Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics


In an earlier missive, So, Like, Are You a Christian?, I expressed my impatience with being pigeonholed into religious categories.  In this diary, I’m going to follow up on that photo diary with a more conceptual post on what happens across that slash between “Not” and “Christian.”  To do that, the rest of the diary will lay out the arguments of three books that hold Christian and non-Christian perspectives together in exploring religious claims.

The three texts are

* James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare  

* Kathleen Sands, Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology

* Louis Ruprecht, Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision: Against the Modern Failure of Nerve

None of these books treats the distinction between Christian and not-Christian as trivial.  Their recasting of the boundaries of theological thought does not move them into a bland homogeneity, where all serious differences melt away into a fake feel-good unity.  At the same time, they are all acutely aware of the violence that comes with enforcing the boundaries too rigidly.  Each writer, in his or her own way, forges a new dialectic between religious particularity and a larger whole achieved through comparison.

Martin and Malcolm and America

Cone’s book is a detailed paired biography of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who approached the question of justice for African-Americans as a Baptist pastor and a Muslim, respectively.  Regardless of one’s religious views, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights movement, African-American history, or progressive politics generally.

The pairing of a Baptist integrationist and a Muslim nationalist might seem at first to offer simply a study in contrasts.  Cone acknowledges the extent to which X’s self-understanding entailed a clear rejection of Christianity as a white religion.  But by stepping back and holding them together, the contrasts become apparent as variations on a common Black religious tradition, rather than simple antithesis.

Despite the contrasts between the two religious traditions, they were also closely related by their common past, involving continuous struggle for justice in a white American society that did not recognize blacks as human beings.   Both traditions were more black American than ether African or European. (121)


Indeed, while X firmly denounced Christianity as White religion, he refused to see the line as absolute:  “A Muslim is someone who is for the black man.  I don’t care if he goes to the Baptist Church seven days a week.  The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that a black man is born Muslim by nature.” (156)  For another example of how the differences between the two perspectives fade in light of a greater commonality, Cone cites one woman who told the press, “Honey child, you know those Muslims are telling the truth about the white folks.  I’m not joining up, but I’m not against them either.” (174)  Finally, Cone demonstrates a common religious discourse animating divergent theologies:

Locating the origin of the Nation of Islam in the African-American experience is supported by Muhammad’s and Malcolm’s frequent quotations from the Bible.  The Bible, not the Qur’an, is the central document in the black religious experience in America.  Malcolm would never have gained wide acceptance in the African-American community wthout his profound knowledge … of the Bible. (161)

Another commonality between King and X is that transformational experiences of prayer distinguished their understanding of religion from a mere sacralization of ideology.  Prayer gave their religiosity an existential dimension that went far beyond simple “belief.”  X describes the difference

The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying.  …  My  believing the teachings of Mr. Muhammad had only required my mind’s saying to me “That’s right!” or “I never thought of that.”  But bending my knees to pray that act – well, that took me a week. … For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness from God, is the hardest thing in the world. (156, quoting The Autobiography of Malcolm X)

As the son of a pastor, prayer was a part of King’s life from the beginning.  However, he recounted a particular experience of prayer as bringing him to new level of faith.  In 1956, after being particularly troubled by one of a series on anonymous telephone threats on his life, he turned to prayer:

“Something said to me … you’ve got to call on that something, on that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.  And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know god for myself.  And I bowed down over that cup of coffee.  I never will foget it.  Oh yes, I prayed a prayer.”

It was in the midst of this crisis of faith that King experienced a heavy burden being lifted from his shoulders, and he felt the liberating presence of God as never before. … Three nights after his “vision in the kitchen,” as he called it … [King’s house was bombed] To everyone’s amazement, King was not visibly shaken.  “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly, becuase my experience with God had given me new strength and trust.” (124-5)  

For both King and X, then, faith and justice are inseparable.  Nevertheless, Cone notes that the two thinkers connected the terms through different routes:

As Martin King’s commitment to justice cannot be understood apart from his faith, Malcolm X’s faith cannot be understood apart from his commitment to justice.  This is a major difference between them. (155)

Ultimately, Cone writes as a Christian theologian.  This fact does not mean that he rejects X’s Muslim faith or accommodates it to Christianity.  This is clear by way of contrast to X’s statement quoted earlier that to be for black people is evidence of real Muslim identity.  Cone does not downplay the fact that X used the Bible against Christianity, letting real differences between his position and X’s stand.  Cone simply articulates a Christian vantage point within a diverse tradition of African-American socio-political thought.  By refusing to pit King’s Christian integrationism against X’s Muslim nationalism, Cone is able to lift up deeper themes in an African-American quest for justice.  But because Cone is able to see that common tradition as internally diverse, he also does not need to abandon his own Christian commitments – he simply treats them as a possible, rather than the only, way to explore the depth of the common tradition he belongs to.

martin and malcolm Pictures, Images and Photos

Escape from Paradise

Like Cone, Kathleen Sands probes spirituality and theology across the Christian/post-Christian divide with a firm commitment to seeking justice for a population that has suffered from oppression.  As a work of feminist theology, Escape from Paradise explores ways in which religious commitments can further women’s well-being and equality.  However, feminist theologians
have had to grapple with the fact that all religious expressions, including those of pre-biblical religions, bear the mark of patriarchy.  Rather than exploring a common quest for justice across the divide of two major world religions, Sands has to treat the question of whether traditional religions are redeemable at all.  (For an introduction to feminist theology, see SheKos: What is Feminist Theology?)

The representatives Sands chooses are Rosemary Radford Ruether, a Catholic theologian, and Carol Christ, a Goddess thealogian.  Sands hones in on the ambivalences shown in the set of facts that Ruether and Christ’s commonalities far outweigh their differences, that they each wish to affirm the validity of the other’s divergent path, and that their differences have been the opportunity for repeated outright intellectual collisions between the two thinkers.  She takes both, and by extension all feminist theologians, to task for inadequate grappling with the tragic dimension of life.

Sands never explicitly states where she stands in relation to the Christian/post-Christian divide, though any attempt to tie her argument to Christian forms and categories of theology are conspicuously absent, giving the impression of a distinct post-Christian perspective.

Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision

As with Sands’s argument, tragic sensibility forms the bridge between Christian and non-Christian perspectives in Louis Ruprecht’s Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision, though for Ruprecht the tragic per se is the field that he traverses.  Interestingly, where Sands probes the places where feminist theology fails to take tragic insights seriously enough, Ruprecht credits feminist theology as a whole as being one of the few contemporary theological movements to adequately respect the tragic  (124-5).

Ruprecht begins by diagnosing the “tragic posture” of much modern thought, especially as represented by the philosophers George Steiner and Alisdair MacIntyre.  The remainder of his argument is an examination of a contrasting tragic vision, as put forth in Sophocles’ play Antigone, Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies, and the Gospel of Mark.  The Greek play and the Christian gospel bookend two contrasting philosophical programs: Hegel’s affirms the importance of a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, Nietzsche’s denies its possibility.

After Ruprecht goes through a thorough review of the nature of tragedy, he turns to the Gospel of Mark to see how it looks different after taking tragedy seriously.  He shifts the center of the story from the death and resurrection motif to Jesus’s struggle to accept impending violent death in the Garden of Gethsemane as the tragic conflict Mark raises, but does not resolve.  Ruprecht later developed his argument by contrasting Mark’s tragic gospel to the Gospel of John in This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity.  John erases the tragic tensions of Mark, giving Christianity a history of smug certainty that Ruprecht sees as a betrayal of its earliest impulse.

For Ruprecht, the tragic conflict in Antigone points to the problem in an understanding of the  modern era as the time when in “the center does not hold” – implicitly or explicitly assuming that in ancient times, societies were coherent in a way ours are not.  This assumption of past coherence is pure nostalgia.  By holding the tragic conflicts of two ancient texts together, Ruprecht is able to highlight that the divisions that matter are not the doctrinal lines of “heathen” vs. Christian, but the various aspects of life that force revelation and reflection in their very inability to be resolved, aspects which can show up anywhere, and in many combinations.

Supplemental Texts

*  Mark Chapman, Christianity on Trial: African-American Religious Thought Before and After Black Power

*  Rosetta Ross, Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights

*  Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion

*  Laurel Schneider, Re-Imagining the Divine: Confronting the Backlash Against Feminist Theology

* Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy

*  Dale Martin, Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians

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  1. dirkster42

    Wanted to do more with Sands and Ruprecht, but this has been sitting half-baked in my draft file over at GOS for MONTHS, so it was just time to get it out of my hair today.

  2. Rashaverak

    on Christianity, considering that the chattel slavery of Blacks and the subjugation of women were characteristics of Christian European and Colonial cultures (not that Christians have a monopoly on either chattel slavery or the subjugation of women).

    To a certain extent, I understand the rejection by the Black Muslims of Christianity as the religion of the slave-holders, but Jews and Arabic Muslims were also involved in the slave trade, no?

    The Old Testament, including the first five books, certainly recognizes slavery as a feature of society, and I don’t recall Jesus saying anything much about slavery.  I recall that he cured the slave of the Centurion when the Centurion came to seek help.  I don’t recall him telling the Centurion to free the cured slave.

    In his Epistles, at one point, Paul talks about in Christ there being no male or female, no slave or free, but at other points he talks about slaves being faithful to their masters and women being subject to their husbands.

    I can’t say that I am very familiar with the Koran, but I do not recall any prohibitions of slavery.  I’ll gladly stand corrected.

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