Cornel West Returns to Union Theological Seminary: “the institutional expression of my core identity as a prophetic Christian”


Dr. Cornel West (right) with Tavis Smiley

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.”  


3 thoughts on “Cornel West Returns to Union Theological Seminary: “the institutional expression of my core identity as a prophetic Christian”

  1. What exactly does this have to do with Holy Church or the Holy Catholic Faith? The individual is a follower of liberation theology (marxism) and is an enemy of the Church and its doctrine. is a protestant institution, is there a problem with Catholic identity at Catholic Daily?

    • Hi Scott, thanks so much for your comment. Let me try to answer your questions. First, one of the things that this blog is dedicated to (as you can read above) is culture. Cornel West is a major cultural figure — a major Christian intellectual — and, thus, there is no stipulation that every blog entry must be dedicated specifically to a Catholic figure. Notwithstanding, to further answer your question about what this has to do with our Holy Church, since the Second Vatican Council, especially under the work of Cardinal Augustin Bea and the Office for the Promotion of Christian Unity, ecumenism has always been a major goal of the Catholic Church (and faith), especially reconciliation with our Orthodox and Protestant Brethren. Writing about a prominent Protestant thinker is nothing else than a small ecumenical effort that appreciates Catholic teaching of love of neighbor. Furthermore, John Paul II wrote that we (as Christians – he did not limit this mission to Catholics) need to use the new technologies and media to our advantage to spread the Gospel of Christ. Dr. West is a wonderful example of John Paul’s call in action, using various technologies and mediums, from radio to film and music, beyond academia, to spread the Good News. Also, addressing your point on liberation theology and Marxism. To begin with, while Dr. West wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Marxism that does not make him a Marxist. Consider that Fr. Robert Barron, of the “Catholicism” series, also wrote his master’s thesis on Karl Marx. And Dr. West even acknowledges that he is a “non-Marxist socialist” since he could not reconcile Marxism’s anti-religiosity with his firm Christian faith. Your point on liberation theology seems a bit misleading. It is true that West may support certain aspects of liberation theology in his writings, particularly the priority for the poor, but so does the Catholic Church. I encourage you to read our current pope on this topic. Pope Benedict, especially as Cardinal Ratzinger, has written much about the complexity of liberation theology, stressing that certain liberation theologians get it wrong when they distort the identity of Christ by portraying Him as a political revolutionary as opposed to the divine Messiah. Yet West does not do this, he acknowledges that Jesus is Lord. And the Church does not condemn all forms of liberation theology, priority for the poor has always been (and remains) a central teaching of the Church. In this form, West agrees. When liberation theologians distort or humanize the identity of Christ, that’s the problem, according to the Church – a problem that West has not been guilty of. There is no evidence that West is “an enemy of the Church and its doctrine,” as you write. He has actually given much of his life to promoting the Gospel message of Christ. You have given a link to Yale Divinity School and then question the Catholic identity of this site. Yet, the article was about Union Theological Seminary (and West’s return there), not so much about Yale. Plus, Vatican II acknowledges that there are elements of truth in other Christian denominations. Scott, the Church urges us to respect and love our Protestant brethren and try to see the similarities, especially where their doctrines also ring true, between us. The way that you single out Protestantism, as if recognizing it means recognizing something false, is both bad ecumenism and in complete odds with Catholic teachings. Though our Church has the fullness of truth, the Catholic Church acknowledges that other denominations also possess elements of truth and we should not neglect that. Thank you for your comment, Scott. Many blessings to you on this Lenten journey. – Daniel Klimek

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