Carter positions his book as an attempt to fill a gap in the existing discussion of the modern racial imagination. As he states in his prologue, this question has been tackled from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, “Yet one is hard-pressed to find an adequate theological account of the modern problem of race” (3).
Race is an attempt to begin to correct that significant oversight, and it is structured into three parts. The first provides an account of the emergence of the modern racial imagination, beginning with an engagement with two major non-theological accounts (those of Cornel West and Michel Foucault) and then developing his own approach through an investigation of the work of Immanuel Kant. This is followed by a second part that engages with major figures in the field of African American religious studies and a third in which he develops a more constructive theology of race in dialogue with antebellum autobiographical narratives of African Americans. The work as a whole is bookended by a prologue and epilogue, along with three sections (at the beginning, middle, and end) that read patristic writers as anticipating the questions of race that the main body of the text investigates. It is clear, then, that we are dealing with a work of enormous historical scope and ambition.
What I have said so far mostly covers Carter’s prologue, and so I will be focusing primarily on the section entitled “Prelude on Christology and Race: Irenaeus as Anti-Gnostic Intellectual.” As someone who has done constructive work in dialogue with Irenaeus, I really appreciated this chapter, which sees Irenaeus’s Gnostic opponents as anticipating in many important ways the modern construction of the racial imagination insofar as the struggle with Gnosticism was ultimately a struggle over the significance of the body. He shows remarkable patience with the tedious and mind-numbing accounts of Gnostic teaching that Irenaeus provides, particularly the central narrative of the fall of Sophia from the sphere of the Pleroma, which ultimately results in the creation of the material world by the ignorant demiurge (who is then equated with the Jewish God). He sees the Gnostic division of humanity into various categories that are inherently bound for either salvation or destruction as a kind of proto-racism that is deeply intertwined with the Gnostic rejection of the Jewish God and denigration of the material body — and their contention that Christ’s redemptive work was a matter of defeating or overcoming both.
In this context, Carter can view Irenaeus’s counter-argument, which insists on the truly fleshly and truly Jewish nature of Christ, as a model for overcoming the modern racial imagination. Where the Gnostics divide humanity, Irenaeus unites them into a threefold narrative whereby Israel recapitulates the narrative of creation and Christ in turn recapitulates the narrative of Israel. Rather than overcoming material creation, this recapitulation concentrates it and makes it all the more potent. At the same time, this successive concentration of all creation in the “middle” of history (Israel arising in the middle of world history and Christ coming in the middle of Jewish history) renders problematic any purely linear view of history — hence preemptively undercutting another significant aspect of the narrative of modernity.
In this account, one important way in which modernity was able to fall into a Gnostic-like pattern was by rejecting the Jewish basis of Christianity, which “cleared the way for whiteness to function as a replacement doctrine of creation” (35). This fundamentally theological view of whitenesscreats “the image of white dominance, where ‘white’ signifies not merely pigmentation but a regime of political and economic power for arranging (oikonomia) the world” (35). In a sense, then part I of Race repeats the task of the first two books of Irenaeus’s Against All Heresies in laying out modernity as a kind of new Gnosticism, while the remaining parts attempt to develop an alternative covenantal logic grounded in the African American Christian tradition. The various “-ludes” then attempt to establish links to the mainstream Christian tradition as well, or at least to certain “Church Fathers.”
In terms of specific topics for discussion, I should first say that my wording above is not as cautious as Carter’s in naming the specific referent of Gnosticism. Carter follows Cyril O’Regan in focusing on the specificity of Valentinian Gnosticism and the “narrative logic” whereby it mutates the Christian narrative.
I wonder, however, if Carter might oppose the Gnostics more thoroughly than Irenaeus on at least one front: the question of supercessionism. Obviously Irenaeus insists on continuity between Christ and the Jewish God, but it seems to me that Carter may be remaking Irenaeus somewhat in the image of a chastened post-Holocaust Christian theologian. In addition, his emphasis on synchrony over diachrony, while it does provide an interesting and productive reading of Irenaeus’s central concept of “recapitulation,” seems perhaps one-sided insofar as it neglects the fact that Irenaeus is probably one of the most apocalyptic of the Church Fathers — complete with speculations on the identity of the Anti-Christ, the meaning of the number of the beast, etc.
In any case, I hope that my repeated reminders have ensured that several of you in the audience are reading along and will have insightful comments and questions of your own.