Category Archives: Book Reviews

Religion, Theology, and Science: Thoughts on Durkheim’s Study of the Elementary Forms of Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

In the book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, I found Emile Durkheim’s conclusions regarding the objective reality behind religion to be sound and applicable for both the study and the practice of religion today. Durkheim seems justified in stating that, “the unanimous feeling of believers down the ages cannot be mere illusion;” thus, it follows that “religious experience” actually engenders sensations and sensibilities that are grounded in reality.[1] However, the ideas and perceptions that arise from this grounded experience do not necessarily conform objectively to the reality in which they are grounded. In fact, Durkheim rightly asserts that the infinite variations, in different times, through which this reality has been (and can be) conceived demonstrate that these conceptions have typically failed to accurately express it.[2] Thus, prior to addressing “the demands of practicality and vital necessities” that force us to contemplate that which science cannot investigate (i.e. prior to “doing” theology), we must first apply a scientific analysis to the sensations of religious life.

One conclusion of Durkheim’s analysis is that, “Religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities; rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups.”[3] Through intense rituals, which bring about “a state of [collective] effervescence that alters the conditions of psychic activity,” the collective consciousness will tend to transfigure and imagine the clan or society in some sort of sacred form or concept such as a plant, an animal, or a god.[4] For example, the religious totem, once conceived, emblematized, and affirmed through rituals, symbolizes “both the god and the society, [which means that] the god and the society are the same.”[5] Therefore, through rituals that sacralize certain collective representations, religion serves to strengthen the solidarity of a given society itself.

As a person of faith, I do not believe it is sacrilegious to identify Divinity with the whole of human society, that is, with the whole of humanity. One need not resort to pantheism, because as Durkheim recognized, society-itself is “a reality sui generis; it has its own characteristics.”[6] Thus, the representations that express both God and society, as Durkheim states, “have an altogether different content from the purely individual representations.”[7] Of course, Durkheim’s conception of the collective consciousness does not affirm an metaphysical reality sui generis, but rather an epistemological one. Still, Durkheim’s conception neither denies nor affirms any theological claim about said reality being divinely transcendent.

It is clear that our tumultuous world needs a system of morals that guides our actions toward peace, justice, freedom, equality, and love of all of humanity, but science meets its limits in the realm of morality. Moral philosophy may very well inform the masses (including religion) of the “right” way to live. However, religion serves its optimal function in creating the sacred, and thereby espousing faith, which as Durkheim states, “is above all a spur to action.”[8] It is this spur to action—guided by a global ethic, consisting of collective representations, which positive and negative rites evoke, maintain, and re-create into sacred principles—that is desperately needed to unite humanity into a global moral community that moves to actualize those sacred principles in the world.[9] However, the privileged position that religion once had in interpreting the natural world must be conceded to science.[10] That is, religious speculation must always reckon with science on science’s terms; it “should affirm nothing that science denies, deny nothing that science affirms, and establish nothing that does not directly or indirectly rest on principles taken from science.”[11]

Tragically, somewhere down the line, religious rituals began to sacralize a god who was wholly other, separated from society, and even opposed to it. Thankfully, Durkheim rightly asserts that, “religion seems destined to transform itself rather than disappear.”[12] As such, today’s religious practitioners and gatekeepers must re-envision and transform religion into “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,” which strives to unite all people of the world, not into “a single moral community,” as Durkheim states, but rather into a global moral community.[13] Instead of sacralizing things that divide humanity, such as conceptions of a god who “chooses” one People over another or ordains this or that war, religion must acknowledge that society-itself is sacred. Religion must affirm universal humanity-itself as sacred, and establish a universal sacred bond of kinship among all peoples, since indeed, this is what its true function is. In our 21st Century, globalized, and pluralistic context, and in the age of the Internet, YouTube, and social media, it is necessary to investigate the possibility of fostering or imitating positive and negative rites both virtually and globally.

[1] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995), 420.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 208, 424.

[5] Ibid., 208.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 432.

[9] Collective representations of sacred principles such as peace, justice, freedom, equality, and love of all of humanity.

[10] Of course, this means that science itself must be its own vehement critic to ensure its own intellectual honesty, but the moment religionists begin to address scientific claims they must cease “doing” religion and adopt the methods of scientific enquiry. Even as science grows (including the social sciences, e.g., sociology, psychology, etc.), however, religion still serves a necessary function for society—albeit in a transformed manifestation.

[11] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 433.

[12] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 432.

[13] Ibid., 44.

The Evolution—not “Reinvention”—of Malcolm X: A critical review of Manning Marable’s MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION

Malcolm X is one of the most multifariously portrayed individuals in human history, painted as someone between an “unashamed demagogue [whose] gospel was hatred”[1] to black people’s “own black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved [them] so.”[2] After nearly two decades of scouring a cornucopia of government documents, periodicals, dissertations, journal articles, books, oral histories, and face-to-face interviews, the late Manning Marable completed an exceptionally detailed and illuminating biography of Malcolm, entitled: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.[3] While Marable compendiously reconstructs Malcolm’s life within its sociopolitical and historical context, at times, he indulges in excessive interpretative privileges. In this essay, I will explicate the biography’s general framework, and provide a critical analysis of Marable’s speculative pursuits. Once readers discern Marable’s subtle biases, Malcolm emerges as a man who was so uncompromisingly committed to virtues of faith, truth, dignity, and justice for his fellow black brothers and sisters, that as he gained insight into his personal and ideological flaws, he had the courage to let go of deep-seated beliefs and evolve, not “reinvent” himself, toward becoming a man committed to the full humanity of all.

One troublesome element is the book’s recurring theme that Malcolm’s narrative was “a brilliant series of reinventions.”[4] Marable defines, “the art of reinvention” as the deliberate and “selective rearrangement of a public figure’s past lives.” Marable claims that, “self-reinvention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community, giving justification to their hopes.”[5] While details of his past life may have been slightly exaggerated,[6] this hardly negates the fact that Malcolm’s experiences of being black, poor, and a former prison inmate in racist America all created an authentic, not invented, connection between Malcolm and millions of black people relegated to America’s ghettos.

The most egregious example of Marable’s speculative pursuits is his assertion around Malcolm’s “homosexual encounters.”[7] Based on a paradox, “circumstantial but strong evidence,” Marable takes the liberty to claim that in one section of Malcolm’s Autobiography he “was probably describing his own homosexual encounters [italics added].”[8] Drawing upon unverifiable rumors and the fact that Malcolm both worked for a man who was gay, and believed that the man would help him in a time of need, Marable implied that no other explanation was possible other than the two men being sexually involved. Homophobic narratives, such as this, are partly why many straight men think that if they become close friends with a gay man, they will be labeled as gay too.[9] Marable’s inclusion of the description, “homosexual lover,” along with a list of Malcolm’s past identities goes beyond responsible scholarship and into the tabloidization of facts.[10] Phrases like, “Malcolm was probably describing…” or in another section, “What [Malcolm] appears to be saying is…” are prime examples of Marable stating more than is given in the facts. It is necessary to discern Marable’s subtle speculations, because despite the book’s shortcomings, its overall tenor is well researched and very convincing.

Marable’s reconstruction of Malcolm’s childhood and early adulthood in the ghetto describes the early sources for the “emotional rage” he expressed when reacting “to racism in its urban context: segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality, drugs, and crime.”[11] Malcolm’s first major evolution occurred in prison, where he met a sagacious and eloquent inmate named “John Elton Bembry: the man who would change his life.”[12] Bembry influenced Malcolm’s development into an “organic intellectual” as he devoured texts on history, philosophy, English, and religion.[13] The natural genius of Malcolm cannot be overstated.

Through the combination of learning about oppression in black history and his father’s involvement in Garveyism, Malcolm was “transformed…into a trenchant critic of white Western values and institutions.”[14] Additionally, the cumulative effect of incidents such as having his childhood home bombed by whites, being told by a white teacher that becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” countless negative experiences with whites, and the hope that the Nation of Islam gave him for his life after prison explain how Malcolm’s early life made him amenable to the NOI’s theology that all whites were devils.[15] Eventually, however, no individual would have as great an impact on Malcolm’s life as the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its in-depth exposure of the history and structure of the NOI. In the biography, the NOI emerges as a heterodox sect of Islam (at least during Malcolm’s time), “whose core philosophy was apolitical” black nationalism, and was rife with internal conflicts sometimes resulting in violent disciplinary actions by “pipe squads.”[16] Elijah Muhammad’s control over the NOI, including much of his wealth, was “derived from his special (if fictive) status as Allah’s Messenger.”[17] Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, as he believed it at the time, is demonstrated through his relentless efforts to grow the NOI and his fervent loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. As long as Malcolm believed that the truth of the NOI was the best alternative for black people, then Malcolm was sold out for its cause. Due to his loyalty to the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, and black people, Malcolm even made the regrettable mistakes of abandoning his brother Reginald and neglecting his wife and children.

Malcolm’s split with the NOI involved a combination of allegations around Elijah’s sexual exploitation of at least nine NOI secretaries, dissention and jealousy over Malcolm’s burgeoning status, and disapproval of his increasing involvement in secular politics. I would argue that this combination was the result of Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people. As Malcolm came to believe that neither Elijah was perfect nor that the NOI’s apolitical program was viable for black liberation, he drifted from strict adherence to the sect’s apolitical program. However, the fact that Malcolm did not speak out upon initially learning about Elijah’s sexual exploits is a good reminder that Malcolm was not without his flaws, and that even he waffled on his own values from time to time. Malcolm’s international experiences and exposure to orthodox Islam most likely added to his decision to renounce the doctrines of the NOI. Malcolm proclaimed that there is “no God but Allah,” yet:

Some of my very dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists…some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white. It takes all these religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients (characteristics) to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.[18]

The final chapters of the biography are the most exciting, hopeful, and tragic. They are exciting because Marable provides a phenomenally detailed reconstruction of Malcolm’s evolving thought processes. While Malcolm embraced Islam’s universality and “equality of all races,” he stated that “As a black American…I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans.”[19] As such, Malcolm established the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity.[20] The former was a strictly Islamic organization, while the latter was dedicated “to unify[ing] the Americans of African descent in their struggle for Human Rights and Dignity” and to the ‘building of a political, economic, and social system of justice and peace [in the United States].”[21] They are hopeful because of the momentum Malcolm was beginning to gain among the mainstream Black Freedom Struggle, along with his evolving willingness “to take a firm stand on the side of anyone whose human rights are being violated.”[22] It seems that Malcolm was even beginning to evolve past some of his sexist worldviews, when he “[insisted] that in the OAAU ‘women [should have an] equal position to the men.’”[23]

Yet, it all ends in the immeasurably tragic loss of a “black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved” so much. Marable’s detailed account of FBI files, along with the FBI’s refusal to disclose over a thousand pages in Malcolm’s file, revealed that the mystery behind Malcolm’s killers and the plausible complicity of law enforcement are yet to be resolved.

Contrary to Marable’s thesis of “reinvention,” I would argue that Malcolm was not deliberately changing his image to achieve a certain objective. Instead, Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, along with his courage to change, fostered the evolution of Malcolm’s social, political, and religious views. My hope is that the church, theology, and American society, today, would pick up where Malcolm left off. Christians, especially, could learn from Malcolm’s willingness to “join in with anyone…as long as [they] want to change this miserable condition” of social, political, and individual oppression. We could especially learn from Malcolm’s courage to admit his wrongs and willingness to change his beliefs, all for the purpose of making “the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

[1] Manning Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011), 455.

[2] Ibid., 459.

[3] Ibid., 490.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid.

[9] To be clear, if Malcolm engaged in same-sex acts, it would do nothing to diminish his contributions to humanity, in my opinion. Also, conceding that it may be acceptable to “out” someone’s sexuality in the rare case that they are a deceased public figure, this action should only be taken if conclusive evidence is available.

[10] Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention, 78.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 90–91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 25, 38, 77.

[16] Ibid., 79, 133, 242–244.

[17] Ibid., 169.

[18] Ibid., 369–370.

[19] Ibid., 368.

[20] MMI and OAAU, respectively.

[21] Ibid., 350.

[22] Ibid., 329.

[23] Ibid., 374.

Book Review: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1st Perennial Classics. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1st Perennial Classics. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow gives an incredibly thorough account of the latter years of Dr. King’s life, and the development of the Black Freedom Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to The Poor People’s Campaign and King’s death in 1968. Over 150 pages of notes and a bibliography, including several hundred interviews, exposition of several of King’s writings, and remarkable documentation of FBI files on King and the Movement, all provide the content for Garrow’s 624-page account of the Civil Rights leader’s life during the Movement. The title of the volume alludes to the central theme in the book: Martin Luther King was a man with a strong sense of self-sacrifice, informed by his theology of the cross, as something “that we must bear for the freedom of our people” (148). That is, Garrow’s King emerged as a Civil Rights leader, not because of ambition or a messiah complex, but because the movement was “thrust upon him” and his deeply seated religious principles required him to respond (229). Yet, this man of noble principles was also no saint. In my opinion, the greatest value of this volume, as stated by King’s sister, is that it “demythologizes one of our heroes” (625). The two-fold goal of this essay is to provide an exposition and a critical evaluation of Garrow’s interpretation of Martin King and the Black Freedom Movement, and to argue that Dr. King and the Movement can provide invaluable resources and inspiration for social change today.

As indicated above, Garrow dedicates relatively few pages to the pre-Civil Rights years of Martin King. Still, we learn that as the son of “a strict disciplinarian” and Southern Baptist Preacher, King had a “long personal heritage in…the black church” (32). Yet, despite his early immersion into the black church, King was initially “decidedly ambivalent” about following in his father’s ministerial footsteps (37). King’s mother and grandmother imbued him with a strong sense of self-love and care, which undoubtedly gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams of intellectualism. King reported that his childhood was spent in “a very congenial home situation…where love was central” (33). Outside of the home, however, King could not be shielded from the racist reality of life as a black person in the South (35). Two racial incidents that were truly painful for King were the time when a childhood friend who was white abruptly told him they could not be friends due to their races, and when as a high school student he was forced to give up his seat on a bus for a white person. A decade later King recalled, “It was the angriest I have ever been… From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person” (35).

Garrow documents how King’s college experience changed both his ambivalence toward the ministry and his attitude on race (37). King recalls how he overcame his skepticism with religion when “I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (37). Highly influenced by liberal theologians and the social gospel movement, King would eventually decide to take up the call to be a minister of the gospel with a strong sense of social justice. Challenged with the Christian call to love one’s enemies, King struggled with how he could “love a race of people who hated [him] and who had been responsible [for earlier traumatic experiences]” (38). Garrow quotes King’s confession that, he “did not conquer this anti-white feeling” until he got to know white students through interracial groups in college (38).

Garrow’s first chapter chronicles how King was thrust into the movement after completing his dissertation while pastoring at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery. King would emerge as the unlikely president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, partly due to his status as a “newcomer.” Recalling his first public address as president of the new organization, King would write that he “became possessed by fear [and] obsessed by a feeling of great inadequacy” (23). This feeling of inadequacy was a theme that Garrow alluded to throughout the evolution of King as a national Civil Rights leader. A key corollary to this theme was a profound religious experience that King would tell over and over again. During a time of deep distress and desire to “escape the pressures the MIA presidency had placed upon him” King had an experience in his kitchen, in which he responded to fear through prayer:

I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. No never alone. (58)

Throughout the rest of the book, Garrow would repeat this theme of King’s reliance on his faith to overcome the internal and external challenges of the Movement.

Garrow’s subsequent chapters describe “The Birth of SCLC” and Southern initiatives, including Albany, Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington. Drawing upon myriad examples from the NAACP’s initial competitive resistance to the budding young “star in the South,” to tales of disorganization and even the misappropriation of Movement funds by higher level officials, Garrow characterizes the Movement as being rife with internal conflict and at times with egotistical personality clashes. Garrow attributes King’s ability to emerge as a leader in this contentious Movement partly to his “practical application of the Hegelian method” through which he would mediate highly contentious meetings by providing a solution upon which all could usually agree (464). The biography states, “One of [King’s] greatnesses…was his ability to master, to orchestrate a group of individuals that probably pretty much approached egomania” (464). It was also helpful that Garrow explained how King’s fascination with Hegel’s dialectical method of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, provided him with a philosophical framework for integrationism, in which seemingly opposed groups (i.e. black/white, Jew/Gentile, rich/poor) could be united into a Beloved Community (46). Despite its flaws, the Movement left an indelible mark on the Universe’s bend toward justice. More importantly, Garrow’s portrayal of the Movement challenges any notions that Dr. King was the sole or even the most important person involved in the development of different initiatives and subsequent Civil Rights victories.

The most exciting chapters, for me, were the final four chapters on Chicago, the Meredith March, Economic Justice and Vietnam, and the Poor People’s Campaign. These chapters give a keen insight into the evolution of King’s social and political thought. Furthermore, they offer a treasure trove of strategies for the church and American society to engage in broad and inclusive movements for revolutionary change (484). Upon visiting the slums of the northern cities, witnessing the destruction of urban riots caused by the deplorable conditions of America’s ghettoes, and confronting even worse and violent resistance to change in the North, King began to see that the Civil Rights gains in the South had done very little to improve the conditions of millions of poor blacks in the ghettoes (440). Thus, King began to call for “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society”—something akin to democratic socialism (567). As King’s scope extended to economic issues, they also extended to issues of world peace and global disarmament, mostly spurred by his growing conviction that he could no longer preach non-violence at home, while his country committed great acts of violence abroad.

Toward the end of the book, Garrow seems to focus more on the conflicts within and between Civil Rights organizations, the Movement’s loss of momentum, the criticisms of King both within and without the Movement, and the negative toll that all of this was taking on everyone’s morale, especially King’s. Garrow reports that even though King was able to perform when he needed to give a speech, toward the end of King’s time he would become increasingly depressed. Garrow attributes some of King’s heartache to his battles with “inner demons.” Indeed, as stated above, King was no saint, and his extra-marital affairs, and “sexual athleticism” were things that even King alluded to as causing him great internal conflict. Garrow’s careful, yet truthful, exposition of King’s deep flaws is commendable and integral to understanding that one does not need to be “holier than thou” to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on what King and the Movement mean to me, the Church, theology, and America, I believe they represented the best of both Christian and American democratic ideals. They demonstrated that a commitment to love and justice was neither a passive nor a violent one. Rather, a commitment to these principles requires a commitment to bearing one’s cross. I am reminded of Jesus in Gethsemane, where he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). This prayer encapsulates King’s theology of the cross as a divinely inspired commitment to freedom for all. King’s theology is absolutely necessary for the church today to remain true it its purported principles. As King’s dream of justice and equality is far from actualized, as the New Jim Crow, urban ghettoes, and young black lives such as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin continue to be persecuted, America must recommit itself to King’s dream, lest it shirks its commitment to its democratic ideals.

Bearing the Cross not only provides a deep look into its subject, it also offers a counter-narrative to “mainstream” conceptions of King as a “‘rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero’ whose comfortable, present-day image bears little resemblance to the human King or to the political King of 1965-1968” (625). To anyone today who has that impulse “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8), I would urge you to read this volume because it shows that “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement” (625). To paraphrase the book’s Epilogue: If we could understand that one of our greatest symbols for social justice was a human being as ordinary and as flawed and as unlikely a legend as any one of us, then maybe, we in the church or broader society could stop waiting for a great charismatic personality to lead us toward justice, and we could start asking ourselves, “What can we do to pursue justice, love, and peace?”