Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

116: Cornel West Part I:
Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In his essay, “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization,” Cornel West proposes the notion of prophetic religion as the only hope to fix the current world’s problems. Prophetic religion is not so much a theory or theology, although it has that. Prophetic religion is principally a practice; a practice of empathy and imagination.

Cornel West approaches life and philosophy “as a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas.” Where philosophy is dry and erudite it needs poetry. Poetry is where empathy and imagination are best expressed in words; is where the human condition is best described and; is where a new and better vision for the world can be expressed best if it needs to touch our soul. “[W]hen we are talking about rethinking secularism, we have to think of the ways in which secular thinkers—namely, those who go to school with science such as Brother Christopher Hitchens, must become more religiously musical. Too many secular thinkers are religiously tone-deaf and flat-footed.” Everyone in our society can benefit from a little more musicality in their specialty because it is through empathy and imagination that we can escape the narrow confines of our education and life experience in order to see and understand things from other perspectives. Democracy may depend on prophetic religion.

A major part of our human condition is that we are finite, fragile creatures living in a chaotic world on our way to death. The author quotes William James: “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!” He further quotes George Santayana: “Religion is the love of life in the consciousness of impotence.” And claims that “Our radical finitude should accent our humble fallibility—in science and religion.” A humble fallibility is a wonderful trait of any person who practices prophetic religion and in the author’s experience Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and actions were the greatest example.

Another major part of our collective human condition was described by Walter Benjamin in his ninth thesis which the author summarizes and describes as “History as catastrophe, the piling of wreckage on wreckage, the pile of debris, the wasted potential, the unrealized possibility of precious persons. We could begin by looking at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and seeing millions of African bodies there. But in nearly every ocean and land we see the same thing—cycles of domination, violence, bigotry, subordination, and hatred.”

Referencing “The Prophets,” the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Jewish prophetic tradition that we should try to emulate, the author describes the “prophetic way of being in the world, a call for help, grounded in the cries of an oppressed people that warrants attention, and, in fact, to be human is to love the orphan, the widow, the stranger, to treat that non-Jewish other with dignity, with loving kindness.” In other words we do not need to agree theologically, politically, or scientifically to see and love justice. It is in our actions that we manifest prophetic religion: “‘Love thy neighbor,’ Leviticus 19:18, and justice being what love looks like in public in that tradition, even for the first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus, who comes out of prophetic Judaism….has a logic, not only of equivalence—love thy neighbor—but also a logic of superabundance, to use that wonderful distinction of the late great Paul Ricoeur. The logic of superabundance is what? Love thy enemy.”

It is in catastrophe that one can see how broad and deep one’s empathy and imagination are. “The centrality of the catastrophic that sits at the center of prophetic religion … [is] actually having a genuine love and willingness to celebrate with and work alongside those catching hell—with the wretched of the earth, in the language of Frantz Fanon.”

The prophetic religious orientation will induce “a righteous indignation and a holy anger at injustice…[and] a little suspic[-ion] sometimes of the discourses that can easily deodorize the funk that’s there, that don’t really want to engage the catastrophic….” Here the author criticizes Obama’s famous race speech in Philadelphia in which Obama said “Slavery was America’s original sin.” The author responds with: “No, no no. You had already conquered and dominated indigenous peoples. They’re both affairs of white supremacy, but one came first. Don’t deodorize that funk. Their lives are just as precious as any other human life on the globe, no matter what color, what culture, what civilization. We must attempt to always ensure that things are not so sterilized and sanitized.”

One problem in the world is sanitization. It allows, or facilitates the hiding of the catastrophic so that unaccountable elites at the top can run amok with greed and narrow empathy and truncated imagination. The 2008 financial crisis was a catastrophe; the looting was a crime against humanity.

To create the conditions for prophetic religion we must begin with love. Love ourselves and those closest to us, then grow that love to include everyone else even the hardest to love: our enemies. “allow it [love] to spill over so that there’s a robust kind of poetic orientation, so that your empathy is so broad and your imagination is so open-ended that you’re willing to be open to different discourses, arguments, pushing you against the wall.” Many of the author’s heroes are atheist or agnostic; he mentions Chekhov, Beckett, and Kafka.

“But in dealing with the catastrophic and the response to the catastrophic—Ralph Waldo Ellison used to say, ‘The blues ain’t nothing but an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.’ It’s a lyrical response to catastrophe.”

“[P]rophetic religion is a fugitive affair—an emphatic and imaginative power that confronts hegemonic powers always operating. Prophetic religion is a profoundly tragicomic affair….Prophetic religion is an individual and collective performative praxis of maladjustment to greed, fear, and bigotry. For prophetic religion the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak….[I]n talking about prophetic religion, we’re talking about something that is engaging, something that is risk taking, and it has everything to do with the enabling virtue, which is courage—the courage to expand empathy, expand imagination, think critically, organize, mobilize, and maybe, like Brother Martin Luther King Jr. pay the ultimate price. But it’s all in bearing witness. Bearing witness, that’s what the call is about. That’s what the vocation is about.”

The author laments that President Obama is “listening to technocratic elites”; that Obama seems to have lost his way due to the company he keeps. But the author, in 2011 is still hopeful that prophetic religion can generate enough righteous indignation to mobilize people so that Obama’s “progressive instincts” will again lead the way.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren