'Prominent literary philosophers as diverse as Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have envisioned a role for the humanities in fostering more ethical relationships on a global scale. Through a close reading of JM Coetzee's fifth “lesson” in Elizabeth Costello: eight lessons, this paper interrogates the limits of the humanities for promoting secular salvation. “Lesson five: the humanities in Africa”, I argue, troubles the distinction between secular teaching and religious faith as alternatives to living in a world imbued with suffering, by suggesting that neither the humanities nor religion materially offers an escape from suffering – that neither secular nor divine salvation exists beyond hope and faith. The lesson asks: do the humanities offer anything besides the promise of salvation to its students? If the secular salvation offered by the humanities fails to engage substantively with what one of Coetzee's characters calls “the reality of Africa”, despite calls for mutual understanding or an understanding of mutuality, how do we rethink the humanities? How do we imagine, and how might we re-imagine, the relationship between the humanities and quotidian suffering? Perhaps as obsessive, repetitive, imperfect performances, both the humanities and religion exist as rituals through which to live with others who are (also) suffering.'