Race, Difference, and Religion: Is There a Universal Humanity?

Ruth Jackson reviews Theodore Vial’s Modern Religion, Modern Race

Theodore Vial, Modern Religion, Modern Race, Oxford University Press, 2016, 296 pp., $78.00.

“The cry of equality pulls everyone down”

— Iris Murdoch

In an episode from the third season of Mad Men, which is set in the early 1960s and follows a fictional advertising firm on Madison Avenue, a young and forthright accounts man proposes a marketing strategy that riles his superiors. Pete Campbell’s client, Admiral Television, is reporting dismal sales overall, but is doing well in cities like Chicago, Washington D.C., and Kansas City: places with large black populations. A campaign targeted at black consumers would therefore surely be a profitable way forward, Campbell urges. It could even turn around Admiral’s fortunes. But this suggestion is met with distain. The client and the ad firm simply do not wish to be linked in the popular imagination with the African-American market. 

Campbell’s proposal may clash with the straightforwardly racist concerns of his colleagues, but — as Tanner Colby puts it in his Slate piece on Mad Men and Black America — he “is no socially conscious crusader.” Campbell’s plan to target black communities is not driven by a pursuit of justice, or born out of a detailed interrogation of the category of race. It is more that he has found a source of income hitherto untapped by both his competitors and his own company. Why should he not chase it? Indeed, what the Campbell character seems to be proposing is that his firm’s basic conception of the buying public — people as rational individuals with purchasing power — should simply be further expanded to include the subcategory “black consumer.” In the same way that single white women or working-class white men get their own special jingles and carefully-designed products, so too should the black man and the black woman have his or hers. Such diversification, with its attendant and potentially limitless array of diverse consumables (pink razors, teen magazines, moisturizers for men) is, after all, good for business.

Across its many seasons, Mad Men explores how Campbell’s privileged upbringing affords him certain expectations and prejudices. In this case, we find him perniciously oblivious to the power relations entailed in this category of race. If in his job as ad man he wants to describe humans universally as “consumers” who can be divvied up neatly into rational agents of different types (singles, family women, business men), then he finds himself with the luxury to conceive race along similar lines: as merely one of a number of categories which are used to organize consumer preferences. In his pursuit of profit, he can ignore the fact which even his superiors in their own way realize all too well: that defining people in terms of race imposes a particular social order, that it is and has been a tool for oppression, subjugation, and ostracization.

I begin with this fictional scene, because — although it is set in a period far closer to our own than the post-Enlightenment Germany covered in Theodore Vial’s study — it nevertheless dramatizes a couple of points which are central to Modern Race, Modern Religion.

First, Pete Campbell’s naïveté is a particularly stark example of how this concept of race stretches further and carries more weight than its speakers can grasp. Vial describes his book as a chapter on the history of race and religion, as these categories develop like “conjoined twins” in the thought of Kant, Herder, Schleiermacher, and Müller. While he delivers this genealogy, however, Vial raises the question of just how much distance there is between these historical figures (“our religious studies ancestors”) and scholars of religion in the present day. Since academics in religious studies continue to work with the same terms that Herder and Kant shaped and struggled with, do they not also inherit some of their problems, as well as something of the structure of their thought more broadly?

These statements reveal the target audience of Vial’s work: students and fellow researchers in the discipline of religious studies. But his history of race and religion incorporates a number of broader claims about “modern” thinking in general, and he invites his readers to consider the emergence of these twin concepts, arguing that doing so tells us about our present-day predicaments. 

Given this breadth, one wonders whether Vial overemphasizes the influence that specific historical thinkers have had on modern minds. Early in his work, for example, he asserts that “Kant is part of a modern way of thinking that we do not have the resources to reject.”  But what would it take to prove such an assertion? Moreover, I also find this statement in its implications to be frustratingly defeatist. Can we never hope to reach beyond those categories that history has given us? Having drawn attention to the suffocating weight of the language that we use and its grip on us, Vial recommends simply that we must be critically self-aware when using these terms. Is there nothing more we can do?

Vial also argues that “there is something about the structure of the concepts of race and religion that tends towards value-laden hierarchies.” Harnessing his analyses of Kant, Herder, Schleiermacher and Müller as case studies, Vial contends that our “modern conceptual architecture [leads us] to theorise difference by comparing groups based on their proximity to a historical telos.” He therefore suggests that we cannot talk about race or religion without some reference to a fixed and materially-achievable idea of what it means to be perfectly human. Depending on the group we are speaking about — how “developed” or politically sophisticated we perceive them to be — we rank them over against each other, as relative winners or losers in the race towards some final human end. “We [Western moderns] schematize so automatically on a horizontal line of progress,” Vial presses, “that it might seem obvious that everyone would do this.” But in his book, and in conversation with Willie James Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, Eric Voegelin and others, Vial contrasts this specifically “modern” tendency against ancient ways of thinking about “race.” In antiquity, he explains, there was no equivalent to our modern understanding of this category. There was no similar move to classify and rank groups of people in terms of “biologically transmitted essences” or what are perceived as innate physical differences.

The fictional 1960’s case of Pete Campbell may seem at first blush to resist this modern tendency towards schematization: does he not see all groups — black men, family women, business owners — as fair targets for this or that ad campaign? And yet, just what kind of equality does Campbell invite these groups to enjoy? I suggested that his assumptions about difference were premised on a basic conception of the person as rational consumer. According to this process of abstraction (or monetary homogeneity, to borrow some conceptual tools from Alain Badiou’s book St Paul: The Foundation of Universalism), everyone is essentially reduced to an identical decision-making individual. But no sooner than humans are reduced under such falsely universal terms, then this homogenous pool of rational consumers fragments, under Campbell’s gaze, into a series of fixed identities along the lines of race, gender, religion, sexual preference — the list goes on. And among these fixed groupings, these audiences for ad campaigns, each is allotted its worth according to how attractive a prospect it is to this or that company marketing its products.

Vial’s history of modern race does not consider the role of the market in producing and defining human identity. But in his treatment of Kant, Herder, Schleiermacher, and Müller, he demonstrates this same pattern. That is: the perception of a universal humanity, which nonetheless then fragments into the observation of different identities (cultural, racial, religious), which are subsequently judged against their ability to best match this “universal” trait.

In Kant’s philosophy, for instance, Vial finds human identity premised on a shared rationality. We’re told that all humans possess the ability to act on rational principle rather than on impulse or desire, and that that for Kant, this autonomy is “the source of human dignity.” And yet, Vial argues that the four essays Kant published on race over the course of his career expose this autonomy to be a false universal. In these essays, Kant suggests that the extent to which a person is rational depends on the place they are given in the world by natural design — including the race they belong to, and the distinctive characteristics and capacities this affords them. He writes that “humanity is in its greatest perfection in the white race,” while other racial groups occupy lower rungs on the ladder of human cultivation. Here then, when applied by Kant, the category of race not only arranges human social groupings, but also enables comparisons between these groupings, all the while serving Kant’s own prejudices about their order and excellence.

Although in Kant’s work the category already “hangs together” with assumptions about nature, identity, and the course of history, Vial argues that modern race as a concept was only “completed” subsequently in the generation following Kant, and owed much, too, to the thought of J. G. Herder. It is in his discussion of Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher that Vial accelerates his overall thesis that “race and religion share a common genealogy,” and that “religion is always a racialized category in the modern world.” This is because both thinkers conceive race and religion to be knitted into the very fabric of human identity as this develops for an individual over time, through language, community, and exchange. Herder and Schleiermacher can thereby be described as “expressivist” thinkers, to use Charles Taylor’s memorable terminology, for in their minds an essential connection exists between the identity of a particular nation, people, or ethnic group, and the way this group speaks and acts. For Schleiermacher and Herder, “peoples” (die Völker) are communities constituted through their own distinctive languages and cultures. Race and religion are performed, shared, and in a certain sense even inhabited.

Another way that Herder and Schleiermacher take us beyond Kant in Vial’s presentation is that, as “expressivists,” they are each acutely aware of how differences among cultural, religious, and ethnic groups are not easily translatable. Since every group has its own utterly unique idioms, patterns of thought, and culture that are tied to place, rooted in history, and mediated through language, to stand outside a group and to judge it is inevitably to reduce it to less than itself. And yet, as much as Herder and Schleiermacher were pluralistic in their thinking, they were not cultural relativists in the full sense. The former, as Sonia Sikka explains in Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference, was instead a “qualified” relativist — qualified because he maintained a belief in a common human nature. Similarly, from Schleiermacher’s theological standpoint, acknowledging diversity doesn’t collapse into an infinite regression of difference between finite parties. Rather, it issues from the admission that we access the Infinite only in and through the finite. 

Nevertheless, Vial identifies this tension in both thinkers between “a real and admirable openness to diversity” on the one hand, and a commitment to a universal “humanity” on the other, as another context within which value-laden hierarchies are established. Indeed, to take us back to this problem of ordering groups along racial and religious lines — we note that Schleiermacher developed a general definition of “religion” that he applied to all particular religious traditions, each in its own way. But in doing so he delineated a fixed order of religions — one which privileged his own protestant Christianity, and failed to honor the particular characteristics of other faith traditions. That Schleiermacher has been so influential on the discipline of religious studies thus means, for Vial, that we continue to reinscribe the problems endemic to his project in the present day.

Vial’s work is a rich history of two categories crucial to identity-formation in modernity, one which acknowledges the power of language in shaping relationships both within communities and between them. His work confronts the habits of his own academic field. He challenges existing narratives about Kant and Müller, and offers a reappraisal of Schleiermacher that stresses the latter’s difference from Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade. Moreover, Vial is surely right to critique the practice of comparing groups against a fixed and historically-achievable idea of what it means to be a perfect human. He is also surely right to declare his own discipline of religious studies as “fully imbricated with race,” and to acknowledge that the methodological problems the discipline has cannot be cleared up simply by “jettisoning” certain of its central texts or terms. There are, however, a couple of points in particular where I want to ask questions of Vial’s study.

First, I take issue with his treatment of Schleiermacher. Vial seems to reduce Schleiermacher’s depiction of the relationship between God (or the Infinite) and humanity to a relationship between humans and the world. Divinity is thereby collapsed into history. We find this tendency operating in the following sentence, from Vial’s appraisal of Schleiermacher’s Speeches:

By infinite, then, [Schleiermacher] means “something like the natural causal nexus, the system that precedes, at least conceptually, the individual concepts in it.” 

And again, Vial contends the following about Schleiermacher’s mature work Christian Faith, which is a systematic presentation of Christian teaching:

The account of religion in The Christian Faith remains largely in continuity with . . . the Speeches. In each experience we “intuit” or are conscious of things in the world, and have available to us consciousness of the fact that each thing we experience is determined by the totality of the natural causal nexus (the infinite).

The problem with this interpretation is that Schleiermacher (like any Christian theologian) continually stresses that religion is more than just an appreciation of the world in its stunning totality, and entails more than addressing one’s place in this larger whole. In Christian Faith, Schleiermacher refuses to equate God with the “causal nexus” belonging to or behind nature, and even refuses to compare God and the world, or to distinguish them ontologically, since this would imply that similar rules of measurement could be used about the divine and the created. He spells this out in the following terms:

The whence of our receptive and self-initiated active existence is to be designated by the term “God,” and . . . this “whence” is not the world in the sense of the totality of temporal being, and still less is it any one part of that totality.

Having establishing the radical transcendence of God — the whence of existence   Schleiermacher proceeds to affirm the opposite: God’s radical immanence, the graceful intimacy that God has with the world and its various creatures, since God is not constrained by a spatial or physical order. It is precisely because he believes there to be no resistance or antagonism between God’s act as creator of the world, and the great “causal nexus” that God sustains in being, that Schleiermacher can then state that divine preservation and natural causation “are neither sundered from nor curtailed by each other; rather they are the same thing, only regarded from different viewpoints.”

By raising this issue, I do not merely seek to quibble with a technical aspect of Vial’s interpretation of Schleiermacher. This point is also significant in relation to Vial’s judgment that a teleological framework underpins modern thinking on race and religion. This is a framework, Vial argues, which leads us “to theorise difference by comparing groups based on their proximity to a historical telos.”

I agree with Vial that it is simply wrong to sort different human groups according to their capacity to resemble some fixed idea of perfect humanity. Yet I depart from Vial in the assumption he seems to make about teleology in general, which is that it must always be tied to the notion of a fixed historical goal, at the end of some global human timeline. In the face of, say, Aquinas’s belief that perfect happiness (beatitudo) cannot be enjoyed in finite time in the material sphere, or Aristotle’s understanding of happiness (eudaemonia) as entailing a person’s full realization of human nature over the course of a life, Vial seems to suggest that thinking teleologically necessarily means some sort of historical advancement, that it means a race towards some distant yet plottable, projected, and measurable end. We find this elision in the following line:

Teleology — the (necessary) idea of progress — is woven into the fabric of modernity’s social imaginary.

Moreover, even though Vial acknowledges that such ways of conceiving human perfection were not typical in pre-modernity, his portrayal of the teleology belonging to medieval Christianity still leans on spatial metaphors, as well as the notion of a measurable distance to be overcome. Life is a journey, Vial supposes, of “progress toward or away from the telos of perfect happiness.” But in the medieval context, Vial urges, the journey is a climb upwards, towards heaven, rather than a march forwards to the end of history. We read:

To put it crudely, one of the characteristics of modernity is that the vertical subjective regulative principle of the Middle Ages (the great chain of being) has been tipped on its side

And in the following reference to Augustine’s theology of creation, we again see how Vial imagines God and creation to belong to the same causal nexus:

Everything that exists is good, but there are various levels of goodness depending on the position on the scale between nothingness and God.

It is because Vial collapses divinity into humanity in this way, and imagines teloi ancient and modern in terms of fixed goals towards which humanity progresses, that I think he doesn’t offer us a fully adequate analysis of the problem of conceiving race and religious difference in modernity. For if Schleiermacher compares different religions and different races by way of a fixed hierarchical structure, and organizes them around a concrete understanding of what it means to be human (one which privileges the cultivated image of the white European male), then part of what he has done, I venture, is to ignore a conception of human difference that is latent in his own commitment to the Christian tradition. He has denied the kenosis of the Incarnation, the logic of the magnificat, and ignored repeated scriptural references to the Wisdom of God upsetting worldly presuppositions about what is good, proper, high or righteous. The Bible does not sanction a modern narrative of progress any more than “teleology” in general is a category tied to such an idea. Indeed, it is central to Augustinian theology that God meets us where we are — God does not demand culture or learning, but calls the marginalized, the poor, and the foreigner. And since for Augustine humans have their end in God, it is also clear to him that humans are not perfected through their own efforts — they cannot reach fulfillment on their own. Here then, we have an example of a “conceptual architecture” capable of acknowledging real and vital differences between human groups, without premising this difference on our relative proximity to a fixed ideal.

Vial’s book is illuminating and urgent in its critique of religious studies as a discipline. Still, it has some weaknesses on the level of its most basic working assumptions.


Ruth Jackson is a research fellow in theology at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her research focuses on 19th-century German thought and culture, and on the question of the role of religion in modernity. Her work sits at the intersection of theology, philosophy, literature, and intellectual history. She tweets at @RuthxJackson

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