Click to listen to the “Matters of Faith” conversation with Harvey Cox, Mary Gordon, Cornel West and Chris Lydon. (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)
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.