Race & Religion, a further thought

Religion is Desire and not struggle for recognition. E. Levinas

My “blogging” time has been spent commenting over at the AUFS book event (here’s a link to the most recent post discussion) on J. Kameron Carter’s book, Race: a Theological Account. I’ve been rereading sections of the book as well (helps when you want to comment)–and just finished chapter 5 and wanted to make a couple comments on “opacity.” This jumps ahead of the book event but continues some of the themes from my previous posts.

Chapter 5 examines Charles Long’s work as a historian of religion. In a key paragraph, Carter summarizes one major trajectory within Long’s thought:

If theological discourse is to continue, it must proceed from a second naiveté in which theology is no longer a discourse of a center-periphery logic with theology itself as a normalizing center…The human being, as homo religiosus, establishes its meaning through encountering a Somewhat; that is, the meaning of human existence is attained in its encounter with an oppugnant, nontransparent, and opaque Somewhat or other. Thus human existence is constituted through nontransparent, opaque encounters, in the shadows of which there is being, existence, and meaning. (p. 215).

Through these encounters, the “subject comes to know itself as opaque,” which does not seem to grant the subject a sense of “translucency” (a critique Carter later makes,  227) but instead liberates the encounter from the work of clarification, whereby “an other” becomes known within and as absorbed by a process of self-knowledge. Opaque encounters resist the use of human interaction as an experiential field whereby one comes to more fully account for oneself, and through this self-account, also explain the existence of the other.

To clarify the situation, it might help to locate a narrative example. In I, Tituba, M. Condé, explores such an “opaque encounter” between two intransigent modulations of “the religious”–that is, formations of identity that elided the categories used by Christian imperialism to clarify the religious and therefore human capacity of various groups and organize the social world accordingly–a black slave “witch” (Tituba) and her Jewish owner (Benjamin).

The relationship between the two moves progressively towards intimacy, through sharing pain, transgressing boundaries of death (with Tituba making it possible for Benjamin to visit with his deceased wife), exploring various strategies for interpreting and circumventing the Christian world, and responding to present persecution. When’s Benjamin’s family is murdered, he interprets the calamity as a punishment for his refusal to grant Tituba freedom and frees her immediately. Throughout the process, both parties offer ways for the other to enter into their own “religious” world and yet neither erects this mode of life as “centering” or “normalizing” all religious expressions. Benjamin’s repentance for continuing Tituba’s bondage can be understood as his own awareness of a transgression of Tituba’s opaqueness: her functional position within his life–as the one through whom he could have contact with his deceased wife–determined the meaning of her life for him. Her life was, for him, determined by this role and he could no longer receive her as opaque and indeterminable, as having a claim on him that he cannot understand or respond to without her assistance.

These opaque encounters express a concern to maintain what is indeterminable within the presence of the other. In the context of Carter’s book, “race” originates theologically when Jewish existence becomes determinably fixed through the biological: one can account for the possibility or impossibility of Christianization through an appeal to biological humanity, to the logic of blood, and this account of Jewish existence was modified and developed to account for the possibilities of human existence within other peoples (now “races”).

More needs to be said, and hopefully will be said, as the conversation surrounding J. Carter’s book continues.

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2 Responses to Race & Religion, a further thought

  1. Tim, thanks for this post; I haven’t read this chapter a second time. I am on Chapter 3, but this does clear up my confusion about why this chapter was in the book in the first place, I mean, besides being part of JKC’s dissertation. I just never encountered long in my studies (not even in my black church studies classes).

    • Tim McGee says:

      Thanks. In rereading this book so far, I’ve been far more interested in this second section than I was originally. I think I previously read it as “here’s three accounts that don’t quite work but are prominent within an African-American religious studies paradigm,” which, as you mention, might be important in a dissertation but not always clear within a book-length argument. To draw back on the quote from Levinas, if whiteness establishes itself as universal space of recognition (that is, as religion), then these three chapters mark careful tracings of certain fractures within this white religion that Carter wants to build on, redirect, or push further so as to open up broader spaces for the freedom of/to love (Desire). The book event has been quite fun and I look forward to seeing more of your take on it over there as the event continues.

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