Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment

Joe Drexler-Dreis

Last month, the Centre for Liberation Theologies and Anthropos Research Group co-hosted a colloquium, “Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Perspectives on Enfleshment.” During the colloquium, we aimed to develop responses to a fundamental question from a number of angles. Much of the motivation for this question came from the under-appreciated Jamaican decolonial intellectual, Sylvia Wynter.

Sylvia Wynter’s project is strongly shaped by an analysis of western modernity that begins with the experience of western modernity as coloniality. She responds to western modernity from the particular locus of the Caribbean (and specifically Jamaica). By turning to an analysis of the historical matrix of western modernity, Wynter describes herself as moving “beyond resentment, beyond a feeling of anger at the thought of how much the population to which you belong has been made to pay for their rise to world dominance,” and instead asking, “How did they do it?”[1] This is a key move that Frantz Fanon, an intellectual who largely shapes decolonial thought, also makes. Early in his first work—on the first pages of his first book—Fanon describes his own move from a cry or shout that emerges from anger (le crí) to discourse. In centralizing an analysis of western modernity/coloniality, Wynter introduces significant conceptual categories that can make sense of western modernity from loci in which it is experienced as coloniality.

A crucial category that Wynter brings to the analysis of colonial modernity emerges out of her concern about how the human person has been described within the perspective of western modernity and how this description creates experiences of western modernity as coloniality. Wynter refers to the overrepresentation of white, bourgeois, heterosexual males as the human that is indigenous to western modernity as “Man.” In a number of her critical articles, Wynter presents a historical argument regarding the development of Man. She describes a move from the theocentric Christian descriptive statement of the human as Man to an invention of Man as political subject (a shift occurring between the 15th and 18th centuries), and then to an invention of Man based on biological sciences and racializing discourses (beginning in the 18th century). Part of the tactics of the affirmation of Man is the “blocking out” of any “counter-voice,” and, in the contemporary context, particularly of “of a Black counter-voice.” Because the persistence of Man is “the foundational basis of modernity,” and a general problem that creates subsets of problems,[2] Wynter describes the central struggle of the contemporary context as between securing the well-being of Man or the Human. This struggle requires “unsettling” Man by re-describing the human outside of Man.

The analytic dimension of Wynter’s project leads to a constructive question, already suggested by Wynter herself, of how to re-describe the human person beyond the confines of Man, or beyond the Doctrine of Man. Wynter frames it as such: “if they did it, how can we, the non-West, the always native Other to the true human of their Man, set out to transform, in our turn, a world in which we must all remain always somewhat Other to the ‘true’ human in their terms?”[3] The goal of our colloquium was to wrestle with this question and provide constructive responses. To do this, we brought a variety of issues to the table. How do those subjects outside the domain of Man imagine and live in ways that offer different conceptions of the human? How might this challenge Man? How can academic disciplines emerging in the 1960s out of political movements—e.g., Black studies, Latina/o studies, Native studies, Women and Gender studies, Queer theory—bring out ways new modes of humanity of been imagined? What political stances emerge in sites where bodies are reduced to flesh—that is, where human persons are stripped of the protections that the recognition of embodiment offers? Might these sites where bodies are rendered flesh paradoxically allow for a movement beyond the Word/World of Man? Speakers, respondents, and participants in the colloquium developed genuinely transdisciplinary responses to these questions—that is, the problems themselves guided the discussion and ideas, rather than attempts to hold to certain principles sacred to particular disciplines.

During the colloquium, I considered the possibilities of a religious framework to respond to the types of questions Wynter’s work poses, and did so by considering how religion functioned for Nat Turner. Nat Turner led one of the most significant slave rebellions in U.S. history in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia. After he was captured, he dictated “confessions” to a local attorney, Thomas R. Gray, in which he articulated the reasons for the rebellion. In the “Confessions,” Turner described the fundamental motivation for the rebellion within a religious commitment. Despite the historical significance of the rebellion, the scholarly engagement with the religious vision Turner presents has been limited—and by and large restricted to interpretations that remain within the scope of Black Theology. Taking Nat Turner’s “Confessions,” scholarship on slave religion, and recent discussions on the flesh as its basis, I developed a way of understanding the religious vision that informed and became manifest in Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion as providing a ground and epistemology from which to contest the networks of relation forced upon him. Ultimately, Turner’s self-understanding and understanding of reality suggest an alternative understanding of the human. I argued that, with reference to the religious, Nat Turner actualizes a project of contesting Man and that his religious vision remains relevant to the contemporary praxis of contesting Man.



[1] David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): 175.

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 288.

[3] Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism,” 175.

Disability, Vulnerability, the Caribbean: an [un]easy association?

By Adanna James

Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.[1]

Vulnerability as common human condition

Standing in front of others in a teaching capacity is always a big risk, and the risk is amplified when the content of knowledge being presented has not emerged from the context one finds oneself in at a given point in time. This was the case as I attempted to bring the insights gained from disability theologians mostly based in a European/North American setting to persons attending the 2015 School of Liturgy in Trinidad where I facilitated a workshop on including disabilities into parish life over the summer.[2] So, was it worth the ‘risk’ that Edouard Glissant refers to in the opening lines of this blog? Did these insights inform the imaginary of the people gathered before me, their varied poetics? Most of the insights shared came from Thomas Reynolds’ reflections in his Vulnerable Communion (2008) and his thesis that we share a common vulnerable human condition and so all share in the experience of disability.[3] Reynolds draws from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (2001)  where the link is made between being born instinct-deprived, in terms of our inability for immediately getting on in the world as compared with other intelligent animals, and as a result being necessarily dependent on others to a greater degree. Also highlighted were Reynolds’ views on the protective strategies developed by us as human beings to deny our vulnerability which lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Participants were then asked to reflect on their own personal life situations of exclusion, which ranged from being made to feel unwelcome at parish events to being asked to leave a public venue without explanation, and to find comparisons between those experiences and that of persons with disabilities. Experiences of those with disabilities were shared by parents who were part of the workshop. One parent shared how she felt after a stranger physically pulled away from her son upon learning that he had autism. This portion of the workshop was also most mentioned during feedback sessions. Participants highlighted its revelatory effect, in making them aware of the deep impact their experiences of exclusion had had on them as well as causing them to see how much their own experiences had in common with those with disabilities. Our common vulnerable human condition seemed to have been acknowledged.

Caribbean vulnerability

However, something disturbed me on a profound level coming out of the workshop. I wondered how it was that persons coming from the Caribbean, a region that has been so formed and marked by the imprint of vulnerability from its origins in the genocide of indigenous populations, the atrocities of slavery, indentureship, colonization to present day vulnerabilities because of global economic crises, natural disasters etc. had reflected so little on their own personal experiences of vulnerability and disability. On an academic level there is no dearth to Caribbean reflection on vulnerability in the region. Guillermina De Ferrari in her Vulnerable States (2007) explores the tendency among Caribbean scholars to highlight vulnerability, particularly of the body.[4] In identifying this tendency, she turns to Edouard Glissant’s  categorisation of three phases of Caribbean literary production that each zoned in on vulnerability from a different perspective. The first phase, Acts of Delusion, produced texts meant to justify both land and body possession in the Antilles. This was done through landscaping and bodyscaping, presenting fantasized images of the land as empty, unknown and free from ownership and the natives and slaves as desirous of being possessed. The second category, Acts of Survival, represented the artistic production of slaves, meant to preserve identity and memory against Acts of Delusion. The third category, the Passion for Memory is where De Ferrari locates contemporary Caribbean scholarship. This phase is described by Glissant as both “compensatory and recuperative” of the vulnerability of loss, especially the loss of history. This is done through an artistic imagination that counters history and re-symbolises the deluded realities that marked the first phase of Caribbean literatures. Re-appropriation of metaphors of Acts of Delusion takes place; the land now becomes ‘unconquerable’.  Other terms like ‘resistance’ and ‘transcend[ing] limitation’ reveal the direction the re-symbolising process takes.

Resisting/Welcoming vulnerability?

As I encounter this last phase I am forced to admit of a difficulty in assimilating disability theology and Caribbean experience. Has this liberationist, emancipatory, passion for Memory turn in which most contemporary Caribbean authors find themselves made it difficult to speak of a vulnerable human condition of disability that is not to be transcended nor resisted but welcomed in order to discover the human togetherness that Henri Nouwen and some disability theologians speak of? Has the Caribbean experience revealed a different kind of vulnerability and suffering, one that can’t be “domesticated’ “integrated” or accepted as “an unavoidable part of our human condition”?[5] Reynolds battles with this idea of suffering as he uses Stanley Hauerwas to reflect on this issue, where Hauerwas affirms suffering as inevitable and states that we suffer the existence of others. Reynolds’ resolution lies in his thesis of the recognition of a mutual vulnerability in our relationships; this opens us up to love and causes us to attend to others’ specific needs. Is this a nut too hard to swallow given our actual vulnerable reality in the Caribbean? I think I’ve reached the first serious junction in my research. Ideas anyone?


[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Glissant is a poet/novelist from Martinique, a French dependent in the Caribbean and is one of the Caribbean’s leading postcolonial authors. He is most known for his Poétique de la Relation 1997 and le Discours Antillais 1997.

[2] The Trinidad School of Liturgy is held every year and gathers together representatives from parishes throughout the country including other islands for one week to be educated on aspects of Catholic liturgy.

[3] See Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

[4] Guillermina De Ferrari, Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Fiction (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

[5] Reynolds quotes here from theologian Stanley Hauerwas. See Vulnerable Communion,109-111.




The option for the poor

By Joe Drexler-Dreis

The Centre for Liberation Theologies offered a course this year on the option for the poor. We questioned how the concept of the option for the poor can formulate a theological response to a contemporary context shaped by hierarchies based on economic, social, and political power. At the conclusion of the course, I can see three inter-related points that we developed.

First, there is a need to develop a method that can elucidate the historicity of the Christian understanding of salvation. This implies a need for both structural analyses and ways to understand everyday realities. These ways of analyzing historical reality impact the understanding of God. This question of social analysis or mediations for theology has received renewed interest over the last decade by theologians such as Ivan Petrella and Ada-María Isasi-Díaz.

This already leads me to the second point: social analyses, and the social practices these imply, have theological implications. There is a functional relationship between inductive and deductive ways of thinking when engaging the option for the poor as a discourse about God. The option for the poor is a fundamentally theo-centric option. God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, as among and for the oppressed, is fundamental to who God is. This represents a deductive principle, yet this deductive principle demands a parallel inductive principle. In turning to “the poor” in our immediate situations, we can better understand who God is.

This brings me to the third point, on which I’d like to dwell a bit. If “the poor” is a fundamental theological category, as the previous two points indicate, how we understand the poor is crucial to a theological understanding of reality. Many descriptions of “the poor” describe poverty in terms of a lack or deprivation. In many important ways, poverty is a lack, and it’s important to acknowledge this: poverty cannot be defined without reference to the concrete lack of material resources. But in my contributions to the course, I put forward the thesis that the option for the poor disallows this notion of a lack to extend to the epistemological level: the oppressed do not lack the capacity to make sense of reality in an adequate way. If the actions by and relationships among the materially poor are seen as outside rationality, or as not making a legitimate claim towards universality, then the option for the poor, as the ground of a Christian theological discourse on the divine, is sacrificed. In other words: the option for the poor demands that the epistemologies and cosmologies that emerge from the materially poor have the capacity to make sense of the divine reality.

This is where decolonial theory can be helpful to theology. Walter Mignolo, one of the preeminent decolonial theorists, is critical of liberation theologies:

While there is a history of theology obviously linked to imperial designs and interests, the papacy being an obvious example, there are theologies of liberation in South America, North America, and Africa, as well as a Jewish theology of liberation. My claim is that, as in the disputes between (neo)liberalism and (neo)Marxism, both sides of the coin belong to the same bank: the disputes are entrenched within the same rules of the game, where the contenders defend different positions but do not question the terms of the conversation.”[1]

Even though (neo)Marxism represents a leftist critique of (neo)liberalism, both are Euro-centered discourses: both develop in reference to European realities and in dialogue with an (almost) exclusively European intellectual tradition. Analogously, for Mignolo, liberation theologies, like traditional theologies, develop in reference to European intellectual traditions despite their leftist (although not exclusively Marxist) tendencies. (Although, and this is what he misses, not in reference to European realities.)

To do liberation theology from the decolonial perspective that Mignolo is pushing for would require seeing the role of Christianity within Western expansion from the perspective of the experience of colonization. It requires thinking out of the memory of the exploitation that allowed for Western modernity (i.e., colonization and the slave trade), and the hope for the obliteration of these exploitative processes. This means engaging thought systems that emerge from the sites of exploitation by Western modernity, not merely as claims for justice that need to be recuperated within the Western tradition, but as intellectual claims.

Such a perspective is in contrast to a perspective of (Western) modernity, which assumes the normativity of the hegemonic epistemological position articulated within Western Europe. For Mignolo, what characterizes modernity is its Euro-centrism. Theologies that critique Western modernity by finding a better European tradition thus remain, for Mignolo, in a perspective of modernity. Within theology, we see this in a return to pre-modern sources (i.e., radical orthodoxy) or a postmodern turn in order to offer an internal critique of modernity. These two turns are both attempts to maintain the centrality of European discourse. Even as turns away from Europe—to the way the victims of Western modernity have responded to its oppressive features—would make more sense, both these trajectories cling to a need to maintain the epistemic normativity of the Western tradition.

The decolonial perspective that Mignolo finds lacking in liberation theology isn’t only an issue of diversifying knowledge, or adding race or gender analysis (although it is also this). Fundamentally, a decolonial perspective is significant because it suspends the de facto authority of Western thought systems over all other ways of making sense of the world and human relationships. Within this suspension, decolonial theorists turn towards the ways those outside the benefits of Western modernity have made sense of the world. This is crucial for the option for the poor. The option for the poor implies doing theology—that is, thinking the divine reality—from a decolonial perspective. Because of who Christians hold God to reveal Godself to be (deductive principle), Christian theology requires thinking within trans-modern epistemologies (inductive principle).


[1] Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, 92.

Teaching theology and disciplinary decadence

Michael Wolgemut.   The Scourging of Christ  ,   1491. 

Michael Wolgemut. The Scourging of Christ, 1491. 

While teaching christology this summer at Xavier University of Louisiana, I asked students to “name” Jesus Christ, to respond to the question Jesus asks in Mark 8:29. To establish the context in which this naming takes place, we watched the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn. The film shows the process that led up to the city of Philadelphia dropping a bomb on a home that served as the headquarters of the religious-political group MOVE on May 13, 1985. The director of the film, Jason Osder, tells the story relying solely on video archives, particularly footage of a commission held shortly after the bombing. At one point during the commission, a reverend questions two police officers why, when they went into a back alley where some MOVE members were trying to escape the burning house, the people chose to go back into the burning house, to then be burned to death. The reverend asks the officers what could possibly have led these people, choosing between a burning house and police officers allegedly asking them to come out, to opt for the burning house. The police officers were only able to refer to the irrationality of MOVE members.

One of the ways we interpreted the logic evident in the bombing of MOVE, which indicates a set of hierarchies that continue to determine the experience of life in the United States, was through the framework of what decolonial theorists call “coloniality.” Coloniality refers to the logic embedded within the political process of colonialism, which has yet to disappear despite political decolonization. In the context of what happened to MOVE members in May 1985, the concept of coloniality indicates a concealed set of hierarchies, on which western modernity depends, that make living life unbearable for those outside the benefits of modernity. Thus the choice to return to the burning house.

Students’ contributions in their struggle to name Christ are particularly relevant in light of continued police violence in the US, where a black person is killed by police, security guards, or vigilantes every 28 hours. As the course progressed, some students became increasingly suspicious of the capability of a theological reflection on Jesus Christ to respond to coloniality. To paraphrase one student’s articulation of his suspicion: “The more we (black US Americans) talk about Christ, the farther we move from understanding the historical situation that we’re in.”

The ways black liberation and womanist theologians give meaning to the identity of Jesus Christ convinced many students that christology could help navigate the relationship between the historical reality and the divine reality. But a few students in each of my courses remained unconvinced. Their persistent critique was that a doctrine of Jesus Christ worked out within the parameters of a Greek philosophical thought system simply didn’t provide a sufficient response to the everyday experience of life of black people in the United States.

Immediately after teaching, I participated in the annual conference of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Listening to the keynote lecture by Lewis R. Gordon helped me appreciate the depth of the students’ critique. Gordon talked about “disciplinary decadence,” which he defines as:

the phenomenon of turning away from living thought, which engages reality and recognizes its own limitations, to a deontologized or absolute conception of disciplinary life. The discipline becomes, in solipsistic fashion, the world. And in that world, the main concern is the proper administering of its rules, regulations, or, as Frantz Fanon argued, (self-devouring) methods.

When Gordon talks about “turning away from living thought,” this includes turning away from those deemed incapable of thinking. The police officers’ justification of the MOVE members returning to the burning house is an example of this: they attempt to bring others’ thought into their own way of thinking so that they can package it in a way that fits their naming of the world. Turning away from thought includes a concealed anthropological distinction between people groups. The discipline, governed by particular people groups, becomes the world, while the ways those relegated outside of the discipline have made sense of the world are left out. The narration of the world, even the world itself, becomes the exclusive domain of those whom the discipline allows in.

Gordon’s lecture made me think of the ways disciplinary decadence manifests itself within theology, and how this concept might have helped my students to elaborate on their suspicion that christology can provide a framework for a response to the lived experience of black US Americans. The concept of disciplinary decadence prompts the question: Does the coloniality embedded within the discipline of theology (i.e., on an epistemic level) allow for a response to police bombing a house full of people, or killing another unarmed black teenager? My intuition, during and after the course, is that we have to continue to work through the nature of the students’ suspicion that the implicit anthropological distinctions strongly embedded within the academic discipline of theology disqualify it as an adequate framework from which to respond to our immediate situation. The refusal to engage those who don’t neatly fit into the disciplinary boundaries of theology creates a distorted and solipsistic analytical circuit that often reduces theology to faith in a system, rather than, as Gustavo Gutiérrez defined theology, critical reflection on historical praxis in light of Christian faith.

Signifying the Human: A Failure to Face Reality

If you can see that the invention of the black condition creates the trap of white identity, you will see that what a black man knows about a white man stems, inexorably, from the white man’s description of who, and what, he takes to be the other—in this case the black cat: me.
— James Baldwin, "Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption"

James Baldwin often comes back to a critique of US Americans’ failure to confront the reality that they create and signify, coupled with a call to confront this reality as a process of redemption. This is, for example, clearly seen in his three-act tragedy, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). The title of the play bears this out. The action centers on the death of a young black man at the hands of a white man who is then exonerated, a reality that is by all means a very contemporary one. Yet, at the end, the blues are sung for Mister Charlie—a term used to refer to the generic white man—because of his inability to confront reality.

Baldwin continues this critique and proposal in a 1979 essay on jazz, “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” which is what I want to focus on here. In this essay, Baldwin puts forth jazz, and more particularly the ability to understand jazz, as a possibility for redemption within a US American context. Jazz challenges the language we use to describe reality, and more particularly the human. In a fundamental sense, it challenges our process of orientation within reality. Baldwin points to the black experience of being signified, but also, crucially, the ability to see the process of signification and to understand how it reveals something about the signifier. This is part of what is expressed in jazz, and what constitutes the universal importance of jazz, even in cases when the signifier refuses to comprehend this process. I would put forward that the reluctance of mainstream US American and Western European theology to, in Baldwin’s terms, “understand jazz,” distorts its ability to comprehend the human.

Baldwin makes a plea to open or unveil history, and sees jazz, which in the United States begins on the auction block of the slave market, to at the very least present the possibility of doing this.

Now, whoever is unable to face this—the auction block; whoever cannot see that the auction block is the demolition, by Europe, of all human standards: a demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world’s history, in the name of “civilization”; whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slaughtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father; or whoever pretends that the white father did not, literally, and knowing what he was doing, hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son—whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music, and the key to life. Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.

Concealing the beat of/within history prevents the redemption of US American society. Redemption, for Baldwin, comes from within, from an unveiling of the historical reality that isn't possible as long as the beat is covered over.

In his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (a review can be found here), James Cone argues that the cross and lynching tree must interpret each other. When our understanding of the cross isn't inflected by the lynching tree, we (US American theologians) do dishonest theology. We do theology abstracted from the beat. Baldwin would agree with Cone regarding the state of mainstream theology: as long as it fails to engage reality—and Cone makes a compelling argument regarding the failure of US American christologies to engage reality when they don’t engage the reality of lynching and its extension into contemporary forms—, theology functions as a part of the concealment of reality. In this process, there is no hope of such a discourse indicating anything about redemption. A signification of the human absent the beat—and I’m in agreement with Cone that such naive signification pervades theological understandings of the person—distances theology from functioning as a redemptive praxis, or, for that matter, from saying anything about God.