Cornel West, one of America’s most eminent public intellectuals, has had an eclectic and esteemed career as both an academic professor and a public author and commentator on issues ranging from race, democracy, religion, philosophy, and politics. It is a career that has taken him from teaching positions at Union Theological Seminary to Yale Divinity School, the University of Paris, Harvard University and Divinity School, and (most recently) Princeton, where years earlier – in 1980 – West earned his Ph.D., writing his dissertation on historicism and ethics in Marxist thought.
His Christian faith has always played a central role in West’s writings and activism, in his life as a person of deep faith who, as a young man, decided to get baptized and give his life to Christ, dedicating his commitments to the causes of peace and social justice. That is why West has made the decision of coming full circle in his teaching career and concluding it where it began: at the historic Union Theological Seminary of New York City. West will leave Princeton and return to Union this summer to teach courses in philosophy and Christian practice. He told the New York Times that Union is “the institutional expression of my core identity as a prophetic Christian.”
Union has had a rich history of being the home to intellectual giants of the Christian tradition; men and women who have often combined their scholarship with their Christian identity, their profession with their vocation. At Union, a professor’s faith is not checked at the door but constitutes an essential component of their work and scholarship, extending to an embodiment of activism that encapsulates a fullness of one’s life. Theologians who have taught at Union include such greats as Paul Tillich, systematic theologian and existentialist philosopher; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed by the Nazis after being involved in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life; and James H. Cone, the founder and (thus) godfather of black liberation theology who continues to teach at the Seminary.
West, whose own spiritual, intellectual, and political leanings have been influenced by the African American Baptist Church, philosophical pragmatism, and American transcendentalism, will return to an environment where his scholarship and activism will be reinforced as complementary components, not opposing commitments. While West is leaving Princeton on good terms, he has historically faced conflict with both the administrations of Yale and Harvard (his famous feud with Lawrence Summers comes to mind) for his sociopolitical involvements outside of the Ivory Tower. Issues which West has staunchly supported include fair labor regulations, racial equality, the struggle for Palestinian rights in the Occupied Territories, and antiwar as well as anti-poverty campaigns.
West has used his platform as a successful professor and public intellectual to reach a deeper sphere of culture. He has, outside of writing, teaching, and public speaking, tried to connect to a wider audience by hosting a radio show with Tavis Smiley, using his musical gifts in making rap and hip hop CDs dedicated to the various social issues of the day, even using his acting talents by starring in two of the three Matrix films and offering commentary on the philosophical and existential themes that permeate the trilogy. He has been far from a “conventional” professor, trying to incorporate various dimensions of culture with his multitalented intellect and soul to serve others, to reach younger people, to give voice to the voiceless and represent the under-represented.
Essentially, in a short but beautiful prayer that West wrote in his autobiography, Brother West, he revealed that the source of all his good work and service, of all his virtue, is rooted in his faith in Christ the Lord:
“Jesus. I say, thank you, Lord. I say, thank you for the breath in my lungs and the strength in my loins. May that strength endure so that I can serve you. And in serving you, may I serve others, especially the least of these.”
Therefore, returning to teach at a Christian seminary to finish his career only seemed right for West. “I don’t have that much time,” he said, “and I want to be able to do precisely what I’m called to do.”
The Rev. Serene Jones, the president of Union who was also a former student of West’s at Yale Divinity School, summed it up nicely. She told the New York Times: “In coming here, Cornel comes to a place where his scholarly commitments and his activism don’t live in two different worlds. As you get older, the more integrated your life is, the healthier it feels and the less time you have to spend waking up deciding who you’re going to be that day. At Union, he just has to be Cornel.”