and the Redemption of a People”
A Review of
The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois.
By Jonathon Kahn.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I have long been familiar with the work of the twentieth century black cultural critic. W.E.B. DuBois, but it was not until I read two crucial books on race and theology last year (J. Kameron Carter’s RACE: A Theological Account and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Free To Be Bound), that I began to see the prophetic value of DuBois’s work for the Church. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the value he has found in DuBois’s writings:
Refusing both Uncle Tom’s subservience and Nat Turner’s radicalism, DuBois dreamed of a church that would serve an economic, social and political center for a strong black community. Here black women and men would create the world they longed to see while at the same time advocating for social change that would transform the racist systems around them…He dreamed of a church that would actually make a difference in a world where black folks get crushed and forgotten ( FREE TO BE BOUND 150).
Thus, I was excited to hear that Oxford University Press was releasing this Fall a new book on DuBois’s “Religious Imagination” – Divine Discontent by Jonathan Kahn. Before I venture too far into my review of this book, I should be clear that although it is not a very long book (the text of the book is only 135 pages), it is pretty intense — requiring a significant grounding in history, philosophy and theology — and is not the sort of book that the average reader would just pick up and enjoy. That being said, Divine Discontent is an essential work for understanding DuBois, his religious views and his use of religious language.
In the first half of the book, Kahn describes DuBois’s work as that of a “pragmatic religious naturalist.” Kahn does an excellent job here of placing DuBois’s work in a broad, historical and philosophical context. While such a context is useful for understanding DuBois and his writings, these chapters in particular might serve to frustrate and confuse many readers and distract them from getting to the excellent reflections that the book holds in its later chapters. Kahn begins, in the book’s introduction, by categorizing DuBois’s faith: “His heterodoxy runs too deep, and throughout his life he chafed against the label ‘Christian’” (9). He proceeds to offer “Five Theses on DuBois’s Religious Imagination” which taken together gives us a rich picture of DuBois’s faith. First Kahn observes that DuBois’s faith is “decidedly antimetaphysical.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to be ANTI-metaphysical, I do have deep sympathies for metaphysical agnosticism, which steers clear of disembodied questions about the nature of God and the cosmos. Thus, Kahn’s observation that “DuBois is not interested in the essence or real nature of God” (10) struck a chord with me. Secondly, Kahn notes that DuBois’s faith is focused on earthly, human ends. “The higher life,” Kahn says of DuBois’s religion, “is clearly moored in earthly acts: work, love and doing without for the sake of others” (11-12). The third facet of DuBois’s faith that Kahn offers is that his use of religious language was complex and at times paradoxical. Fourthly, Kahn identifies three key virtues that give form to DuBois’s faith: piety, jeremiad and sacrifice. However, as Kahn will describe over the course of the book these virtues represent significant revisions by DuBois of “normative Christian notions” – and I would argue that it is in these revisions that Dubois’s work is of deep value for the Church, particularly those of us formed by decidedly white accounts of Christian theology. Fifth and finally, Kahn observes that DuBois’s work can be categorized as that of a “pragmatic religious naturalist.”
I won’t say much else about the early chapters of the book in which Kahn explores the pragmatic religious naturalism of DuBois, except that this categorization places him in a context alongside other thinkers of a similar ilk, including John Dewey, William James and George Santayana.
Kahn sees DuBois reinterpretation of the virtue of piety as an extension of his pragmatic religious naturalism. Here DuBois seems to follow Dewey in commending “natural piety” – i.e. piety whose end is not other-worldly but rather human betterment in the present age. Of course, DuBois’s focus is on the natural piety of black people, and Kahn argues that this is most evident in his book Prayers for Dark People. Thus, DuBois’s notions of piety are rooted in the virtues of the Christian tradition of the black community and function to guide the black community toward “economic stability, cultural growth, and human understanding” (184).
The most compelling chapters of Divine Discontent, however, were Kahn’s explorations of DuBois’s rhetorical use of the jeremiad and the key role of sacrifice in his thought. In DuBois’s own words, he describes the role of the jeremiad:
When the Hebrew prophets cried aloud there were respectable persons by the score who said:
Yet the jeremiads were needed to redeem a people (89).
Thus, the key characteristics of the jeremiad can be understood as: going against the mainstream of culture, calling for repentance or change and driving toward the end of the redemption of a community. Kahn emphasizes that DuBois, as a black thinker, has a keen sense that the predominant white Christianity of America is a “miserable failure.” As a black social critic, DuBois therefore uses the jeremiad to call the nation to repent of her racist sins and to call America to be “a type of nation not yet imagined by the American consensus” (93). While I personally don’t care too much about the preservation (or destruction) of America as a nation, I think DuBois’s insights are just as true for the holy nation that we call the Church. As J. Kameron Carter has emphasized Western Christianity has been formed since its earliest days by racialist ideologies, and indeed it is the prophetic voices from the margins that will call us all to repentance and redemption. In the book’s final chapter, Kahn explores the primary significance of sacrifice in DuBois’s thought. Kahn explores how DuBois, through imagery like that of his 1933 short story “The Son of God”, re-contextualizes Jesus as a marginalized black voice for today and one who met his end in oppression and the loss of his life. Lynching becomes the way that DuBois reads the crucifixion in his own context and the noose replaces the cross as the essential “sign of salvation.” Sacrifice, DuBois maintains, serves the ends of redemption. Kahn observes: “In pragmatic religious naturalistic fashion, DuBois does not use sacrifice as a way of retaining God’s favor or expiate sins but as a political tool for gaining ownership of the rights and goods that make this life worth living” (111). There is much for us to learn as a Church from DuBois’s “Gospel of sacrifice” particularly as it depend its roots in the narratives of a community’s past sacrifices and steers toward redemption in the future. As Kahn notes, “sacrifice, even when it is forward looking, also looks to the past for other sacrifices to honor and even emulate” (128).
Divine Discontent is thus a significant work in its explorations of the faith of one of America’s most prominent black social critics. The Church has much to learn from DuBois, and our black brothers and sisters – to the extent that they are attentive to his work and the way of Christ – will continue to guide us as God’s people toward the ultimate reconciliation of all people, and indeed all creation.