publisher colophon

I. Introduction

The Trump presidency represents a political reboot that awkwardly exposes the grammar and performance of anti-“other” violence.1 Whether one sees the current political mood as fascistic or populist, or simply a glitch in our democracy, for certain populations such distinctions are mere semantics. The political history of the United States, in which actual, psychological, and rhetorical violence have often been used in support of culturally and racially normative framings of life, such substantive distinctions are of limited value. Furthermore, and this is a vital point, Trumpism has cultural causes and connotations as well as sociopolitical and economic ones. Wrapped in this cultural dimension is a profound challenge to the assumptions guiding theology and the study of religion. In the opening statement of “Studying Religion in the Age of Trump,” a special forum in the journal Religion and American Culture, one finds these words: “There are many ways to interpret the election of 2016. . . . What role did religion in play in these events? How might this election cause us to rethink some seemingly settled conclusions about religion and politics, religion and race, religion and gender, among other topics?”2 I would add that with the questioning of religion’s relationship to the world should come a questioning of theology’s representation of the same: What can be said theologically, or, what can be claimed theologically, in light of the historically arranged and ongoing existential-material conditions marking collective life?3 [End Page 24]

In this essay I respond to this question by advocating a critical shift in theological discourse from hope and the projection of futures in favor of a moralist theology that denies the legitimacy of these theological categories.4 By “moralist” and “moralism” I have in mind the critique of social frameworks and claims committed to the interrogation of inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the structuring of life.5 Whereas certain theologies envision hope and participate in the projection of futures—e.g., new economic, environmental, and human possibilities—in light of current sociopolitical and cultural circumstances, moralist theology argues such theologies presume too much. Moralist theology argues that the material conditions and dynamics of life in the world delegitimate the projection of futures and hope as viable theological categories.

II. Framing Hope and Future

Hope and the projection of futures—words matter. Therefore, this isn’t a disinterested exercise in semantics in that, as Rivera points out, words have “corporal effects.”6 In light of the charged nature of religious inquiry, this might be even more so for theological words. Put differently, for theological discourse sensitive to and guided by the movement of embodied bodies within a geography of engagement highly material in nature, Rivera’s point is instructive. I take [End Page 25] Rivera’s discussion of poetics as a way to capture the relationship of words to corporeal bodies (related to “flesh”). “Words,” she writes, “also become flesh. Words mark, wound, elevate, or shatter bodies.”7 And here I want to be attentive to Rivera’s insight in terms of theological words—categories really—such as hope and future. While she and I employ the concept of poetic for different purposes and within different contexts,8 what I propose in terms of moralist theology’s attention to the projection of futures and hope has a poetic quality. As I read Rivera’s employment of that category, moralist theology’s grammar is guided by sensitivity to the forgotten and overlooked dimensions of experiential knowing—open to the troubled and troubling aspects of material existence: pain, loss, and the power of silence as the limit of what can be said.9 In conjunction with Rivera’s thinking on the poetic, I add that this moralist and theological shift is poetic in that it seeks to negate language, to turn language against itself in order to refine what can be communicated. It turns language against itself—destroys language—so as to allow refinement of a conceptual frame respectful of the limits shaping our encounter with the world.10

In rejecting hope and the projection of futures as theological categories, I am not so naïve as to deny the passing of time—the movement of time and space. Rather, moralist theology challenges the need to project the arrangement of time and space as measured by outcome and shaped by hope. This is not a rejection of time passing as a category of existence. Rather, it is a jettisoning of the need to invest that passing of time with determined and determining [End Page 26] meaning, and in this way moralist theology avoids projecting futures. It involves, then, denial of the assumed strong dichotomy of time and space measured and engaged through optimism or nihilism.

Furthermore, moralist theology isn’t simply rejecting a particular future. That is to say, it is not attempting to disregard one particular vision of life and replace it with another it finds more useful (or suitable). Instead, it seeks to push against the larger framework in which any particular future forms. In order to better capture the distinction between the projection of futures and any particular future, a comparison may help: the projection of futures is to universe what a particular future is to earth. Yet, it is not a matter of scale, not really; it is a much greater distinction and substantive difference. By projection of futures I don’t mean simply the passing of time with the promise of more time; but rather, I mean the assumption of answers—the meaning of foresight, and a metaphysical positioning over against.11

In essence, hope and the projection of futures involve overreach—a false positionality, and this positionality involves a beyond from which material circumstances are viewed. In other words, they both—hope and the projection of futures—assume a vantage point as an epistemological location outside and external to circumstances from which the theological hermeneutic operates. This constitutes a type of Gnosticism, a set of “insights” rendering the theologian esoteric, thereby removing the grounded and immanent context for assessment of experience. Such language of theological discussion, then, is detangled from the world. I argue this isn’t an act of “bad” faith, but rather an act of “radical” faith: an overlooking of material circumstance in favor of the constructed “evidence of things hoped for.” And through this “radical” faith, theological work renders the theologian’s pronouncements a matter of what she would like without sustainable regard for what is.

In terms of a rationale for making this argument, I see moralist theology’s critiques of hope and the projection of futures as being loosely in line with the theological interrogation of hope in certain strands of post-Holocaust Jewish theology and philosophy: what can be said about a transcendent, omnipotent, [End Page 27] and biblical God in light of such destruction? Nothing. Silence. Hope is surrendered.12 In our context, what can be said about futures in light of death-dealing circumstances? Nothing. Abandon hope and reject the projection of futures as theological categories. Moralist theology makes this move by denying the practice of abstraction—the theological practice of explaining away the existential conditions of life through projection (e.g., the transformation of injustice by projecting God as black, red, queer, or a woman). It challenges claims that there is (or can be) justification that sanctions what we think and do, and think about our doing.13

III. Positioning Moralist Theology

While this essay is too short to provide complete expression of moralist theology as I envision it, I want to contrast it with political theology, with which at first glance it might be confused.14 Through this turn I am not attempting to offer a full and positive rationale for moralist theology, nor is my aim to provide a complete comparison, one that explicates the various traditions of political theology in detail. Rather, my discussion is a limited engagement meant to offer a sense of moralist theology’s parameters in relationship to hope and the projection of futures, over against the use of these categories in select contemporary theopolitical writings.

A. Context

According to Jeffrey Robbins, liberation theologies served as a bridge platform—one with some capacity to maintain a viable framework for theological critiques of the political system. Yet, Robbins argues, liberation theologies have failed to adequately challenge long held theological assumptions. [End Page 28] Robbins particularly has in mind Latin American and other “third-world” modalities and not the first form of liberation theology—black theology—or US liberation-inflected theologies in more general terms. This is an unfortunate limitation in that black theology, womanist theology, and feminist theology in the US context challenged many traditional theological anthropologies of race, gender, and sexuality, even offering (as in the case of Mary Daly) radical reworkings of theological language. Still, Robbins is correct to the extent that these theologies do not significantly challenge the inner logic of “faith.”15 One example of this is the unquestioned integration of a consequentialist logic, a teleological view of history, and a metaphysics that positions the human subject (sometimes socially coded as black, or female, or male, and so on) as special and already and always viable. In so doing, liberation theologies resurrect the human subject (and some type of Grand Unity), which postmodern theologians such as Mark C. Taylor have sought to abandon.

Over against liberation theologies (and liberal theologies), the proper work of theology, according to Robbins, should be external to the closed systems of religious institutions and entails a deep challenge to the theological assumptions that undergird existing structures of collective life.16 In this way, his political theology paves a path for greater practices of justice within the framework of a robust and transformative democracy.17 However, and this is important, the political and theological operations of hope and the projection of futures are not subject [End Page 29] to sustained questioning.18 In light of the turn of some political theologians to materiality (i.e., “the real” as that which we construct but also that which is more than our construction) and a concern with immanence, I ask a question: What other than hope can justify such discussion of transformation (i.e., project of futures) over against our national history of violence and disregard?

B. “Becoming Radical”

Political theology offers grounding for hope and for the projection of futures— although not using the traditional talk of God. For example, according to Clayton Crockett, “freedom” becomes the Grand Unity, or grounding, replacing “God”—thereby naming “freedom as that which now passes for divinity in the wake of the death of God. . . . Freedom does not simply substitute for God, but in a formal sense captures the possibility of thinking God as well as thinking anything at all.”19 Freedom, like God, is elusive—that which is desired but isn’t present to our satisfaction. Yet, this troubling of freedom’s certainty isn’t the same as rejecting it as a basis for hope, nor does it trouble the framing of political theology as a “mechanism for change.” Robbins says, “Becoming radical must mean more than merely being defiant or rebellious, especially when that defiance or rebellion is for its own sake.”20 Accordingly, if the world can be thought of critically, it can be changed—even if this change doesn’t necessarily measure up fully to our desires. “Our challenge,” Crockett writes, “is to think the possibility of a radically democratic politics and practice, which would be necessarily a religious or quasireligious politics and practice. . . . If the political retains any hope, then our hope may be a democratic hope, a hope for radical democracy. The hope for radical democracy is a potentiality, a form of freedom that requires plastic forms to bring it into being.”21 More [End Page 30] directly related to the initial mounting for my argument, one gets a sense of this call for hope, regardless of how fragile, and the projection of futures over against material circumstances in political theology’s tackling of the Trump presidency and the Christian nationalism attached to it.

Robbins and Crockett begin their edited volume, Doing Theology in the Age of Trump, with a statement regarding the need for theology to revitalize life, i.e., to create new possibility for collective life over against the social order that currently stifles life. For them, radical theology, growing out of Death of God theologies, has a “permanent responsibility” to challenge “worldly affairs” and, hence, any radical theology worth doing is by nature a political theology.22 As Robbins and Crockett envision it, theology projects a future forged through resistance that opens “new pathways, disclos[ing] different possibilities.”23 This promise of “futurity” is made more explicit in James Howard Hill Jr.’s contribution to the volume. “Black futurity,” he writes in response to the antiblack dimensions of the Trump presidency, “imagines a world of renewed and continued existence where the colonial epistemologies and governmentalities of the Western world are reduced to theatrical phantasmagoria for the amusement of those who overcome by the word of our testimony and the blood of both lambs and panthers.”24 The case for a political theology (as a mode of critical reflection on religion25) informed by futurity is made in stronger terms by Crockett when he says, “Politics and religion are essentially the same, or at least what is at stake in both is the same thing: the possibility of having a future in this world. . . . Religion and politics are directed toward violence, both in terms of their danger and their promise.”26 To continue, Crockett acknowledges, “There do not appear to be many good reasons to hope,”27 yet hope he does—perhaps a hope tied to what Robbins terms theology’s “assumption of an impossible obligation” that is outside one’s “power to meet.”28 One might conclude that to [End Page 31] do otherwise than hope is for political theology to continue an old and possibly unproductive engagement with death—“death-ridden fantasies” of a kind.29

Not all are content with the stance typically taken by political theology. For Mark L. Taylor, it isn’t hopeful enough. Along this line, Taylor laments the lack of a clear and “genuinely liberating future” found in the work of Crockett and Robbins aligned with new materials.30 Outlining the content of his critique, Taylor writes, “The major claim is that if the ‘new materialism’31 offered by Crockett and Robbins (and, by extension the other contributors to the edited volume under discussion) is to be liberating, pointing to a revolutionary future, which I agree is needed and which they seem to want, their materialism needs to be more deeply ‘dialectical’ and more ‘materialist.’”32 For Taylor, and I would concur, political theology premised, as it often claims, on new materialism would benefit from greater and more lucid engagement with the “social and political dynamics” marking the current moment and grounding our materiality. However, Taylor and I disagree with respect to the purpose of that engagement.33 This is more than different perspectives on the shape of projected [End Page 32] futures—contours and dynamics. This disagreement is more fundamental than that. Whereas Taylor assumes such engagement of necessity conduces to a robust agenda for liberation, moralist theology illuminates the persistence of strong historical and experiential challenges to hope and the projection of futures.34 Taylor calls for attention, particularly from white theologians, to the destructive nature of “white supremacy and racism that are ever at work in, and so haunting, ‘Western’ discussions about limits and futures.”35 As my earlier comments in this essay would suggest, I don’t disagree; but, there is something about his call that doesn’t go far enough, that doesn’t appreciate fully the ontologically dynamic nature of whiteness and blackness—and therefore doesn’t fully expose the historical and lived drama of white supremacy.

C. Race and New Possibilities

My questioning of political theology’s attention to “otherness” is an effort to hold political theology accountable for the substance of what it ignores in some instances and overstates in other cases—all meant to point out the troubling nature of its framing of hope and its turn to proposed futures. Robbins for one seeks to shift to a “political ontology” or a “metabolic ontology” that isn’t an essence, isn’t fixed, and that better handles difference. Yet, he fails to recognize the sameness this approach offers to the extent it hides the dynamics of whiteness undergirding the enterprise. Much is held suspect, and open to interrogation, except the vectors, configuration, and functions of whiteness. Political theology is unable to appreciate fully the structures of ontology, [End Page 33] epistemology, and politics writ large that shape the world it seeks to change.36 This shortcoming, by extension, is tied to the larger issue of hope and the projection of futures within the age of Trump—and what the theologian can say in light of Trumpism.

Corey Walker frames the issue well. Political theology, he claims, “must stage a critical confrontation between contemporary elaborations of forms of theological thinking and a critical understanding of the function of race.” Failure to do so, he continues, disallows “the conditions of possibility for a style of thinking that not only has purchase in exposing the contradictions of the dominant intellectual protocols of critical thought and political practice, but also ruptures the spiritualized suture of democracy . . . and freedom.”37

Political theology properly framed and grounded affords a space for describing and pushing toward a robust “freedom.” Walker constructs this sense of freedom in conversation with Howard Thurman, a significant thinker seldom employed outside the more mystical framings of (black) religious encounter. Through Thurman’s turn to the spiritual, highlighting the imaginative quality of their expression, Walker positions political theology in relationship to the future as “a world that might be coming.”38

Political theology is not always inattentive to racial difference and efforts to de-center the logic of whiteness, although the success of such efforts is another matter. For example, Crockett seeks to provide a more central position for slavery in the mapping of the United States postCivil War, but this is done almost strictly in terms of the economic and political connotations of slave labor with little attention to the metaphysics that grounds this slave labor.39 Whether race or racism comes first is of little concern here; rather, in a more general sense, wide acceptance of the transformation of Africans into something “other” is a significant yet underexplored dimension of the religious and political story of US democracy.40 He attempts to correct for this through a larger engagement [End Page 34] with US historical memory by means of which he seeks to highlight the role of “outsiders” in the narrative of US democracy.41 In this move there is useful attention to xenophobia and other modes of demonizing difference through a white gaze, but this critical read is limited and fails to challenge a certain privileging of the white gaze to “see” the stories of the marginalized—who remain “outsiders” captured and named by “insiders.” Outsiders are exposed, bracketed off by white-normative epistemologies and totalizing structures of visibility, and under the threat of becoming “enemies.” In so much theology, whiteness remains a relatively unchallenged conceptual and representational force. That there is so little interrogation of the ontological dynamics of otherness speaks volumes concerning political theology’s ability to understand, let alone speak to and from, the prevailing mood and conditions of the current moment.42

Robbins seeks to engage issues of race and other “matters of pressing contemporary concern,” and he does this most explicitly by engaging jazz (and to a limited extent critical race theory).43 This is not the tackling of music as one might get with James Cone (e.g., Spirituals and the Blues) in which, despite some of its theological assumptions, Cone seeks to use culture against itself so as to alter the manner in which disregard is named and positioned theologically.44 [End Page 35] Rather, turning to jazz offers Robbins a way to think about time over and against apocalyptical visions of the end. That is to say, turning to jazz is a refining of political theology’s sense of “hope” as a matter of joy in the “face of . . .” without complete resolution. Still, he turns only to the making of music and leaves in place the very structuring of knowledge and being, of politics and practice, he claims to challenge through theological interrogation of jazz. Robbins says Armstrong, the major figure in his study, “would thus represent the creative possibilities of dwelling in the void.”45 Yet it might prove more useful to note the manner in which Armstrong represents the void when viewed through the lens of US cultural-political circumstances; or, he might be an existence recognizable only to the extent it shores up structures of demise and violence.46 Like all those marked by blackness, Armstrong is a contradiction of a categorical type. Or, i n the words of W. E. Du Bois, “How does it feel to be a problem?”47This theological framing of race serves to re-enforce the cultural dynamics this mode of political theology seeks to dismantle. In so doing, questions are raised concerning the ability of this political theology to have critical perspective on this cultural marker of difference that has served to challenge hope in the possibility of a future that speaks to greater democracy and that is framed by equality.

D. The Prophetic Alternative

Certain essays in Race and Secularism in America48 read political theology through the category of race so as to provide a more challenging framing of the political and the secular in which “difference” informs the grammar and practice of both. I am particularly interested in the essay by George Shulman, in which he interprets “white supremacy and black insurgency” as “forms of ‘political theology’ in Carl Schmitt’s sense.”49 He presents Schmitt’s thinking on politics and secularization, with the former entailing two possibilities: the [End Page 36] practice of sovereignty as when “American revolutionaries at once claim and display the sovereignty of their ‘constituent power’ in their declaration of independence.” And secondly, politics is named through the establishment of a communal identity over against the “other” or more precisely, the “enemy.”50As part of Schmitt’s theological platform presented by Shulman, secularization is understood as the “rule of the ordinary,” wherein sovereign authority is reduced and the “political” is “devalued.”51 Shulman exposes the ways in which US political theology is tied to the production of whiteness and the marginalization of blackness (the “other”). Blackness, according to Shulman, is the enemy that must be named and the threat over which sovereignty must be exercised. Through all this, the structures and practices of white supremacy, the othering of blackness, and the subjugation of black people are intrinsic to US democracy.52

Shulman articulates political theology as a mode of prophecy by means of which the collective arrangements of life are cast anew. With this turn to prophecy,53 there is an implied turn toward a projected future premised on hope, and derived in opposition to the demands of the status quo.54 When race is considered in relationship to politics, “critics of white supremacy,” Shulman speculates, “turn to prophecy to link race and politics to redemption, the vernacular language in America for speaking about agency and temporality.”55Still, prophecy comes to those who have the option of betterment, who are marked by possibility. And so, Shulman says, “at issue for [the political prophets] is not the inescapable partiality of human vision, or our inevitable imbrication in discourse, but a willful innocence about domination that is culpable because it can be overcome.”56 There is hope lodged in this orientation (this modality of “insurgency”) in that it assumes the utility of political struggle of some kind.57 In short, it is an orientation that hasn’t lost hope because salvation (or better yet, redemption) can still be imagined. There is something impossible about this redemption, yet there is a modality of faith at work [End Page 37] which projects (as “miracle”58) a necessary future despite the lessons offered by historical experience. As Shulman concludes, “ The vocation or office of a black political theology remains two-sided: to name every form of idolatry and the willful innocence that sustains it and to bear witness that a contrary power, embodying words and animating bodies, can sustain ‘life against death.’”59 He wants to disrupt what Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.”60 In other words, he wants to hold the nation accountable to “conditions that are in fact fundamental to life.”61 Redemptive language must be deconstructed to expose the manner in which it justifies particular modalities of thought and conduct. Language of redemption can promote violent disregard for those who are positioned in opposition to deliverance—i.e., enemies of possibility.

Shulman ponders the merit of redemptive stories in light of ongoing and violent disregard tied to race. He says, “After two failed reconstructions, though, it seems that no speech or action in concert, trumpets blasting and pitchers smashing, can shake the walls of race.” But he continues by saying, “No guarantee secures these walls or precludes contest.”62 Shulman’s turn to hope is specious: “The appearance of intractability does not justify relinquishing the truth—or should I say faith?—that significant change remains a possibility we cannot preclude.”63 Embedded in political theology positioned in relationship to the category of race one finds a call to consider the impact of possibility— however dimly present. And, action is justified with appeal to the promise of democracy and secular “covenant.”64

E. Dark Hope and Dirty Future

There is significance in what Shulman says. But, what is to be made of a call for radical reworking of political life through more sophisticated and detailed attention to race in the context of a dying world? Catherine Keller rightly notes a “self-contradiction” at the core of human thinking by means of which [End Page 38] considerable attention is given often to the dismantling of human-inspired injustice through Black Lives Matter, life affirming immigration policies, etc., all the while ignoring the damage done to the earth whose care grounds all modalities of change requisite to the demands of social justice.65 Keller calls for a brand of political theology more committed to deep thinking and life-affirming doing with respect to the most intrinsic and existential basis of relationship— earth. “Earth,” Keller announces, “names not matter beneath us, not a space lying static beneath time, but the teeming sphere of our collectivity.”66 This formation of political theology challenges certain modalities of hope through which only a “cruel optimism” is possible—a modality of engagement by means of which connection is to “a significantly problematic object.”67 Hence, Keller’s is a reserved and modest hope seeking to avoid the disappointment of over-reach—but hope nonetheless. It is a theologically formulated lowering of expectations and, I would argue, the taming of disappointment is a plausible outcome of this move. It is hope assigned to “becoming” and thereby tempered toward uncertain ends. Keller develops an approach without certitude, but this in and of itself doesn’t negate the presumed merit of the projection of futures as theological category over against the material conditions of life. Instead it constitutes an “unending” as “ending” mediated through a form of negative theology.68 This hope enacted and sustained through modulation as “difference”69 in circumstances serves to ground and justify the future. And it is named in relationship to what Keller borrows from Beckett—a future enacted through the capacity to “fail better” as one attempts to destroy an “anthropic exceptionalism” toward earth.70

Keller proposes an earthy hope—hope that doesn’t ignore the current moment and does not reject the feel and weight of the “now.” Rather, it finds within [End Page 39] the activities of the “now” a possibility of “more.” This entails connecting “the past and its traumatism to the possible. To the future not of an illusion but of the present.”71 Keller marks out this meaning in relationship to the anguish of Job and God’s response to Job. But I wonder about the significance of Job’s wife. She questions him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die.”72 I would extend her urging—value life within the limits experience demands. For Job’s wife, the potentiality of death takes on new meaning—a depth of expression that pushes away from a future. This isn’t philosophical suicide against which Camus cautions. It isn’t an invitation to surrender and thereby try to end the absurdity marking encounters with the world. Instead Job is urged to rebel—by refusing to claim what he is not and admit to what he did not do—and therefore find himself only in relationship to his condition. Rebellion will take his life. It is a rebellion not positioned toward something more. One should be mindful of the depth of her question and its challenge: She is asking Job to become an “absurd man,” no, in actuality an “absurd hero” without hope and without a future.73

Keller seems to speak of future dirtied (maybe “darkened”) with the stuff of life lived under the conditions defining the “now.” In fact, she calls for a “hope in the dark.”74 This is a hope comfortable with uncertainty, with the un/given that operates without clarity. There may not be a firm path forward without that which obscures; but, as Keller notes, this doesn’t preclude the presence of clues toward a difference: “Recognizing the opaque lining of any certainty, we think not less but better. We find clues in dark places.”75 Theology properly done (that is, theology engaging climate change and decentering “anthropic exceptionalism”), doesn’t “determine a future” but rather “overflows the present as possibility.” This is a move toward the potentiality of options that pushes against the assumption of a single idea(l) of the future; yet, it doesn’t negate the category altogether, instead suggesting “different (possible) futures.”76

Again I ask: What do the material circumstances of our times allow the theologian to say, and say by what theological grammar? And, what does the theologian say as a wish, as a desire guided by hope, rather than born of attention to the demands of radical immanence? I have argued up to this point [End Page 40] that various modalities of political theology surrender sustained attention to the dynamics of our circumstances in order to maintain hope in the possibility of various futures. In what remains of this essay, I begin to outline a moralist theology that seeks to maintain attention to current circumstances and in this way offer in response only what these conditions allow to be said.

IV. After Hope and Futures

Moralist theology understands abandoning the projection of futures as an embrace of the temporal moment and what it connotes in terms of our presence in the world.77 This is premised on the assumption that the theological category of projected futures marks a “transcendental value”78 inconsistent with a lucid embrace of experience’s materiality. Such does not rule out effort. No, instead moralist theology focuses effort on the present, in/on the moment—with all its “material content”—in which we find ourselves. In this way, it leaves circumstances unsure and unresolved through human activism and without a source of appeal. The substance of theologizing without projection of futures is not found in ontological claims and not in the assurance of knowing. There is no joy in this, but rather the warmth of a resistant impulse.79

A. Moralist Theology’s Contours

Drawing on Georges Bataille, moralist theology can be understood as the surfacing of the uncomfortable, the troubling of assumptions, and the promotion of the unformed—the contrary. It is a contrary engagement, a prompt for discomfort; and, in a sense it calls for the end of clarity—or assurance as the safeguards of knowledge that make plausible the assumption of futures. Such a theological orientation disrupts order and embraces a radical immanence.80 Such a rejection of order is rejection of futures to the extent both involve [End Page 41] attention to material circumstances that refuses to look “beyond” to produce a coherent end or stability. In addition to Bataille’s notion of the contrary, heterology offers a way of getting at this theology’s challenge to assurances.81 I use heterology as a theory of organization, a theory of time, but not as an ethical system capable of holding in place rather sweeping moral(ist) claims.82 Moralist theology resists preoccupation with consequences and offers no external justifications. This move isn’t to ease conflict and tension but rather to speak their strong presence. Bataille’s sense of sovereignty as a rejection of utility and productivity also lends itself to what I have in mind—a shift from sovereignty as the language of transcendence and divinity to sovereignty as an embrace of the troubling dynamics of life. These are the dimensions of life that do not “produce.” These are the aspects of life that mark theologizing without projection of futures to the extent these dimensions can’t be measured by means of “utility.”83 Tying this sense of the nonuseful to Camus, one sees the manner in which moralist theology negates affirmations so as to more lucidly represent the tangled nature of life. But moralist theology also wants to avoid projecting the “impossible” as a future. Rather than a goal, or a future hoped for, whether possible or impossible, there is only activity (as “expenditure”), without productivity one can claim as its end.84

Moralist theology isn’t nihilistic resignation. It is a theological platform defined by something more than risk in that risk has meaning in reference to the alternative possible futures.85 In this way, it rejects all residue of sovereignty, even after the death of God. It seeks, rather, to expose any claim to certainty, to a type of positive (or negative) knowledge regarding what has been labeled liberation, or freedom, or transformation, or even democracy—i.e., projected futures. This stance is that of the absurd hero, or to add a Batailliean twist to this Camusian category, it is the method of the “rebel of hopelessness.”86 For [End Page 42] moralist theology, the absurd hero or the rebel of hopelessness is exemplified in the writings of Richard Wright and Nella Larsen.87

B. Rebels

There is a functional connection between rebellion and lucidity. “With rebellion,” writes Camus, “awareness is born.”88 Action, then, is the maintenance of effort involving the “day-to-day revolt” by means of which the only truth— “defiance”—is acknowledged and safeguarded.89 Yet, even the hint of happiness present with Camus’s Sisyphus—“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” as he puts it—is tempered in contrast to Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane (Quicksand) and Richard Wright’s Fred Daniels (“The Man Who Lived Underground”).90 Wright and Larsen separate from Camus’s absurd hero by holding steady where he stumbles.91 Ultimately, Camus proffers happiness, but they deny any source of ontic reliability to sustain epistemological authority urging action. While the absurd as a “metaphysical state” doesn’t sanction a Grand Unity, Camus’s description of it does seem to lead to an inspired solidarity based on love, not for god(s), but others. And this, one might argue, easily lends itself to a push in the direction of happiness imagined.92 As encountered with Sisyphus, imagined happiness shadows all considerations, informs all pronouncements, and sets the parameters for all action. In a word, there is the prospect of happiness and perhaps the safeguard of love that saves us from [End Page 43] absurdity.93 Happiness and the absurd are bound together for Camus. This happiness relates to the human response to the absurd—through recognizing it, pushing against it, and in that being content. “Struggle,” Camus surmises through Sisyphus, “is enough to fill a man’s heart.”94 I believe this is where Camus falls short in that happiness becomes the basis for one’s humanity and dignity of the other recognized through action. I read Camus as doing more than claiming happiness as one possibility; rather, the reader of The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays is encouraged to think one way: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is how we are to view Sisyphus, how we are to understand the basis of his continued effort, despite not wanting this punishment. In this way this imagining of happiness, this “conclud[ing] that all is well” justifies activity.95 Here, for Camus, “happiness . . . was a duty as well as a need.”96 Put a different way, according to Camus it is necessary to “exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness.”97 Pushing the Sisyphean metaphor into the current moment, happiness mistakenly serves as grounding for the formulation of a future within the context of our troubled world.

Over against Camus, Larsen and Wright present ways to maintain a posture of being “ill at ease in the world” that doesn’t nurture hope as grounding the projection of futures.98 Wright is more concerned with diagnostics, with description, leaving resolution to those prone to the workings of faith.99 Suffering is endless, and Wright notes, “If laying down my life could stop the suffering in the world, I’d do it. But I don’t believe anything can stop it.”100 At the age [End Page 44] of twelve,” Wright reflects, “I had an attitude toward life that was to endure, that was to make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything, while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical. The spirit I had caught,” and here is the point, “gave me insight into the sufferings of others.”101 Life is drowned in suffering102—this is figured by Larsen’s Helga Crane (Quicksand’s protagonist), who is slowly dying as she gives life to child after child, and by Wright’s unsatisfied hunger (in Black Boy). In a sense, for these two the goal is to confront the world and not be permanently bent by the weight of its silence. In Wright’s short story, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” this is where—in the sewer—the protagonist (Fred Daniels) finds himself after a confrontation with the police re-enforces his status as “problem.”103 As Wright’s story suggests, what those like Daniels seek, they can’t have. This is evident for Daniels as he observes people in a church from his vantage point in the sewer. Watching them was painful, more penetrating than the ache of his body; he knew what they refused to acknowledge. “A deeper pain,” Wright narrates, “induced by the sight of those black people groveling and begging for something they could never get churned in him.” The world is silence. There is no meaning to be discerned, no comfort, and no assurances offered. Daniels sees through such effort and proposes a “no” to absurdity despite the sterility of such a defiance; in fact, “a vague conviction made him feel that those people should stand unrepentant and yield no quarter in singing and praying,” and this despite the fact he’d fled from the police and only thought this proclamation hidden as “enemy” from (but still exposed to) state authority. He felt for them what he couldn’t claim himself.104 Crane holds a similar posture regarding the manner in which religion seeks to promote a source of appeal, and by extension grounding for hope and the future. Crane’s response is to reject religion, even while observing religious ritual. Larsen writes, “Helga Crane was not religious. She took nothing on trust. Nevertheless on Sundays she attended the very fashionable, very high services of the Negro Episcopal church.”105 [End Page 45]

Larsen writes about Crane’s time in Denmark: “Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness. Why couldn’t she be happy, content, somewhere? Other people managed, somehow to be. To put it plainly, didn’t she know how? Was she incapable of it?”106 She knows and feels the silence of the world and accompanying hopelessness: “Never could she,” Crane acknowledges to the reader, “recall the shames and often the absolute horrors of the black man’s existence in America without the quickening of her heart’s beating and a sensation of disturbing nausea. It was too awful. The sense of dread of it was almost a tangible thing in her throat.”107 Crane is lucid to life marked only by thought, confrontation and a “no” that is merely protest, not transformation—the end of hope. She knows the absurd in that, as Camus argues, “divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”108 She has reached a point were illusions are broken as her body is broken. I’m drawn again to the words of Camus, who says, “Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life,” such as Crane’s involving church work, housework, and care for husband and children, “but at the same time inaugurates the impulse of consciousness.”109 This is her situation—her entanglement in a cultural climate and social mood of disregard presenting a world that is foreign, hostile, violent, death dealing. “Only scorn, resentment and hate remained—and ridicule. Life wasn’t a miracle, a wonder,” Crane reflects, “it was, for Negroes at least, only a great disappointment. Something to be gotten through as best one could. No one was interested in them or helped them. God! Bah!”110

Crane, like Daniels, is a rebel unreconciled to the world, without certainty, without justification. While death might eventually claim her, she didn’t surrender. Her church life could have involved a mode of suicide to the extent it entailed the erasure of herself, the giving of her complete self. She, realizing no source of appeal, nonetheless steps back from that stance and rejects self-surrender. Her desire is to know in her flesh, not to accept through faith, but to know—without hope as the church claimed to provide (but failed to deliver). This is her rebellion, her “perseverance in an effort considered sterile.”111 [End Page 46] Wright would bare the burden of race; and Helga Crane would shoulder the race, gender, and sexuality politics piled on her without a glimmer of hope. These are existential burdens with metaphysical connotations to be sure, but not burdens that would break them nor push them to falsely hold hope and project futures.

Some might suggest that the end of the novel, with Crane plotting on her bed, entails maintenance of hope over against the circumstances of life measured in absurdity. Yet, it is important to be mindful of the caution against such a stance presented by the narrator of the story. Readers are warned against hope in Crane’s situation, and are positioned against projected future as difference. While Crane wanted other things—e.g., return to the material and social markers of her life before this preacher-husband and his rural church—she is again pregnant without reason to believe her circumstances will change. She knows the present with its suffering and pain, and she may push against it. Sure, time will pass and Crane will resist. But, in a twist, the death of hope and the end of the projection of futures comes with birth. Perhaps something of this is what Daniels encounters when any desire for understanding and reconciliation is met with his murder at the end of the story, and what Camus means when speaking of living “in the very midst of the desert.”112 [End Page 47]

Anthony B. Pinn
Rice University
Anthony B. Pinn

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and professor of religion at Rice University. Pinn’s research interests include religion and culture; humanism; constructive theologies; and hip-hop culture. He is the author/editor of over thirty-five books, including Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (2003), The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2012), and the novel The New Disciples (2015). Pinn is also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies, a Washington DC–based think tank.


1. Turning to Georges Bataille (e.g., Bataille, “Definition of Heterology”, Theology, Culture & Society 35, nos. 4–5 [2018]: 29–40; Marcus Coelen, “Heterology,” in Georges Bataille: Key Concepts, ed. Mark Hewson and Marcus Coelen [New York: Routledge, 2016], 88–98), one might say that with the Trump presidency, the tension between homogeneity and heterology is lost—the balance is despised and superseded by a fixation with a homogeneous structuring of life. It is about the preservation of whiteness and the reproduction of a particular narrative of significance premised on the despising of what is “completely other.” In its least developed and most crude mode, one finds it in Trump’s claims to be the best at everything, the most insightful, the smartest, etc. For others the general code of whiteness suffices to name the same overabundance of meaning.

2. “Forum: Studying Religion in the Age of Trump,” Religion and American Culture 27, no. 1 (Winter 2017): 2.

3. I developed the basic idea for and framework of this paper’s argument in light of conversation and comments after my presentation of the 2018 American Journal of Theology and Philosophy Annual Lecture. This took place during the 2018 American Academy of Religion meeting, where there was also a panel dealing with my recent book on humanism. Colleagues at these two events offered important feedback on some of my ideas, and their challenges have been of great value to me. In particular, I must thank William Hart, Eddie Glaude, Carol Wayne White, Jason Springs, and Mayra Rivera, who helped me refine many of the ideas contained here. I also want to thank Mike Hogue for his critique and insights. Responding to him made this a better essay.

4. In the same way political theology can be understood as “religion and politics” (Vincent Lloyd, introduction to Race and Political Theology, ed. Lloyd [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012], 5), I, for the purposes of this essay, want to understand a moralist theology as the relationship between moralism and religion.

5. I mean moralism in relation to Albert Camus’s claim over against existentialism. Robert Zaretsky gives a sense of the moralist over against the philosopher in relationship to Camus: “But his life as a journalist helped make Camus a moralist. A moralist, unlike a professional philosopher, is ill at ease in the world” (Robert Zaretsky, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010], 45). He continues about Camus: “He is a truth teller, one whose truths make not only others feel uneasy but oneself as well” (46). I give more attention to this moralist tradition, particularly in relationship to African Americans, in other publications. Pinn, “‘Real Nigga Conditions’: Kendrick Lamar, Grotesque Realism and the Open Body,” in Kendrick Lamar & the Making of Black Meaning, ed. Christopher Driscoll, Anthony Pinn, and Monica Miller (New York: Routledge, forthcoming); and Pinn, “Heroes and Rebels,” in “Cold Blooded: Hip Hop’s Grammar of Death and Dying” unpublished manuscript under review.

6. Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 2.

7. Ibid.

8. Rivera is concerned with interrogating that which experiences and is shaped by experiences in the world—i.e., body in connection to flesh. My theological concern is what can be said and done (in response to) that material experience of/in the world. We are both concerned with the body to a certain degree, but that involves differing points of contact with the body: what is this body, and how might it be described for Rivera, and what can be made of the body’s involvement in/with the world of experience for me.

9. Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh, 3. I draw directly from Rivera. However, Rivera develops this thinking in relationship to the work of Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

10. In making this second claim concerning the poetic, I am drawing loosely from Georges Bataille and Albert Camus—and filtering them through W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground,” and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. I say this reflecting on my reading of Bataille, Eroticism: Death & Sensuality (San Francisco: City-Light Books, 1986); Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, ed. Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Bataille, Theory of Religion (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2012); Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage International, 1991); Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage International, 1991); Camus, The Plague (New York: Vintage International, 1991). I employ explicitly four of these five figures (omitting Du Bois, who is taken up in other projects) throughout this essay.

11. Camus references connection between future and justification when speaking about the freedom of action afforded through the absurd’s dismantling of Grand Unity and “eternal freedom”: “Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification (with regard to whom or what is not the question). He weights his chances; he counts on ‘someday,’ his retirement or the labor of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed.” Yet, there are some in the world who are positioned differently: “This absurd godless world,” he writes, “is, then, peopled with men who think clearly and have ceased to hope.” Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 57, 92. Later in this essay I question the degree to which Camus maintains this refusal to hope.

12. For example, Richard Rubenstein’s radical, death-of-god-inflected thinking, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966). I also find intriguing on this question the issue of God’s defense in light of such violence: Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (New York: Schocken/Doubleday, 1995).

13. Camus, Plague, 308. Although I don’t think Camus goes far enough, his attention to suicide and murder provides some sense of how one might come to regard the unjustified “because” sufficient. See: Camus, Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus, Rebel.

14. Confusion might stem from, for example: (1) a shared rejection of divinity, particularly in the form of the God idea; (2) a common materialism grounded in some cases; (3) development over against liberal and some modalities of liberation theology; (4) a similar attention to deconstruction of ideas and assumptions; and, (5) sensitivity to the political arrangements of collective life. Strictly in terms of name—moralist theology over against moral theology—some might assume a need to address the former in light of the latter. While both are concerned with a theologized discussion of action in the world, moral theology implies Christian ethics, whereas moralist theology, as I define it, is nontheistic.

15. See, for example: James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Harper, 1975); Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999); M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009); Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993); J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). These, from my perspective, represent a theological discourse employed by the technology of religion, with the task to cover or shield this technology against significant challenge and damage. And it has done this through a projection of transcendent importance and reference that seeks to project this technology as representative of a cosmic ontology.

16. Robbins recognizes the critique by liberation theologians against earlier radical theology, but I would suggest current articulations of radical theology as political theology (at least as Robbins and Crockett present it) is still open to the same critique outside attention to environmental issues of disregard. See: Jeffrey W. Robbins, Radical Theology: A Vision for Change (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016). This shifts a bit with figures such as Vincent Lloyd who bring into political theology a more sustained attention to modalities of disregard; yet, as I demonstrated later in this essay, this racial political theology still maintains “hope” and continues to project futures.

17. See Jeffrey Robbins, “Terror and the Postmodern Condition: Toward a Radical Political Theology,” in Religion and Violence in a Secular World: Toward a New Political Theology, ed. Clayton Crockett (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 187–88.

18. At times, it appears the terms political theology, radical political theology, and radical theology are used interchangeably in the writings of Robbins and others associated with political theology.

19. Clayton Crockett, introduction to Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics After Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 16, 17. Crockett claims to be free of God is to be “freed from transcendence.” But I would disagree, the manner in which he positions “freedom” as a replacement for God places it on the Throne and authorizes it as the grounding for a certain type of transcendence. Therefore, materialism as a political theology framework doesn’t wipe out transcendence, it simply names and positions it “over against” differently. Crockett’s project is shadowed by liberation theology’s (of which, at times, he claims to be affiliated) concern with future earth marked by well-being and sustainable engagement between humans and world.

20. Jeffrey W. Robbins, Radical Theology, 4.

21. Crockett, “Conclusion: Six Theses on Political Theology,” in Radical Political Theology, 164.

22. Jeffrey W. Robbins and Clayton Crockett, “Introduction: Doing Theology in the Age of Trump,” in Doing Theology in the Age of Trump: A Critical Report on Christian Nationalism, ed. Robbins and Crockett (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), xviii.

23. Ibid., xiv.

24. James Howard Hill, Jr., “Donald Trump and the Privilege of Outrage,” in Robbins and Crockett, Doing Theology in the Age of Trump, 33. Another challenge to Hill’s thinking here might involve reading his theology through Afro-pessimism, whose language he at times seems to employ.

25. Crockett, introduction to Radical Political Theology, 2.

26. Clayton Crockett, introduction to Crockett, Religion and Violence in a Secular World, 13.

27. Crockett, “Conclusion: Six Theses,” 164.

28. Jeffrey W. Robbins, preface to Between Faith and Thought: An Essay on the Ontotheological Condition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia press, 2033), xi.

29. Robbins, Radical Theology, 127.

30. Mark Lewis Taylor, “A Response to Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins, Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism,” Political Theology 17, no. 4 (July 2016): 390. Taylor is addressing Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins, Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

31. Tamsin Jones describes this new materialism as being multidisciplinary, multilingual in terms of the vocabulary of numerous disciplines employed and having something that gives it a quality as being “about movement—bodily, political, organizational—as much as discrete material realities.” See Jones, “Introduction: New Materialism and the Study of Religion,” in Religious Experience and New Materialism, ed. Joerg Rieger and Edward Wag-goner (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 2. Karen Bray makes a similar argument when saying: “ If those of us in the 99 percent are going to adequately find deep theological and political solidarity with all of its members (most importantly, those made most precarious and considered most disposable by neoliberal capitalism), we will need to experience the discomforts and contingencies inherent in those who have been considered disposable and worthy of expulsion from the social as well as the religious body . . .we will need to get into the muck, to look to the materiality that questions our own sense of mastery, success, and ability.” Bray, “Becoming Feces: New Materialism and the Deep Solidarity in Feeling Like Shit,” in Rieger and Waggoner, Religious Experience and New Materialism, 108–9. There are numerous ways in which this sense of solidarity might be challenged: (1) it fails to recognize the ways in which privilege functions and the manner in which it is coded; (2) it fails to appreciate the degree to which solidarity might involve challenging privilege as opposed to hiding it through the authority of participation; (3) it decenters those who suffer most, and assumes privilege—this time as authority to shape the terms of solidarity.

32. Taylor, “Response to Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins,” 392.

33. “New Materialism” is difficult to capture as a unified concept. There are differences in terms of what political theologians mean by new materialism. For example, while theologians such as Robbins and Crockett include a deep concern with “nature” and issues of environmental destruction and climate change, their discussion seems, from my read, to entail a human-centered orientation, a concern with the human as such. However, others, such as Tamsin Jones, argue for new materialism based on a “posthuman” orientation. That is to say, Jones argues new materialism decenters the “human subject” as the basic metaphysical concern, and also in a more fundamental manner challenges the idea of the human as a “discrete entity in nature.” See Jones, “Introduction: New Materialism and the Study of Religion,” 6.

I mention this as an aside in that this nuance does little to impact the argument I seek to make in this essay. However, Jones also points out the possibility that current circumstances might serve to caution against effort to jettison the human subject: “At a time in which real bodies are tortured, raped and mutilated, oppressed, starved, buried alive in collapsing clothing factories, cyber-bullied to the point of taking their own lives, driven from their homes in unprecedented numbers, economically repressed, deported, stopped and frisked, or even shot and killed for no other crime than the color of their skin, the academic rush to deny the identity, substantiality, and endurance of those human subjects surely can be challenged” (16).

34. Taylor, “Response to Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins,” 399, 392.

35. Ibid., 402. Taylor continues this line of theological reasoning in Mark Taylor, “Theological Resistance to U.S. Christian Nationalism,” in Robbins and Crockett, Doing Theology in the Age of Trump, 60–73.

36. I think Christopher Driscoll points in the direction of this oversight in Driscoll, White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion (New York: Routledge, 2015).

37. Corey D. B. Walker, “The Race for Theology: Toward a Critical Political Theology of Freedom,” in Lloyd, Race and Political Theology, 137.

38. Ibid., 153.

39. See, for example, Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1987): 64–81; Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

40. On this latter point, for example, Crockett endorses Charles Long’s rather Tillichian definition of religion as “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world,” without giving significant attention to the history of slavery and colonialism undergirding the positive working of religion for Long. What of the second creation of the enslaved African that stabilizes the modern project and its political infrastructure? What of Long’s rejection of theology as a viable method for assessing the circumstances of the USA? What of his privileging of hermeneutics over against theology precisely because of the latter’s deep ties to the structures of meaning that impose themselves in the form of oppression? See Long, Significations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986).

41. Jeffrey W. Robbins, “Radical Religion and American Democracy,” in The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States, ed. Robbins and Neal Magee (New York: Continuum, 2008), 9–24. It is also useful to read Crockett’s contribution to Sleeping Giant Has Awoken (“Jeb Stuart’s Revenge”: The Civil War, the Religious Right, and American Fascism,” 85–96), as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017). In addition, Afro-pessimism provides a more complex way of viewing the issue of the African as “other.” This is the case whether or not one agrees with the larger ramifications of Afro-pessimism’s discussion of non-Black/Black ontological arrangements.

42. The theoretical work on ontology within Afro-pessimism provides a useful backdrop for this discussion. See, for example: Frank B. Wilderson, III, ed., Afro-pessimism: An Introduction, accessed January 4, 2019,; Calvin Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope,” New Centennial Review 15, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 215–48.

43. Robbins, Radical Theology, 128–42.

44. James H. Cone, Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, 2nd rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992). In addition, one can include work in theo-musicology as developed by Jon Michael Spencer—e.g., Spencer, Blues and Evil (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993); and Spencer, Praise and Protest (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

45. Robbins, Radical Theology, 138.

46. There would be benefit in reading Jazz against cultural context and in relationship to markers of difference such as gender. See, for example: David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (New York: Running Press, 2000); Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

47. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).

48. Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, eds. Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

49. George Shulman, “White Supremacy and Black Insurgency as Political Theology,” in Kahn and Lloyd, Race and Secularism in America, 25.

50. Ibid., 25, 26.

51. Ibid., 27, 26.

52. Ibid., 28–30.

53. George Shulman, “From Political Theology to Vernacular Prophecy: Rethinking Redemption,” in Lloyd, Race and Political Theology, 234. This essay provides a definition of prophecy and frames it in terms of political vision.

54. Shulman, “White Supremacy and Black Insurgency as Political Theology,” 30.

55. Shulman, “From Political Theology to Vernacular Prophecy,” 240.

56. Ibid., 237.

57. Shulman, “White Supremacy and Black Insurgency as Political Theology,” 32.

58. Ibid., 38.

59. Ibid., 39.

60. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

61. Shulman, “White Supremacy and Black Insurgency as Political Theology,” 39.

62. Shulman, “From Political Theology to Vernacular Prophecy,” 246.

63. Ibid., 246.

64. J. Kameron Carter, in line with this move, seeks to rethink political theology by taking seriously figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois as conversation partner with those more easily recognized as theological thinkers. Through this interrogation, he wants to track the “one” for and through whom the “future” is made real. See J. Kameron Carter, “Between W. E. B. Du Bois and Karl Barth,” in Lloyd, Race and Political Theology, 83–111.

65. Catherine Keller, Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 1–2. The first two chapters provide an important summary of history and major elements of political theology.

66. Ibid., 6.

67. Ibid., 114. Keller borrows “cruel optimism” and its description from Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

68. Keller, Political Theology of the Earth, 159.

69. “Becoming” and “difference”—see ibid., 114.

70. Ibid., 122–25, 160–61. Keller qualifies claims and modulates expectations of a theological intervention, but from my vantage point, this doesn’t go far enough to eradicate “future” as (affirming or negative) theological category: “Both nihilism and denialism, certainty of extinction or of redemption, secular or supernatural, can—just possibly—yield to the darker brilliance of the now-time.” There remains “hope draped in black,” and with hope, future (163).

71. Ibid., 174.

72. Job 2:9 (NIV)

73. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 3–66.

74. Keller, Political Theology of the Earth, 15. Does killing the anthropic ghost emerge in “darkened hope”? Is this the killing of the subject in order to save the earth?

75. Ibid., 16.

76. Ibid., 19.

77. I am grateful to Mayra Rivera for helping me clarify my thinking with respect to the temporality of my project/claim.

78. Camus, Rebel, 167.

79. Although we disagree on certain points, I am reminded of Camus’s words: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge and the rest is construction.” Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 19.

80. I say this in relationship to Andrew Kuiper’s, “Georges Bataille: The Dark Soul of the Night,” Church Life Journal (September 14, 2018), I also have in mind Bataille, Eroticism. Furthermore, this isn’t strictly a natural theology in that it isn’t concerned with, for instance, the ability to confirm religious claims based on experience and the known environment over against revelation and gnosis.

81. I found the following article helpful in thinking through this claim: Kevin Kennedy, “Hereology as Aesthetics: Bataille, Sovereign Art and the Affirmation of Impossibility”, Theory, Culture & Society 35, nos. 4–5 (2018): 115–34.

82. Michele Richman, “Bataille Moralist?: Critique and the Postwar Writings,” Yale French Studies, no. 78 (1990): 143–68.

83. Kennedy, “Hereology as Aesthetics,” 124.

84. Jean-Michel Besnier and Amy Reid, “Georges Bataille in the 1930s: A Politics of the Impossible,” Yale French Studies, no. 78 (1990): 178.

85. In making this claim, I have in mind Sharon Welch’s A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000). I’ve learned a great deal from that text, and it has shaped much of what I’ve said about humanism and the challenging of “doing,” but it entails the mere frustration of an “outcome” that doesn’t negate sufficiently “hope” in “future.”

86. Besnier and Reid, “Georges Bataille in the 1930s,” 169.

87. Material related to Wright and Larsen entails reworked material from the first draft of my 2017 William James Lecture at Harvard Divinity School. That lecture (the final draft) also appears in the final chapter and epilogue of Pinn, Interplay of Things. In significant ways, and for an extended period, the work of Larsen and Wright have informed my thinking on humanism and my progression to casting much of my humanist sensibilities as moralism.

88. Camus, Rebel, 13.

89. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 55.

90. Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 1986); Richard Wright, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” in Wright, Eight Men: Short Stories (1961; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 1996).

91. One can make a similar argument concerning “hope” through writings by Zora Neale Hurston. I have in mind, for instance, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, reissued ed. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006). It is interesting to me that womanist scholarship, which is indebted to Hurston, maintains a sense of “hope” despite the manner in which Hurston’s literary philosophy speaks against hope and sources of ultimate appeal. I plan to address this issue in the larger project “Moralism and Theology,” of which this essay will be a chapter.

92. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 4, 40; also see page 54: “It [revolt] is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” Camus, Rebel, 19.

93. “Absurdity is King, but love saves us from it.” While also referenced elsewhere, see Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1935–1951 (New York: Marlowe, 1998), 93.

94. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 122, 123.

95. Zaretsky, Albert Camus, 158; Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 123.

96. Zaretsky, Albert Camus, 192.

97. Albert Camus, “Letters to a German Friend,” in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, trans. Jusin O’Brein (New York: Knopf, 1963), 21. Quoted in Zaretsky, Albert Camus, 85.

98. Zaretsky, Albert Camus, 45. Here Zaretsky is giving a sense of the moralist over against the philosopher in relationship to Camus: “But his life as a journalist helped make Camus a moralist. A moralist, unlike a professional philosopher, is ill at ease in the world” (45). He continues about Camus, “He is a truth teller, one whose truths make not only others feel uneasy but oneself as well” (46).

99. I say this despite Du Bois’s dislike for what he perceived as the pessimism framing one of Wright’s more significant and widely read texts, Black Boy. This is important in that there is little change in Wright’s perspective moving forward from that book. See Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 278–79.

100. Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper and Row, 1937), 128.

101. Ibid., 112.

102. Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 8.

103. This is the second story in the collection titled Eight Men. The story was first published in 1942 in the journal Accent. A longer version was published two years later in Cross Section: A Collection of New American Writing, edited by Edwin Seaver (New York: Fischer, 1944). The version of the story referenced in this essay is the 1944 version (pp. 58–102).

104. Wright, “Man Who Lived Underground,” in Eight Men, 25.

105. Nella Larsen, “Quicksand,” in Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, 34.

106. Ibid., 81.

107. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 15.

108. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 6.

109. Ibid., 13.

110. Nella Larsen, “Quicksand,” 130.

111. Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 73, 102, 115.

112. Ibid., v.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.