Cornel West to Return to Union Theological Seminary

On November 17, the New York Times reported that Cornel West will be returning this summer to Union Theological Seminary—where (since 1977) he has taught intermittently for decades—to become professor of Philosophy and Christian Practices.  See Cornel West to Take Job in New York, N.Y. Times, Nov. 17, 2011, at A25.

As a cultural critic, West has been a prominent fixture, particularly upon issues of race.  In legal academia, West has supported the Critical Legal Studies movement:  For example, defending Roberto Unger in the pages of the Yale Law Journal, West characterized the long-entrenched liberalism of legal academia by connecting it to broader, more insidious social structures of violence and oppression:

[T]he liberal rule of law and civilian government—two grand achievements of most advanced capitalist societies—result from much bloodshed; bloodshed . . . from those who have been and are victimized by their flaws, imperfections, and structural deficiencies.  [This] link between legal systems and their regulatory impact on the legitimate instrumentalities of violence, as well as [law’s] role in inhibiting or enhancing the well-being of the populace, [critical legal studies] begins with an historical and social analysis of the present cultural context of legal scholarship and education.

Cornel West, Colloquy: CLS and a Liberal Critic, 97 Yale L.J. 757, 765 (1988).

Yet, as the Times notes, West locates his social activism and political bent in the progressive Baptist tradition.  This link between West’s social activism, legal criticism, and evangelical roots places his work in the same vein as that of figures like James H. Cone, his colleague at Union.  (See my commentary on Cone and his recent work The Cross and the Lynching Tree [Orbis 2011], which combines a theology of the cross with a critical look at black oppression throughout American history.)

Breton: Paul’s Subversive Message

This month, Columbia University Press issues a new English translation of Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul (Joseph N. Ballan, trans.).   Breton (1912–2005), French philosopher and theologian, explored Paul’s work—among other contexts—within that of the Roman Empire, in whose territory Paul traveled, under whose threatening gaze he evangelized, and whose apparatus of state religion and oppression would eventually imprison and murder him.  The work explores the Pauline message from a variety of unconventional perspectives, including its subversion of the Roman State.  (For further reflection on Paul as a theologian of resistance in an atmosphere of political oppression and state-imperio deification, I recommend the work of Dr. Brigitte Kahl, Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary.)  Here is Columbia University Press’s description of this new translation:

Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul, which focuses on the political implications of the apostle’s writings, was an instrumental text in Continental philosophy’s contemporary “turn to religion.” Reading Paul’s work against modern thought and history, Breton helped launch a reassessment of Marxism, introduce secular interpretations of biblical and theological traditions, develop “radical negativity” as a critical category, and rework modern political ideas through a theoretical lens.

Newly translated and critically situated, this edition takes a fresh approach to Breton’s classic work, reacquainting readers with the remarkable ways in which an ancient apostle can reset our understanding of the political. Breton begins with Paul’s biography and the texts of his conversion, which challenge common conceptions of identity. He broaches the question of allegory and divine predestination, introduces the idea of subjectivity as an effect of power, and confronts Paul’s critique of Law, which leads to an exploration of the logics and limits of agency and power. Breton develops these and other insights in relation to Paul’s subversive reflections on the crucified messiah, which challenge meaning and reason and upend our current world order. Neither a coherent theologian nor a stable humanist, Breton’s Paul becomes a fascinating figure of excess and madness, experiencing a kind of being that transcends philosophy, secularity, and religion.

— DRS, CLR Fellow