Sunday, April 28, 2013

Occasions of grace

Bit of a reunion of the Princeton Department of Religion family yesterday - the retirement conference for Albert Raboteau. (That's him, white-haired and beaming, in center of this picture someone posted.)
Al spent the last thirty years at Princeton, and, as one of the pioneers of the study of African American religion, drew brilliant students of color to what had been a pretty white department in a university not exactly know for being racially progressive. Almost all his students were there today - what a sight! Until today I didn't realize of what recent vintage this racially mixed world was, and how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to learn from it.

I never studied or worked with Al, although I sat in on his undergraduate class on African American religious history early on. But yesterday's conference showed that I have nevertheless managed to receive a thoroughly Raboteauian understanding of many things, including but not restricted to the religious history of the Americas. He helped shape the community - intellectual and spiritual - which shaped me.

About half the conference was about Al's contributions to historiography, which are many. I knew he had helped us see American religious history in terms of the black Atlantic, and US history in the context of a hemispheric history involving many more peoples and languages than the old Puritan-focused story. But I hadn't realized, for instance, to what extent he had been forced effectively to invent the study of "lived religion" avant la lettre in finding sources for antebellum African American life.

The other half was about the example of Al's life as a scholar, as a teacher, as a friend. Cornel West preached that Al was a "kenotic" - self-emptying - "holy man," something I imagine we've all had occasion to think about this understated but so profound and serious and fearless and gentle man. More, Cornel argued, Al's also managed the existentially wrenching feat - a thing still very rare - of being "a free black man." I can't pretend to understand all that was going on here, but felt honored to the point of goosebumps to have a glimpse of the passionate discussion these two remarkable men have been carrying on over decades.

My friend R talked about the overwhelmingly difficult pasts Al teaches us to to engage - the ambivalence born of unequal relationships, of bodies and contact zones, of the intimacy of love and violence - and of the importance of his autobiographical courage in describing their weight and light. Two other ex-students spoke of Al in the context of African understandings of the enduring care of ancestors. One read out a long list of spirit healers whose names she had learned from the records of the anti-Ouidah Trinidadian court which condemned them to death: we thank you, she said. This is history as a spiritual practice.
Al's famous book Slave Religion appeared even before he came to Princeton, and clearly continues to inspire scholars in many fields. But what we celebrated today were all the other ways contributions to learning happen - those things so hard to assess, which many at the gathering said are disappearing quickly from a corporate and careerist academy that no longer cultivates or values them.

I went back into my diary and remembered a lunch I had with Al almost exactly thirteen years ago. It seems to have been the first time anyone really talked to me about teaching as a spiritual vocation. This came back yesterday in some impromptu remarks Al made in response and thanks. He was once struggling with what's at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita, he opened: how to do what you have to do without concern for outcomes you can't control.

He told of a student in his course "Religious Radicals" some years ago who seemed disengaged and even angry. Only at the end, in a paper about what in the course had particularly spoken to him, did the student tell him some of what was going on: he'd been struggling with alcoholism, got arrested when he passed out somewhere with a fake ID, etc., etc. He was moved by a 19th century conversion account, where someone had been so compelled by an evangelist he had "given up the bottle" - something the student knew was incredibly hard to do. And by a concept in Thomas Merton, the point vierge, which I've found cited in an essay of Al's available online:


At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 142

Amazing stuff. But Al's point was that he had had no idea any of what was going on with this student. We know so little. He had come to understand that this course, like all his other work, was an "occasion of grace." A little flutter, a flurry, a shimmer, a shiver went through the room when he said that. And another when he went on to talk about the collegiality of a guild of scholars who "shared our baseball cards," and ended addressing his students: you are occasions of grace for me.

Plenty of grace to go around yesterday, and plenty of tears.

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