How God Came Back: Gordon, Cox and West

This is a book-fair exchange that caught fire around a current version of the old graffiti duel: “God is dead,” signed Nietzsche. Then, “Nietzsche is dead,” signed God. How’s to read the evidence that God is back in an almighty way — in the bookstores, in popular culture, in world affairs? Neo-atheists including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have given The Big Guy best-selling burials all over again in recent years. But now come Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright, and at the Boston Book Festival last weekend: novelist Mary Gordon, a “progressive Catholic” who leaves plenty of room for doubt; the post-modern Baptist theologian Harvey Cox; and Cornel West, the lay preacher and “blues man in the life of the mind,” as he calls himself – each of them writing and talking up a storm about an insatiable hunger out there for a personal god, or gods, and also for “blessed communities” in His or Her name. In a jammed hall of the Boston Public Library last weekend, I asked the writers not to summarize or sell their books but to imagine we were in a train compartment between, say, Istanbul and Vienna, just talking. Harvey Cox led off for Mary Gordon and Cornel West, who brought it home, as we say in church.

Lets go back to three of the great historical sociologists who gave us an analysis of what religion would look like – some were more wrong than right.  Weber said there would be secularization that would become ubiquitous.  There would be a disenchantment of the world that would lead toward an iron cage, where people would be, in fact, yearning for god-talk but giving it up, because science and technology would become so hegemonic, would become so influential, that people would no longer opt for narratives that invoke God or grace.  Now Weber was wrong about secularization, but he was right about the iron cage.  Durkheim said that there’s an eternal in religious sensibilities to a degree that human beings are gonna worship something.  They’re gonna treasure something – the question is, what will it be?  Conrad in Heart of Darkness said: what? It’s idolatry, it’s Kurtz and it’s ivory.  But they’re gonna treasure something.  The question is: will it be something outside of their ego, their tribe, their clan, their nation?  Will it be transcendental, will it be universal, will it be cosmopolitan?  And then here comes Karl Marx, who says all of this religious talk is just a sigh of the oppressed.  Of course people want to live in a world where they have some sense of wholeness.  But like George Santayana who defined religion as what?  Religion as the love of life and the conciousness of impotence.  That’s Santatyana.  He’s a naturalist.  Religious, but in no way Christian or anything else.  He agrees with Marx.  Religion is fundamentally about coming to terms with your limits.  You’re gonna die.  Your bodies will be the culinary delight of terrestial worms one day – can’t get around it.  Can’t get out of space and time… alive!

… One of the reasons why I pride myself in being a bluesman in the life of the mind, is because a bluesman or blueswoman has the Keatsian sensibility.  That negative capability… So for example you look at the Christian texts, look at the blues note of Jesus himself – my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me, on the cross?  That’s a blues moment, that’s a Keatsian moment.  Here God, God’s self, is calling into question the benevolent power of the supposedly ultimate power of the universe.  Now I like that moment, because its humanizing… What do you do in the face of that?  Well the blues say oohhh, wait a minute.  The blues ain’t nothing but an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically anyway.  Nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jiving too.  That’s B.B. King, that’s the King of the Blues.  That’s Antigone.  Everything’s against you in the darkness, including your blessed mama.  And he does that on the B-side of The Thrill is Gone!  And it comes from a blues people who have dealt with catastrophe in America, American terrorism in the form of slavery, for 244 years.  American terrorism in the form of Jim Crow, Jane Crow, lynching… In the face of that kind of terrorism, you don’t create a black Al Queda, and just counter-terrorize.  You say: no, in the face of slavery, we want freedom for everybody!  In the face of Jim Crow, we want rights and liberties for everybody.  It’s the Love Supreme that John Coltrane talked about.  In the face of that kind of catastrophe, you hold onto some sense of what appears to be impotent – namely love and justice.  Why?  Because even when you’re gangsterized, you don’t wanna get in the gutter with a ganster.  Even if you’re defeated momentarily, you’d rather be defeated with integrity than win with the thugs.  That’s the lesson of the best of Black history in America…

Cornel West in conversation with Mary Gordon, Harvey Cox and Chris Lydon at the Boston Book Festival, October 24, 2009.

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  • nother

    We have 24 hours in the day, we sleep 8 and work 8 and with the 8 left there is a need – amidst the chores of existing – to spend a few hours uplifted, and then to siphon some strength from that stimulation so as to tackle the next 24. And like so many many 24 before, Open Source just gave me an hour of power.

    I hear BB sing/speak in this video, and I hear the cadence of Cornel. Which in turn made me appreciate the cadence of Mary and Harvey…and not just their individual cadences but how they all – including Chris’s and the questioner – mesh without losing any individuality (like a good jazz band). This conversation truly fits the Open Source mantra “An American conversation with global attitude.” The themes in this conversation are universal, but I don’t know anywhere else in the universe you can hear them discussed so democratically.

  • Mei

    I found this the most ill-informed, pompous discussion I’ve heard in a long while.

    Treating god like he’s real without providing any evidence for teir claims, how do they get away with that? Might as well go believe in The Transformers.

  • Bryon

    During the podcast (around 23:00) Harvey Cox says that “We would welcome really smart atheists. I’m looking around for a really intelligent atheist, and the current crop don’t quite come up to the mark because they really haven’t done their homework.” That statement makes me want to see him debate Hitchens, who would tear him an asshole so large, there’d be nothing left but hole. On the other hand, it was, as it always is, such a great privilege to hear Cornel West speak. I swoon every time I hear this remarkable man.

  • nother

    Speaking of evidence, Mei, it would be nice to hear some from you. Or do you often walk by windows yell derogatory things and run away. Who exactly said what exactly that offended you so much? I heard certain individuals in the hour say that have their own faith (and I also heard them all agree that non believers are equal). I’m sure you have people in your family who have their faith, maybe a grandmother. If that was the case, Mei, would you consider your grandmother “ill-informed” and “pompous,” if you heard her discussing her faith in public, would you demand that she turn over evidence to you? Because how dear she be so pompous as to discuss her faith in public in ear shot of Mei. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

    I’m reminded of the dangerous fear I hear from some men when the subject of homosexuals is broached or gay men are in the vicinity. They get so hot and bothered, so viscerally angry, I can only surmise that they are afraid of getting too close or thinking about it too much – cuz maybe just maybe something hidden deep inside will be uncovered or seep out.

    I’m sorry I have to rely on conjecture in response, unfortunately all I have to go on is a brief rude remark you made in our public forum here on this blog. While It’s possible you learned about civility while watching the Transformers on Sat. mornings, we do things different around here. Please be civil next time and criticize ideas not people.

  • Shaman

    A great program all the way through.

    The most difficult problem in religion is the problem of human suffering – for who can believe in a good God when catastrophe meets humanity at every turn? It has been the recurring theme in modern times since the ubiquitous horrors of WWI,WW2, Holoucaust, Genocide, Hiroshima and the other unspeakable evils unique yet experienced in our modern lifetimes.

    The shocking answer to God’s silence? There is only one answer: The Blues!

    Cornel West seemed to feel the undertone in this conversation building and half way through he suddenly burst into a stream of verbal fireworks brilliantly bringing up the blues and the redemptive power of the spiritual – and he seemed to point out that the hope that comes from the blues and Jazz is deeply validating to all of humanity in mysterious ways and brings you close to the Lord like nothing else can in one’s darkest hour – to get you through. Well. Amen!

    The panel addressed not “How God Came Back” but how God can’t go away because humanity refuses to let go of Him somehow. Mary Gordon had many interesting comments about this and seemed to connect all the dots when she said she believed in ‘original sin’.

    My first thought was, wow. Original sin? That seems even more radical than believing in God. If there is anything missing in the modern era I think it is the loss of “sin”. I don’t even think I’ve heard it much in church. But she makes a case for it by pointing out that humanity seems to be constructed for contradiction – “There’s something wrong with (humanity)”.

    Well we all know she’s right.

    Cornel did blow some wind that sounded a bit like grandstanding and could be read as pompous. But I forgive it because the substance of what he said was irrefutable. He is just forceful (like a Miles Davis solo but more loving)

    As for why God is ‘coming back’ I’m not sure I agree with that premise of the conversation. Fundamentalism has been growing for decades and Consumerism does seem to be the other force spreading in the world. But rising powers such as these are always a little frightening and I’m not sure God (or what the faithful would call God) has much to do with it.

    The twin towers of Consumerism and Fundamentalism are both frightening issues indeed and they should be talked about. They are both false movements and they are symptoms of an unhealthy world. But whether God has anything to do with this is unclear and to suggest that “God is back” somehow is too reflexive. Because ‘God means too many things to too many people for this to be a premise.

    I doubt these two dominant trends in the world are solvable but it is fascinating to ponder how we got to this problem. Best of all it is nice to know we are not alone in thinking about these big issues.

  • jack

    Cornel West knows how to destroy a conversation. Why not more from Mary Gordon and Harvey Cox? Neither less learned or acute, but they were effectively left out. I’ve read Cornel West, agree with many of his opinions, but an egomaniac does not a good radio show make.

  • jack

    That seemingly sour note didn’t come out right. West always strumming the right notes. But he does carry on. As above, I would have liked to have heard more from the other guests — and fron Chris. Carry on all in their good works.

  • Our friend Steve Antinoff of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia emails me with his blessed (but not “believing”) erudition and generosity:


    It was an excellent program. thanks. Mr West is a trip. Thinking during the discussion not always good enough, though. Why call the ineradicable hunger for transcendence “faith?” (As Mr. Cox does.) Why not call it hunger? Hunger/longing for something which transcends the finite, the finite which leaves us dissatisfied, does not imply that something exists.

    There are religions of Self-awakening, like Zen, not only religions of faith. When the 9th century Chinese Zen master Shih-t’ou awakened, he exclaimed: “There is no self; there is nothing that is not the self.” To reduce that wondrous realization to Judeo-Christianity is the very imperialism your guests decry.

    I also find your phrase “post-atheist” glib. I stand with Kirilov. Atheism in the best sense and faith will battle it out in human culture for a the foreseeable future, won’t they? Has Karen Armstrong really ended that? The key to what I still would like to call spiritual atheism is not whether God exists for believers. God does not exist for the millions of us whose struggle to be human must be undertaken without God. That struggle is just as heartfelt and valid at it is for believers. Mr. Cox’s citing of Tillich’s definition of atheism to set up his: “the God atheists don’t believe in I wouldn’t believe in either” (which I have heard before) is, frankly, crap.

    No atheist I know begrudges any believer his or her belief.

    I was very impressed by Ms. Gordon. Niebuhr liked to quote a reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement of his “The Nature and Destiny of Man that “Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christianity,”

    “Spiritual Atheism” is coming out as a book in a couple of months. Ms. Gordon would not like it, I assume; it is “private.” Except that the most private dilemma of millions of human hearts strikes me as not private at all, if it besets millions. Ethical and political concerns do not exhaust religion. The individual torment has need of being addressed too, doesn’t it?

    When I lived in Rome in 1998-99, my landlady was a harpsichordist. Occasionally, on Sundays, she invited me up to her garden for tea with some of her musician friends. Among them was a Czech violinist, who my landlady described as the greatest violinist in Italy. You immediately sensed that here was a formidable and serious man. I felt wet behind the ears in comparison. My landlady introduced me as a writer. I was embarrassed, but he asked me what I was writing about. I stumbled out, in my awful Italian: “The religious impulse in a world without God.” When he said, gravely: “”This is our situation!” {Questo e nostro situazione), I knew I did have something to write about,

    Your friend always,


  • I was intrigued by Cox’s citation of Tillich, but couldn’t find the reference. I did find this, attributed to Sri Aurobindo (Thoughts and Aphorisms, Bhakti, 538):

    “Atheism is the shadow or dark side of the highest perception of God. Every formula we frame about God, though always true as a symbol, becomes false when we accept it as a sufficient formula. The Atheist and Agnostic come to remind us of our error.”

    Assuming neither is a misattribution, I’d be curious to know what connection Aurobindo and Tillich had. It’s a pretty close paraphrase.

    (WRT Armstrong, and especially her latest, hasn’t she simply reinvented UU?)

  • Richard Rorty groaned from the grave when Lydon uttered “Nietzsche is dead, signed God.” But in this age media has a memory — we can go back and hear Rorty’s retort in 2001 that “…if you bring God in you can make him say almost anything” :

    Rorty did well to piss people off on either side of the religion/science debate, himself arguing with Dennett years before the self-identifying atheist gang:

    Like John Dewey, Rorty thought that the quest for certainty in philosophy had become a surrogate for the authority of religion. Cornel West, writing about Rorty in his book “The American Evasion of Philosophy,” brings Foucault in to supplement his genealogy of pragmatism and ends with suggestions about a form of “prophetic pragmatism.” The book begins with Emerson, fittingly, selecting great passages Harold Bloom would celebrate. Of course, Nietzsche also heard Emerson, as we all hear Nietzsche. Neither are dead. Cornel West’s characterization of the decentering of epistemology in philosophy by both is apt in terms of the Foucauldian relation of power and knowledge. Rorty is the great hero here, he saw science and religion as together “on all fours.” The trouble is, once you give up on metanarratives, you see the the university as guilty of not producing enough critical citizens, and manufacturing too much consent — creating a privileged class for the newspapers to collect and sell to the advertisers, as Chomsky would say. So here we stand, back with Emerson. Why Emerson? Because he demands an idiosyncratic curriculum, because each of us has a rich attic to ransack. Is there anyone living in body to provoke our intuitions?

    Jacques Ranciere must be your next guest Mr. Lydon. For “The Philosopher and His Poor,” for “The Nights of Labor,” but mostly for “The Ignorant School Master: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.” Ranciere, channeling Joseph Jacotot, writes that “it’s precisely because we are all equal by nature that we must all be unequal by circumstances.” Is this not the grand message, the contingent acknowledgment; not what you’re working for, but what you’re working from? What America has in common with it’s European roots is the Romantic praise for Authenticity. Harold Bloom takes from Emerson the notion of the Anxiety of Influence when we find Emerson saying in the American Scholar, “Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence.” Ranciere: “This is the true modesty of ‘genius,’ that is to say, of the emancipated artist: he employs his art, all his power, to show us his poem as the absence of another that he credits us with knowing as well as he.”

    Jacques Ranciere is alive. I want to hear him speak with Chris Lydon about intellectual emancipation.

  • nother

    “In the end, one must go to the movies.” This is a quote from Lorenzo Albacete at the end of this interview on

    He goes on to say that it’s important to think about these things but ultimately life is about enjoyment (going to the movies, ext.).

    This theory especially struck me when I watched Daniel Dennett’s interview.

    Mr. Dennett appears to me a somewhat humorless man, a man boxed in (and subsequently jaded) by an idea. He steadfastly refuses to leave room for any mystery and listening to him I’m reminded of Kirilov in “Demons,” a man whose devotion to an idea keeps him in his own room obsessing – and ultimately on a downward spiral.

    I find it a conceit on Mr. Dennett’s part…this notion that all mystery has conveniently been eradicated during Mr. Dennett’s lifetime, and by the way (if we follow this logic) due in large part to Mr. Dennett’s work.

    As Mr. West says in this program Human beings are going to treasure something. These guys like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, do you really want to share in their treasure? Is there any chance a shine will emanate from their treasure…with enough illumination to allow us to commune in a ceremony of dance? Cuz I like to dance.

    What I’m trying to say is if someone made a movie out of Mr. Dennett’s theories, I’m sure I’d fall asleep in my popcorn.

  • Shaman

    I am lost in the sub-references above. but any conversation about God in society is bound to be unwieldy.

    I would love to hear a conversation among sociologists (without a proselytizer in the mix) to discuss the rise of religious fundamentalism and the rise of capitalism as symptoms of a bigger problem with society.

    It is possible that God has nothing to do with such things and never did.

  • Springerrr

    It seems an act of tokenism to include Cornel West among these august minds. West is an entertainer, trotting (or as West would say ‘trottinGAH’) concepts like musical notes rather than as a substrate of analysis. He does not engage, he preaches. Does the black community not have ONE theologian/philosopher that is an educated, creative, rigorous thinker?

  • nother

    Yea Springerrr, I hear ya…that’s why I hated MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, all that music of the speech and all that preach’n. Why can’t they even find one “educated” black person who can speak like Lincoln for instance – oh wait, scratch that, Lincoln was into all that music and preach’n language too. There must be ONE black person out there who is a “rigorous” thinker and uses phrases like -“substrate of analysis.”

    I want to add a little passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “English Traits.” He recounts a discussion with his buddy Thomas Carlyle concerning the state of science – or at least the learned discourse concerning science:

    “For the science, he had if possible even less tolerance, and compared the savants of the Somerset House to the boy who asked Confucius ‘how many stars in the sky?’ Confucius replied, ‘he minded things near him:’ then said the boy, ‘how many hairs are in your eyebrows?’ Confucius said, ‘he didn’t know and didn’t care.'”

    Personally, when I read this I’m reminded of guys like Dennett and Dawkins…guys who I believe are obsessed with counting how many hairs are in our eyebrows – and thus possess a deep faith that therein lies the only meaning of life. My response to the eyebrow calculations of these men is – I don’t know and I don’t care.

  • Potter

    Some wonderful comments above on the book-fair exchange which I found entertaining. I love Mary Gordon in that conversation. Cornell West was as entertaining as he probably wanted to be but his egotistic hogging and literary name-dropping also tried my patience before I finally gave in to him feeling he shut the others out too much. This may be teaching or showing off or both. But he also gave a lot. I love his rap on the blues. I know of Albert Murray and he would have been proud.

    I particularly connect to Steve Antinoff’s here (he who caused me to take on Les Miserables from this site). I am grateful that Chris you posted it here.

    That is to say also that the discussion did not evoke or provoke any defensiveness in me (which is good) except that I found myself asking why atheism has to be an enemy, or a threat. But Steve Antinoff answers that very well: atheism is not, not at all.

    Chris asked the good question- why the three Abrahamic faiths are at each other. Without listening again, I believe he also asked why they have not been able to bring peace on earth. I was born into one of them ( Judaism, the orthodox version) and from what I know of the other two I would say that is because they have been more at war with each other and either struggling to survive or out to keep gain or force believers. They have become part of the political struggle for supremacy-ultimately clouding over the perennial truths of all faiths where we would all meet and lay down arms. So ot be honest it was hard for the participants to say whether religion with it’s divisions has brought more harm or good to this world. They got that point out of the way almost instantly and steered more towards faith or “pre-religion” (not post-religion or atheism).

    Religion, to my mind, ought to bring spiritual elevation and community, which it does somewhat. Early indoctrination from being born into one religion or another short-circuits or hampers ( makes difficult) any real evolution towards one path or another. So I see that as a problem. But Joseph Campbell said choose one and go with it ( as opposed to what he did- compare them all to arrive at the perennial truths) and you will arrive at that place.

    Of the three Abrahamic religions, I would say from the most neutral place in my mind, that Christianity, or the teachings of Jesus ( love) has or had the most promise. I am with Joseph Campbell (and I think Emerson ) for whom Buddhism, it’s wisdom and practice, was the way to peace and happiness.

  • Potter

    Cornel West made an excellent point, one that I have thought of myself. Oppressed and suffering for a long long time blacks here did not turn to terrorism or armed resistance. They attempted to and did largely succeed it seems in keeping spirits uplifted though faith and community, finding a way through and giving us in the process such gifts -of music dance poetry writing ….. ultimately passive resistance, turning things around gradually over time, the perhaps harder but surer way. I don’t say it so well as CWest did.

  • Cian

    I think this talk was misnamed. God might be back in the US, but he’s long gone in Europe. Don’t fear athiests, fear irrelivance and indifference, which is the fate that Christianity has met in Europe. People can get agitated (and rightly so) about the influence of Christian instutitions in various European countries (he in the UK they control entrance to, and to some degree the curriculum of, a considerable number of state funded schools), but they’re mostly pretty indifferent about God’s existence. Not athiests, not agnostics, just not interested. He didn’t die, he simply faded away. And nothing much has filled its place. Here, church attendance, or religiosity, would be seen as an oddity. Not a bad thing (unless you’re a politician, when its seen as deeply suspicious), just an odd thing.

    The interesting question is why is America still so fiercely religiouis.