Carter focuses on the work of Charles H. Long, a historian of religion in the school of Eliade and Corbin, but with a political bent towards the oppressed rather than directed to the probably racist kind of higher man you find in Eliade (and to a lesser extent Corbin). As in the preceding chapters the purpose of engaging with Long is not so much a commentary on Long’s work, but using the work of that figure as a test-case for some aspect of dealing with the problem that arises in theology concerning race. That is what is it that makes theology white. I’m not very familiar with Long’s work and so my remarks will focus on Carter’s casting of this test-case, rather than assessing his reading of Long as such, but that seems faithful to the methodology of the project anyhow.
Long provides a corrective for Carter to Tillich’s theology, for it challenges the dominance of theology over religion. This challenge is what both appears to attract Carter to Long’s theory and what he wants to ultimately reject. The difference between theology and religion is understood here to be analogous to the difference between language and act, such that theology is the language that expresses the meaning of religion. Where the religion is always more than this expression, being the experience, expression, motivations, intentions, behaviors, styles, and rhythms of a community. Like Eliade, Long values the myth and expression than symbolic expression more than the theology or structure of thought that attempts to organize more clearly that community’s beliefs. Carters problem with this ultimately will be that Long’s theory of religion cannot account for the other, signifying both God and other creatures for Carter, and instead the other is always just a way to gain self-knowledge. In other words, for Carter, Long isn’t Christological (i.e. Kenotic) enough.
If I’m reading Carter correctly his project seems to be concerned with somehow doing Christian theology, which requires a form of universality, without needing to denigrate and other or destroy a particularity. This problem for Christian theology plays out most clearly in the theology of supercessionism, as already discussed at length in the earlier chapters, but as a Christian the answer can’t simply be to convert to Judaism. Long’s work positions itself within this problem as well, but from a perspective that isn’t theological or necessarily Christian in the sense that Carter is. For Long the concrete expressions of particular religions is what expresses the universality of being, though that universality is not bound to religions themselves. This resists theories of religion, like Harnack’s and (though this isn’t mentioned) Hegel’s, which claim that Christianity is the religion par excellence and so every other religion must be considered through the prism of Christianity.
Long suggests that this theory of religion is endemic to Christian theology generally since it focuses on the importance of fullness and wealth. Carter, while accepting this criticism to a certain extent, appeals to what he thinks are counter-examples like Julian of Norwich and Bonaventure who produced theologies that read the poverty of Christ as expressive of the wealth of existence. This seems to me to miss the power of Long’s critique, which is that there is a symbolic element to Christian theology that overdetermines the practice of what we could term (I’m not sure Long agrees here) White Christianity. Thus the problem can’t be to tell a story that simply adds the invisible stories of the oppressed to history dominated by European symbols (as it was for Raboteau) or to invert the methodology so that black symbols dominate (as it was for Cone). The response, Long claims, must be more subtle and focus on the “true story” told by “myth” instead. This, I think, is the reason why Long calls this form of thinking dealing with the “opaque theologies” that are the expressions of various religious realities. The opaqueness of these theologies resists the power discourses of Christian theology, power discourses that connect the power of God with the specific forms of worldly power. And this is why Carter claims that they are then forms of negative theology (though I think negative theology can be a kind of imperial weaponized theology as well, and hence my attraction to Gnosticism).
Ultimately, though, Carter thinks that Long’s theory of religion runs into a problem in so far as it naturalizes the religious reality of communities, especially Black communities. Such that “black folks pray becuase they have to (225).” This is his point about the other raised in the introduction to this chapter. For if a community’s religious expression simply is what that community does, rather than the development of such an expression by way of something like theology, then it is a closed I that cannot be challenged or mutated by any other.
I had a number of remarks and questions raised for me in the course of reading this chapter, but I just want to focus in on one as I think it cuts to the heart of the book. Carter’s presentation of Long genuinely sparked my interest in reading his works directly, as he seems to be dealing with questions of universalism and particularity in a way that is genuinely interesting. He appears to avoid the imperialism of Christian White theology, but doesn’t fall into the problem that Ken Surin points out in his Theology and the Political essay regarding the blind alley of being a chosen people. It may be that Carter’s criticism of Long is correct, but it seems that Long’s problem is also Carter’s. For what option do we have to avoid supercessionism outside of a conversion to Judaism or a retelling of religions such that they are expressions of some foreclosed and anti-imperial universal?