“The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West”

From Lisa Miller’s feature on philosopher Cornel West, “I Want To Be Like Jesus” (New York Magazine):

. . . West regards himself as a prophet more than a professor. He believes that he is called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation. “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth,” reads the signature on e-mails coming from West’s office. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.”

* * *

West has said that his Christian beliefs form the most fundamental part of who he is. Earlier, I asked him which of Jesus’ ­disciples he most emulates. “Disciples?” he responded in a soft voice. “None of them, really. Nah. ’Cause I want to be like Jesus, I don’t want to be like those disciples.”

* * *

James Cone, the eminent conceptualizer of black-liberation theology, was part of West’s original brotherhood and remains on the faculty there. “I love Cornel West. He is a major, major intellectual of our time,” he says. Cone hopes Union will have a rehabilitative effect. “Cornel tries to do too much,” he told me one morning in his sunny apartment in Morningside Heights. But as he expresses his wish, he sees how unlikely it is to come true. “He loves talking to people. He does love to be loved. I love it, too, but I have enough inner strength to be able to resist because I know God loves me.”

* * *

“As much as I love the life of the mind, I do not give primary status to intellect,” he told me. “I give much more to the centrality of love, and much more to where that love comes from—and that is family, faith, friends, and music. That is fundamentally who I am. Smartness is not some kind of value that I put a whole lot of weight on. There are smart Nazis and smart xenophobes and smart patriarchs and so forth.”

* * *

Love, for West, is an ideal, found in Scripture and in art, and it’s in the classroom that he most clearly strives for it. At Union, he has agreed to teach a full load of courses at half his ­Princeton salary. He is the kind of teacher, students say, who doesn’t miss a class, who takes a personal interest in hometowns and musical tastes, who asks after ailing family members and will extend office hours until every last query is answered.

At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non-­instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”

In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”

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