Cornel West Visits Wheaton

Cornel West

Stephen Quillen | Staff Writer

On the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 25, students, guests and faculty gathered in Coray Auditorium to hear Dr. Cornel West lecture “On Being a Chekhovian Christian and a Blues Man: Christianity, Pragmatism, and Democracy.”

The event was hosted by the philosophy department and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE). 

As an esteemed author and philosopher, as well as an outspoken activist and political thinker, West is widely regarded as a leading public intellectual. West currently holds a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York as professor of philosophy and Christian practice.

In his talk, West covered a wide range of topics, skillfully fastening his Christian devotion to love, truth and justice with philosophical reflections on Socrates, courage and the catastrophic. He also expressed a deep-felt passion for social and political afflictions through reflections on literature, history and music. “If I can be one third as subtle as the voice of a David Ruffin,” West said in his reflections on jazz and soul music, “than I will not have lived in vain.”

As he continued, West focused on the Greek term “paideia,” what he termed a “fundamental turning of the soul,” and how it relates to the Socratic imperative to take courage and examine oneself, ultimately “learning how to die.”

“It takes unbelievable spiritual maturation,” West said, “to hold despair at arm’s length, given the darkness of this world, and still muster the courage to love knowledge and wisdom and learning and neighbor and justice and enemy.”

Vincent Bacote, director of CACE, wrote in an email that “in many ways, (Dr. West) is a walking advertisement for a liberal arts education because of the way he brings a range of academic subjects together when he talks.” 

This was apparent throughout West’s lecture as he referenced philosophers such as Nietzsche, Hume, Kierkegaard and Plato, while also drawing on the work of various poets, writers and musicians. “It was really remarkable to hear someone with such a huge reservoir of knowledge speak with that amount of energy and passion,” senior Paul Tokar said. “I think it challenges us to think about Christianity and faith in a way that is unique and needed.”

Bruce Ellis Benson, professor of philosophy, was pivotal to extending the invitation to West and launching the event here on campus. Benson introduced West, saying that it has been one of his dreams to have him on campus.

“What marks Cornel West as a thinker,” Benson explained before the lecture, “is that he is so able to take difficult ideas and make them easily accessible to a wide range of people without oversimplifying or trivializing the concepts. This is really quite impressive, and it’s not something most people can do.”

West visited Benson’s “Philosophy and Postmodernity” class Tuesday afternoon where he engaged with students on Heidegger’s text “Being and Time,” discussing how it connects to the philosophical tradition at large. 

“He laid it down,” senior Tom Leng, who was in the class, said. “He laid it down hard.”

West has an extensive academic pedigree, having earned a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton, and having held teaching positions at Yale, Harvard, the University of Paris and Union Theological Seminary. Even so, he has a broad scope of interests outside of the university. Not only has West authored many books and publications, such as “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters,” but he is a regular contributor on programs hosted by PBS, CNN and MSNBC, as well as a frequent guest of popular shows like The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Additionally, West has released multiple spoken word/hip hop albums. 

In 2011, West began hosting a radio program alongside Tavis Smiley titled “Smiley and West.” In the program, the hosts engage with a number of issues relating to class, poverty, culture and politics.

In his work with Smiley and elsewhere, West is highly critical of corporate media, Wall Street, political institutions and the overarching neoliberal agenda. Some of these concerns were voiced during his lecture, namely issues relating to social inequality, corporate integrity and militarization. Specifically, West touched on what he calls the “prison industrial complex” or “the New Jim Crow,” along with targeted drone strikes overseas. 

“What makes anybody think that a baby in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia has less value than a baby in Connecticut or Chicago or Los Angeles?” West asked. “Every flag is under the cross, and that cross signifies unarmed truth and unconditional love, and when that flag falls short, I don’t want the flag waving and concealing the suffering of God’s babies and God’s children.” West continued, “I am a cross bearer before I am a flag waver.”

“I really appreciate his willingness to call out large institutional transgressions,” said senior Emilea Wright, “while still speaking with love and humility and grace.”

Additionally, West illustrated the value of critical engagement, of “radically calling into question” our assumptions and preconditions.

“It is very rare these days,” West said, “especially in colleges, that courage is elevated to a grand virtue ... courage to think critically, courage to love, courage to hope, courage to fall in love with the life of the mind as it relates to enabling you to be a better agent for the Kingdom.”

In response to the lecture, junior Kent Lindbergh remarked that West “highlighted the importance of humility, vulnerability and tenacity in light of the gospel — the importance of searching yourself and having a deep conviction of your sins.”

Bacote added, “In terms of what we can draw from his work, I think the biggest thing is not so much his conclusions as his commitments to thinking deeply about important public concerns in light of faith and various academic disciplines.”

All told, West received a warm reception from those in attendance as the crowd rose for a standing ovation at the end of his talk.

Senior Jay Fort concluded, “Dr. Cornel West astounded me in a number of different ways. While I was definitely familiar with [his] work, I must admit that I was unprepared for the level of insight of Dr. West’s presentation.” Fort continued, “He reminded me that when we are finally willing to die to ourselves, to become empty vessels, God can manifest his glory to the world around us; for that, I am truly grateful.”

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