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J. Kameron Carter on Baptism, Christology, and Black Theology

In a recent post, I referenced the Duke Divinity School professor and potential rising star of black theology, J. Kameron Carter, whose work I greatly admire. The discussion centered on how Carter approaches the modern question of race as a distinctly theological problem. Here is an extended quote from an essay entitled “Christology, Or Redeeming Whitness: A Response to James Perkinson’s Appropriation of Black Theology.” This article encapsulates a few of his key perspectives on a theological account of race. Full text of the article is found here.

This brings us to an alternative scriptural interpretation of the meaning of baptism and, thus, an alternative for understanding Perkinson’s claim that the problem of racism “is as deep as the body one inhabits.” That alternative is this: Baptism is induction into a different mode of being in the world, one that surpasses the mode of being whose nodal points are the hegemonic and the counterhegemonic. Christ, under this alternative, does not symbolize the existential possibility of receiving the other into oneself so that one no longer lives hegemonically. He does not symbolize how whites can be “redeemed” by expanding their existential horizons so that “black pain and power [might be] at work” in them. For, in actuality, this is not immersion into the other at all. It is the other being subsumed into the constituting “I,” an “I” that has chosen, in an egalitarian gesture, to expand its borders from being a “mom and pop” store to being a shopping mall. Inhabiting or being received into Christ’s actual body in such a way that one lays no claim to naming oneself and, therefore, in which one holds nothing of oneself back in self-possession-this is what baptism represents in this second alternative. Baptism in this second alternative involves handing oneself over to God in Christ so as to receive oneself back as gift. This is the deeper meaning of Christ’s baptism, which cannot be severed from the event of the Cross. On this important point, Perkinson is right, though his insight must be redirected. For, from the first, even in its Marian incubation, Christ’s life is cruciform. It is the ultimate drama of handing over and receiving back. In this sense of the full weight of the Latin term traditio (to hand over), Christ’s life is “traditioned” and, in bringing initiates into it, it is “traditioning” and “habituating” (habitus). To receive oneself back through baptismal handing over is to be co-mission-ed inside of Christ’s eternal mission. Christ’s mission is eternal in that his temporal mission is but a translation into the terms of creaturely existence-being, time, space, history, culture, and so on-of his trinitarian generation from the Father, through and out of which proceeds the Holy Spirit. To receive oneself back from God, through baptism, is to receive Christ himself, but in such a way that the self is, in fact, established inside of Christ’s mission. The self is itself precisely insofar as it becomes a person in Christ and, therefore, like a tuning fork, intones the one Word in an inflection that is irreplaceably unique and specific to the one newly made a mission-ary.

Thus, baptism in this second sense is transparent to God’s trinitarian way of being God. In this way of being, the divine persons hold nothing of themselves back as “private property,” as it were, in the divine life. Thus, for example, the Father as the paternal arche (foundation or beginning) of the Trinity, in generating the Son, hands himself over completely to the Son, without losing himself as Father. This handing-over is so thorough that the one who would know the Father can do so only by knowing the Son. Hence, the Father receives himself back in the overfulfillment of himself-an overfulfillment that is the eternal Son in the Holy Spirit. The other trinitarian relationships can be explained in similar ways. For our purposes, what is important to see is that baptism’s inner logic, on this second interpretive alternative, is fundamentally trinitarian: In baptism, the initiate is inducted into Jesus’ own self-surrender, through the Holy Spirit, back into his Father’s hands-only so that the Son receives himself back again in his own overabundance. This overabundance in the economy of redemption is the mystical and real body of Christ. The mystical body of Christ is creation united to Christ and, therefore, as rapt up into the trinitarian life, through union with Christ, its Exemplar. The empirical church, being founded in the Holy Spirit, is the real anticipation of the mystical body. Baptism-entry into Christ precisely as entry into his body-is induction into a power-ful existence. This, to return to Perkinson’s language, is the body the baptized are to inhabit. The inner dynamism of this movement of power is trinitarian love as the unity of power and powerlessness.


  1. GoobyNelly wrote:

    “For, in actuality, this is not immersion into the other at all. It is the other being subsumed into the constituting “I,” an “I” that has chosen, in an egalitarian gesture, to expand its borders from being a “mom and pop” store to being a shopping mall.”

    Beautiful point! I’m glad this guy’s in Durham, as there’s plenty of work to be done there on racism.

    Friday, January 12, 2007 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, Carter is one of the best young theologians at Duke and I can’t wait for him to really start producing some works.

    Friday, January 12, 2007 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Brian Hamilton wrote:

    Halden, thanks for calling our attention to this guy. I’ve spent the afternoon reading through a couple of his articles, and he really is a breath of fresh air–to hear classical theology so interwoven with contemporary social concerns. I do wish he had brought it back to the concrete issue of blackness in America at the end of the article you mention, to maintain the moral urgency that’s so helpful in earlier Black theology. But hopefully his book will dwell there a bit more!

    Friday, January 12, 2007 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben Myers wrote:

    Wow, this is great stuff. I hadn’t heard of Carter before, so I’m glad you’ve alerted me to his work.

    Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  5. Dan Morehead wrote:

    Carter is a good guy. I enjoyed having him around when I was at Duke.

    Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Harold Cerula wrote:

    Here’s an article that really explains Black Liberal Theology. It is evaluated and examined, and ultimately refuted.

    Truth About Black Liberal Theology

    Friday, March 21, 2008 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  7. David wrote:

    I wonder if Morey has ever actually read any Black Liberation Theology, because what his article says is on par with an argumentative hit job.

    Friday, March 21, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Chad wrote:

    Great stuff! This caught my attention because I will be in Carter’s class next semester! Glad I found this blog….


    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  9. Joey wrote:

    Interestingly enough, Carter studied under David Bentley Hart while at Virginia. I think he also worked with Wilken as well.

    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

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