Carter positions his book as an attempt to fill a gap in the existing discussion of the modern racial imagination. As he states in his prologue, this question has been tackled from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, “Yet one is hard-pressed to find an adequate theological account of the modern problem of race” (3).
Race is an attempt to begin to correct that significant oversight, and it is structured into three parts. The first provides an account of the emergence of the modern racial imagination, beginning with an engagement with two major non-theological accounts (those of Cornel West and Michel Foucault) and then developing his own approach through an investigation of the work of Immanuel Kant. This is followed by a second part that engages with major figures in the field of African American religious studies and a third in which he develops a more constructive theology of race in dialogue with antebellum autobiographical narratives of African Americans. The work as a whole is bookended by a prologue and epilogue, along with three sections (at the beginning, middle, and end) that read patristic writers as anticipating the questions of race that the main body of the text investigates. It is clear, then, that we are dealing with a work of enormous historical scope and ambition.
What I have said so far mostly covers Carter’s prologue, and so I will be focusing primarily on the section entitled “Prelude on Christology and Race: Irenaeus as Anti-Gnostic Intellectual.” As someone who has done constructive work in dialogue with Irenaeus, I really appreciated this chapter, which sees Irenaeus’s Gnostic opponents as anticipating in many important ways the modern construction of the racial imagination insofar as the struggle with Gnosticism was ultimately a struggle over the significance of the body. He shows remarkable patience with the tedious and mind-numbing accounts of Gnostic teaching that Irenaeus provides, particularly the central narrative of the fall of Sophia from the sphere of the Pleroma, which ultimately results in the creation of the material world by the ignorant demiurge (who is then equated with the Jewish God). He sees the Gnostic division of humanity into various categories that are inherently bound for either salvation or destruction as a kind of proto-racism that is deeply intertwined with the Gnostic rejection of the Jewish God and denigration of the material body — and their contention that Christ’s redemptive work was a matter of defeating or overcoming both.
In this context, Carter can view Irenaeus’s counter-argument, which insists on the truly fleshly and truly Jewish nature of Christ, as a model for overcoming the modern racial imagination. Where the Gnostics divide humanity, Irenaeus unites them into a threefold narrative whereby Israel recapitulates the narrative of creation and Christ in turn recapitulates the narrative of Israel. Rather than overcoming material creation, this recapitulation concentrates it and makes it all the more potent. At the same time, this successive concentration of all creation in the “middle” of history (Israel arising in the middle of world history and Christ coming in the middle of Jewish history) renders problematic any purely linear view of history — hence preemptively undercutting another significant aspect of the narrative of modernity.
In this account, one important way in which modernity was able to fall into a Gnostic-like pattern was by rejecting the Jewish basis of Christianity, which “cleared the way for whiteness to function as a replacement doctrine of creation” (35). This fundamentally theological view of whitenesscreats “the image of white dominance, where ‘white’ signifies not merely pigmentation but a regime of political and economic power for arranging (oikonomia) the world” (35). In a sense, then part I of Race repeats the task of the first two books of Irenaeus’s Against All Heresies in laying out modernity as a kind of new Gnosticism, while the remaining parts attempt to develop an alternative covenantal logic grounded in the African American Christian tradition. The various “-ludes” then attempt to establish links to the mainstream Christian tradition as well, or at least to certain “Church Fathers.”
In terms of specific topics for discussion, I should first say that my wording above is not as cautious as Carter’s in naming the specific referent of Gnosticism. Carter follows Cyril O’Regan in focusing on the specificity of Valentinian Gnosticism and the “narrative logic” whereby it mutates the Christian narrative.
I wonder, however, if Carter might oppose the Gnostics more thoroughly than Irenaeus on at least one front: the question of supercessionism. Obviously Irenaeus insists on continuity between Christ and the Jewish God, but it seems to me that Carter may be remaking Irenaeus somewhat in the image of a chastened post-Holocaust Christian theologian. In addition, his emphasis on synchrony over diachrony, while it does provide an interesting and productive reading of Irenaeus’s central concept of “recapitulation,” seems perhaps one-sided insofar as it neglects the fact that Irenaeus is probably one of the most apocalyptic of the Church Fathers — complete with speculations on the identity of the Anti-Christ, the meaning of the number of the beast, etc.
In any case, I hope that my repeated reminders have ensured that several of you in the audience are reading along and will have insightful comments and questions of your own.
14 thoughts on “Carter book event: Prologue and Prelude”
I was really uncomfortable with the use of Iranaeus’ polemics against the Gnostics here. I’m not entirely sure though if my discomfort will be helpful to the discussion. It stems, in part, from the fact that “the Gnostics” were utterly destroyed and most of what we know about their system of thought is reported to us as proof-texting in Christian polemics. In this way I can’t help but wonder if Carter is practicing the same theological imaginary that gets critiqued a lot on AUFS. So, against this theological imaginary, it would be possible to see Iranaeus as the first instance of a kind of “x-washing”. I’m thinking of how Western imperialism often cloaks itself under the banner of a humanism that intervene to battle some X (mostly that’s the “cruel and backwards Arab” now, but also the image of the “genocidal African”) in the name of something like gay rights (pink-washing) or women (using feminism as a cloak). Rather than thinking of the Gnostics, even the Valentians (whose system we pretty much only know from Iranaeus), as this evil empire that sets up racism and antisemitism, wouldn’t it make more sense to ascribe to this group very little power? They were, after all, wiped off the face of the earth.
To be fair, at that point in time, proto-orthodox Christianity was pretty marginal as well — so it was probably a fair fight at the time.
I think that Carter’s biggest problem with the Valentians/Gnostics of those was their idea of three races of humanity in creation (pneumatic, psychic, and hylicpage 18 & 19) and depreciation for the human body that subsequently leads to their anti-Jewish gaze. I don’t know if Carter is saying that Valenetian/ Gnostics are THE responsible party for Christianity’s history of anti-Judaism and anti-semitism.
My problem is with the prelude. I just want to know exactly what has the city of Lyons to do with the ante-bellum South? It’s not like the enslaved Africans had access to Patristic writings, since it was illegal for them to read in the first place. As someone aspiring to use the patristics in conversation with Black/Womanist theologies, I am just wondering what is the best to go about find an connection between the two; that was the question that came up in my defense of my thesis.
OK… I’ll hold off on going further in for now in case people want to take this other directions. I’m not entirely convinced of Christianity’s casting of Gnostic theory as anti-body as such though… Alright, this is annoying because it feels impossible to talk about Gnosticism except negatively without sounding like a krank, so I’ll stop for now.
Just for clarification, I think that the term Gnostic is something that did change over time, and not all gnosticisms were the same. For example, Clement of Alexandria used the terminology in a rather positive light. It’s history is rather more ambiguous. That is why Carter has to specifically point to Valentian gnosticism rather than a gnosticism in general.
In class, I’ve referred to Irenaeus’s approach to Gnosticism as “the South Park method,” similar to their episodes on Mormonism and Scientology. Irenaeus and the South Park guys are equally convinced that a clear presentation of the views they’re skewering will lead every reasonable person to conclude those views are dumb, so the motivation to tilt the scales is low. In other words, precisely because their view is SO negative, I’m inclined to view the presentation as basically accurate.
If you keep in mind the overall argument of the book–that race is a theological problematic/enactment–then you can perhaps see these shorter forays into patristics as part of a response to a natural question: are there theological sources to help us chart a course past this problematic or is the Christian theological imagination irremediably racialized?
The analogy doesn’t quite work though because we don’t just have South Park’s presentation to go off of.
With Tim’s comment in mind, though, it might not be very important to Carter’s argument what the Gnostics “really” believed or if there even really were people who correspond to Irenaeus’s presentation — the important thing is that Irenaeus thought they were exhibiting something that anticipates certain formal features of modern race-thinking and rejected their teachings for that reason.
I thought that the first, second, and final paragraphs of the prologue were interesting, even if they merely raised issues without going into them much further. What I’m interested in is what Carter thinks theology should or might be and do. Carter seems to imply that Christianity’s complicity in racism might serve a kind of defeater; that theology is no longer a “compelling” discourse (p. 8); and that the task of theology itself remains unclear although it needs to change after we have the history and effects of the modern racial imaginary. So, then, what is theology? What makes a theology “compelling”? What might or could theology be (or want do we want theology to be)? I think Carter has a highly interesting and suggestive, if brief, account of theology in these paragraphs. It would also be interesting to compare this (implied) account of theology’s work to that found in Barth, post-liberalism, liberation theologies, apologetic or missional theologies, etc.
I wonder that, too, particularly in light of his frequent use of “pseudo-theological” to refer to the modern racial imagination.
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