- Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois
Recent scholarship on W. E. B. Du Bois and religion has yet to develop a consensus; Du Bois’s biographers as well as historians of race and religion have expressed divergent opinions and described Du Bois’s religious sensibilities and ideas as skeptical agnostic (Lewis), agnostic (Aptheker), irreligious (Zuckerman), unreligious (Zamir), and antireligious (Jacoby). Other scholars have characterized Du Bois’s religious sentiments as superficial and even atheistic (Broderick, Rudwick). Prominent historian of African American studies, Herbert Aptheker, contends that “while Du Bois was an agnostic in his last years, he never was an atheist” (5). Du Bois’s biographer, Manning Marable, in his important article on the role of faith in Du Bois’s life argues that “Du Bois was simultaneously an agnostic and an Anglican, a staunch critic of religious dogma and a passionate convert to the black version of Christianity” (15). [End Page 537]
More recently, the penetrating work of Edward J. Blum reevaluates these previous studies and clarifies the contours of Du Bois’s religious thought. As the first painstaking treatment of Du Bois’s engagements with faith and race, W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet reads Du Bois as a “Christian.” Blum situates the whole corpus of Du Bois’s work within radical Black Christianity and the greater American religious history. On one hand, Blum appropriately positions Du Bois in his rightful place—as a radical prophet, and alongside the most eminent American religious luminaries such as Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—on the other hand, he remarks that “it seems that multiple religious selves existed within Du Bois” (6) and suggests that Du Bois was a “religious modernist” because of his inability to embrace the supernatural elements of the Christian Scripture (160). In other words, the religious commitment of the black leader is not monolithic or homogeneous, and ultimately cannot be defined. Consequently, the studies summarized above set the context to engage and appreciate Jonathon Kahn’s Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois.1
Divine Discontent is an important and persuasive study on Du Bois’s interactions with religion. It departs from all of the previously stated arguments. Kahn brilliantly contends that Du Bois was an African American pragmatic religious naturalist whose religious rhetoric is rooted in the traditions of American pragmatic philosophy and pragmatic religious naturalism. Du Bois critically exploits both sources without supernatural commitments and equally drinks from the cisterns of black Christian sources in order to craft a new expression of pragmatic religious naturalism that is black. The author judges that Du Bois’s religious sensibilities and ideas are outside of normative Christianity. The Kahnian logic directly interrogates Manning’s and Blum’s affirmation that Du Bois was a “Christian.” As he reasons, “Du Bois seems Christian but only to a point; as not only a ready user of the language of divinity and the Bible but also a deep skeptic of supernatural truths, he is both suspicious of ecclesiastical convention and institutions and sympathetic to the African religious tradition” (7). Consider another statement he makes: “His [Du Bois’s] heterodoxy runs too deep, and throughout his life he chafed against the label ‘Christian’” (9).
As a social critic, Du Bois deploys religious vocabularies to address the realities of race and the exigencies of black life in America as well as religious modalities as an ideological tool fundamental to his race and cultural politics. As Kahn posits, “Du Bois uses religion to fashion a sense of black peoplehood central to his conception of black American identity. Religion enables Du Bois to bind black people—through hope, love, and at times reprimand.” In the introduction, Kahn articulates Du Bois’s religious imagination and highlights three interconnected religious virtues underpinning his religious discourse: piety, jeremiadic protest, and sacrifice (12). He develops these propositions coherently in the subsequent chapters.
Chapter 1, “What is Pragmatic Religious Naturalism, and What Does it Have to Do with Du Bois?” explores the...