I admit that it has been difficult for me to answer the questions with which this series is concerned. What I anticipated to be a straightforward political and intellectual task I experienced to be a spiritual raking-over-the-coals. As a white theologian, I cannot answer the question “What is the role of the public theologian in confronting white supremacy in our public discourse?” without, first, confronting the white supremacy of my own theology. White supremacy is not merely a political movement, in relation to which one can affiliate or disaffiliate, but a constellation of prejudices, predilections, tropes, and images which saturates our culture as a whole—and which warps our minds and imaginations in ways that give rise to idolatry. White supremacy is not simply a political or ethical problem. It is a theologicalone.
The work of several generations of black scholars of religion has shown us, time and again, that Christian theology participates in the construction of race and traffics in the currency of white supremacy. Consider James Cone’s powerful indictments of the implicit whiteness of theology, Emilie Townes’s anatomization of the ‘fantastic hegemonic imagination,’ or J. Kameron Carter’s and Willie Jennings’s genealogies of racialization and of its articulation through theological discourses—each pulls the rug out from under the ostensible colorblindness of theological reflection. Or they ought to. Personally, I was aware enough of their arguments, but I had not—have not—yet fully come to grips with their consequences for my own work and worship. I am, honestly, only beginning to do so. This was recently brought home to me, and in a way that put the central motifs of my theological imagination into question.
I am a student of mystical theology, and my dissertation is partly concerned with how the post-Dionysian tradition’s development of apophaticism into an ascetical practice of self-negation can be brought into dialogue with theories of negativity in queer theory. This tradition trades heavily on the creative deployment of the imagery of light and darkness in order to indicate God’s radical transcendence of creation and to confess the paucity of human knowledge of God that follows by consequence, even given the revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ. Such strategies are aptly summed up in the pseudo-Dionysius’s awe-riddled description of God as ‘the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.’ This past month, I was preparing to teach a section from The Tree of Lifeby St. Bonaventure, one of the most influential exponents of this tradition. The text is an extraordinary meditation on the life of Christ, inviting its readers to project themselves imaginatively into the gospel story by identifying affectively with the emotional states of the Biblical characters. The affective thrust of the work raises important questions regarding Bonaventure’s larger theological vision, and its strategy of meditation interestingly anticipates the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve also found it to be spiritually powerful, and the group of parishioners with whom I’ve been reading it has spoken to the ways it has made aspects of Jesus’ story, hitherto unnoticed, real to them.
The Tree of Life also traffics in a certain casual correspondence of sin and ignorance with darkness common to many theological texts (and to the Scriptures themselves, for that matter, from Isaiah 9.2 to John 1.5). This is at odds with the way that Bonaventure, elsewhere, subverts the stable signification of light and darkness imagery under the apophatic pressure of the Dionysian tradition he inherits. This is the same theologian, after all, who constantly reminds us that union and communion with God come to fruition through “grace not instruction, desire not understanding … darkness not clarity, notlightbut the firethat totally enflames and carries us into God” (as he puts it at the end of his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum). Yet in The Tree of Life, Bonaventure reverts to a more straightforward identification of darkness with sin, speaking, for example, of Jesus weeping over “the darkness of a blind heart” (cf.Luke 19.41), or when narrating Jesus’ trial and suffering, indicting the Jews for having “preferred the wolf to the lamb, death to life, darkness to light”—an instance, also, of the antisemitism so deplorably common to Christian treatments of the passion. I was tempted to think this metaphorical gamut more accident than substance and, particularly in the latter case, an unfortunate coincidence of Biblical imagery with prejudices shared by Bonaventure and so many of his contemporaries. I was tempted, that is, until I tripped over the following passage:
After Herod mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate, the latter issued an even crueler order that Jesus should stand stripped in the sight of men who mocked him so that savage scourgers could lash that virginal andpure-white fleshwith fierce blows, cruelly inflicting bruise upon bruise, wound upon wound.
Opposite the Jews and the lovers of darkness and sin stood Bonaventure’s white Jesus, a whiteness blemished only by the color of his suffering. I was stopped in my tracks. Frantz Fanon began to haunt my reading in a palpable way: his exposure of the ways blackness functions as a figural repository for evil, his analysis of the black Antillean as one who, as a result of these unconscious but insidious associations, “selects himself as an object capable of carrying the burden of original sin.” I could no longer explain away the text’s literal whitesupremacy, having seen its metaphorical machinery ramify into the flesh of the Christ. Bonaventure, of course, is not the only mystical theologian in whose work these tensions are present. The precarious conjunction of dueling significations for darkness and light comes to a head, I think, in John of the Cross—a figure whose outlining of the ‘dark nights’ of sense and spirit is, for better or worse, more central to my thought and more personally dear to me than the work of the Seraphic Doctor.
Disambiguating the darknesses in which these texts traffic, examining their racial overtones, and developing strategies of metaphorical coordination which indicate the instability of light and darkness as signifiers of virtue and vice—not to mention of God—is a task incumbent on any one of us today who is invested in this way of seeing God, the world, and the spiritual life. I admit I am still optimistic that this tradition of praising darkness, noetic and divine, can be potentially coordinated with a host of other urgent anti-racist theological strategies in order to dismantle the white supremacy of the theological mind, as Sarah Coakley in particular has recently suggested. But being recently tripped up by Bonaventure has convinced me, too, that this tradition must itself be subjected to the same anti-racist scrutiny as other strands of Christian thought. The dazzling darkness of mystical theology is no panacea for theology’s repertoire of whiteness.
More concretely, this experience has recalled to me another aspect of apophasis, one consistently emphasized by Rowan Williams: that theological speech proceeds under the sign of judgment. Practices of self-interrogation and repentance—practices whereby one subjects one’s own theological work, canon, and imagination to scrutiny—are crucial not only to public theology in our moment but to theology as such. This involves bearing personal responsibility for one’s theological work, not only before the tribunal of one’s peers but, above all, before the tribunal of Christ. In a white supremacist culture, one crucial precondition of any true and faithful theological speech will be just such repentance. Apophasis is a constant putting of one’s prayer and praise to the test, a yielding of our language to the Spirit who leads us into the darkness of God but only by way of the cross. True theology is not light but fire.