Gladness: In Doubt
The late Martinican psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon concluded his monumental text Black Skin, White Masks by exclaiming, “My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”
Indeed, at the heart of every question, and the desire to question, is something of doubt. The main entry of doubt in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is its transitive verb form: “to call into question the truth of…”; and only secondarily comes the noun form: “a lack of confidence.” However, it isn’t until the third definition of the secondary entry (the noun form) that we get what would seem to be the sense intended by this issue: “a state of affairs giving rise to uncertainty, hesitation, or suspense.”
A global pandemic and the gratuitous death it has brought have given rise to kinds of doubt that many of us have, perhaps, never before quite known. And yet, Fanon invites us to invite doubt—to invite, as it were, a participatory shaking of our foundations, a calling into question of the viability of everything: from our socio-political commitments and allegiances, to our personal habits and sins, to our religious institutionality. The burden of this imposed doubt is more, it would seem, than many of us can bear to sit with.
In the first week of quarantine (March 2020), I began reading a little book on Negro Spirituals by the 20th century African American mystic Howard Washington Thurman. Of all the texts, sermons, and meditations of Thurman’s that I have regularly returned to and studied over the years, this one, Deep River: The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, had failed to capture my attention. But there, in its introduction, speaking to a subgenre of the Negro Spiritual known as the ”sorrow song,” I came upon what occurred to me as a singularly instructive insight for understanding not only slave religion, but also faith more generally, in a time of existential and spiritual destabilization. “Sometimes the load is so heavy,” Thurman argued, “that nothing is of any avail. Hope is destroyed by its feeding on itself, and yet their destiny is deliberately placed in God’s hands. It was a maniacal kind of incurable optimism.”
There is a tendency—much to my own frustration—to read Thurman as a run of the mill optimist and ”spoon full of sugar” sentimentalist. But to the extent that he spoke, until his dying day, out of what he called “the negro idiom”—inherited from his formerly enslaved grandmother—we are better off hearing Thurman as a maniacally incurable optimist. And the chasm between the run of the mill and the maniacally incurable optimist is the abyss of doubt. Whereas the former turns away from the abyss, the latter approaches it exclaiming “O my body, make of me always a man who questions.” This is what French theorist and lapsed Catholic George Bataille called “an immense alleluia lost in the interminable silence.” It is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not long before his execution at the hands of the Third Reich, said was the uniqueness of the Christian faith: that it compels us “to look in [our] distress to the power of God in the world.” Or, as Thurman wrote in 1938,
The way over which I had come in
the day’s journey—
Tired, groaning beneath the weight of
Choking with the dust of dullness
The way over which I had come in
the day’s journey
Was radiant with the light of the
meaning of Life.
I wept. —
Through my tears, I begged
God for the journey.
From Fanon (Algeria), to Bataille (France), to Bonhoeffer (Germany), to Thurman (U.S.), what’s reflected here is the inextricability of doubt and hope, of nothingness and optimism. It is what W.E.B. Du Bois calls in The Souls of Black Folk ”double-consciousness.” We hear the Apostle when he says that “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31); both because we need it to, and because that is the instructive will to/desire to doubt (about the present order of things) that runs through the apocalyptic promises of the Gospel account—that the Kingdom is at hand if only we had ears to hear and eyes to see.
I am met, at this moment, by a cool breeze through an open window. To me it brings the proclamation of spring. The long winter is over. But the heart of the world remains cold. No longer does commercial news, in even its own faint way, debate the efficacy of abolition—the brave injunction of imaginative emancipation spoken by activists all over this land—as it had for a brief moment in the wake of George Floyd’s and Briana Taylor’s slayings. There is a new war in Europe—the weight of ancient ills. We mourn for Ukraine. But also, for those rarely recognized in Aleppo, and Palestine, and Tigray, and Afghanistan, and the Congo, and, and, and.
We await, now, the resurrected Christ. But even those who knew Jesus in the flesh, and to whom he appeared at his rising, did not recognize him. How do we, then, expect such ease of proclamation? Indeed, it is hard to look upon the unbelievable and the unfamiliar.
So often, resurrection comes with interpretations of wholeness—that Christ’s risen body points us not only to our own eventual rising in Glory, but to the possibility of a redeemed here and now. However, queer theologian Linn Tonstad has keenly observed that “Christ is not only resurrected; he is ascended. Resurrection then disallows the simple extrapolation of the whole-healed [person] and its projects into the future. Resurrection’s representational register requires apophasis and disidentification rather than identification.” In other words, resurrection’s meaning for us, here and now, requires us to embrace uncertainty about the future rather than certainty; doubt rather than doubtlessness. For, if we move too quickly to redeem a past “normal” what we risk redeeming is a loveless forgetting of those who have never known “normal.”
“Straddling Nothing and Infinity,” as Fanon wrote, through his own weeping, may we be always on the scent of the unbelievable, unfamiliar risen body of Christ—making himself known, in gladness, where he always has and always will: with those in doubt.