William R. Jones: a brief appreciation

While on vacation, I missed the death of Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, who died on July 17 at age 78; commenter Dan Gerson drew my attention to that fact today. Jones was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian of the past fifty years, one of the handful of truly important Unitarian Universalist theologians of any kind from the past half century, and arguably the best Unitarian Universalist thinker on anti-racism.

Jones is a major figure who deserves a full critical biography, which I am not competent to write. But here is an all-too-brief overview of his life and work:

Education and ministry

William Ronald Jones was born in 1933. He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Howard University. He earned his Master of Divinity at Harvard University in 1958, and was ordained and fellowshipped as a Unitarian Universalist minister in that year. He served from 1958-1960 at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Providence, Rhode Island. Mark Morrison-Reed states that Jones served at First Unitarian as assistant minister (Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, p. 139), but the UUA Web site states that he served at Church of the Mediator as “minister”; I’m inclined to believe Mark’s book, as the UUA listings of ministers are prone to error.

After a two-year stint as a minister, Jones went on to do doctoral work in religious studies at Brown University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was titled “On Sartre’s Critical Methodology,” which discussed “Jean-Paul Sartre‚Äôs philosophical anthropology” (Lewis R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy [Cambridge University, 2008], p. 171).

As you can see, Jones quickly moved from the parish to the academy. Of course he was well suited to the academy because of his intellectual abilities, but also there is little doubt that there were few doors open for African American ministers looking for Unitarian Universalist pulpits in the 1960s.

The years at Yale

After receiving his Ph.D., Jones was an assistant professor at Yale Divinity School from 1969 to 1977. It was while he was at Yale that he gained renown as a Black theologian with a unique take on the issue of theodicy. In response to James Cone and others who saw God as a redeeming force in the face of centuries of Black oppression, Jones asked the simple but difficult question: Isn’t it equally possible that God is a white racist who hates Blacks instead of loving them? From that initial question, Jones developed a nuanced theological argument in his 1973 book Is God a White Racist? In the course of that argument, he concluded, among other things, that humans must take some responsibility for their own destiny, whether or not they believe in God.

In an essay titled “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” published a couple of years later in Christian Century magazine (May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525), Jones outlined a bit more of his specifically humanist theology. He contrasted the ancient Greek story of Prometheus on the one hand, and the Biblical story of Adam on the other hand, to point out how a liberal theist differs from a humanist:

At the bottom of the humanist world view hovers the opinion that ultimate reality may not be intrinsically benevolent or supportive of human welfare. Recognizing that God’s benevolence is not self-evident and that every alleged instance of divine agape can also be interpreted as divine malice for humanity (cf. Camus’s inverted interpretation of Golgotha in The Rebel), humanism permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic. Prometheus and Adam illustrate the contrasting viewpoints. Adam’s rebellion is regarded as the quintessence of sin, whereas Prometheus’ parallel refusal is, for the humanist, praiseworthy.

This is a particularly compelling statement because not only does Jones provide a useful and precise distinction between liberal theism and humanism, he also suggests a powerful myth that could help explain humanist values. This myth is particularly useful when presenting the central values of humanism to children; I have never quite understood why the myth of Prometheus doesn’t figure more prominently in Unitarian Universalist religious education for children.

It is worth noting that Lewis Gordon calls Jones a “black existential philosopher” (in Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 19-20). Indeed, some of Jones’s most important contributions were in the area of Africana philosophy. He served on a subcommittee of the American Philosophical Association (APA) in 1973, and in a report titled “Crisis in Philosophy: The Black Presence,” reported on the lack of African Americans in professional philosophy. From the 1970s on, he and other pioneering philosophers (including one of my philosophical mentors, Lucius Outlaw, Jr.) broke new ground in studying the intellectual landscape at the intersection of race and philosophy.

The years at FSU

After leaving Yale in 1977, Jones became Professor of Religion and the Director of Afro-American Studies program in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. He remained at FSU for the rest of his life. While at FSU, he did innovative work on anti-racism theory, developing what has become known as JOG and JAM — the Jones Oppression Grid, the core of the Jones Analytic Model — a “toolkit” for investigating oppression. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge the instructional text Jones developed for teaching JOG and JAM, Oppression-Centric Pedagogy 101: A Reference Manual and Workbook, has not been published. In the wider academic world, he was a regular participant in conferences of the Philosophy Born of Struggle group, and received the Philosophy Born Of Struggle Award in 2011. He inspired younger scholars, and broke ground for the next generation of humanist theologians, most notably from the standpoint of humanist theology, the prolific humanist theologian Anthony Pinn.

During the course of his long academic career, Jones held visiting professorships at Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Iliff School of Theology. Jones received an honorary doctorate from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in 1990.

According to the obituary in the Tallahassee Democrat, Jones was “beloved” by the FSU community:

Jones was beloved by the hundreds of FSU students whom he mentored, advised or counseled. He served on innumerable doctoral student committees. He co-directed a graduate student orientation program. He was on the board of two fellowship programs that provided financial assistance to minority students. He famously stockpiled household goods to give to struggling students and often reached into his pocket to help them pay their rent.

Upon his retirement in 1999, Jones was honored by FSU with the title Professor Emeritus.

Impact on Unitarian Universalism

Jones was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian of the past fifty years. Since he was one of the few Unitarian Universalist theologians to have a reputation beyond the denomination, he is also arguably one of the three or four most important Unitarian Universalist theologians of any persuasion in the past fifty years. Frustratingly, Jones is too little known within Unitarian Universalism; instead of being considered as a central thinker, a moral touchstone to whom we can turn for deep insights into some of the most pernicious moral dilemmas of our time, a thinker who outlines one of the most compelling reasons for being a humanist, he is (in my experience) dismissed as being somewhat marginal.

He was active for many years as a sort of conscience to Unitarian Universalism, reminding us of our stated commitment to fight racism within and without our doors, and providing theological and moral support to various anti-racism efforts. In 1985, he delivered the Sophia Lyon Fahs lecture; his topic was “Moral Decision Making: Implications for Unitarian Universalist Religious Education.” In the late 1990s, he served on the Commission on Appraisal, and served on the UUA Board of Trustees 1997-1999. In 2001, Jones was awarded the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. His final major contribution to Unitarian Universalist theology was his essay summarizing the JOG and JAM model, “Toward a New Paradigm for Uncovering Neo-Racism,” was included in Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones (Boston: Skinner House, 2003), pp. 145 ff.

Jones’s Is God a White Racist? remains on the required reading list for those preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry; it should also be on the required reading list of anyone who takes Unitarian Universalist theology seriously, particularly those who call themselves humanists. The book is a little bit dry, but if you read the first and third sections, skipping over the second section which mostly consists of a technical discussion of Black theology, I think you’ll find the topic to be of such great interest that you won’t mind the academic prose. Astonishingly, the bookstore at the Unitarian Universalist Association no longer stocks Is God a White Racist? However, you can purchase the book online online through the publisher, Beacon Press (please avoid Amazon and Barnes and Noble, who discount books in order to stiff authors, small publishers, and bookstores), or order it through interlibrary loan or your nearest independent bookstore.

Death and biographical mentions

I have not been able to find a comprehensive obituary online. The obituary in the Tallahassee Democrat focuses almost exclusively on his years at FSU, and does not even mention that he was an ordained minister; it also contains several obvious errors, e.g., it gets the publication date of his most famous book wrong, and states that he was “trained” at Yale. The obituary at williamrjones.org is factually correct but adds little additional information.

A biographical statement in the American Philosophical Association (APA) Newsletter, Fall 2003, Volume 03, Number 1, contains the following biographical notice, presumably approved of by Jones himself. It is the best biographical notice I have found online:

Dr. William R. Jones is an internationally renowned scholar in the areas of Africana Philosophy, Multiculturalism, Liberation Theology, and Oppression. Now he is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University. He had been a member of the Florida State University faculty since 1977, and was the first Director of African American Studies, with a joint appointment as a Professor in the Department of Religion. Jones has conducted extensive field research on social change in the Republic of South Africa with annual research trips since 1990. Dr. Jones has presented his research in South Africa, Kenya, Martinique, Ghana, Korea, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, Canada, and Great Britain. In addition to endowed and major lectures at such institutions as Cornell, Union Theological Seminary, Tufts, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, University of Missouri, Bates College, Tuskegee Institute, and Wesley Theological Seminary, he has worked with countless grassroots organizations and churches across America. Dr. Jones received his B.A. with highest honors in philosophy from Howard University, his Master of Divinity from Harvard University (W.E.B. DuBois Institute), and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Brown University. Prior to accepting his positions at FSU, he was a member of the faculty at Yale Divinity School and served as Coordinator of African American Studies. He has also held visiting professorships at Brown University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Iliff School of Theology, and The Humanist Institute in New York. Dr. Jones’ text, Is God a White Racist? and his “The Legitimacy and Necessity of Black Philosophy: Some Preliminary Considerations” are foundational contributions to Black Liberation Theology and Africana philosophy, respectively.

Short bibliography

Here’s a small selection of Jones’s published writing, from various stages and aspects of his career, including his work in theology, philosophy, and religious education:

“On Sartre’s Critical Methodology,” Ph.D. dissertation, Providence, RI: Brown University, 1967.

“Reconciliation and Liberation in Black Theology: Some Implications for Religious Education,” Religious Education [journal], September/October 1972, pp. 382-289.

“Crisis in Philosophy: The Black Presence,” Report of the Subcommittee on the Participation of Blacks in Philosophy, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, 1973. See discussion above.

Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1973; second edition with an afterword by Jones, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. See discussion above.

“Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century [magazine], 21 May 1975, pp. 520-525. See discussion above.

“The Legitimacy and Necessity of Black Philosophy: Some Preliminary Considerations,” The Philosophical Forum [journal], vol. 9 1977-78, nos. 2-3, 149-160.

Ed., with Calvin Bruce, Black Theology II: Essays on the Formation and Outreach of Contemporary Black Theologians, Lewisburg, Penna.: Bucknell University, 1978.

“Liberation Strategies in Black Theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm?” in Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1983. See mention above.

“Moral Decision Making: Implications for Unitarian Universalist Religious Education,” Sophia Lyon Fahs Lecture, June, 1985; unpublished?

Oppression-Centric Pedagogy 101: A Reference Manual and Workbook, unpublished? 1980s? See mention above.

“Religious Humanism: Its Problems and Prospects in Black Religion and Culture,” in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: NYU Press, 2001), pp. 27-54. An excellent essay on humanism by Jones.

“Toward a New Paradigm for Uncovering Neo-Racism,” Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones (Boston: Skinner House, 2003), pp. 145 ff. See discussion above.

5 thoughts on “William R. Jones: a brief appreciation

  1. Amy

    Is there a UU curriculum that draws on Greek myths at all? Prometheus is a favorite of mine, given even more layers of theological and humanist meaning by Shelley’s fabulous poem (in the word’s literal as well as conventional meaning) . There are others enough to fill a year’s program with UU teachings. How about Antaeus, whose power derives from the earth and can be defeated if he is just deprived of contact with it?

    Nothing of Jones’s was on the required reading list when I received ministerial fellowship, if memory serves. I’m glad that’s changed.

  2. Deborah Pope-Lance

    Thanks for this bio on Jones. Hope you are considering sending it to UUWorld or website.

    Hard to imagine that Mark is wrong. But it may be that Mark and the UUA directory are both correct. In the mid 70′s I was a student minister at First Unitarian and recall that First had had supportive relationship with the other (and Universalist) congregations in Providence. Jones may have served simultaneously at both congregations. Randy Becker who was an asst at First in early 70s may remember better than I. Or Jan Knost who served at Mediator in the 60s may know.

    When we are gone our obits too will contain errors. One may wonder who will notice and correct those.

  3. Hasan Batts

    This Bio is much appreciated! I was a student of Dr. Jones Oppression and Critical Analysis Theory and would travel the country to hear him present & study under him whenever possible. He was one of the greatest minds of our time and will truly be missed. My hopes are to see his work continued through a tribute to him in conjunction with some of his students. He will truly be missed!

  4. Julia Arnold

    Dr. Jones was the guest speaker for our Kwanzaa Committee of Pensacola’s Community Celebration in 1992 when I was the Chairperson/President of the group. I missed him because that was the year I decided to the California Kwanzaa Karama with Dr. Maulana Keranga, the founder of Kwanzaa. I heard so much about his speech. People in Pensacola are still talking about how thought provoking he was. I decided I wanted to see if I could talk to him this year. Then I learned he had passed. I am so sorry to hear about his passing.

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