At our house we sometimes have Taco Thursdays because alliteration is fun and because we like tacos. So, I decided to have Theology Thursday because I think theology is fun too and I miss using phrases like “the hegemony of dominant ideology” and “eschatalogial community” in everyday discourse. The first Theology Thursday is a look back at something I wrote in 2004 exploring Toni Morrison’s novels and the question of theodicy. In theology, theodicy is a word for our attempt to reconcile the evil and suffering in the world with our belief in a God that is good. I tried to pick a writing that wasn’t too churchy or Jesus-y, so Toni Morrison (and evil and suffering) it is.
Toni Morrison and the voice of the imago dei
In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison writes, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that feed self was another.” The issue raised here by Morrison—claiming ownership of the self—creates a dilemma that cannot be ignored in any serious theological reflection. In Beloved and Paradise, despite the separation of time and space in the context of the novels, Morrison wrestles with the interrelated concepts of freedom and identity. If selfhood, either on an individual or communal level, is denied, there can be no real freedom, and thus there is need of redemption. In dealing with the theodicy question as it relates to the possibility of redemption, then, a theologian runs into huge paradox: any kind of redemption must, it can be argued, entail a recognition of the imago dei as a way to uncover the lost identity and bodily disempowerment such a loss brings, yet the situation that makes redemption necessary in the first place destroys the freedom of the self to recognize the imago dei.
Construction (or Deconstruction) of the Self Through Language
A starting point, then, to resolving this theological paradox, is to simply ask, “Who am I?” and examine the process of the construction of the self. W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1903, spoke of the identity of African Americans as being a “double-consciousness” or a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” His idea of double-consciousness suggests that one can have awareness of one’s true self, yet that true self co-exists alongside a self created through the discourse and ideology of the dominant society. Morrison seems to take DuBois’s concept of double-consciousness a step farther, though, and suggests that the only identity one has is the identity formed by the outside world. This identity is not only external to the self, but is also transient because it is “ontologically as well as emotionally contingent on one’s audience.” In Beloved, both Paul D and Sethe experience an external production of their identities in the way that the slaveholder’s descriptions and perceptions of them are “rendered ‘real’…through linguistic mechanisms.” The result that this construction of identity has upon Paul D and Sethe is bodily disempowerment that disallows for any authority over one’s body. Much like the way that Sethe cannot feel the “chokecherry tree” scar on her back placed there by a whip of a slaveholder, the denial of selfhood acts against memory and the pain that resides there. Likewise in Paradise, the inhabitants of Ruby shape the identity of the convent women as evidenced in the way that the chapter on the character Grace/Gigi begins with her entrance into town and the townspeople’s reaction to her, rather than beginning with her story in her own words. Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist of the late 19th and early 20th century spoke to this linguistic formation of meaning and identity by saying that the language that we use to name or signify something is arbitrary, and that the identity does not exist outside of the language used to signify it. Thus, the identity of Gigi or the other women exists and is real only to the extent that it is created by others. For Morrison, the self “is located in the word, so that when the word changes, so too, does the identity.”
Construction (or Deconstruction) of the Self Through Memory
In addition to external linguistic mechanisms that constitute the self, Morrison’s novels also suggest that memory acts as a force that forms one’s identity. Memory, as it unfolds in the lives of Morrison’s characters, is painful and traumatic, and often one’s own memory—and in a sense their identity as well—is erased by this pain of the past. We see this clearly in the lives of the women at the convent in Paradise in that they are initially unable to articulate the pain of the experiences that led them to the refuge of the convent. They slowly disclose events of the past as they remember them and can vocalize them, but it is only at the conclusion of the novel—in the basement as they paint their bodies and their pain onto the floor—that their full memory and experience is expressed and uncovered. Morrison also provides a slow uncovering of the memory of the characters in Beloved and Paul D, for example, speaks of his rusted tobacco tin as the collection of his memories that are too painful to uncover and unleash. In bearing the weight of experience too painful to articulate or even remember, Morrison calls attention “to the role of pain in unmaking language—not just the language of pain but any language whatsoever.” If selfhood is located in the construction of language and memory, any pain that destroys both of these characteristics unmakes the self, and conversely the loss of the self makes one unable to feel and articulate pain.
The Self-hood of the Other and the imago dei
For theology though, the definition and formation of the self is important because of the damage to the imago dei caused in denying the self and the selfhood of others. When the disempowerment of the self occurs from external forces—from the hegemony of dominant ideology—it also produces an “ongoing fragmentation” within the minority community. In having no capabilities to articulate and remember the experience and manifest power and ownership over that experience, both the individual and the community suffer from disunity and violence. Indeed, the figures who do try to assert some sort of linguistic or memory-based ownership over the experiences of the individual and the community—such as Baby Sugg’s call in the clearing in Beloved—are ultimately “reprimanded and rejected” by the community. Thus, the form of redemption that is needed must necessarily restore the embodiment of the self and the ability to uncover self-knowledge and allow for self-articulation over that experience.This redemption though is not merely the redemption of the oppressed and subjugated, for in creating an external identity for others through language and memory, those that dominate others are also unable to claim their own selfhood. Quite often, the quest to define another’s identity results in the creation of a surrogate self. That is, the formation of a surrogate self is the result of the process projecting one’s own fears about their selfhood onto that of another as a way to assert dominance and quell the fear. In Beloved, this formation of the surrogate self is seen in the way that the “’blackness’ of the slave’s body represents for ‘whitefolks’ an animal savagery and moral depravity” that ultimately works to define the slaves in the “in the image of [the ‘whitefolks’] fears. ” In Paradise, the women represent for the ‘townfolk’ moral depravity as the slaves did in Beloved, an indeed the women, rather than being surrogate selves to quell fears of savagery, act to quell the fears of sexuality. Thus, the formation of a surrogate self not only denies the selfhood of the object, but also that of the subject because of the projection of one’s own self onto another. The impact that this denial of the self has upon theology can be seen in Ludwig Feuerbach’s 19th critique of religion. In his analysis, individuals project their fears onto God, ultimately making God into their image, but more importantly, denying their own identity and worth as humans made in the image of God in the process. In other words, if the way we manage our fears is through projecting them onto God—thus creating God in our image—we can therefore not recognize that we are made in the image of God for we have inevitably projected any of our good qualities onto God as well. Using this analysis for understanding the production of a surrogate self, we likewise deny the imago dei in others—and in ourselves.Consolata in Paradise, after biting the lip of her lover, an event that can be understood as a transferal “from Christ, to whom one gave total surrender and swallowed the idea of his flesh to a living man,” laments, “Dear Lord, I didn’t want to eat him. I just wanted to go home.” Perhaps an argument can be made here in the manner of Feuerbach for rejecting a Christology because of the potential of using Christ’s humanity as a way to allow that humanity is made in the image of God—just not admitting that our humanity is made in the image of God. The relevance of Consolata’s comment, though, is to illustrate the way that the separation from one’s own selfhood inevitably separates one from their own body and its status as being made in the imago dei.
Just as we deny the imago dei in others and pervert the imago dei of ourselves, we also separate God from God’s creation as we do this. In separating God from creation and the imago dei from the created order, we deny the goodness of creation and ultimately are led to exploit it. The exploitation of the earth made possible by separating God from creation allows us to create waste to justify consumption, to strip mine natural resources in the name of efficiency, and to accumulate enough weapons to destroy ourselves in the attempt to achieve security—all in the name of the God whose image we have removed from creation. This ultimate separation from God and creation is explicated by Lone as she speaks to Consolata in Paradise: “Don’t separate God from his elements. He created it all. You stuck on dividing Him from His works. Don’t unbalance His world.” Thus, the cosmos and nature also become exploited and oppressed. In speaking of redemption we must allow for the claim of a selfhood that entails recognition of the imago dei in all of creation—ourselves, others, and nature.
The Prophetic Imagination as a Model for Restoring the imago dei
Having defined why redemption is necessary (denial of selfhood and freedom) and the type of redemption that is necessary to restore that which is lost (restoration/recognition of the imago dei in the self, others, and creation), the reflection can move onto the ways in which this redemption takes place and the change that it can enact on an individual, communal, and environmental level. Walter Brueggemann’s prophetic imagination creates a vision of a redeemed community that bears the weight of the scenario provided by Morrison—that of loss of freedom, self, community, and the imago dei. Prophetic rhetoric in Brueggemann’s model acts as “generative imagination” that permits for an offering of an alternative reality counter to the “dominant reality that characteristically enjoys institutional, hegemonic authority.”
The power of the redemption of the prophetic imagination is to assert this alternative reality into a world in which the dominant ideology is taken for granted and to provide the language and symbols needed to cultivate a lively humanity and communal identity. Brueggemann says though that the communities from which this prophetic imagine can emerge must have a certain perspective from which to critique the taken-for-granted world. Such a community is likely to be one in which:
“*there is a long and available memory that sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past that is available in song and story;
*there is an available, expressed sense of pain that is owned and recited as a real social fact, that is visibly acknowledged in a public way, and that is understood as unbearable for the long term;
*there is an active practice of hope, a community that knows about promises yet to be kept, promises that stand in judgment on the present;
*there is an effective mode of discourse that is cherished across the generations, that is taken as distinctive, and that is richly coded in ways that only insiders can know.”
While the prophetic imagination can provide the discourse needed to cut through the loss of the imago dei and create a redeemed sense of identity, the individuals and communities articulated by Morrison do not have ownership over the memory or sense of pain required to offer such a constructive discourse. Baby Sugg’s call in the clearing comes strikingly close to being an articulation of the prophetic imagination, yet her words cannot function like those of Brueggemann’s prophet, creating an alternate reality over and against a dominant and oppressive one because her selfhood and the hope she offers is undone by “her fiction of autonomous selfhood” as a black woman and as an ex-slave.
Articulation of Pain and Grief: The Theodicy Question
The fact that Baby Suggs’ “prophetic imagination” ultimately fails brings to light the true tragedy of the denial of selfhood and raises a question of theodicy. Baby Suggs tells those gathered in the clearing—the ex-slaves and other free African Americans—that “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine.” Even if they cannot yet imagine grace, she gives voice to this imagination herself and for the community, providing for an expression of memory, pain, and a hope grounded in story and song. Her call to them says,
“Here…in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!…”
The fact is that this call, this prophetic imagining by Baby Suggs, ultimately fails to provide redemption for the community or for Baby Suggs as an individual. Perhaps the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine, yet because they had no ownership of themselves—even though they were “free”— they could not imagine it. Whatever grace there is could not be imagined or obtained, and Baby Suggs believes that she lied to those in the clearing by saying that there was. This entrance to the theodicy question must then deal with is how, if grace and redemption is possible and can be imagined—it can be denied to some by a social system that denies their selfhood and freedom. Indeed, freedom from slavery (in Beloved) or freedom from the hatred of the townfolk (in Paradise) was one thing, but claiming ownership of that freed self is another situation entirely. One way to handle the theodicy question is to realize that gaining the freedom to subvert dominant discourse and offer in its place an alternative reality is only possible after redemption and the recovery of the imago dei, which restores the ability to claim and articulate memory, pain, and hope.
The memory of both pain and hope tends to be deeply buried within the subjugated self, and the uncovering and articulation of this experience brings up the theodicy question in asking by what type of domination and force the hope and pain was suppressed and also what sort of injustices created such unspeakable and unimaginable pain in the first place. For Morrison’s African American characters, then, where is the justice? Amy tells Sethe in Beloved, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” yet if this hurt that appears once memory is reopened is the result of external subjugation, is it even possible for this articulation of pain to be transformative? Where is the empowerment that is necessary in order to claim the possibility of hope in a context of overcoming a pain created by an injustice external to the self? Morrison’s work and the lived experience of her characters rejects any type of theodicy based on “a romantic notion of beautiful, communicable, and humanizing pain,” and it can be argued that from the perspective of certain contexts—such as that of the African American experience as portrayed in Morrison’s work—that such a theology that romanticizes pain or the idea of a suffering servant is in itself an injustice.
Conclusion: Is There Redemption?
One way that redemption takes place in Morrison’s work is in recognizing that language and memory can also be used to construct—or reconstruct—the self and the identity just as it was used to deconstruct the self by creating external identities or veiled identities. The fragmentation of the self and community created by the “mutually supportive economy of linguistic and bodily disempowerment” can be transformed through narrative into a mechanism for empowerment. In her Nobel lecture, Morrison says that narrative is radical and creates “us at the very moment it is being created.” Any attempt that we make at creating narrative—articulating our experience—even if we lack the freedom to claim truly claim this experience as our own, ultimately has redemptive value.
In saying that narrative creates us as we create it, Morrison perhaps speaks to a sense of God’s creation of us and how claiming this narrative space, however inadequately we are able to do so, is the way that we participate in God’s creation and reclaim the imago dei. African American history points to the redemptive power of narrative, and the legacy of spirituals is a testament to the power of narrative to give voice to a pain and experience that is unspeakable. Morrison’s characters lack the voice to recreate their identities and communities for themselves though, but Morrison has a voice with which she speaks for them, giving voice to their unspeakable pain and a hope so long forgotten that the ability to grasp the possibility of newness is forgotten. The tragedies expressed in Beloved and Paradise make dealing with the theodicy question in theology necessary because we see that Morrison’s characters are victim to a situation in which not only do they experience pain and the extinguishing of hope, but their voices to claim either are denied. Ultimately Morrison reclaims their voice by telling their story, and she helps us—the reader, find our voice as well.
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