Dr. Cornel West on Abraham Joshua Heschel
By Jesse Love, the Rev. Katie Ladd and Pastor Karen Yokota

On Saturday, March 8, Seattle’s Queen Anne UMC welcomed famed philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West. He is also a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, the alma mater of some of our PNW Clergy (including the Rev. Dr. Sharon Moe). Queen Anne UMC invited West to speak to the local community on Abraham Joshua Heschel, who West reveres as a literary, philosophical “soul-mate”.

About 250 people filled the fairly-sized sanctuary – a place that has graced many other speakers through QAUMC’s speaker-series, The Well. Dr. West’s visit drew many from the Seattle Area community and outwards, eager to hear a spirited delivery by the guest speaker on issues of faith, social justice, truth-naming, and a whole lot more.

So, who was Abraham Joshua Heschel? He was one of the country’s most influential rabbis, possibly the most influential in the 20th century. Heschel wrote some of the most important works on Sabbath, prophets and humankind’s search for God. He wrote in the Jewish tradition, but much of his work has been seen as transcending tradition.

For photos from this event, check out the website of Queen Anne UMC/The Well!

In a time of deep Jewish-Christian tension and mistrust, he made long-lasting relationships with Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the 20th Century’s greatest Christian theologians, and with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel was at the Selma March and the March on Washington. He worked against the Vietnam War, and he worked with the Vatican during Vatican II to ensure that new liturgy did not perpetuate the anti-Semitism of the old liturgy.

Dr. West’s examination was richly presented, touching on his soulful connection to Heschel with musings on piety, poetry, and being a prophetic witness for humanity. Here are just a few highlights from the West’s presentation:

On Money and Power

  • West says, “People do what they want to do because they have the big money and power to do it. They don’t care. With so much power, one doesn’t even feel any longer because they don’t have to generate an argument due to the sheer facticity that power allows one to get away with no accountability, no responsibility, no culpability, whatsoever.”

The Three Pillars of Piety

  • For Heschel, there are Three Pillars of Piety. They are remembrance, reverence and resistance.
  • Remembrance is “ancestor appreciation”. Remembrance is refusing to look forward without first looking back to connect with the best voices, visions and viewpoints that go into the shaping of who you are.
  • Reverence is something that cuts deeper than the surfaces. West asks, “What does it mean to be human? He considers Heschel was a man of “a spiritual royalty.” He was a man who lived in poverty but always carried himself as though he was a part of religious nobility and a spiritual royalty.
  • Resistance is a matter of what kind of human one is to be. Resistance is not just a narrow, political sense, nor is it a matter of attending a demonstration or reading the right newspaper. When you unpack the notion of piety from those three pillars, you’ve already unpacked a sense of an alternative world – and that’s the connection with the poetic.

On Vulnerability

  • Great artists project a sense of vulnerability and lay their souls on the table. The vulnerability that Heschel expressed in his work is what is necessary today. West says, in today’s world where we are bombarded with copies rather than originals, bombarded with imitations and emulations in order to be successful, rather than inventions and creations in order to be great.
  • Racism is a Satanism and a disease of the soul and a callousness of the heart and mind.
  • Heschel had a radical gentleness and a subversive sweetness. There can be no serious struggle for justice without tenderness, sweetness and gentleness. It doesn’t mean you don’t have tenacity and it doesn’t mean you don’t have strong critique.
  • Things get flatted out when it’s market driven – when it’s all about money. There’s no substance. Heschel said, “American culture is becoming nothing but a gold rush, and such a gold rush that the only thing that one can worship is a golden calf. And that’s idolatry, shot right across the board – I don’t care what color you are,” says West.

Dr. West’s work as a whole embodies a struggle for justice, naming hard truths, and finding a way forward together. “Listening to Cornel West was inspirational and challenging. I was really moved by his description of Heschel’s understanding of piety as remembrance, reverence and resistance. I can’t wait for his new book,” shares the Rev. Lara Bolger of Seattle: Blaine UMC.

Jonathan Vester, a young person in attendance was very enthusiastic about West’s visit to The Well, “Dr. Cornel West is a very inspirational person. It’s kind of hard for me because I have my own struggles; he explains how you can get past all that and do better. Besides, he’s a funny guy. He’s just inspirational…he makes you actually want to do something.”

The Rev. Katie Ladd, pastor of Queen Anne UMC shares her thoughts on this night’s presentation and discussion, “The most rewarding part of an event like that is the energy in the room, the people from all over the area, and the access folks have to someone they normally would not get to meet. All of these things – interfaith partnerships, struggling toward a more just and compassionate world, and neighborlines – are part of the United Methodist tradition and they are constitutive of The Well.”

If you would like more information on The Well at Queen Anne UMC, visit http://qaumc.org/the-well. You can download a summary of Dr. Cornel West’s examination on Abraham Joshua Heschel, here: NOTES FROM DR. CORNEL WEST.

The Rev. Katie Ladd serves as pastor of Queen Anne UMC. Pastor Karen Yokota serves at Whitney Memorial and Milton UMCs. Jesse N. Love serves as print & publication manager for the PNWUMC.


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