For in it the righteous of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” —Romans 1:17
What type of life is possible without metaphysical guarantees? How does one practice living, or inhabit existence, without the grounding, foundation, and security metaphysics promises? Can we liberate life from metaphysical captivity, and if so, what “weapons of warfare” accomplish this liberation? These questions, I believe, sketch a putative path for (re)thinking black life, black death, and antiblackness as problems of metaphysical living. Put differently, antiblackness is a crisis of faith—or the grounding of existence, and life itself, in onto-theology (the supreme metaphysical structuration).1See Jean-Luc Marion’s description of onto-theology as configuring God as the historical determination of Being, as an entity within ontology; as the causal and supreme foundation of all other entities, in his God without Being. Antiblack and white supremacist religions and practices, then, are deceptively anti-faith. And the consequence of grounding life, existence, and worship in metaphysics is unmitigated cruelty and ritualized violence—since the “God” of metaphysics is pure violence.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes’s perspicacious comment that “. . . accrued Black death with chattel interest is what guarantees that white people live, move, and/or have ‘being’ (Acts 17:28)” adumbrates the contours of a life so desperate for a guarantee, so bereft of spiritual faith, that black death and brutality become ontological necessities. Antiblackness is an irresistible and addictive idol because idolatry provides a fraudulent guarantee for existence when faith is exhausted and attenuated. When Being usurps the place of God, religion no longer activates the science of faith, but becomes an appendage of the science of Being. What we witness as disgraceful religious practices—black lynching as white communion, police brutality as righteous vigilance, and other perversions—are symptoms of idol worship, the utter desperation for a grounding of existence in a contingent world.
Turning to a golden calf, or taking photographs next to mutilated black bodies, is appealing when faith is too difficult, uncertainty terrorizes, and the fiction of subjectivity ruptures without reprieve. Faith is a spiritual
guarantee, a guarantee that operates through (and against) the unraveling of metaphysical assurance, its promises, and its seductions. Just(ice), then, is the practice of living metaphysically ungrounded, or as Paul Anthony Daniels might describe it through his reading of Howard Thurman, a mystical “resignation from hope in a worldly politics.” Such resignation is really a reinvestment, or a redirecting of spiritual resources, from onto-theology (metaphysical idolatry) to faith—the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” a certainty not predicated on ocular-centric fetishism, the substance of schematized reasoning, or the metaphysics of the senses.
Given this crisis of faith and metaphysical addiction, what is the purpose of black religion (practices and study) and black theology? Are black religion and theology serving the same metaphysical idol as antiblack religion, with the fantasy (and “hope”) that this idol can be sanitized, or purified, of its encrusted violence? Do they ground black life in the science of faith or the science of Being (masquerading as religious hope)? Can we mobilize the science of faith to achieve metaphysical ends? When black religion and theology are so invested in sustaining onto-theology, the concrescence of politics and theology, and the affirmation of metaphysical foundations, black existence is caught in a devastating double bind—since blacks must appeal to pure violence for a solution to antiblack violence. This double bind rebounds upon itself in various ways throughout this forum.
Although I do not have the space to engage all the iterations of this double-bind throughout these diacritical reflections, I will highlight a few. Critiques of antiblack idolatry often, inadvertently, concretize the source of antiblack violence: onto-theology. Metaphysics, then, becomes the cause and solution to antiblackness within these critiques, creating a religious/theological tautology.
How do we engage distortion? When antiblackness is presented as a distortion, a simulacrum or alteration of “reality,” an implicit configuration of truth undergirds the analysis. Critiquing distortion requires a guarantee—an infrastructure of certainty that renders the binary distortion/truth intelligible (and manageable) as a precondition of the critique itself. The difference between a spiritual analysis of distortion and an onto-theological one is that an appeal to faith secures the former (a God not subordinate to Being), while metaphysics grounds, and enables, the latter. When Candace Jordan, for example, argues that epistemic distortion engenders oppression and impoverishes the “moral imagination,” epistemology, the metaphysics of knowledge, constitutes the ground of the critique. Rather than endorsing, or facilitating, the destruction of metaphysical foundations and its reproduction within epistemology, Jordan embraces readjusting epistemology—recasting blacks as legitimate and credible purveyors of knowledge and intelligible within tribunals of verification/recognition.
Put differently, epistemology is a metaphysical formation, and an appeal to it to resolve antiblackness, or the crisis of faith as I have defined it, makes it an idol (invested with “power” to transform what is distorted). Rather than situating testimony and witness in faith (a science that decenters the metaphysical verification of knowledge), Jordan must situate it in epistemology, with the hope (or fantasy) that epistemology contains the seeds of its own correction and perfection—it does not. Distortion (as violence) exposes the problem of grounding existence in metaphysical knowledge, and its indefatigable “will to power,” rather than the outcome of an imperfect epistemological practice, or an opportunity for autocorrection. If we “succeed” in correcting the deformed epistemological landscape by “centering the black testifier” and delving deeper into “the politics of testimony,” will this end antiblackness? I think Jordan would say no it would not. But if not, what, then, is the purpose of investing energy in epistemological adjustment? Antiblackness will continue to murder and mutilate black bodies, even if there are credible testifiers and believable witnesses. (I am sure many attending a lynching, for example, believed the cries of a lynched victim pleading for mercy and proclaiming innocence, but such credibility was inconsequential to stopping the violence, or it even excited the attendees more.) Metaphysical verification and belief will not protect black life. Appealing to its idolatrous seduction feels good, but such affect is impotent, vacuous, and unsustainable. This is not to “invalidate” Jordan’s wonderful meditation; rather, my remarks rethink the tautological structure of black critique when metaphysics is the ultimate source of truth and knowing.
Rebecca A. Wilcox provides another angle on distortion through the metaphor of the mirror—or in Lacanian parlance, a misrecognition. Following Jacques Lacan, we learn that the mirror’s function is to provide the subject with an onto-metaphysical guarantee for existence (in the “place” of emptiness)—it purports to stabilize a fractured world, with a Gestalt, or a coherent image. (But we know that this reflective guarantee fails, mirrors only provide an illusion of stability, and grounding existence in its imaginary plentitude is the beginning of misery—the symptom.) Although Wilcox does not engage Lacan, or the philosophical use of mirrors (from Richard Rorty to Rodolph Gasché), I find it instructive to read her meditation alongside Lacan’s “Mirror Stage,” as a heuristic.
Wilcox questions a jubilance (black joy) predicated on a disavowal of black suffering or “the contemporary liberal denial of the violent relationship between this anti-Black world and its Black captives.” Metaphysical clarity, or an undistorted image, preconditions this critique, as the mirror itself is both problem and solution—black existence is grounded in reflection and corrective gaze. By consequence, and I believe this is profoundly important, she queries whether “the Black captive [can] find joy through this gaze of black suffering.” What is at stake in this essay is articulating a legitimate grounding and foundation for black joy. Rather than destroying metaphysical-reflective ground (the “undistorted mirror”) and its ocular-centric guarantee (gaze), Wilcox attempts to establish a more legitimate grounding—black suffering.
The problem, however, is that antiblackness is metaphysics; its violent, schematizing, and calculative organization of black existence is the expression of onto-theology. Why, then, present antiblack violence (and black suffering) as a potential source of black joy? How does the mirror of antiblackness offer “undistorted joy”? Why does black joy need metaphysical grounding if, as Wilcox rightly states, “this joy that we have the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away”? The world not only gives antiblackness, as its foundation, but also attempts to smother spiritual joy. This, perhaps, is why we “look through the glass darkly.” We cannot ground our existence in mirroring, and its promise of metaphysical clarity, especially as a guarantee for joy. Just living, one attuned to the science of faith, relinquishes metaphysical clarity and sits with the opacity, or uncertainty, of reflective metaphysics—the mirror, after all, is incapable of providing an undistorted image of truth, no matter how refined our gaze.
Now, this is not to suggest that black suffering is completely useless—all violence offers lessons—but such lessons are unreliable foundations. They are just additional (distorted) reflections requiring spiritual discernment rather than metaphysical clarity. Distortion cannot resolve distortion—no matter how much we perfect our gaze. Antiblackness is a worldly distortion necessitating the cultivation of discernment and faith-literacy.
When the science of Being (onto-theology) displaces the science of faith, all grounds are “sinking sand.” We experience this “sinking” as depression, terror, fatigue, sickness, delusion, desperation, and myriad conditions of existence. The desperation to make “sense” of this ecology of antiblackness, as Mathew J. Smith describes it, often affirms metaphysics—since grounding stabilizes meaning and nourishes our will to power. We turn to black religion and theology for reprieve, for a science not subordinate to antiblack metaphysics. But, as Kijan Bloomfield demonstrates, “faith and history” in black religion very often coalesce to affirm humanism rather than to destroy its idolatrous infrastructure. Whether the “good news” is presented as the hackneyed metaphysical distinction between description/action, with emphasis placed on the axiology of action, (which is, somehow, description’s excess), as Biko Mandela Gray does, instead of deconstructing the binary altogether (spiritual action is not necessarily synonymous with political activity), or as a political-theology that grounds the sacred in abolitionist aspirations and fantasies, as Laura McTighe does, black critique often seeks refuge in metaphysics. Such retreat relies on the very violence it works tirelessly to challenge.
Ultimately, my hope (and prayer) is that black religion and theology will exhaust/abandon onto-theology and its unreliable ground. And cultivate a life lived ungrounded—a just life of faith.