Category Archives: religion

Tragic Wisdom of Cornel West


In my last post I talked about Cornel West’s tragic vision which was enriched by the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi who wanted to find truth for the sweet ship-wrecked mind. I also mentioned in that post that the philosopher Jeff Sharlet talked about his friend Cornel West. Sharlet talked about how West maintains optimism when, as West himself has said, “we are immersed in a culture of superficial spectacle that generates weapons of mass destruction?” That is a bleak view.


How can West remain optimistic in the face of it? West according to Sharlet said “hope is not predicated on the future getting any better. That is the difference between hope and optimism.” West reminds us that he comes from a people that were terrorized, stigmatized, and traumatized for 400 years! They have learned a lot about trauma and know a thing or two about dealing with.


West, who is proudly African American, pointed out that it would have been natural for slaves in such a position to lose hope.  He did not say there was an easy way out. As if there could be an easy way out of slavery. West said many of his people just decided they would live a life of honesty, decency and integrity no matter what happened. They took the position that this is what they are called here to do and said to themselves we will just do it. They had no choice. They were not “immigrants” to North America as Ben Carson suggested.  They had been brought to this continent in the most brutal way imaginable. This reminds me again of my mother who had a little framed saying on her wall in her small apartment she lived in before she died: “This is all I have so this is all I need.”


West says he tries to emulate that response to injustice even when it seems impenetrable. Sometimes there is nothing he can do about it.  Whether there are consequences that flow from that choice to make this a better a world or not is beyond his control. He will just do his part no matter what. What a great attitude. “There does not have to be a direct connection between being a decent person and there being more decency prevalent in the world,” West told Sharlet.  Sometimes In some moments in history things happen that we cannot control it. That does not mean we should not choose to live a decent life. We just dissent from the injustice if that is all we can do.


West said he learned a lot from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who West calls the greatest literary artist of the late modern world. According to West’s interpretation, “Chekhov said it is just a matter of bearing your truth to the world and doing all you can in your brief journey from Mama’s womb to tomb. We should try to pass that on to the next generation.”


West also warned that we might be headed towards an environmental implosion. Corporate greed (fueled by individual demands)  makes it difficult to have a conversation about important issues. If there is no way to fundamentally overthrow or transform the greed of oligarchs and plutocrats, supported by their minions,  and if the patriarchy wants to continue to obliterate women, if straights want to continue to dominate the gays and lesbians and transsexuals, they will do that. I don’t have to be a part of that he says. I can resist. I might not change the world, but I can be a decent person if I choose to be one. The white world can continue to be hegemonic and racist, our mistreatment of indigenous peoples can carry on, but let them carry it on without us. As West said to Sharlet, “I still want to be a person who fights against the period, and I want to fight with others, and if we lose so be it.”  We have no guarantees. What an inspiring thoughtful man! As an indigenous woman at the University of Winnipeg where I heard West speak, told him, “you uplift my spirit.”


T.S. Eliot was according to West a right-wing ideologue. But he acknowledged, that even right-wing ideologues have to be right once in awhile. Eliot got it right when he said, in the Quartets, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.” We are only here to bear witness and to try as much as we can. Or as Samuel Becket said, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”


West, who also said he wants to teach people how to die, asked us to consider what people will say about us. At our funeral will they say we failed?  We made misjudgments. We made mistakes. Hopefully they will see we tried, we held on, we did the best we could. As West said, “We are not pure, but will we lead a trail behind us of integrity, honesty, decency?  If so we have not really failed at all.”


To Cornel West resistance to evil is a religious imperative.  He always comes back to religion. He does not waste time talking to us about a personal relationship to Jesus. Instead, he says this is a world of overwhelming oppression, deception, insults, attacks, and brute force repression but will we resist? That is what it is all about for West. We have to rebel against it. But that’s enough. It is enough.


Prophetic Pragmatism and the Problem of Evil


Brother West had a unique answer to the problem of evil. The problem of evil for those who are not familiar with the argument goes something like this:


  1. God is all-knowing
  2. God is all- powerful
  3. God is all- loving
  4. Evil Exists
  5. Therefore God does not exist


I first heard of the problem of evil when I was 17 years old in 1967. It was an incredible year in my life. I finished high school. I travelled with 4 buddies to Expo 67 in Montreal with my summer wages that were intended to put me through first year of University (most of which disappeared on that memorable trip) and I went to University. My life changed forever.

1967 started with a trip to the University of Manitoba courtesy of our High School. It was part of an introduction to the university offered by the University of Manitoba to all grade 12 students who had an interest in it. I did and I went.

I went to 2 classes. One of them I have entirely forgotten. The other one I remember vividly to this day.  We were “taught” the problem by Professor Arthur Schafer who had recently returned to Manitoba from Oxford University. He said he would prove to us that God did not exist.  Then he presented the argument brilliantly and then fended off all counter arguments from the mostly horrified grade 12 students. It was scintillating. I was mesmerized. I was hooked. I wanted to study philosophy and could hardly wait to graduate.

The best version of that argument that  I have read or heard since was presented by Dostoevsky in the wonderful novel Brothers Karamazov. I intend to go there on a future part of my religious quest in the modern age. West too dealt with the problem of evil.


Brother West is a Christian.  But he does not deny evil. Nor does he shrink from it.  We must accept that there is evil in the world and it is real and must be faced. That is fundamental West philosophy though it has not shattered his faith. In fact, it has deepened his faith. Faith that does not acknowledge evil to West is unreal faith. It is fake faith. It is at best comforting illusion and West wants no part of illusions. He wants the hard task of confronting evil. Just like he wants to confront death and says the most important thing to learn is to learn how to die. That is what he wants to teach to his students—how to die.

Brother West is a man of many parts.  A Renaissance man in other words. He is part philosopher, part theologian, or professor, or bluesman. Sometimes he calls himself a “cultural critic” By that he means a man “who tries to explain America to itself.” He has also called that American theodicy an odd expression but by that he means a man concerned about a “central obsession, the problem of evil.  If God exists, why does he or she permit evil? One of West’s mentors, James H. Cone, said that this idea was the fundamental concept in West’s own spiritual quest. According to Cone, West explores the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven nor in the abstract of philosophical debate, but rather in the concrete here and now of the world around him.  He asks: “How do you really struggle against suffering in a loving way, to leave a legacy in which people would be able to accent their own loving possibility in the midst of so much evil?”

As I said earlier, West calls his philosophy prophetic  pragmatic. West does not consider the problem of evil from the perspective of trying to prove that God does not exist. Rather he tries to figure out how do we live in a world with evil and yet maintain not just our faith, but our obligations to others?

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He  emphasized that, it important to read the classics:

I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.


That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”


Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered  truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.


According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

As West said,

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”

The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.

The New Old Testament Prophets


Cornell West traveled to New York to give a speech at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. West lives as much on the road as in Princeton, delivering more than 100 public talks a year. He has actually claim to speak every weekend of the year somewhere. But that night’s  lecture was not his usual speech. It was a tribute to one of his late heroes,  Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  in Selma. Heschel was best known for his first book, The Prophets.  To West, Heschel was an example of a modern prophet, a position he aspired to.


West  says he wants to be a prophet, himself, an ambition that would be grandiose if it weren’t for the fact that he wants the rest of us to be prophets, too. We should all try to be prophets. We should all speak truth to power.  Like the Old Testament Prophets Heschel did not mean that to prophesy was not to predict an outcome, but rather to identify concrete evils. He wanted to lead the way to justice. Once those are identified the prophet advocates for the path to overcome injustice.

Heschel wrote that “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.

In Heschel’s view, the basic intuition of reality takes place on a “preconceptual” level; a disparity always remains between what we encounter and how we can express our encounter in words. The great achievements of art, philosophy, and religion are brought forth in movements when the individual senses more than he can say.   He also said,

“In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement…Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”


Heschel, like Brother West, believed that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a clarion call for social action in the United States and inspired by this belief, with Martin Luther King Jr. he worked for African Americans’ civil rights and spoke out against the Vietnam War.  To the two of them that is what prophecy is all about. Working to root out injustice, not trying to tell us what was going to happen in the future. That was the religious quest of both Brother West and Rabbi Heschel.

Rabbi Michael Lerner with whom West worked on a book, believes West is one of the most profound thinkers he’s ever encountered. “West has a prophetic consciousness,” he said, language no honest rabbi dispenses lightly.

Blessed Hesed


On Amanour & Co. Cornel West talked some more about the Hebrew concept of hesed.

He started by talking about the great American novelist Henry James who wrote a letter on January 12, 1901 to Robert Louis Stevenson in which he said, he wanted no theory that is too kind  us or that cheats us out of seeing. Every theory has a certain limitedness and narrowness, but the goal is to broaden what we see. We do not want to be short-sighted or myopic. West says the same applies to feeling more deeply.  Then we hopefully can avoid indifference.

West quoted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.”  The Rabbi said it was more dangerous more universal, and more contagious than evil. Then, according to West, the next step is to act more courageously.  It certainly seems like those who are indifferent to suffering are in fact almost numberless. They have no interest in confronting issues of inequity, injustice, poverty, oppression, or the like. They just want to get to their TV shows, or their Facebook feed, or their mindless chatter. I don’t know if it is the most evil thing, but it is surely evil when people are indifferent to suffering.  According to West, If they don’t care about the suffering of others they are simply not fully human.

Even when black leaders are the best of who they are, there are limitations, he admitted. That’s why “democracy itself is the proximate solution to insoluble problems.” It’s the best we can do for now. As he added,

“You are never going to get away with the hatred and insecurity and the anxiety that go hand in hand with who we are as human beings, but you can have mechanisms of accountability vis-à-vis the most vulnerable. That’s democracy. That’s why voices from below can merge to try to shape the destiny of a nation.”


When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. As Jeff Sharlet explained,   “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.”

I find it interesting how West takes an Old Testament concept and infuses it with modern politics.  He uses the idea to advocate for a  a society where there is justice—a vast, public, and steadfast lovingkindness—for all. That is where West’s religious quest brought him. It brought him to a good place.


Compassion for the Vulnerable


To Brother Cornel West the concept of Hesed is central. I had never heard of Hesed before I heard him talk about it. I guess that shows profound ignorance. In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, if you like, when God appeared to Moses to give the Law a second time, he said that he was  “abounding in” or “filled with” Hesed, which is translated  as “love and faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “faithful love,” “steadfast love,” and “loyal love,” depending on which version of the Bible that you read. The relevant passage is (Exodus 34:6–7). The idea is that of a love that is loyal within a group. West emphasizes, as did American Philosopher Walter Kaufman, the idea of compassion for the vulnerable that is so important in the Hebrew Bible. Once more, that is the essence of religion. I believe that it is the essence of the religious quest in the modern world.

Cornel West says that the greatest play on the American Empire is Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh. The plays deals with the idea, what does it profit a nation to gain the whole world and lose its soul?

The western tradition is important, but it is also limited.  The western tradition had no room for indigenous people of Africa or the Americas.  I went through 7 years of university without paying any attention to any part of the indigenous culture other than the western culture. That is what I thought culture was all about. I, like so many others was completely western centric. The western tradition was all that mattered. I did not see vulnerable.

Now we know better. Even I know better. We need African culture and tradition. We need indigenous culture and tradition from the Americas, and from everywhere! Anything less is shabby. We need to learn from the oppressed. If we get all our ideas from the dominant culture we are badly served.

Walter Isaacson when he interviewed West on PBS’s Amanpour & Co asked West  how these others could be added to the western tradition? How do they become a part of it?  West’s answer was very interesting.  He said the way to be part of it is to challenge it. We must challenge the dominant culture to learn from those that were oppressed by it. That is the start.

That is something that modern conservatives don’t want to do. For example, they worry about critical race theory which is used to challenge white supremacy. They don’t like it when their dominant culture is challenged. They don’t want their children to be challenged. They don’t want their children to be disturbed. But that is what you must do to wake up and see more than your own privilege. The point is not to make white children feel guilty. That serves no purpose.  The point is to make them see.

Hesed means to be concerned about and have love for others. To do that you must first see them. If you don’t notice them you won’t care. So you can’t be scared to look and look without blinkers or rose coloured glasses.


The Black Tradition: There is a lot to be learned from the Oppressed


Brother Cornel West frequently reminds us that he comes out of the Black tradition from African to America. Sometimes West calls that the “chocolate side of life.”

Not that long ago, I also  a wonder interview of Cornel West by Walter Isaacson  on Amanpour and Co in April of 2021 on PBS television.  Brother West started talking about one of his heroes—Martin Luther King Jr. According to West, King had a deep conversation with the ancients and the classics. He could do that, West says, because he learned it from a people who had been despised for 400 years and yet still tried to teach the world so much about love. So did John Coltrane, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison among others. All of them came from a people who had been traumatized for 400 years, but still at their best decided to be wounded healers rather than wounded hurters. He came from a people that had been terrorized for 400 years all the way up to Brother Floyd in 2020. What did that people do? They called for freedom for everybody, West pointed out. They did not create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. “If they opted to be like the Klan there would have been a civil war every generation. There would have been terrorist cells in every chocolate centre of every city.”

West believes

“these black leaders focused on the tradition of the virtues, that embraces all, that is predicated on the humanity of each and everyone of us, each human being made in the likeness of God, that gives us a value, a worth, a sanctity, a dignity. That has been the best of black leadership, and once that black leadership has been reduced to just a quest for dollars, and smartness, rather than justice, and deep commitment to love and compassion, then you lose the best of the black tradition.

West does not say all black leaders have demonstrated the best of that tradition.  But these, and others, have done that. West said the best of the black freedom tradition has been the” levelling of the democratic low”. In the 2020 presidential election in America it was the votes of blacks, particularly the votes of black sisters that handed the victory to Biden. A majority of whites voted for Donald Trump!  58% of white men and 53% of white women voted for Trump.  Whites should never forget that. Trump of course always bragged about being a winner and his worst insult to others was  that they were “losers”. West, like Jesus, always wanted to be on the side of the low—i.e. the so-called losers.

Trump tried to appeal to the black voters on the basis that the average income of blacks in American had never been better in comparison to whites than it was during his administration. While this might be true, according to West,  it was one of the few good things about his administration, and he could not persuade blacks to abandon the quest for justice merely for dollars. That is what I have called the religious quest for justice.  Were it not for the black voters, particularly the black women voters, America could have had Trump again and would been even closer to a neo-fascist America! As a black man, West was proud of that.

As West said,

“the best of black folk has always been about the broadening of not just rights and liberties but of the equality of our relations to one another. It’s also about the Hesed that great concept that comes from the genius of Hebrew scripture.  That loving kindness is to be spread to the orphan, and widow, and fatherless, and motherless, and to be spread to the weak and the vulnerable. And if you give up on that, it becomes simply might makes right. And if you give up on that it becomes simply survival of the slickest.  If you give up on that and push the 10 Commandments away and take the 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not get caught, thou shall take over by any means, and make as much money, and status and spectacle as you can’, you lose your democracy you lose your soul.”

To save your soul, you must rally to the low, rather than the high and mighty. Is that not exactly what Jesus always did.  And the Hebrew Prophets. We should all ask ourselves, what side are we on?

Secular Prophecy


According to Brother Cornell West, “even atheists like Karl Marx can be a secular prophet”. Remember West identifies as a Christian. Marx was deeply secular, but in his concern for working people and in what West refers as  “his call for accountability of capital, and the bosses, and elites at the top including oligarchs and plutocrats there is a prophetic element to his critique.”  West denied that Mao, or Stalin, or even Lenin are prophets. They have become “gangsters” said West. They were not on the side of the oppressed. They are not prophets at all. They manipulated working people for their own advantage. They did not care about the poor.

The presence of gangsters who claim to be followers of Marx does not detract from the fact that Marx’s critique was an act of secular prophesy. When Marx said that capitalism would generate a system in which there would be more and more autocrats and plutocrats at the top who will not be accountable and will instead try to buy off politicians in such a way that working people become “secondary and tertiary” he was prophetic. That does not mean that Marx correctly predicted the future. It means that he was correct in his analysis of the present (at that time) workings of the capitalist system.  And the present is the the mother of the future. That is what pragmatic prophecy is all about. Like the Old Testament Prophets, West does not advocate trying to predict the future. That is false prophecy. The real Prophet tries to look closely and fearlessly at the present, analyze it, and tell us what he or she thinks is wrong with it. Often that entails telling the powerful what they don’t want to hear. That is a Prophet.

As a result, West accepts Marx as a secular prophet even though as a Christian he disagrees with him on the God question.  He does not agree with Marx that all forms of religion are opiates. Some certainly are. Not all. At the same time he rejects some of the forms of Communism that flowed from Marx’s work.

What is important is a basic empathy for humanity. That is a big part of pragmatic prophecy as West sees it.  We must, he suggests, must ask “how do we get out of our tribalism, our clannishness, our narrow groupism, let alone our egos, our narcissism, our hedonism and our rapacious individualism that renders us callous to the suffering of others?” That is the type of question the prophet asks, whether secular or religious.  I think that is a very important approach. I even think it could be an important part of a religious quest in the modern age which is what I am looking at.

That is a perennial problem that every generation must face. As West said at his talk at the University of Winnipeg, “We have to learn to support not just those who look like us, that have the same colour of our skin, that attend the same churches or mosques as us, and support the larger humanity.”


Taking up a notion I got from the American philosopher Peter Singer, what we must do, is expand our fellow feeling is how I would put it.  I think that is what Brother West was saying. And I think that is profound. Again, since my view is that fellow feeling or empathy is the fundamental core of religions—virtually all religions—that is the what it means to be engaged in a religious quest in the modern age. If you are not expanding the circle of compassion you have fallen off the trail and it’s time to get back.

Moral Constipation


Brother Cornell West, like Woody Guthrie, always wants to be on the side of the oppressed. That does not mean the oppressed are always right about everything. It does mean they are oppressed and they deserve to be relieved of that oppression. Is that not what the Old Testament prophets urged us to do? Is that not precisely what Jesus did as well? West was not on the side of the money lenders. They didn’t need his help.


West translates that point of view to modern times. That is why I refer to him as a modern prophet. Sadly, sometimes the rich and powerful are not satisfied with their luck; they want to interfere with any ameliorative action on behalf of the vulnerable. When they do that they must be stopped. Then they are on the side of injustice. As West said, at the University of Winnipeg, when the elites are addicted to status and resist change, that is a case of “moral constipation.”

In 2015 when he talked at the university it was before the age of Trump. It was the age of Obama. Many people saw Obama as a modern Messiah. He was not a messiah to West. West actually campaigned for him, but told Obama that as soon as he was elected he would turn out to become his fiercest critic. Like Socrates, the job of the Prophet is to be a gadfly to power. Socrates one of West’s heroes and one of mine too.

West complained, that in the US many liberals did not want to criticize Obama because they sympathized with him in his fight against Fox News and other Conservatives. West compared Obama to what happened in the Savings and Loans crisis in the US when many people lost a lot of money as a result of those financial institutions collapsing. As West pointed out, during the S & L crisis in the US, which was during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, 1,100 businessmen went to jail. And Reagan was not exactly a visionary for social justice. Yet during the Presidency of Obama, notwithstanding the financial chicanery, fraud, and shenanigans not one of those businessmen went to jail. as a result of financial crisis.  Is that taking the side of the poor and weak?


Obama’s financial advisors, like Tim Geitner came right out of Wall Street. Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General, was expected to investigate his best friends. How well did that work? It worked out well for them. For us not so much. West was suspicious of what Obama would do as soon he saw the advisors that Obama had selected. When Larry Summers was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Obama, he knew Obama’s government would be a Wall Street friendly government. There would be no investigations of Wall Street malfeasance. That undermines the legitimacy of the rule of law.  Even when they admit they did wrong what do they do? They just write a cheque. JP Morgan and Chase. They negotiate how much to pay. No talk of imprisonment. It is just the price of doing what they were doing. It’s just business. That is what West did not like.


West realized that this enraged many youthful radicals. “The young are filled with rage but the key question is how do you channel that rage through love and justice rather than hatred and violence. That is the fundamental question of any generation,” opined Brother West. That, I would submit is in the spirit of  the Prophets and Jesus.


West was asked at the University of Winnipeg, if he believed that a secular Prophet is possible. West asserted strongly that it was.


“Anybody who has the courage to speak the truth about human and social misery and provide an analysis of that social misery in such a way that they can be changed and transformed and alleviated and maybe even eliminated has a prophetic element to what they are doing.”

That is what it means to be a secular Prophet.


Justice: Prophetic Pragmatism and the Quest for God


Brother Cornell West has been called a “prophetic pragmatist.” He likes that label. It is part of his desire for the Socratic life. Decide what sort of life you will lead, “what virtue you will enact in your short journey from womb to tomb.” That is the deeply Socratic life. West said, “That is William James and John Dewey the indigenous philosophy of pragmatism that I have been a part of.” But he also says, “it is prophetic because I remain a Christian.”

This is what West said in May of 2015 at the University of Winnipeg:


This is the prophetic Jewish tradition that was continued by a Palestinian by the name of Jesus. He said that we have to spread and love and kindness to the orphans and widows, fatherless, poor. Just like the Bible he means that in a broad sense of those who need help. He wants to spread kindness to the human particularly those who are weak and vulnerable and that includes gay brothers and sisters, workers, the colonized, the physically challenged, indigenous people, black, red, brown, white, poor working class whites.


Prophetic pragmatism is just establishing a fundamental tilt toward the weak and vulnerable. That includes the elderly and children.  In the US 40% of our children of color live in poverty. 22% of all children live in poverty! And that is in the richest nation in the history of the world. “That is a moral abomination.”

Even here in Manitoba, 25% of the children live in poverty. That is just not right. That is a state of emergency for them and their parents.”


We should be treating it like an emergency.  That’s what prophets do. They don’t just go to the pub with their friends. Or to the golf course with their buddies.  Not that there is anything wrong with such activities. After all I have done them many times. But, prophets do more than that.

That is what I liked about West. It is the same thing I liked about the Prophets of the Old Testament which I blogged about earlier.

The Prophets refuse to allow the powerful to stand in the way of helping the needy. That is fused throughout the Old Testament. Jesus inherited and even transformed this tradition. That is all for the good. West wants to  do that too for modern society. That is why he is a prophetic pragmatist.

In my language that is why I think Brother West, as he likes to be known,  is on a religious quest and can help us all learn something of value. Who knows, maybe even we can go on such a quest.