10 thoughts on “Carter book event — Postlude on Christology and Race: Maximus the Confessor as Anticolonialist Intellectual

  1. Adam,
    I enjoyed your reflections here–certainly much to ponder. I think that his method of interpretation needs a more thorough articulation, perhaps within a kind of pragmatic setting. He alludes to jazz, and perhaps something like Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is an analog for this improvisational re-presentation of certain themes. Pragmatism surfaces because the question of “the truth” of his interpretation is going to be decided more by the forms of life it opens up–what one does with the text–rather than whether the interpretation is an adequate reflection in our terms of what the author thought in his or her historical context. Perhaps the lingering “RO” of his time at UVA made his critique of pragmatism too sharp to draw out the overlap.

    Perhaps another way to set it up in Bonhoeffer’s term would be that theological exegesis is an exegesis informed by “the who” not “a what.” He takes all these patristic figures to be theological writers, that is, persons responding to an address by the Counter-Logos in flesh, a who, and thus strives to give a generous reading towards this aim–this person. If Christ is a living interlocutor for these figures, then a theological reading will try to follow them on this trajectory even if it means a drastic re-presentation of some themes or elements in their text.

    Regardless–and I think Carter is trying to capture the space between the two–I think this mode of approaching texts is more interesting than mere eisegesis but certainly needs a clearer articulation.

    I agree too that there are lingering effects of RO in this text but I also think there are substantial differences as his thought became increasingly critical of RO (this isn’t just his dissertation but a complete recasting of that work to distance it from RO). The critique of Foucault, for instance, isn’t just that Foucault happened not to think theologically but that as he moved towards an account of race and Jewish identity, he brackets the theological instead of intensifying his scrutiny like Said and Anidjar (not theologians) do. He thus remains beholden to a vision of Israel as a collectivity whose mythology proceeds as counterhistory but always with the dangerous blood-based, racial articulation of communal identity from which Israel–now read as a racial group–cannot be separated. One need not have a Christian, nonsupercessionist account of Israel to approach this problematic differently, and I think the emphasis of the critique is more on what Foucault’s framework closes out than on what paths he doesn’t pursue.

    However, some of this argument is lost because claims like “Foucault’s lectures cannot imagine Israel as a covenantal people” could be read in a kind of RO-style critique of all things non-theological as well as in the manner in which I interpreted it. Which is to say, perhaps, as we’re nearing the last chapter, that I certainly can see where many of your criticisms come from but I also think you are too quick to uncharitably dismiss it instead of pursuing other possibilities (it’s just a dissertation, it’s just RO, it’s just eisegesis, it’s just Duke-style theology, it’s just his first book, etc). But not only is this all in love, as you say, but I also did enjoy and benefit from your thoughts on this chapter.

  2. Tim, appreciate the comment. I definitely see that he’s breaking away from RO, no doubt RO has no time for the anti-colonial critique of Said, Anidjar, and so on. My question is how one does theology if one follows such critiques. When Anidjar, for instance, argues that Christianity is the origin of racism, he does so by being explicitly anti-Christian. So I’m curious how one would follow this criticism in such a way as to still advance a theological project? That for me is the big question left in abeyance by this book. Particularly insofar as, from my vantage, Christianity’s racism circa 1492 isn’t “ex nihilo” but is the development of an already-existing conceptual tendency in its account of Christ as “the One.” I.e. “1492 racism” is prefigured in supersessionism, which is there at the very origin of Christianity’s articulation of itself as the summation of religion / the new universal race. That’s the key question for me. Perhaps doing theology in the vein of Bonhoeffer, in the vein of “the who,” who if i remember correctly he called “the center,” is a way out of this problem. But i think it’s clear why i have my doubts … to return to the who, the center, seems just to “recapitulate” the origin of Christianity’s claim to define life for all others (starting with the Jews, though as we know there came to be other others).

  3. Dan,
    You are correct to point out that unanswered question, and I believe Carter’s upcoming book project, The Secular Jesus, aims to provide a more thorough answer. You also caught the Bonhoeffer book to which I alluded, Christ, the Center. And you are correct that 1492 didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, though I do think it is a helpful periodization to alert us to something new. And your final sentence about “Christianity’s claim to define life for all others” is a great description of the problem. The reason I’m trying to think theologically along with these anti-Christian thinkers has more to do with my inability to–alluding to Flannery O’Connor–be done with that ragged Christ figure (faith as a certain kind of inability to be rid of Jesus, a constraint, perhaps also similar to the biblical language, where else would we go, you have the words of life). The African-American Christian tradition, Bonhoeffer, a certain reading of Barth, Black Atlantic literature, and these anti-Christian thinkers (I’d add Fanon here too) have, for me, offered hope and encouragement that one’s thought and life can be oriented towards “Christ the Center” in ways that push us beyond defining life for others and towards desiring them.

  4. Tim,

    Thanks for your response. I would counter your claims that I’m sometimes “dismissive,” however, by noting that you know Jay very well, you’ve worked closely with him, you have some kind of access to his more recent book project — and with all that, you can suggest different ways that this book might be read. Without all that background, I don’t see how anyone could arrive at the conclusions you’ve arrived at. If a book can be most easily read in a way that is contrary to the author’s intentions, then it’s not a very successful book.

    I don’t know what his editing process was for this book, but given the often overwhelming number of “qualifications” and “signposts,” it does feel like he left a fundamental structure in place and then tried to “nuance” it. The result for me is just a generalized blurriness (above all in chapter 1) — and from your comments, I get the impression that I’d need to be in deep dialogue with Jay personally to be able to sort through that and see what direction he’s pushing in. Perhaps it will all make more sense in light of his next book! But in that case, it would seem that The Secular Jesus will basically supercede it, leaving the present work as fodder for future J. Kameron Carter scholars trying to discern the nuances of his development.

    Overall, maybe one way of reading the continual disagreement between us is that you’re reading Race as a reflection of Jay’s thought where I’m reading it as a stand-alone document.

  5. Adam,
    That no doubt is true–I certainly can’t separate what I’ve learned from him elsewhere and the book, but I still think others who haven’t studied with Carter are able to work out many of these points (and avoid some of the more dismissive critiques), but we needn’t linger here. I’d really like to hear some other folks on these points.

    It’s been helpful to hear from both you and Dan as to what you take to be major problems or gaps in the account. I am curious whether others feel that the deeper problem isn’t that the argument is unconvincing but that it is unclear what the argument is (what is the heart of the critique, what is the payoff, what is the direction to go, etc). Another example, I read the patristic sections more as an attempt to undercut a kind of black intellectual cultural reflexivity (such that the theological trajectory is ultimately reduced to a kind of black consciousness) whereas you, Adam, read them more along the lines of a RO nostalgia. What do others make of it?

  6. Ok, so I thought I’d jump in… Sorry for being MIA (though, Tim, your comment that I have time made me laugh—this week alone, I have about 500 pages of Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher that I’m responsible for knowing/having read, sigh. …as I’ve told Adam, but also applies to some of the rest of you who’ve followed/participated in this book event, I don’t know how y’all find the time to do all this—plus, by the time I even formulate something to say, its already been said—its hard to ‘keep up’! All to say, I find the combined depth and speed of y’all’s insights both impressive and intimidating! Ok, sorry for that little bit of ‘whining’ and/or excuse there… )

    Anyways, I guess I just want to echo some of the things that have already been said—I agree with your assessment that Tim, because of context of knowing Carter, etc…, is reading Race as a reflection of Carter’s thought as opposed to a stand-alone document, and I would unequivocally put myself in that same camp.

    I think the point Dan makes about Christianity’s claim to define life for others is *immensely* helpful, and points to both what is/could be problematic in this text as well as its contribution—part of what I find so helpful in the text, that I talked about in my probably too charitable/extolling post (though I still stand by what I said!), is that it troubles the way Christianity might operate to define that life.

    I come back to the first of the few comments I made in this conversation—how I understood the text in light of the genealogy of feminist discourse…

    Judith Butler, in writing on “Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism’” offers insights that I find helpful –or rather, that elucidate what I find so helpful about Carter’s work here…

    After suggesting that “the task [of postmodernism/poststructuralism] is to interrogate what the theoretical move that establishes foundations authorizes, and what precisely it excludes or forecloses” (39)—a task that seems aligned/synched with Dan’s comment on Christianity’s defining of life for others—she turns to the matter of agency, and asks
    “ what possibilities of mobilization are produced on the basis of existing configurations of discourse and power? What are the possibilities of reworking that very matrix of power by which we are constituted, of reconstructing the legacy of that constitution…” (48-49). And then the part I find especially helpful. She writes:

    “I don’t know what postmodernism is, but I do have some sense of what it might mean to subject notions of the body and materiality to a deconstrucive critique. To deconstruct the concept of matter or that of bodies is not to negate or refute either term. to deconstruct these terms means, rather, to continue to use them, to repeat them, to repeat them subversively, and to displace them from the contexts in which they have been deployed as instruments of oppressive power” (51).

    This text embodies some of what I see Carter as doing in Race—as subjecting Christian theological discourse to a deconstructive critique. I read this work as, at least on one level, exploring those “possibilities of mobilization.” Many have read this Butler piece as a sort of foundational text for queer theory—in many ways, I read Carter’s text in line with a queer theoretic—as examining/tapping into “the conditions to mobilize the signifier in the service of an alternative production” (52).

    I think this also aligns with some of what Carter was speaking to in terms of Butlers’ later stuff on the ambivalence of agency in The Psychic Life of Power, in terms of what he is both reading in the narratives, as well as what he seems to be doing with them. And I know it hasn’t been satisfactory for many of you, but I also keep coming back to Tim’s remarks in the discussion on Chapter 7 about Carter offering a literary reading of the narratives as opposed to an ethical evaluation of conduct…

    I’m not sure if any of this is really that relevant, or if it even makes sense… but those are some of my (initial, inchoate) thoughts on this conversation…. (and that was really long, sorry!)

  7. Tim,

    I have to agree with Adam. I have not quite finished the book yet, but I have been frustrated at the begining of each new section of Race. It felt like each section was a new introduction to an argument that just never came. The frustration was compounded by the fact that this was the first book event that I really followed. I wanted to comment, but each time I felt like I had a grasp on the argument, the focus shifted and I was struggling to catch back up.

    I am excited to follow Carter’s writting in the future. There were moments where I was blown away by Carter’s analysis. But as a cohesive argument, it isn’t working for me.

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