I’m posting this slightly out of order, as we’ve had a bit of a delay on getting a post for chapter 8.
In this, the final meditation on a patristic figure, Carter claims that the theology of Maximus the Confessor provides a model for anti-colonial theology, insofar as he recognizes “tyranny” as a core manifestation of sin. For Carter, this means that he is a subversive theologian, reading against the dominant social order, in a way that he claims is similar to the theological style he has uncovered in the antebellum slave narratives he investigates in part III of the book.
The bulk of his argument is taken up with demonstrating that Maximus’s theology is premised on a mutual openness between God and creation that then issues into a mutual openness among created beings — a logic that is counter to the self-enclosed and self-worshipping logic of modern racial thought, in which white supremacy claims to define all others while remaining self-defined. As an exposition of Maximus’s theology, this is very interesting and compelling and in fact makes me want to return to Maximus and study him further.
There are several weaknesses in this postlude, however, which are symptomatic of some questionable aspects of the larger argument of the book. I understand that the rest of this post may come across as harsh in some places, but I hope it is received in the spirit it is offered — as constructive criticism. Nothing but love!
The first problem I see is that he nowhere establishes that Maximus is reading against the social order. This is a huge missed opportunity, because Maximus famously had his tongue cut out for standing against the imperial advocacy of monothelitism — an incident that is not mentioned in this chapter as far as I could see. Surely if we are to focus on the importance of the flesh, suffering torture at the hands of worldly powers is at least as important a point of connection with the slave narratives as their exegetical method is!
Second, he relentlessly reads his concern for Israel and Christ’s Jewish flesh into Maximus, just as he does for every single other author he discusses favorably. Apparently a reference to the Old Testament is sufficient to establish that the figure in question fully endorses Carter’s theology of Israel. I have difficulty seeing it as anything but pure eisegesis. If Maximus really thought that it was crucial to focus on Christ’s Jewish flesh, then surely he would have explicitly mentioned it, right? None of the quotes Carter supplies make this connection, however. In fact, none of them explicitly mention the covenant with Israel that is supposedly so crucial to Maximus’s theology.
Nor does Carter establish that Maximus’s reading ever tries to understand Christ in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than searching the Hebrew Scriptures for parallels with what he already knows (through the New Testament and the creeds) about Christ. Lacking this evidence, he resorts to groundless assertion, as when he says: “the Christological vision of love in Epistle 2 is unintelligible apart from the story of Abraham and his covenant with YHWH” (358). I found his exposition of the Christological vision of love in Maximus perfectly intelligible without any reference to Abraham or any other narrative from the history of the people of Israel — meanwhile, what Maximus is doing with Abraham here is forced and often confusing (as Carter partially admits when he says it’s unclear what Scriptural passage Maximus is even referring to on pg. 356).
This is a pattern we constantly see in Carter: every mention of the Hebrew Scriptures shows how crucial the covenant with Israel and Christ’s Jewish flesh are. Every mention of Christ entails a robust insistence on the fleshly and Jewish nature of Christ. And all of this somehow proves that the author has an exegetical method that is a proto-anti-racist.
Carter vaguely suggests that Maximus is “rabbinic,” yet in his only discussion of actual rabbinic exegesis in chapter 8 (based on a single author, Fishbane), he claims that the rabbinic method is very similar to the method he finds in Augustine (321). How is this even possible? The patristic approach to the Hebrew Scriptures is dominated by the attept to connect every possible detail to Christ — a trait that is, shall we say, notably absent in Jewish exegesis.
In my view, Carter is at his best when discussing the patristic authors “in themselves,” divorced from his overarching concern with race and his idiosyncratic approach to the question of supercessionism. In those passages, he seems more confident and more clear — there is none of the excessive “signposting” and “nuancing” that so often overwhelm his point in other sections of the book. I enjoyed the patristic sections of this book by far the most, and I think I would have enjoyed a full-length work on patristic theology from Carter even more.
Carter provides a compelling and attractive reading of Maximus, for instance, at least until he starts trying to read his theology of Israel into him. And the fact that the connection with Israel is so tenuous means that the connection between these patristic sections and the argument of his book is tenuous and indirect at best. Maximus, for instance, could be talking about any form of human sin, and his argument has no particular anti-colonialist valence — one could just as easily read him as arguing against greed or against sexual possessiveness. In the same way, Gregory’s theological argument against slavery has nothing specifically to do with the horrific modern form of race-based chattel slavery — it’s perfectly applicable to all slave regimes, including those in which race plays no role.
In the end, I think it’s fair to say that Carter’s work here is homologous to the method of Radical Orthodoxy. It sets up a proper theological paradigm and defines modernity as a deviation from that paradigm. The solution is then to go back to the correct paradigm. In place of the Radox insistence on the Neoplatonist elements of traditional Christianity, Carter focuses instead on the proper understanding of the link between Christ and Israel. Instead of idealizing the medieval period, Carter locates the desired balance in the patristic period, primarily among the Greek fathers.
Once we make those substitutions, however, the end result is the same. We get the same critiques of non-Christian thinkers according to extrinsic Christian standards (as in Carter’s very confusing critique of Foucault). We discover that attempts other than Carter’s to escape from the problem of modernity — Cone’s, Long’s, and Douglass’s above all — lack the necessary theological rigor and thus actually wind up repeating the same problem.
And the reasons for accepting his solutions are just as unclear as the reasons for accepting Milbank’s. I don’t know, after reading this book, what the “payoff” of having a proper theology of Israel is — indeed, I don’t even know what he thinks that theology should look like in itself, quite apart from its supposed applications — any more than I have a clear picture of what it would look like to have a society founded on a peaceful ontological hierarchy. I think it’s clear that the answer isn’t to start hanging around at synagogues or studying the Talmud. Should we join Robateau and convert to Greek Orthodoxy?
This is obviously Carter’s dissertation and therefore by definition not his final or most mature statement on any of these topics. I also understand that there is a great deal of pressure on young scholars to try to do too much, in order to get the kind of attention necessary to get the crucial job and academic capital necessary to continue doing any work at all. Yet I wish that Carter would have tried to do less. A book showing the subversive nature of patristic theology would have been great. A book showing the roots of modern racism in Christian supercessionism would have been great. A book showing how black theology or the black religious studies academy has wound up unwittingly repeating the same patterns they were trying to critique would have been great. A book elaborating the implicit theology of slave narratives would have been great — and a book demonstrating that that theology is strikingly similar to patristic thought would have been a tour de force.
Trying to do all those things at once and show how they all interconnect was impossible — and I think Carter is conscious of that. This book lays out an amazing research agenda, one that is worth a lifetime of work. I hope our discussion here has contributed to that ongoing research agenda in some way.
10 thoughts on “Carter book event — Postlude on Christology and Race: Maximus the Confessor as Anticolonialist Intellectual”
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.
And sorry for such a long comment. And again, I hope others (Brandy–you have time, I know it!–and lurkers, come on now) will jump in.
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).
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.
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.
(Also, just to save everyone some time: I’m pretty sure there’s literally nothing you can say that will make sense of the Foucault critique for me.)
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?
I would say that the bigger problem is that it’s unclear what the argument is.
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!)
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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