Ralph Ellison's Invisible Theology

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M. Cooper Harriss
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


M. Cooper Harriss’s monograph, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, brings into focus the religious and theological dimensions of Ralph Ellison’s authorship. Against reductive tendencies of materialist and secular accounts of racial identity, Harriss argues that Ellison’s understanding of race—characterized as an invisible theology in a secular age—makes possible a reconsideration of the relation between race, religion, and secularism. In order to draw the religious aspects of racial life into view, Harriss proceeds along two lines: genealogically, he situates Ellison’s writings in an array of religious and theological contexts. These include, for example, attending to different genealogies of invisibility, which inflect Ellison’s own seminal use of the term, Ellison’s friendship with Nathan A. Scott Jr., and his attachment to the literary legacy of American Calvinism.

The recovery of Ellison and his religious contexts, however, is in service of Harriss’s second and more basic argument. This argument is that Ellison’s writings structurally procure an invisible theology, or a religiously-charged notion of racial life underscored by ambiguity and indeterminacy, which Harriss culls from Ellison’s relentless examination of the tensions between multiple forms of identity. Although certain difficulties surface in terms of distinguishing these threads—that is, on the one hand, separating Harriss’s identification of religious analogies and genealogical habits of mind from, on the other hand, his argument that Ellison is a patterned theologian of the invisible—Harriss maintains this structural and genealogical distinction throughout, holding them side-by-side with the latter functioning to support the former.

Invisible Theology makes a number of interventions. First, it participates in theorizing the entanglements of race, religion, and secularism. Harriss posits an interdependence thesis with regard to these terms: religion is neither the absence nor the antithesis of the secular; more precisely, it functions as the secular’s surrogate (2-4, 32-33,192). With regard to understanding racial formation, Invisible Theology investigates religious concepts that inform shifting ideas of race across Ellison’s writings. Harriss’s contention is not that racial formation in Ellison should be thought of as a religious instead of a secular concept; rather, race is a secular concept precisely due to that it is internally indivisible from religious antecedents (191). Given this network of connections, Harriss’s book belongs among recent studies which explicate dynamic crossings between race, religion, and secularism—for example, Theodore Vial’s Modern Religion, Modern Race (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Second, Invisible Theology marshals the resources of religious studies to foreground unappreciated dimensions of literary texts. Harriss’s book particularly stands with other studies engaging the neglected religious aspects of twentieth-century African American literature including Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2016). Harriss’s distinctive methodological points are noteworthy: naming the presence of religion and theology in Ellison’s fiction does not depend on its belonging to a confessional standpoint; instead, taking cues from the hermeneutical tradition which includes Friedrich Schleiermacher, Clifford Geertz, and Paul Tillich, Harriss means for these characterizations to specify a negotiation of hyphenated and oppositional identities—say, racial and national—and the process through which tensions between particular and universal identities ramify as concerns of penultimate and ultimate meaning (14, 33, 88-91). Harriss therefore cooperatively pairs religion and theology as “critically cofunctional,” partitioning religion as the process or maneuvering of identities in social worlds, and theology as phenomenal matters of meaning (16-17).

One of the most distinct interventions of Invisible Theology comes by way of Harriss’s casting of Ellison as a subject in need of sustained attention in religious and theological studies. A—perhaps underexplored—provocation that emerges from tracking the relays between religion and race in Ellison is that Harriss’s reading implies generative friction with other prominent receptions of Ellison, for instance, the religious naturalist and pragmatist-Emersonian reception  of Beth Eddy’s The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2004). This friction is most clearly evident in the discussion of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass as close theological ancestors of Ellison (147-178, cf. 14).

Harriss’s book also raises questions about the relation between Ellison’s invisible theology and early black theology. While Black Power and the Black Arts Movement function as accent walls for Harriss’s elaboration of Ellison’s invisibility given certain dismissals of Ellison as an accommodationist, or as an unconcerned aesthete—a point illustrated, as Harriss repeats, by a black studies librarian who held that Ellison was “not a black writer” (36, 192). The differences internal to these movements are elided in Harriss’s defense of Ellison. More to the point, additional attention to early black theology—beyond Martin Luther King Jr.—could nuance the defense of Ellison’s invisible theology given its parallels to both Ellison’s racial imaginary and critical investments in Black Power. James Cone’s eschatological black theology and his theology of black music, for example, would complicate this differentiation in that: 1) Cone writes in solidarity with Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, and yet his eschatology eschews, like Ellison, romantic notions of racial identity; 2) moreover, Cone’s early writings stake the position that the blues are the mode of eschatology and apocalyptic, which finds resonance with Harriss’s compelling reading of Invisible Man’s apocalyptic (60-68).

In any case—as I hope is clear—Harriss’s Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology provides a suggestive, learned, and accessible entrance into Ellison’s life and work which creatively appraises the theological significance of Ellison’s thought while also contributing to conversations on race, religion, and secularism as well as religion and literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyler Davis is a doctoral student in theology and ethics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Cooper Harriss is assistant professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University.


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