I’m posting this slightly out of order, as we’ve had a bit of a delay on getting a post for chapter 8.
In this, the final meditation on a patristic figure, Carter claims that the theology of Maximus the Confessor provides a model for anti-colonial theology, insofar as he recognizes “tyranny” as a core manifestation of sin. For Carter, this means that he is a subversive theologian, reading against the dominant social order, in a way that he claims is similar to the theological style he has uncovered in the antebellum slave narratives he investigates in part III of the book.
The bulk of his argument is taken up with demonstrating that Maximus’s theology is premised on a mutual openness between God and creation that then issues into a mutual openness among created beings — a logic that is counter to the self-enclosed and self-worshipping logic of modern racial thought, in which white supremacy claims to define all others while remaining self-defined. As an exposition of Maximus’s theology, this is very interesting and compelling and in fact makes me want to return to Maximus and study him further.
There are several weaknesses in this postlude, however, which are symptomatic of some questionable aspects of the larger argument of the book. I understand that the rest of this post may come across as harsh in some places, but I hope it is received in the spirit it is offered — as constructive criticism. Nothing but love!
The first problem I see is that he nowhere establishes that Maximus is reading against the social order. This is a huge missed opportunity, because Maximus famously had his tongue cut out for standing against the imperial advocacy of monothelitism — an incident that is not mentioned in this chapter as far as I could see. Surely if we are to focus on the importance of the flesh, suffering torture at the hands of worldly powers is at least as important a point of connection with the slave narratives as their exegetical method is!
Second, he relentlessly reads his concern for Israel and Christ’s Jewish flesh into Maximus, just as he does for every single other author he discusses favorably. Apparently a reference to the Old Testament is sufficient to establish that the figure in question fully endorses Carter’s theology of Israel. I have difficulty seeing it as anything but pure eisegesis. If Maximus really thought that it was crucial to focus on Christ’s Jewish flesh, then surely he would have explicitly mentioned it, right? None of the quotes Carter supplies make this connection, however. In fact, none of them explicitly mention the covenant with Israel that is supposedly so crucial to Maximus’s theology.
Nor does Carter establish that Maximus’s reading ever tries to understand Christ in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than searching the Hebrew Scriptures for parallels with what he already knows (through the New Testament and the creeds) about Christ. Lacking this evidence, he resorts to groundless assertion, as when he says: “the Christological vision of love in Epistle 2 is unintelligible apart from the story of Abraham and his covenant with YHWH” (358). I found his exposition of the Christological vision of love in Maximus perfectly intelligible without any reference to Abraham or any other narrative from the history of the people of Israel — meanwhile, what Maximus is doing with Abraham here is forced and often confusing (as Carter partially admits when he says it’s unclear what Scriptural passage Maximus is even referring to on pg. 356).
This is a pattern we constantly see in Carter: every mention of the Hebrew Scriptures shows how crucial the covenant with Israel and Christ’s Jewish flesh are. Every mention of Christ entails a robust insistence on the fleshly and Jewish nature of Christ. And all of this somehow proves that the author has an exegetical method that is a proto-anti-racist.
Carter vaguely suggests that Maximus is “rabbinic,” yet in his only discussion of actual rabbinic exegesis in chapter 8 (based on a single author, Fishbane), he claims that the rabbinic method is very similar to the method he finds in Augustine (321). How is this even possible? The patristic approach to the Hebrew Scriptures is dominated by the attept to connect every possible detail to Christ — a trait that is, shall we say, notably absent in Jewish exegesis.
In my view, Carter is at his best when discussing the patristic authors “in themselves,” divorced from his overarching concern with race and his idiosyncratic approach to the question of supercessionism. In those passages, he seems more confident and more clear — there is none of the excessive “signposting” and “nuancing” that so often overwhelm his point in other sections of the book. I enjoyed the patristic sections of this book by far the most, and I think I would have enjoyed a full-length work on patristic theology from Carter even more.
Carter provides a compelling and attractive reading of Maximus, for instance, at least until he starts trying to read his theology of Israel into him. And the fact that the connection with Israel is so tenuous means that the connection between these patristic sections and the argument of his book is tenuous and indirect at best. Maximus, for instance, could be talking about any form of human sin, and his argument has no particular anti-colonialist valence — one could just as easily read him as arguing against greed or against sexual possessiveness. In the same way, Gregory’s theological argument against slavery has nothing specifically to do with the horrific modern form of race-based chattel slavery — it’s perfectly applicable to all slave regimes, including those in which race plays no role.
In the end, I think it’s fair to say that Carter’s work here is homologous to the method of Radical Orthodoxy. It sets up a proper theological paradigm and defines modernity as a deviation from that paradigm. The solution is then to go back to the correct paradigm. In place of the Radox insistence on the Neoplatonist elements of traditional Christianity, Carter focuses instead on the proper understanding of the link between Christ and Israel. Instead of idealizing the medieval period, Carter locates the desired balance in the patristic period, primarily among the Greek fathers.
Once we make those substitutions, however, the end result is the same. We get the same critiques of non-Christian thinkers according to extrinsic Christian standards (as in Carter’s very confusing critique of Foucault). We discover that attempts other than Carter’s to escape from the problem of modernity — Cone’s, Long’s, and Douglass’s above all — lack the necessary theological rigor and thus actually wind up repeating the same problem.
And the reasons for accepting his solutions are just as unclear as the reasons for accepting Milbank’s. I don’t know, after reading this book, what the “payoff” of having a proper theology of Israel is — indeed, I don’t even know what he thinks that theology should look like in itself, quite apart from its supposed applications — any more than I have a clear picture of what it would look like to have a society founded on a peaceful ontological hierarchy. I think it’s clear that the answer isn’t to start hanging around at synagogues or studying the Talmud. Should we join Robateau and convert to Greek Orthodoxy?
This is obviously Carter’s dissertation and therefore by definition not his final or most mature statement on any of these topics. I also understand that there is a great deal of pressure on young scholars to try to do too much, in order to get the kind of attention necessary to get the crucial job and academic capital necessary to continue doing any work at all. Yet I wish that Carter would have tried to do less. A book showing the subversive nature of patristic theology would have been great. A book showing the roots of modern racism in Christian supercessionism would have been great. A book showing how black theology or the black religious studies academy has wound up unwittingly repeating the same patterns they were trying to critique would have been great. A book elaborating the implicit theology of slave narratives would have been great — and a book demonstrating that that theology is strikingly similar to patristic thought would have been a tour de force.
Trying to do all those things at once and show how they all interconnect was impossible — and I think Carter is conscious of that. This book lays out an amazing research agenda, one that is worth a lifetime of work. I hope our discussion here has contributed to that ongoing research agenda in some way.