Divine Variations

How Christian Thought Became Racial Science

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Terence Keel
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , January
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To say that race is a social construction is not to say it is a phantasm or an illusion. Social constructions build from language and patterns of thought, stitching together these meanings until a new set of cultural assumptions, language, or policies emerge. There is no “new.” Terence Keel’s Divine Variations points us to the materials, the old patterns and the stitches that built our modern notion of race. Far from scientific ideas being salvific or even contrary to the Christian origins of racial thought, Keel’s work hopes that “a new story can be told about the relationship between Christianity and modern science if we think of secularization not in terms of a rupture from the past but instead as a transference of religious forms into nonreligious spaces of thought and practice” (15). 

From Johann Blumenbach’s comparative anatomy to Josiah Nott’s gospel of polygenesis, Keel highlights how a theological presupposition of God’s providence or design became embedded within objective descriptions of “natural” phenomenon. With the legitimation of scientific and objective knowledge, racial science continued to shape public policy and deepen the white supremacy of American social and political life.

For Keel, Christian theological thought and secularized racial science are entangled, echoing what Walter Mignolo has called the “colonial matrix of power” where “the struggle between theologism and secularism was a family feud … In both cases, geo and body politics … of knowledge-configuration and epistemic desires were hidden, and the accent placed on the mind in relation to God and in relation to Reason” (The Darker Side of Modernity, Duke University Press, 2011, 9).

Keel’s project is an important point in a constellation of critical scholarship on the emergence of racial logics and the colonial world and the metamorphosis of the colonial to the modern. Joining the analysis of Sylvia Wynter, Willie James Jennings, and Jay Kameron Carter, to name a few, Divine Variations excavates the interrelationship between coloniality and the modern world in creating the conception of the racial person. Race is not new, but a hybrid, a bricolage of thought that shaped the emerging scientific assumptions regarding nature and what it means to be human.

As a Christian theologian, my first reaction to Keel’s work might be to press against the invocation of a universal Christian theology that becomes racial science. “That’s not real Christian thought,” some theologians might say. But this is a difficult case to make. It is a difficult case to make that a doctrine of providence has not also been a doctrine of preeminence for particular people in Christian history. While we might point to Christian theologies that spoke or speak from the margins, we must admit (confess?) that Christian theology has been deeply complicit in the making of the colonial world and the violence that made that world possible. 

Keel hopes that “if we are to fully embrace our role in shaping the life chances of human groups, we must have some clarity about how habits of mind and reasoning practices inherited from Christian intellectual history have predisposed us to conceptualize human origins and development in racial terms” (145).

Here I wonder if Keel’s analysis of the form of Christian intellectual history needs some deepening. While notions of providence and God’s creative work are certainly present, we can also point to a de-emphasis on Christian notions of mystery that worked beneath these theological ideas.

Mystery, transcendence, a fundamental un-knowing is also intrinsic to Christian confession. The intellectual legacy that underwrote the colonial imagination was a theological imagination grounded in a refusal of the unknown, of the mystery inherent in God, in the world, in ourselves. The Christian habits that turned confessions into classifications, precepts into power, and knowledge into justifications were the scaffolding that made Enlightenment thought possible. 

At the same time, if we are to be diligent in our genealogical work, might we also ask not about Christian intellectual history in general, but specific histories? Whose histories made the building of this world so easy? That is, while Keel’s work is critical in pointing towards the fact of stitches, if we are to press this work forward we must also ask where the thread came from and who was doing the sewing? Is the work of racial ideology grounded in the theological or did it grow from a theology?

This is less a critique of Keel’s work than a hope that we continue to press this genealogical work even deeper. At stake are not only historical connections between ideas, but a critical juncture in how discourses shape our lives and nodes of meaning.

In a series of lectures at Harvard University, theorist Stuart Hall suggested, “what matters about science or religion is not that either one contains the actual truth about difference, but that each functions foundationally in the discourse of race to fix and secure what cannot be finally fixed and secured (The Fateful Triangle, Harvard University Press, 2017, 57).

Hall’s lectures point to a deeper problem that both the theologians and scientific thinking of Keel’s work were struggling to confront—the inherent instability of descriptions and identities, their dependence on how we see and describe one another, and the attempt to distill these varying variations into a single, coherent description.

Keel’s work points us to the ways science and Christian theologies were symbiotic forces in the creation of our world. This is exemplified by the proliferation of genetic testing and data collection and its application to everything from education to disease to criminality. Coupled with the resurgence of right wing Christian nationalism, Keel’s work reminds us of the ways Christian thought can couple with scientific and political thought to become a profoundly dehumanizing phenomenon.

In the face of these forces I want to think with Keel towards Christian thought’s complicity, but also pose a theological question: Why do some human beings long so deeply for the certainty that some religious, philosophical, or scientific ways of seeing the world seem to offer? What is it that makes it difficult to see the world and its unknowability, its seemingly endless shifts, its multiplicity and its multiplications, as something to conquer?

Keel’s work offers us a warning that there is no panacea, no easy ideology or system that is free from the colonial theologies or so called “enlightened” philosophies. But in the face of this, and in the midst of a world where we are confronted by ever more differences and unknowns, perhaps our hope is best oriented towards theologies and scientific modes of thought that do not try to avoid the mystery, that do not wash out or totalize exceptions. Perhaps we no longer need “theories of everything” but rather theologies and science that help us to see variation, difference, and change as possibilities rather than as dangers. Keel’s work is a vital step toward this endeavor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Bantum is Associate Professor of Theology at Seattle Pacific University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terence Keel is Assistant Professor of History and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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