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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil

boisi center for religion and american public life

Evil has been a theological concern for Emilie Townes since her childhood in the American South, when the frequent sermons she heard about God’s universal love seemed to conflict with the harsh reality of racial segregation. Today, as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School and president of the American Academy of Religion, the distinguished theologian has a lifetime of experience and training to draw upon, but the implications of evil in the world are no less disturbing or challenging. Indeed her most recent book, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, returns to the central question of theodicy: how can we say that God is good and just when evil exists in the world?

For Townes, who visited the Boisi Center in October to discuss her work, the first step in answering that question is to rephrase it. Christians should no longer ask: “Why does God allow evil to happen?” Townes said that instead the question should be: “Why do we create suffering for each other?” She noted that ethicists and theologians strive mightily to parse these questions in treatises on injustice and inequality, but real social change is painfully slow. The reason, she argued, is that the powerful role of the imagination is too often ignored as a contributor to the structures of evil in the world. The imagination holds things in place within the subconscious in ways we cannot even appreciate, even as it helps shape our belief and behavior.

Part of her project, then, as a womanist theologian is to question the way we think about basic categories of our experience—race and gender chief among them—as they relate to the structures of evil in the world. (For more about womanist theology, see the transcription of an interview with Professor Townes on our website.)  These structures will persist, she argued, as long as persons fail to see one another in a more sincere and genuine way—as particular persons of flesh and blood, not as universalized “social projects.”