Preaching an Eyes-Opened Optimism

Princeton professor Cornel West calls his outlook `prophetic pragmatism': hopeful, but not naive. He rails against America's `market culture,' and calls for bold, moral leadership to regenerate a nation.

CORNEL WEST, a professor of religion and the director of Princeton University's Afro-American studies program, shows up at his office in unusual attire for an Ivy League academic. He's wearing a dark blue suit - a three-piece dark blue suit - over a white shirt and monotone blue tie. There's a bit of whimsy in his radical-chic goatee and mustache, but the clothes are very serious. His friend the Rev. James Washington, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, says West never strays from this outfit. ``Cornel sees his role as priestly vocation,'' he says, adding that the sartorial rigor is evidence of constant readiness for ``public engagement.''

West is thoroughly engaged. He tours churches as a self-described lay preacher, though his Baptist tradition doesn't officially make room for lay preaching. He speaks to secular audiences as an honorary co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. And then there are academic engagements, like his address last year to the American Philosophical Association, a podium that isn't open to just anybody.

He is, his critics and supporters agree, ``out there.'' The expression serves both camps - the critics use it to mean politically way out, the supporters to underscore West's links to communities a long way from the ivory tower.

West says he wants to ``hit ... head on'' the ``cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism that's becoming more and more pervasive'' in American society. Girded by Christian concepts like sympathy for the downtrodden, West critiques society from the microphones within his reach, and encourages others to do the same.

His view of ``national decline and cultural decay'' is ruthlessly bleak at first, but West is disarming his critics. He wants his vision to be impervious to skeptics who would scorn a naively optimistic view of the culture and its prospects. He calls his philosophy ``prophetic pragmatism'' - hopeful, but hip to the way things are.

West argues that market forces are beginning to dominate every sphere of American life, creating a ``market culture'' that ``survives based on various kinds of addictions, especially addiction to stimulation.'' It's ``no accident that so much of popular culture revolves around orgiastic foreplay,'' when cultural players like the advertising and entertainment industries rely on sexual images to lure consumers. Status and power are conferred on those who have money - something the market values above all.

``The most important indication of cultural decay is when a social breakdown takes place in the system of nurturing children,'' West tells the audience at a recent New York Historical Society forum. The result is ``spiritual impoverishment and the inability to transmit non-market values ... I mean love, justice, solidarity, care, sacrifice.'' Instead, a market ethic prevails: ``Get over any way you can.''

This process ``produces individuals who are culturally naked ... - who have lost their existential mores, who find it difficult to engage in affective bonding, who no longer believe in the possibility of love - it's all stimulation and manipulation - who've given up notions of commitment,'' West says. He nails down an example of what he's talking about, pronouncing his words slowly: ``Drug-based gang culture, among the working poor.''

West's speaking style leaves few glazed eyes. He moves around a lot, sometimes bending over a too-short podium, leaning into the microphone, sometimes standing back and projecting a voice that runs from low and indecipherably rapid to loud and carefully, roundly enunciated.

West's talk in New York is about the need for ``visionary leadership'' in the times he describes. For the most part he sees ``lackluster leaders who are intimidated by conservative consensus and thus unwilling to engage in the kind of bold and moral leadership that would cut against the grain.'' Progressive taxation is, for instance, something such leaders are unwilling to do.

West believes that American culture is overly influenced by the market, currently unendowed with effective leaders, and fraught with polarized relations between sexes and races.

The inability to resolve the race issue, he explains back in his Princeton office, finds liberals throwing up their hands and saying, ```We've tried everything. Nothing we can do,' so the inner cities continue to be more and more asphalt jungles [with] cold-blooded and mean-spirited attacks on people, [and] civic terrorism haunting the streets.

``I think for religious thinkers this is very important.... Of course, so many religions themselves have been so commercialized and commodified that religious messages tend to be at times just gospels of health and wealth or the `American Way of Life' or what have you.... [So] there's a sense of: Does America have the cultural capacity to regenerate itself at this particular historical moment?''

To listen to his speech on leadership is to know that his answer is ``yes.''

West asserts that prophetic leaders need a strong sense of discernment, and a keen eye for hypocrisy. That means ``engaging in bold and defiant political courage to point out the discrepancies between principles and practices, between words and deeds.''

West's leaders also must engage ``in a sincere moral effort to keep track and never lose sight of the humanity of persons.'' And they must hope; they must make ``an audacious attempt to inspire and energize would-weary people of goodwill.''

West wants to encourage such leadership not just at the highest levels of society, but more importantly at the grass roots. There, he says, we will regain what is lost - the confidence that people can solve problems - and regenerate the culture from the ground up. In response to a question from the audience to identify some ``prophetic'' leaders in New York, West suggests US Rep. Major Owens (D) of New York and Riverside Church pastor Rev. James Forbes Jr.

Rebounding off a phrase from 18th-century English writer Horace Walpole about the world being a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, West closes his speech: ``It seems to me we cannot but think and feel, laugh and weep. But with a belief in the capacity of ordinary people, we can also fight - a smile on our faces, tears in our eyes.

``We see the deprivation, [and] we hold up a blood-stained banner in which some sense of hope - based on discernment, connection, pointing out hypocrisy, keeping alive some sense of possibility - can be projected, both for ourselves, for our children, and for our sacred honor.''

West's acid-washed but inspirational outlook generates a lot of enthusiasm among liberals, but conservatives say West's analysis - heavy with phrases like ``market culture'' and ``commodification'' - rests on outmoded ideas.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus, for instance, says that West's ``socialist propensity with a strong Marxist analytical undergirding'' has been ``falsified'' by recent history.

West doesn't dispute the socialist part - he describes his vision of a better future as a ``more decent society ... that can only be [achieved] by a more egalitarian distribution of wealth'' - but says his analysis isn't as Marxist as it is Christian. It's Christianity that demands a ``focus on those who suffer, and especially socially induced suffering,'' he says.

FOR West, the process of stopping that suffering begins with being prophetic, asserting a critique, raising the voice of protest. Certainly he keeps himself busy carrying this out. Whether others have taken up this call, put forward in West's 1989 book, ``The American Evasion of Philosophy,'' is hard to figure, says philosopher Richard Rorty.

Mr. Rorty is skeptical about the distinctiveness of prophetic pragmatism. ``It's more that West is distinctive, in that he's not another academic sort of exchanging slogans and catch phrases with other professors, because he's a lay preacher in the black churches, and because he's locked into a number of communities that most professors don't have anything to do with.''

Feb. 11: Influential teacher Robert Goeser

Feb. 25: Christian radicals Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

March 4: Philosopher Carol Ochs

TODAY: `Lay preacher' Cornel West

March 18: Christian Century editor James Wall

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