Whiteness and religious experience


In this paper I argue that racism’s subtle and insidious reach should lead us to prefer an account of religious experience that is capable of reckoning with that reach, an account that, I shall argue, appears in the work of St. John of the Cross. The paper begins with an analysis of race and racism and the way in which the latter can have existential and even spiritual effects. The argument is then applied particularly to white people and the deleterious effects racism has on their intellects, wills, and even memories, not merely inwardly but also as a result of what Charles Mills famously calls an epistemology of ignorance. Notably, intellect, will, and memory are the key sites for union in St. John’s discussion. In the last main section, I discuss how progress in the mystical life can be hindered by racism’s effects even while it is possible for there to be “touches of union” on the way. Another result of this inquiry is that it shows how a widely-used schema, such as St. John’s, will require spiritual aspirants to deal with racism, both in themselves and in the world.

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  1. 1.

    George Yancy writes, commenting on his earlier work, “etymologically, the word ‘insidious’ (insidiae) means to ambush…. This is partly what it means to say that whiteness is insidious, that it is not ‘fixable’ through micro-management, though vigilance is indispensable. The moment that a white person claims to have ‘arrived,’ to be self-sufficient or self-grounded in their anti-racism, she often undergoes a surprise attack, a form of attack that points to how whiteness insidiously returns, how it ensnares, and how it is an iterative process that indicates the reality of white racist relational processes that exceed the white self” (see Yancy 2015, p. xiii).

  2. 2.

    To a large extent, in this essay, I will use “religious experience” and “mystical experience” as synonyms, while the former can be understood as somewhat broader than the latter, and a term like “mystic union” to suggest one or more of the many ways people might mention an experience of union with God or Ultimate Reality.

  3. 3.

    In chapter six of Gordon (2000), tellingly titled “Can Men Worship,” he notes that the white man’s existential situation “is that he cannot be saved as a white man” (p. 132) because he envisions salvation as the entering of God into a person and the white man, as white man, is seen as closed. He writes “Yet a man qua his masculinity appears unequivocal. He is solid. He fills things. Nothing enters him. He is closed” (p. 124). He also brings in Fanon’s discussion of blackness as absence and whiteness as presence to suggest that the white man is particularly imperiled in the religious sphere. While there are certainly ways in which masculinity can mirror the discussion in this paper, I will focus on the issues of race and whiteness in this paper.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, the first two chapters of Pike (1992). Also, useful diagrams appear in Zelinski (2011).

  5. 5.

    I am suggesting that white people are particularly problematic in this way, but I am not suggesting that white people are the only possible inheritors of implicit bias as a result of white supremacy.

  6. 6.

    Perhaps it is a case of white people being too concerned over their own salvation as James Cone sometimes pointed out (see McGee 2017), or perhaps the fact that we live in a society in which I have little to lose by admitting my own past exploits is itself another form of privilege.

  7. 7.

    The court wrote “the federal and state courts, in an almost unbroken line, have held that the words 'white person' were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race” (United States Supreme Court 1922).

  8. 8.

    See United States Supreme Court (1923, p. 211), where we read, “We venture to think that the average well informed white American would learn with some degree of astonishment that the race to which he belongs is made up of such heterogeneous elements” (emphasis mine).

  9. 9.

    See Shelby (2002, p. 415). Shelby’s piece is a response to Garcia (1996).

  10. 10.

    See chapter two of Taylor (2013) for helpful distinctions here.

  11. 11.

    Fanon (1967, p. 8). Lewis Gordon also invokes this passage as he discusses Frederick Douglass in Gordon (2000, p. 48).

  12. 12.

    Here, see especially Gordon (2000), chapter three, and Boxill (1997). The fight with Covey originates in chapter 10 of Douglass’s Narrative (see Douglass 1994).

  13. 13.

    Douglass (1994, p. 65).

  14. 14.

    Douglass writes that after this fight, “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed when I could be a slave in fact” (1994, p. 65).

  15. 15.

    Gordon (2000, p. 56).

  16. 16.

    Gordon (2000, p. 56). It need not detain us here that this would not be necessary for Kierkegaard’s classification of despair (where pretty well everyone is in despair), which Gordon invokes, but does not commit himself to using. See Kierkegaard (1980).

  17. 17.

    In answering the question “what is the experience of God?” Christian theologian Thomas Dubay, S.M. writes “We are concerned with contacts not through created reality but by immediate effects directly produced in us by the Lord Himself and beyond the natural order” (see Dubay 1989, p. 41).

  18. 18.

    Just as Birt glosses the Anti-Semite from Sartre’s point of view. “He has no trouble attributing transcendence to the Jew in the form of freedom and intelligence, but he essentializes that transcendence as evil will and sinister intelligence inherent to an unalterably evil Jewish nature” (Birt 2004, p. 59).

  19. 19.

    See Kierkegaard (1980, p. 14), which tells us that “all despair ultimately can be traced back to and be resolved in” the willful sort of despair. Ultimately, I think this is a weakness in Kierkegaard’s dialectic’s ability to understand racism, but for now it can be useful in thinking about despair and/or bad faith.

  20. 20.

    There is a controversy about whether one can be held responsible for manifesting one’s implicit (and racist) biases. While there is not space to enter into this question, it seems plausible to me that one can reject racism insofar as it is before one’s consciousness, but also too-confidently refuse to interrogate one’s possible biases and thereby be at least partially responsible for the future manifestation of certain biases. See Holroyd (2012).

  21. 21.

    Mills (1997, p. 93). The latter two emphases are added.

  22. 22.

    See Spelman (2007). Spelman prefers ignoring to ignorance because one can be ignorant without having made some kind of choice to ignore.

  23. 23.

    One sometimes hears John Newton, who for years made his living in the slave trade, talked about in this way, though the reality with Newton is that he had not acquired all of his later moral convictions and certainly had not lived by all of them as a result of, say, his first religious experience. See Hindmarsh (1996).

  24. 24.

    See Gordon (2000, p. 128). Gordon’s use of “penetration” may obscure his point for some. I think Gordon's presupposition is that some account of mystical union is the way through which a person comes into contact with God.  With that presupposition, one either makes contact with God in such a way that God enters into oneself, or one enters into God (otherwise, there's no real union of the self and God).  Gordon is convinced that whiteness is a way of insulating oneself against being the kind of person who could have union with God, because the acultural, ahistorical, independent, monad that he associates with whiteness doesn't have that capability.  Of course, that is the lie of whiteness (none of us is such a monad), and so whiteness as such (insofar as one subscribes to it as a racist regime) inhibits union with God.

  25. 25.

    See Kieran Kavanaugh’s note 5 on Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.5.7 in St. John of the Cross (1987, p. 91). There we read that this union will have to be “situated on a plane distinct from the ontological.”

  26. 26.

    See Bernard, On Loving God, IX.28 (St. Bernard of Clairvaux 1987, p. 196). Also see John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.5.6, in St. John of the Cross (1973, p. 117). All references to John’s own works are taken from this volume. I will also utilize the following abbreviations for John’s four major works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel (AMC), The Dark Night (DN), The Spiritual Canticle (SC), and The Living Flame of Love (LF).

  27. 27.

    See Kourie (2016) for a helpful discussion of similar paths in other religious traditions as well as commentary on St. John’s.

  28. 28.

    See Kourie (2016 and LF, 3.25, p. 619). Indeed, some find in St. Bonaventure the idea that purgation, illumination, and union are “three diverse aspects of a single process of sanctification that is repeated in the lives of believers in accord with their varying needs for purgation, illumination, and union at different points in their own journey to spiritual maturity” (see McGonigle 1993, p. 964).

  29. 29.

    See the editors’ “Introduction to the The Ascent of Mount Carmel-The Dark Night,” in St. John of the Cross (1973, p. 57).

  30. 30.

    AMC, 2.5.9–11, p. 118. See also Dante, Paradiso, Canto 3.

  31. 31.

    I’ll use “temporal goods” as shorthand for the six goods in which the will might find joy which would distract her from God. The six are: temporal, natural, sensory, moral, supernatural, and spiritual (AMC, 3.17.2, p. 239).

  32. 32.

    One thinks of the racism of minstrelsy in this context.

  33. 33.

    See Appiah (1999).

  34. 34.

    Of course this does not mean that race has no social reality; it is socially constructed but very real.


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I would like to thank Kate Finley, Matt Jantzen, and Bertha Alvarez Manninen for reading drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Nick Perovich, Lee McBride, Fred Johnson, CJ Kingdom-Grier, and Michael Paradiso-Michau for helpful conversations about related issues. I also thank Hope College for a sabbatical leave during which time I was able to work on this paper.


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Mulder, J. Whiteness and religious experience. Int J Philos Relig (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-020-09766-8

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  • Whiteness
  • St. John of the Cross
  • Mysticism
  • Race
  • Racism