Transcript: Cornel West On God And The Great Thinkers
The Christian socialist is a powerful foe of tribalism.
Cornel West’s academic career is long and storied, having taught religion, philosophy, and African-American studies at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Union Theological Seminary, where he returned last year. He has written or contributed to more than 20 books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters — but he recommends you start with Chekhov.
I met Cornel decades ago, when I interviewed him at Union Theological Seminary for a TNR piece I was writing on divinity schools. He has long fascinated me, and Race Matters had a real impact on me decades ago. Erudite, passionate, and deeply humane, he is an unapologetically leftist Christian, who is also a champion of free speech, civility and the classics. In other words: a rare and beautiful man.
This episode aired on October 8, 2021, and you can listen to it here. Some money quotes from Cornel:
“We’ve got to fight the notion that whiteness is reducible to white supremacy.”
“When we talk about critical race theory, it’s a lens. We’ve got a variety of different lenses of looking at human history and American history.”
“To be human in space and time is to be in the mess.”
Andrew: Hi there, and welcome to another edition of the Dishcast. This is one I've been so looking forward to — one of my favorite and most esteemed public intellectuals. We are so happy to have Cornel West on the Dishcast.
I don't think he really needs introduction. Well, maybe we should talk about where we first met. I met Cornel when I was doing a piece — when I was basically a baby — on Union Theological Seminary. I did a piece about divinity schools in America, and I remember that Michael Kinsley put it on the cover with the headline, "She's back. God Comes Back to Divinity School." And I had a lot of fun, and I was also very interested in everything that you were doing. But Cornel, thank you so much for coming and welcome to the Dishcast.
Cornel: Well, my brother, it's always a joy to be in conversation with you. I think that's almost 34 years ago, man.
Andrew: I know, I know.
Cornel: 34 years. We are blessed to still be here and in our right minds, at least five days a week. God knows you're in your right mind for seven, but I'm holding out for five days a week. [laughs]
Andrew: I mean, I don't feel that different from those days. And your spirit seems to be very similar through all the years. Sometimes I wonder if these 30 years happened? Or whether I'm still sitting here with the same sensibility and feelings?
Cornel: No, it's true. It's true. I mean, I think that you've been blessed with a forever young sensibility and I have a similar one too in terms of being able to be in the moment, be thankful for the moment, but also be mindful of the loved ones we lost. We look around and you see loved ones are no longer here. That will let you know that time is real. That will let you know that these last 34 years have been as real as a heart attack.
Andrew: You've just given, you said five eulogies in the last five days or last week?
Andrew: That must be rough.
Cornel: Well, I'll tell you, man. When you got towering figures like Bob Moses, my dear brother, and Stanley Aronowitz and Albert Roberto, Donald Shriver, the president of the seminary at the time that you and I met in the '80s. Then my dear brother, Glen Ford, a revolutionary intellectual, black journalist. It hit hard. Then Mom just a few months ago.
The whole sense of mortality, fleshified, concretized, forced to confront in such a raw manner. Brother Roberto, he's a black religious scholar, but he was a member of the Russian Orthodox church. I've never been in a Russian Orthodox liturgy for the dead. Oh, brother, it's powerful. The Vespers, Rachmaninoff, the voices. The body lays there and you can see it the whole time and you kiss parts of the body. It's heavy, man. I'm telling you.
Andrew: The body is right there in front of you?
Cornel: Right there. We Protestants, of course, always kept a distance. The Catholics, you all are much more candid about it than we are. But the Russians, that's what Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Chekhov, and Leskov, and Turgenev, that's where they come from, man. This is a raw engagement with the real, concrete lived experience of a corpse.
Andrew: Right. Have you ever been intrigued by Orthodoxy yourself? By Eastern Orthodoxy as a part of your faith?
Cornel: Oh, very much so. Very, very.
Andrew: Tell me about that. What is it that draws you to that tradition?