While the Civil Rights generation broke new grounds and took tremendous strides in the battle against American racism, oppression and inequality using radical theological messages, it is evident that America is still suffering the woes of institutionally and culturally imposed injustice. With the advent of the Hip-Hop generation and the rising significance of globalization and international politics, the circumstances surrounding today’s injustice have dramatically changed, and therefore a new Black Liberation Theology is necessary. A new Black Liberation Theology for the 21st Century must be prophetic; breaking down the constrictive institutions of oppression, while simultaneously seeking to unify previously divided groups of people based on common beliefs, goals and practices. While I personally believe that this theology must be predominantly influenced by Christianity, positing Jesus as the ultimate model for liberation, I also believe that it must be open to the influences of alternative religions which permeate the society we live in. Christianity must open up to embrace and converge with Islam, Judaism and other less mainstream religions, as well as various contemporary philosophical paradigms which share common themes of otherism, pragmatism, existentialism and, most importantly, liberation. In order to assemble effective theological perspectives, it is necessary to acknowledge and expand upon the previous work of thinkers like James Cone, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Delores Williams, as well as contemporary visionaries like Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson and T.D. Jakes. When assessing these approaches and attempting to synthesize a new Liberation Theology, it is also essential to focus on the various ways in which oppression and liberation permeate our political, economic, cultural, and religious realities. Finally, it is necessary to look towards the future as best as we can in order to shape a lasting theology that will be capable of continual adaptations in the context of future societal changes.

While the Civil Rights Movement yielded one of the most profound changes in American society throughout its entire history, we must acknowledge that institutionalized oppression still exists alongside deep societal divisions. Although important laws were changed and many people would argue that all U.S. citizens now have an equal share of legal, political and societal freedoms, there are many covert barriers which hinder Blacks and other marginalized groups in society from obtaining physical and spiritual liberation. These obstructions are best exemplified in their political, economic, and cultural manifestations. In terms of politics, while African Americans are legally permitted to vote and participate in all legal political processes, there are a number of things that hinder their ability to vote in their best interests, effectively organize in political forums, and secure proper representation in government. The discrepancy of education between predominantly black, poor urban communities and the rest of the country yields a political disconnect in which these communities are susceptible to political manipulation and political apathy; both of which result in the collective silencing of the voices of the black community. The rhetoric politicians use, including euphemisms, double speak and complex political jargon, play off of the vulnerabilities of the uneducated who either take words for their face value, trust that politicians will come through on their promises, or accept faulty explanations for mistakes which are shrouded in esoteric vocabulary. This lack of a political voice contributes to their continual economic problems, while simultaneously their economic problems contribute to their inability to gain a political voice, whether it is through lobbying, campaigning or attaining proper education on political processes. Part of the economic problem for African-Americans is a combination of a long history of poverty combined with newly adopted cultural values that have been shaped by capitalist tendencies. While all Americans are flooded with messages and images which attempt to promote consumption, poor African Americans are especially vulnerable to the negative ramifications. Some of the most impoverished spend their entire savings on cars, clothing and jewelry to gain status while others spend their earnings on alcohol, drugs and other temporary escapes from the world of poverty into a fantasy world of bodily pleasure or absent mindedness.

“These cats drink champagne and toast to death and pain
Like slaves on a ship talking about who got the flyest chain”
- Talib Kweli, Africa Dream

While many of the problems facing African-Americans today are due to changes in cultural norms and contemporary circumstances, this does not mean that these circumstances cannot be used to facilitate an effective liberation theology. The most obvious example of this is present in the growing popularity and significance of hip-hop music. While popular hip-hop culture does, on one level promote crime, violence, domestic abuse, distorted values and a lack of economic prudence, it is a growing forum for debate, expression and leadership which has rapidly expanded beyond its origins in the city slums to encompass rural and suburban societies around the globe. Hip-hop artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Nas, and Common Sense have all adopted music as a medium to express their progressive political and cultural views through intellectual lyricism, popular production methods and genuinely passionate expression. After successfully launching two Grammy-award winning albums, rapper Kanye West was given the opportunity to participate in a highly televised, live broadcast to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. West took this chance to voice his concerns, completely unedited and uncensored, saying, among other thing, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. All criticism or praise aside, West proved that hip-hop icons not only have the influence and opportunities to have their voices heard, but also that they can voice their beliefs in profoundly prophetic and unrestricted ways, free from the traditional bounds of political and religious leadership.
Hip-hop is a uniquely American music, representing much of the oppression that has plagued America’s poor urban communities for decades. Still, it has evolved in such a way that it speaks to much of the current generation’s hopes, beliefs and anxieties. At its best, gangsta rap draws attention to complex dimensions of ghetto life ignored by most Americans, while its in-your-face style has already begun to force America to confront crucial social problems in ways that a million sermons or political speeches could not . Tupac Shakur championed this form of rap by delivering passionate testimonies of life in the ghetto, mixed with the complex internal struggle many young black men face in attempting to reconcile their moralistic and religious tendencies with the rugged struggle for survival. In many ways, gangsta rap has evolved into two forms; commercial (which emphasizes the reckless quest for wealth, sexual conquest and power through violence) and underground (which maintains linguistic and contextual elements of gangsta rap, but focuses on a more intellectual and insightful message). A great example of a group that represents the transition from gangsta rap to a more underground intellectual form is the Wu-Tang Clan. While the Wu-Tang Clan is arguably one of the most vulgar and violent hip-hop groups, deeper analysis of the lyrical references and context shows a profoundly innovative turn towards “ghetto philosophy”. Their recent publication of the “Wu-Tang Manual” provides glimpses into the complex blend of eastern philosophy and cultural references embedded in their lyrics. The manual is just one example of how hip-hop lyrics are deeply complex, capable of combining a broad range of cultural and linguistic elements and arguably worthy of further academic exploration.

While gangsta rap is capable of fusing both prophetic criticism of society along with the politics of pleasure, along with partying, all of that can easily become mixed up in very destructive and unfortunate ways . Some critics argue that hip-hop has already become commercialized and diluted by mainstream culture. According to Cornell West, “the main dilemma for black musicians who try to preserve a tradition from mainstream domestication and dilution is in fact that they lose contact with the black masses” . This could potentially be a good thing, however, if the dilution of hip-hop meant the marketing of violence, misogyny, extravagance and crime, and the result was a massive black rejection of that form of hip-hop, or at least, a heightened awareness of how major labels exploit the hardships and vices of the black community. Still, music is and will continue to be the black means of cultural expression, along with preaching. Since hip-hop combines both of these elements, and has lately exhibited components of more traditionally “white” melodies and structure, it will likely continue to serve as a medium of expression for blacks while maintaining its popular appeal to whites as well.
Hip-hop is only one aspect of changing cultural norms, and many would agree that it is largely less important than the role that globalization has played on reshaping the international political spectrum. One might wonder how globalization and international politics fits into the creation of a Black Liberation Theology, but it is intrinsically linked, and unfortunately it has been historically overlooked. Oppression and Liberation are not American struggles alone, in fact, the U.S. arguably has it easy when compared to many third world countries. First of all, Black people face oppression around the world, such as in Africa, where the remnants of European Colonialism have left the continent in shambles of poverty, violence and disease. Secondly, it is not only Blacks who face oppression, but instead there are hundreds of marginalized groups within their respective societies that face oppression, such as in Latin America, the Middle East and even Europe. While these groups are just as important, and equally, if not more so, oppressed, it is essential to view a New Black Liberation Theology in terms of America’s role as the sole superpower in international politics. This theology must address the problems within the U.S. if the U.S. is going to effectively lead the rest of the world into a future of peace, stability and freedom. If the U.S. is going to push democracy as a medium necessary to attain the prior goals, it is essential the American democracy is transformed into a more effective, equitable and inclusive form.

In order to transform American society and politics with a new Liberation Theology, it is essential that this theology be prophetic while simultaneously expansive in order to unify previously divided groups of people. Realistically, institutions, traditions and laws persist which prohibit and inhibit the process of liberation. Still, history has shown that these same institutions, traditions and laws can be creatively manipulated to enact lasting and legitimate changes in society. Examples of institutions include Schools and universities, corporations, non-profit groups and government. Traditions in America are deeply rooted and diverse, but they have also proven to be adaptable in response to public opinion and economic pressures. Finally, law has provided opportunities for marginalized groups to challenge the status quo and gain legitimate victories in society. Changing institutions requires pressure from within, such as a grassroots movements, as well as infiltration into the leadership positions which shape the way the institution behaves. Changing traditions requires innovative publicity campaigns, separating the views of new generations from those of their parents, and providing a forum in which new forms of traditions can flourish. Finally, laws can be changed through proactive support of progressive legal experts, putting public pressure on law makers and promoting a new generation of lawyers, judges, representatives and executive leaders who will push for progressive changes. A new Black Liberation Theology must not only address the importance of uniting to enact change in these institutions, but it should also focus on establishing a central institution of its own to support progressive change through actual application.

While the new Black Liberation Theology will ultimately be a set of principles, ideals and beliefs, it must also focus on action. The only way theology can transition from idea to action is through the creation of an institution that promotes the ideals, enables the actors, and provides the resources for a successful revolution of liberation. There are dangers inherent in establishing a centralized institution and the inevitable bureaucracy that follows. Centralizing power tends to limit the goals and beliefs of a movement, pushing energetic but less mainstream agents to the fringes and empowering leaders who share a limited vision. Still, a centralized source of power is essential to unifying people as a whole and directing the force of individuals towards specific aims. This institution must employ leaders of the highest moral caliber while providing them with a staff of competent and practical operatives who are capable of carrying out communication, finance, research and planning. Lately, American’s have assumed a disposition of apathy or nihilism with regards to its leaders and heroes, but make no mistake; tomorrow’s leaders are out there, they are capable, and they are desperately seeking a forum which will support their visionary leadership. In terms of inclusiveness, this institution should openly work with the leaders of churches, mosques and temples around the country to accomplish shared goals, such as localized urban relief work, massive fundraising for charities and socio-political campaigns. While this institution will likely have a centralized headquarters, it should aspire to establish local branches in some of the most devastated urban communities to provide jobs, job training, free education, educational resources, bases for local community service outreach and shelter for the homeless. There is no ideological panacea that will make this institution any different from the hundreds of similar non-profit organizations; however, initially there must be a concerted effort on research and analysis to combine the most effective elements of these organizations in a way that is uniquely progressive while avoiding the negative drawbacks inherent in each.

“If we're going to talk about the black church as the seedbed of liberty and as the site for emancipation, let's extend that emancipation beyond race to issues of gender”
-Michael Eric Dyson

In terms of prophetic Christian Black liberation theology, two things are often overlooked; feminist theology and the black experience outside of America. Another important aspect of Black religion; whether American or non-American, Christian or Muslim; is the characteristic of adaptation and blending of cultures that is deeply rooted in Traditional African Religion. While there are many profoundly intellectual and revolutionary prophetic Christian voices today, most of them fail to address the concerns and perceptions of the everyday person. Those preachers and spiritual leaders that can reach the masses tend to lose their prophetic edge, relying too much on marketing strategies and mass appeal and not enough on preaching a practical and prophetic message that will lead the herds towards spiritual and material liberation. The leaders in a new Black Liberation Theology movement must be comprised of both highly qualified women as well as men who are culturally aware of the oppression women face even today. Black women were the backbone of the Black Church for centuries, and the driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, it is time that women are given opportunities to continue on that legacy, this time, given the proper respect and authority they deserve. If Black women see their fellow sisters inciting change from the pulpit and taking on active roles of leadership in the liberation movement, they will be inspired to do the same in their communities and they will feel a sense of belonging in the new congregation. This new Theology must be prophetic, breaking down the barriers of perception and deception that have limited our abilities as individuals and as a community. One barrier that stands in the way of true liberation is our blind devotion to cultural identities, whether they be racial, regional or national. Therefore, we must transcend the boundaries of our limited alliances; reach out across geographical and metaphorical borders, and demand liberation for all, or liberation for none. This quest would likely take on a socio-political form, inciting public pressure on the federal government to restrict corporations from exploiting third-world labor forces and urging decision makers to seek a more globally minded diplomacy that is not limited to U.S. national interests.

“My mind had dealt with the books of Zen, Tao the lessons Koran and the Bible, to me they all vital/ And got truth within 'em, gotta read them boys You just can't skim 'em/ different branches of belief But one root that stem 'em/ but people of the venom try to trim 'em And use religion as an emblem/ When it should be a natural way of life “
-Common Sense, “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)”

The new Black Liberation Theology must be universal, inclusive and comprehensive; therefore, it is essential that it combines the philosophies and beliefs of various world religions and cultural beliefs. It is not only important to combine various religions for the sake of uniting the disillusioned masses who have been cast to the fringes of their own communities, but it is also essential to unite the theological content in order to convey a more universally accepted set of beliefs. Michael Eric Dyson argues that using many languages and speaking in many tongues, is a habit of survival that African-American people across the board have learned . In that sense, a new Liberation Theology that draws from a variety of religions (which all use different languages to convey similar themes) would still be a distinctively Black Theology. When one analyzes the different beliefs of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, It is clear to see that there are many commonalities between them that a new theology could emphasize and draw upon. Not only would this foster a deeper respect for others (especially in highly diversified urban communities), but it would also facilitate the process of supplemental education in referring to the history, practices, and philosophies behind each religion. One can expect that fundamentalist religious zealots and traditionalists would react violently to the integration of various beliefs, but for a large majority of the country (most of whom share radical hopes for liberation and social change, as well as a common desire to simply live peacefully with others), this new Theology could be a revolutionary banner of freedom from ignorance and isolation. While this new Theology should seek to synthesize beliefs from a wide range of religions, if it is going to be a successful Black Liberation Theology, the synthesis must take place within the framework of Christianity. Not only is Christianity the most influential religion for Blacks and Whites in America, it also reflects the themes of humanity, sacrifice, reconciliation, and most importantly, liberation.

In terms of practical application, this synthesized Liberation Theology would likely have to facilitate separate worship services (Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, Sunday for Christians) to satisfy the various member’s personal worship needs. Still, each service could incorporate themes from the other religions to supplement their own particular beliefs, providing fresh language from scriptures that ultimately speak to similar messages. The services could also incorporate elements of multi-cultural understanding and respect for the members of the congregation that choose to worship on other days. Ideally, a system could be imposed to encourage members to meet up with a buddy, or family comprised of different faiths, to share the experience of a different worship services once a month. Also, a single, unified worship service must be established to bring the entire congregation together. This service would focus entirely on the similarities between the scriptures, themes of liberation and common struggles, socio-political philosophy and a post-modern synthesis of worship styles, songs and sermons. The unified service would be structured, but open to changes from within the congregation and adaptations intended to meet the changing needs of the community; various members of the community could all contribute their special talents and influences for a celebration of diversity and liberation.

In terms of Theology, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all share similar elements which tend to be the most important aspects of each respective religion. The 10 Commandments, for example, are essentially shared by Christians and Jews alike, while Islam promotes a similar code of morals. Christianity and Judaism proclaim “thou shall not kill” while Muslims are told not to “take life which Allah has made sacred” . Islam and Christianity share an emphasis on not simply having “faith without works”, and all three religions insist that humans have rights which should not be violated by murder, theft, lying and violence . In Judaism, “Jesus is not seen as the messiah” because “in the Jewish view, the messiah is a human being who will usher in an era of peace” . Still, a new Liberation Theology could easily accommodate progressive Jews if it were centered on the life and teachings of Jesus with the aim of working towards an era of peace. A unification of the religions themselves for the purpose of a greater good would be a sign of the approaching era of peace. All three of these religions share the view that simply believing in the scriptures and attending services does not secure the individual a place in heaven, but rather, individual ethical behavior is what is most important . Since the ethical codes of each religion are philosophically congruent and only semantically different, it is conceivable that a unification of these religions is possible. The implications of such unification are endless. If enough people in America and around the world believed in this New Liberation Theology which emphasizes peace, justice and respect for human rights, perhaps it could be a driving force for ending the dispute over the holy lands between Palestine and Israel (which Christians also claim as their holy land).

While these “Abrahamic Religions” are compatible with the goals of synthesis and unification inherent in a New Liberation Theology, it is important to also analyze more non-western religions. Religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism not only represent about 1.2 billion believers around the globe, but also encompass philosophies and beliefs that are congruent with the universal goals of a New Black Liberation Theology, and they can provide fresh perspectives for people who have been limited to the beliefs of the Abrahamic Religions. The figures of Buddha and Jesus are remarkably similar in their personal biographies; both had remarkable births surrounded by prophecy, both showed otherworldly wisdom at early ages, both were tempted by the devil before beginning their ministries and both performed miracles such as walking on water and feeding masses of people by dividing up a small amount of food . Both Jesus and Buddha shared starkly similar ethical teachings, including the “Golden Rule”, love for neighbors and enemies alike, and both emphasized liberation from worldly suffering. One particular Buddhist parable that is especially apt in synthesizing different religions for a Liberation Theology is the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which tells of how different blind men felt different parts of an elephant, and knowing only that specific part could not properly name or know the elephant as a whole. This parable expresses the underlying principle in the Liberation Theology that we all have limited wisdom, that without communication and cooperation we cannot fully grasp that which is truly there, and that because we often find the blind leading the blind, we must learn to see beyond merely that which is closest to us. Many of the non-western religions contain elements of meditation and philosophy which could easily translate into positive messages and methods of coping with the burden of liberation.

While the new Black Liberation Theology should incorporate different religious beliefs and practices into a unified belief system, it should also emphasize secular philosophical arguments and reasoning. One such philosophy that would be particularly useful for the New Liberation Theology is Immanuel Kant’s idea of Cosmopolitanism. Kant’s Cosmopolitanism essentially refers to the widening of spheres of cultural identity over time, ultimately leading to individuals respecting the rights of all humans as if they were their own family members. The spheres begin with ties to family, then city, then state, nation, race, etc, comprising “an enduring and ever expanding society, solely designed for the preservation of morality” . This philosophy could serve to fill in the gaps between religious differences, such as those between Christianity and Hinduism. In Hinduism, God requires humans to respect all living creatures as sacred, whereas Christianity emphasizes on humans . Perhaps in this day and age, where the environment is quickly dying due to mass human consumption, the new Liberation Theology should address concerns about how we treat our environment. The famous ecologist Aldo Leopold referred to Kantian Cosmopolitanism when arguing for a more ethical respect and treatment of nature, which better aligns with the beliefs of Hinduism. This same Cosmopolitan ethic is also another reason why the new Black Liberation Theology must not be limited to just Whites, Blacks, Americans or Western Society, but should instead include all of humanity and the natural blessings which God has bestowed upon us.

While this new Black Liberation Theology would draw upon a wide variety of cultural and religious influences, it is essential that it also utilize post-modern elements of worship, media, and networking in order to successfully gain a significant number of followers. One person who has mastered this approach is the Bishop T.D. Jakes. Over the last decade, Bishop Jakes has risen to become one of the most popular and influential preachers in America. Jakes holds conferences in different cities which attract thousands of followers, he has written more than a handful of best selling books, he has recorded Grammy-award winning albums and he continues to make weekly appearances on national television. While Jake’s theology is considered to be flawed or questionable to many, his talent for marketing, organizing and performing has won him a broad audience of believers. For the purpose of forming a New Liberation Theology, we will avoid discussing his theological perspective and focus instead on the ways in which he has captured such a large and devoted audience.

One of the defining characteristics of Jake’s ministry is the way in which he “obscures traditional lines of distinction between the secular and sacred” by running his ministry like a corporation rather than a church. Some would argue that, in terms of membership growth and sustainability, the traditional church is antiquated. This appears to be the common trend, largely due to the shift into today’s post-modern age which is characterized “by the relentless penetration of advertising, television, and other media into people’s lives, as well as the fragmented identities and new values that derive from continuous exposure to a saturation of ideas and images” . This new post-modernism results in two general changes in society that will inevitably influence the effectiveness of a new Liberation Theology. The first is the way in which people hear about, learn about and participate in this Black Liberation Theology. The centralized institution of the new theology must incorporate modern publicity tactics, including radio, television and the internet, so that it is accessible in a variety of formats. The second change is the growing fragmentation of identities and the complex values that are intrinsically linked to popular advertising and media. The new Black Liberation Theology must accommodate and reflect the complex and diverse identities of its congregation, work through media and advertising to project a progressive, inclusive and appealing image, and lastly, educate people about the influences of the media and the ways in which corporations seek to manipulate people for profit. Worship services must incorporate elements of popular music and theatrics, while maintaining a level of sanctity, in order to attract and retain young and middle-aged followers.

Jake’s blurring of the lines between the secular and the sacred often draw harsh criticism, however, it has proven to be effective in appealing to modern society and it must not be assumed that the two cannot coexist. Part of the way in which the new Black Liberation Theology should incorporate the secular with the sacred is by using non-religious philosophical discourse that aligns with the religious beliefs that make up the backbone of the theology. This may take the form of psychological, political, economic and metaphysical discourse. The medium through which the Theology is expressed may also take on a more secular form, utilizing hip-hop and other popular music, as well as popular film and television, to illustrate the message at hand. This would result in a responsive theology that is constantly adapting to new circumstances and addressing the concerns and goals of the community at large. Less emphasis should be placed on the strict disciplines of specific religions to avoid confrontation and intimidation amongst members, and more emphasis should be placed on the larger themes of unity, love, respect, education and liberation. In this way, Jesus’ gospel is quite pertinent when he tells the disciples, “I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another” , emphasizing love as the new commandment above all others. Therefore, people should not be made to feel guilty for petty sin and vice, but should seek the empowerment of love and divine knowledge to overcome common obstacles. The focus should be positive and empowering, not destructive and debilitating. Knowledge is one of the greatest sources of empowerment, and therefore, a secularized education on social, economic and political issues should be emphasized as a common objective for all followers on their journey to spiritual salvation and liberation.

“It’s legitimate to abhor and hate oppression and exploitation, but we cannot lose sight of the humanity of those who are perpetuating it”
-Cornel West

The new Black Liberation Theology must encompass the diversity and complexity of modern society in which globalization, market values and popular culture heavily influence the individual. The main objective should be unity for the purpose of liberation. The liberation it seeks to attain should not only be social, material and political, but also intellectual and spiritual. While a main objective is the liberation of the poor and oppressed, shown through the example of Jesus in the Bible, it must also fight the mental and spiritual evils which are so rapidly eating away at the fabric of modern society. People of all classes, rich and poor, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, gay, straight, young and old, must find a common bond in working towards supporting and uplifting their fellow brothers and sisters from all walks of life. This new congregation must unify and empower itself through education, providing resources and opportunities where they are often lacking. The new Black Liberation Theology must use the powerful message of love not only to strengthen the bonds of unity, but also to counteract the hatred of critics and opponents. It must, in every way, seek to be inclusive in its mission so that those who society often deems as the oppressor realize that they themselves suffer from oppression themselves, whether it be in the form of self-hate, ignorance, greed or depression. Ultimately, the new Black Liberation Theology must continue to combine elements of radical philosophical transformation, acknowledging the equal rights and abilities of all genders, races and classes, and reaching out to those who suffer from far worse oppression in third world countries. It must strive to remain idealistic, always reaching towards the pinnacle of human achievement, even when it seems impossible. It must also remain practical, utilizing organization, technology, and other means of practical action to allow the theology of liberation to manifest into a reality.

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Qur'an, 17:33

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Kant, Immanuel, Louden, Robert B. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, April 2006

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Dew, Jim, “Christianity and Hindu Influence”

Lee, Shayne, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher, New York University Press, New York, NY. 2005

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