This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Thinking Philosophically About the Black Church” with guest J. Kameron Carter. Click here to listen to the episode.
I am so glad December is over; I hate the holiday season. I grow weary of the alienation my Jewish family feels whenever we leave our house and I’m horrified at the stressful consumer orgy forced upon my friends. I am also really tired of reminding others that even for an atheist, Christmas is a Christian holiday.
Yes, the commemoration of the birth of Christ is and must be Christian, even for those who don’t talk about Jesus. And yes, the celebration of the second coming excludes those who are still waiting for their own messiah, even if they enjoy a cup of eggnog or display their friends’ Christmas cards on the mantle while they wait.
We can pretend Christmas is secular because we are so used to the Christian way of thinking, that we have a hard time imagining life can be otherwise. We like our Sunday day of rest and we prefer to bow our heads to pray. We celebrate conversion and regard faith as a good in itself. Even our fiction is Christological—narratives that parallel the story of Christ. So, we continually expect our heroes to die for redemption. From Gatsby to Merle in The Walking Dead, we see death as cleansing. Even Harry Potter had to die, and the chapter in which he is resurrected…it’s called “King’s Cross.” Ultimately, our most creative endeavors are largely variations on a common theme.
It can be hard to accept that our imaginations are limited by culture. We want to think that we can envision anything we want, but we can’t. Novelty takes tremendous effort to conjure. This is why cubism could only be invented after two-point perspective; creativity is incremental. The things that we think about, the aspirations that we pursue, the fears that make us shudder, they are all informed by our culture, and Western culture, for better or worse, is defined by the Christian imagination.
It is a wonderful thing to be raised in a worldview built on personal improvement. No matter how far we fall, the Christian imagination tells us that we can be redeemed. No matter how much we hate, we are assured that forgiveness is liberating. But the Christian imagination also traps many of us into brutal self-hatred. Malcolm X learns this when he discovers his own unconscious adoption of blackness as a symbol of evil and whiteness as a sign of purity—beliefs he tries to overcome by converting to Islam.
Malcolm X epitomizes a trap faced by many African-Americans. The Christian imagination regards slavery as historically normal and economic circumstance as punishment for sins. But it also celebrates the meek and glorifies the peacemaker. So it leaves no outlet for those in terrible situations whose only hope is to fight their way through it. Their status quo is unacceptable but their demand for change is condemned. They are, literally, damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
It is impossible to wipe away the effect that Christianity has on our culture and, of course, many people don’t want to, so the only way out of this trap is through the Christian imagination itself; this is what we will talk about on today’s episode. In particular, we will take a philosophical look at the Black Church. Why? Because our guest today argues that the very idea of Blackness and Whiteness are Christian inventions. If he is right, it just underscores how basic to our everyday experience the religious imagination is. Sure, some people claim that they “don’t see color,” but they do. We all see skin tone and there is nothing wrong with doing so. Meaning, not fact, is the purview of the religious imagination. It is the meaning we impose on the different shades that are problematic, not the fact of color itself.
Before we begin, I ask that we all accept two basic facts that I have been trying to articulate. First, the religious imagination is profoundly powerful, even to those who don’t assent to the religious tenets it assumes. Second, it can be analyzed, altered, and widened, but only from within, only by utilizing the Christian tradition that holds it together.
I suspect that no one is better poised to enlarge the Christian Imagination than the Black Church. Its members are both insider and outsider; they are revolutionaries and witnesses to the original sin of the colonial eclipse of non-Christian religions. But imaginative change cannot be forced any more than faith can be compelled. It is the product of longstanding practices, complex texts, and sophisticated theologies. The Christian imagination is the result of two millennia of religious belief and fundamental to how we want to the world to be. It is a cycle; it begins and ends at the same place. The Black Church appears to be telling us that that place is not good enough.