Anthony B. Pinn received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1994. Other degrees include the BA from Columbia University, the MDiv and MA, both from Harvard, and an honorary Doctorate degree from Meadville-Lombard Theological School. Pinn began his teaching career at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN), where his research and teaching earned him early tenure and promotion to full professor within the first eight years of his career. In 2003, Pinn accepted an offer from Rice University (Houston, TX), becoming the first African American to hold an endowed chair at the University. After an additional semester at Macalester and a semester at Williams College as the Sterling Brown 1922 Visiting Professor, Pinn joined the Rice faculty as the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. While at Rice, Pinn founded and directed the Houston Enriches Rice Education (HERE) project (2007-2012). During the summer of 2012, Pinn received approval to transform the HERE Project into the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning. This center is a part of the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Pinn also founded and directs the doctoral concentration in the study of African American Religion at Rice. Outside Rice, Pinn has served as the first executive director of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and he also served on the Meadville Lombard Theological School Board of Trustees (2007-2012). In addition, he has served in various roles on the board of directors and the executive committee of the American Academy of Religion. He is also the Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies Think Tank (Washington, DC).
Pinn made his initial mark on the academy with Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), galvanizing Pinn as an African American humanist and solidifying African American humanism as an historic, non-theistic religious orientation for African Americans. In this text, Pinn finds that black theologians have no evidence to support the notion that God is working on behalf of the oppressed, and any theological position that claims such is based on redemptive suffering theodicies that perpetuate African American suffering. For Pinn, human liberation is more important than the maintenance of any religious symbol, including God. Pinn offers African American humanism as a strategy for “liberation” that does not make black suffering virtuous.
Why, Lord? provided a foundation for much of the work to follow. The black humanism Pinn espoused in Why, Lord? has dominated a great deal of Pinn’s work, seen in such texts as By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (2001) andAfrican American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod (2004). By These Hands explores African American humanist thought in history, suggesting that humanism is not new to black religion. African American Humanist Principles articulates practical and philosophical unifying ideas within African American humanism. Collectively, these texts demonstrate African American humanism’s historical legacy as a religious orientation within the African American community, as well as offer theological and ethical explications of black humanism not previously addressed by scholars of African American religion. Most recently, Pinn pushes the African American humanist position into even greater view with The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2012). This text presents a non-theistic African American Humanist theology that brings together elements of an humanist theology while expanding the understanding of theology to include non-theistic orientations.
Pinn’s research has always demanded a thorough and expansive use of theory and method. Pinn took up the task of specifically addressing these issues in Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (2003), claiming in it that the black religious impulse is the “quest for complex subjectivity.” More than simply traditional, organized theistic belief and practice, black religion is fundamentally a quest to answer and address the who, what, when, where and why of human existence in general, in terms set against the backdrop of the particular history of dehumanization and terror experienced by African Americans. Terror and Triumph also provides attention to methodological concerns necessary for the flourishing of African American religious studies as a discipline of critical inquiry and investigation through the development of ‘relational centralism,’ an interdisciplinary methodology combining aspects of traditional religious studies with elements of anthropology, aesthetics and art criticism. For Pinn, black religious scholarship requires attention to both its form and content. To date, scholars of African American religion have dealt extensively with the content of black religion, but not as fully with the questions of what is black religion, what is black religion and what is black religion, the form(s). Terror and Triumph, then, provides a shift in both how African American religion is theorized and a programmatic shift in the methodologies employed in the study of African American religion.
Aside from the specific interest in theory and method, Pinn has authored two history texts. With his mother Anne Pinn, The Fortress Introduction to Black Church History(2001) is widely used in classrooms as it provides an accessible entry point for seminarian and laity alike to engage black church history in all its diversity. More recently, Pinn wroteThe Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era (2002) which addresses ongoing concerns and challenges facing the black church. Other notable edited volumes include Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music (2003) and with Dwight Hopkins, Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic (2004). Noise and Spirit collects essays from various scholars of black religion addressing the overt and subversive religiosity at work within hip hop culture. Loving the Body uncovers black religious scholars’ theorization and application of the body within African American religious studies. More recently, Pinn’s Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (2010) extends the discussion of embodiment that accompanies much of his work, offering guiding points for future black theological scholarship, as well as presenting a detailed depiction of the practical application of “the quest for complex subjectivity” as theory of black religion. Centrally, this text is a nascent exploration of what a “body-centered approach to theological thought” might look like, and an explication of why prioritizing “the body’s meaning and lived experiences” as the starting point for theology is vital for future scholarship. Author of nearly thirty monographs or edited volumes, Pinn also serves as editor of four different book series: With Katie G. Cannon (Union Theological Seminary PSCE),Innovations in African American Religious Thought, Fortress Press. With Caroline Levander (Rice University), Imagining the Americas, Oxford University Press. With Stacey Floyd-Thomas (Vanderbilt University), Religion and Social Transformation, New York University Press, and more recently Studies in Humanist Thought and Practice, Equinox.
Pinn is concerned with the larger Houston community and through the HERE Project and now the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning, he works to foster greater connections and collaborations between Rice University and the larger Houston community. For example, each year, a city-wide high school essay contest is held, awarding scholarships to the top essayists and SAT test-prep courses to the top ten finalists. Nearly two hundred high school students participated in 2010. Under Pinn’s leadership, the program also archives valuable cultural artifacts from the community through endeavors such as the African American Quilt Exhibit and the archiving of the papers of some of Houston’s most influential leaders. Also, each year a member of the Houston community is honored through the Legacy award. Thanks to these endeavors, the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning provides a much needed link between what happens inside Rice’s campus and outside it in the surrounding city.
Pinn also founded and serves as primary advisor of the doctoral concentration in the study of African American Religion at Rice University. The doctoral concentration in the study of African American Religion, since its founding in 2003, has developed a reputation within the academy as a program committed to academic rigor and the flourishing of African American religious studies. This concentration, currently with 10 PhD students, is marked by excellence on and off campus. For example, the students in this concentration have received prestigious grants and fellowships, regularly publish, and give papers at conferences across the globe. Known internationally as a leading expert in the field of African American religion, Pinn is a professor, prolific author and much sought after lecturer committed to academic rigor and the continued growth of African American Religious Studies as a discipline within the academy. Pinn’s continued teaching and research interests span liberation theologies, black religious aesthetics, religion and popular culture, and African American humanism.
Anthony B. Pinn
Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities
Professor of Religious Studies
Founding Director,The Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning Rice University
Director of Research,The Institute for Humanist Studies