Overcoming Metaphysics: Overcoming Racial Oppression
Contemporary political analysis champions the ideal of a post-racial America, and in some circles, this ideal is viewed as a triumph, as if we already function apart from any sort of racial privilege or division. However, the mythical nature of such an ideal is revealed by the harsh reality of the contemporary American situation, a situation in which geographical barriers still divide entire populations of whites and non-whites in the South. Systems of privilege and oppression, deeply embedded into the psyche and mechanics of all aspects of American culture, continue to drive a wedge between racial groups, privileging some and excluding others.1 W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1903, wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is that of the color line,”2 but it seems that Du Bois’s words could accurately characterize our twenty-first-century situation as well: we have yet to cross the color line.
The problem of racial oppression and division is still rampant in the West today because the root of the issue has not yet been addressed. Slavery was never the root of the problem; it was a grotesque consequence of an ideological shortcoming. This is why racial oppression did not end with slavery. The deeper problem at work within issues of racial oppression is that of coercion—that is, dominance of the self over the other. Racial oppression occurs when individuals disregard the radical ethical implications of encountering the body of an other, when we seek to transcend, project, and control that other rather than being subsumed under the other’s authority. This dualistic understanding of reality, this rejection of the material body of that other, must be replaced with a radically material holism if racial oppression is to be ended.
The human person, as Wendell Berry reasons, must be thought of in terms of an uncompartamentalizeable unity of body and soul.3 Berry argues:
God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; then, by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live. The dust, formed as a man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul. “Soul” here refers to the whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discreet parts temporarily glued together but as a single mystery.4
Berry further argues that such an understanding – a coherently unified conception of human being that resists division between the body and soul – would drive Christians toward the world rather than encouraging retreat from it, in hopes of reaching a metaphysical heaven. In light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s provocative claim that “There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world,”5 Christians must acclimate themselves to the idea that physical being is spiritual. Jesus Christ’s incarnation must be read as a reaffirmation of material reality, as a new way of being in the world, one that respects alterity and gives dignity to the human body. Only after critiquing metaphysics and cultivating an appropriate appreciation of the human body can the color line be crossed and oppression cease.
Western thought, in its constant metaphysical and ontological musings, is chiefly characterized by abstraction from the material world, by a strict dichotomy between body and spirit; these two movements in Western thought are essentially varying manifestations of the same abstraction. The primary consequence of this abstraction is revealed in corrupted person-to-person interactions.6
As we know, metaphysics is a philosophical term that refers to the nature of reality beyond the material world, a set of rational propositions and insights aimed at transcendence.7 The most profound and beneficial critique of metaphysics, an especially poignant one for the state of contemporary Christianity, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell Pearson explains that metaphysics operates by “appealing to a miraculous source such as a ‘thing in itself’ to explain the origin of something held to be of a higher value. That ‘in itself’ is taken by Nietzsche to denote something unconditioned that resides outside the conditions of life such as evolutionary change.” The core of Nietzsche’s late work revolved around attacking metaphysical modes of thought, modes which ascribe reality to an illusory realm and serve to abstract individuals from the true realm of materiality.8
The problem of metaphysics lies in the dualism it necessarily asserts as a result of abstraction from the material world—that is, by nature of its most basic function. Rather than escaping the harsh realities of embodied life through retreat to a metaphysical construct, Nietzsche wants to affirm the profundity of an embodied life. In his fully self-aware humor, he observes, “I am much more interested in a question on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends far more than on any theologians’ curio: the question of nutrition.”9 This is Nietzsche’s tongue-in-cheek way of orienting his readers’ focus away from the metaphysical realm and toward a physical, embodied reality. Nietzsche is chiefly concerned with affirming the inherent goodness of the embodied reality in which people find themselves. In light of this, he interprets metaphysical assertions regarding another realm of reality as a cruel and weak form of escapism, as a failure to fully own up to the entirety of physical reality. The potential harm of metaphysics is that adhering to a dualistic understanding of reality directly leads to abstraction. This kind of abstraction leads to a disregard for the fundamental value of bodies; it enables individuals to opt out of the responsibilities bound up in their encounters with the physical body an other.
Because of his first-hand experiences as a Jew in World War II, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is an especially helpful figure concerning the relationships between metaphysics, abstraction, and oppression. Levinas survived the Holocaust as a prisoner of war in a labor camp, but his entire family was murdered, with the exception of his wife and daughter, who were smuggled out of the country and hidden in a convent in the South of France.10 Having spent much of his time investigating the ways in which Western ideologies led to such atrocities, Levinas argues that the project of Western philosophy tends toward violence. For Levinas, there is a fundamental connection between ontological speculation and domination: forcing a system of rational categories on the world leads to a prioritization of sameness at the expense of difference, and this inevitably results in the suppression of alterity.11
Levinas speaks of the relationship between the self and the other in terms of totality and infinity. Totalization is the practice of closing off another person from the self, of considering the self’s ideal, the self’s preferred interpretation of the other, as the other itself. The philosophical tradition is one of totality, of shaping exteriority into sameness, into the image of the self.12 This act of violence, Levinas insists, occurs every time an individual limits his or her engagement with an other to a set of rational categories (e.g., race, sex, age).13 In light of this understanding, Simon Critchley suggests that Levinas’s central task is “to describe a relation irreducible to comprehension, that is, irreducible to what Levinas sees as the ontological relation to others. Ontology is Levinas’ general term for any relation to otherness that is reducible to comprehension or understanding.”14
The Levinasian critique of ontology resonates deeply with Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics: both present certain brands of philosophizing as abstractions of the material world. The unintended, deathly consequence of Western philosophy’s deeply entrenched practices of abstraction is found in the act of rendering the other as the same. Levinas’s understanding of totality stands in stark contrast to what he refers to as infinity, the properly ethical way of relating. Pushing back against Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, Levinas pronounces that the object of consciousness, while existing in the mind of the individual, also exists external to the mind of the self, confronting the individual in a real and present way. The other is wholly distinct and utterly irreducible; he or she cannot be subsumed or subjected to the self, and any attempt to do so is merely an illusion. Levinas argues that in the self’s encounter with the other, the self should become enslaved to the other, assuming ultimate responsibility for his or her own well-being. The self is subverted and grafted under the authority of the other, and the power of the other rests in the self’s inability to completely understand any individual outside itself.15
Levinas indicates that the proximal relation between the self and the other is always preexistent, that is, that the self has always already encountered and become responsible to the other even before formal thought or action occurs. The refusal to let others rest in their otherness is the most basic form of oppression. Metaphysical speculation thus leads to the coercion of the other to the very form of the self. Levinas’s totality is an abstraction: it is an attempt to see the world from outside the limits of human finitude, to distinguish the identity and nature of the other from his or her body. Levinas, however, knows this can never be. Human beings are, after all, embodied creatures.16
Wendell Berry speaks of the attempt to transcend bodily finitude in his book The Hidden Wound. Berry very much agrees with Nietzsche’s critique of the strict dichotomy between the body and the soul in Christianity. Berry observes, “Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man’s Christianity has been its soothing bandage.”17 This metaphysical dualism helps explain Christian justifications of the oppression and slavery of black Americans. In a similar vein, Nietzsche notes that “They are not free to know: the decadents need the lie—it is one of the conditions of their preservation.”18 Apart from this dualism, the Christian could not justify slavery.
The rich benefit of Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics is seen from within an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. Nietzsche often writes that the most prevalent example of metaphysical dualism is seen in the human conception of the body. This is why he expresses that “The awakened, the enlightened man says: ‘I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and soul is only a word for something in the body.’”19 Similarly, in speaking of Wendell Berry’s prophetic vindication of human flesh, Jason Peters explains that the rejection of human materiality and flesh stands at odds with the core tenants of the Christian faith: the goodness of creation, the incarnation, and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Christian tradition claims that God created material reality and then affirmed it as inherently good (Gen. 1). Shortly thereafter, creation was corrupted through the fall of Adam and Eve, but this is not the end of the story. Jesus saw creation as being valuable enough to warrant his own death, and his dying must be seen as a further renewal of creation. Peters thinks that, “The separation of mind from matter has certainly resulted in a greater (and it must be admitted astonishing) control over the world, but the cost of that control is alienation.”20 This is why abstraction of the flesh will continually result in oppression, alienation, and bondage.
As Du Bois so prophetically indicated, there is a double-consciousness that torments the black body in America. The black man is doubly removed from the white man in the sense that he is completely distinct—completely other—in his embodied state. At the same time, in that embodied state, the black man stands at a further level of distinction from the white man due to his race. Not only is the black man’s body removed form the white man’s, but the color of the body itself stands as another layer of distinction. Du Bois speaks of this double-consciousness in terms of a veil permanently fixed over the face of black Americans. He mourns the inevitability of viewing the world from a double perspective; he laments that “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”21 Du Bois’s imagery of the veil represents the systemic coercion the tendency of projecting the self’s ideals onto the black American rather than properly dealing with the nature of their body as it is that haunts black Americans, forcing them to reckon with the coercive alien identity projected on to them from the outside world in addition to their own self-conception. The veil images the self’s attempt at actualizing his or her ideals in place of the other. Abstraction is a cyclical problem; the self’s refusal of the body of the other—that is, abstraction—results in an abstraction of the other’s self-identity. This is precisely why metaphysical abstraction can so easily lead to oppression, particularly with issues of race. The simplest, most basic way that we deny an other the respect that his or her embodied status demands is to distinguish ourselves from that other by acknowledging discrepancies in skin tone.
The attempt to actualize the self’s ideals in the place of the body of the other is the very problem to which Levinas was responding in the wake of World War II. Hospitality is the only appropriate response to the inbreaking of the other. Levinas insists that realizing this demand of hospitality, this moment in which we take on the burden of the embodied other, requires seeing the face of the other. Encountering the face of the other is what demands respect from the self; the other’s act of facing me is what makes me responsible for him or her.22 Yet a careful reading of Levinas in his historical context reveals an unsettling fact. In speaking of the confrontation between self and other, Levinas is responding to the philosophical work of Husserl and Heidegger, and his understanding of the face of the other is thus rooted in an abstracted form of phenomenology. The face, for Levinas, remains somewhat of a phenomenological reality, another non-bodily abstraction. Although he moved away from a Heideggerian understanding of otherness, Levinas doesn’t carry his idea far enough; the most profitable, beneficial, and appropriate reading of Levinas’s conception of this encounter between self and other is a literal one. Reworking Levinasian thought to account for the literal and physical face of the other is an incredibly beneficial task, and it is a necessary one if we are to overcome the metaphysical nihilism that has enabled racial oppression for so long.
The Christian must follow Christ in his absurd commitment to the material world, which leaves no room for coercion or dominance. When Levinas is read literally, the implications of ethical responsibilities in face-to-face encounters become all the more meaningful. A literal reading provides us with a practical and tangible understanding of the duty that is necessarily bound up in our bodily encounter with an other. The face of the other refuses to be abstracted or passed over, and if metaphysical thinking is to be truly overcome, if the color line is ever to be crossed, any sort of abstracted language about the human body must end.
The root of racial oppression is metaphysical and ontological abstraction. The West’s systemically nihilistic method of thought, chiefly characterized by a cruel dichotomy between body and soul, manifests itself in coercive relationships. When the self encounters the other, it projects its own ideals into the person of the other, hoping to realize itself in the other’s place. Coercive relations such as these fundamentally disregard the radical ethical implications that the self takes on in its encounter with the body of an other. In Jesus’s incarnation, however, in his reaffirmation of material reality, he dealt with these self-serving modes of relating; Jesus both opened up and mandated alternative ways of being.
Just as the veil of the temple was torn in the wake of the death of Jesus, so too was the veil which is fixed to the face of the black American. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new covenant has been inaugurated and the Godhead no longer resides in the temple, with access being limited to Israelites alone through the work of the priest. Instead, the self now encounters Jesus directly in his or her encounters with the other, in light of the other’s own embodied reality (Matt. 25). Levinas implores, “The absolute nakedness of a face, the absolutely defenseless face, without covering, clothing or mark, is what opposes my power over it, my violence, and opposes it in an absolute way, with an opposition which is opposition in itself.”23
In Acts 2 we read that the severed temple veil was crucial for the coming of Pentecost and for the dissolution of Christian distinctions between Jew and Gentile, and this dissolution of distinctions is echoed in Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2. He wrote to the church at Galatia, claiming that he opposed Peter on account of Peter’s recent separation from the Gentiles during mealtimes. Paul explains that Peter’s actions were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11–14 ESV). Speaking of the new covenant to the church at Corinth, Paul explains the following:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, the same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor. 3:12–18)
The death and resurrection of Jesus necessitates and makes available a hospitable way of relating, one that recognizes the profundity of the material world, one that acknowledges the responsibility inherently bound up in the nakedness of the other’s living, breathing face. Any sort of disregard for this dissolution of racial distinctions must therefore be acknowledged as idolatry. Any distinction that divides Abraham’s offspring, the heirs to the promise of a new race, is fundamentally a blatant refusal of the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection.
1. See Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg (New York, NY: Worth, 2004), 188.
2. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994), 9.
3. See John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 25.
4. Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York, NY: Parthenon, 1992), 106.
5. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Ethik], ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 58, original italics.
6. By no means am I implying the lack of systematic injustice; I simply mean that abstraction from the material world is more readily accessible in individual relationships.
7. See Thomas Mautner, “Metaphysics,” in The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005), 387.
8. Pearson, How to Read Nietzsche, ed. Simon Critchley (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2005), 23 and 26.
9. Ibid., 693.
10. Robert Gibbs, “Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995): Introduction,” in The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed. Graham Ward (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 45–46.
11. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 194.
12. Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 28.
13. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194.
14. Critchley , “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 11, original italics.
15. Levinas, Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 9.
16. Hilary Putnam, “Levinas and Judaism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Emmanuel Levinas, 35.
17. Ibid., 14–15.
18. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, 728, original italics.
19. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Penguin, 1978), 62–63; and Peters, “Wendell Berry’s Vindication of the Flesh,” Christianity and Literature 56, no. 2 (2007): 319.
20. Peters, “Wendell Berry’s Vindication of the Flesh,” 319 and 327.
21. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 2.
22. Robert Gibbs, “Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995),” 46.
23. Ibid., 21.
Zachary Thomas Settle is the theology editor for The Other Journal. He earned an MA in the philosophy of religion at the University of Denver, and he currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Settle has written for the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and Christ and Pop Culture, and he regularly contributes to The Other Journal.