“I’ve never thought of myself as a scholar” – thoughts from the American Academy of Religion National Conference

I am in San Antonio, Texas, for the national conference of the American Academy of Religion, and had the pleasure to listen to Cornel West speak on a panel this morning. When a question was asked about the academy and the role of scholars of religion, West had this to say:

I’ve never thought of myself as a religious scholar. I’ve been fundamentally called to be a lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy. I engage with ideas and scholars to do this, but the fundamental question for me is the kind of witness you bear. (1)


Cornel West is sitting second from the left.

As I sat listening to this engaging panel, I was struck by West’s response, especially within the context of my wonderings on this blog about what it means to be a scholar who is rooted in practice. Rather than a scholar, West is a “lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy.” This language reminds me of philosophers as lovers of wisdom and mystics as lovers of God. I also think of the school formed by Claudio Naranjo called the Seekers After Truth, which began in the 1970s with an influential group of spiritual teachers.

The love of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy leads Cornel West to engage in ideas and with scholars. Scholarship here appears to be a vehicle for witness, for the living out of a love of truth. The identity of scholar is not important. Perhaps more of a role to play, or a hat to wear, than an identification to take into one’s personality. I do not take him to mean that the identification or role of scholar should be discarded, but rather that it has not been part of his paradigm, merely a sphere he inhabits while he lives out his love and witness.

Surrounded by almost 10,000 people this weekend who generally call themselves scholars, this is an important shift, I think. It begs the question: are “scholar” and “monk” merely spheres we inhabit while we live out a love for truth? A loyalty to truth? Also, West described himself as a lover of truth, not of knowledge. Is the love for truth inherently practice-based, whereas the love for knowledge is not? What role does the love of love/goodness/beauty/holy play for the scholar?

I’ll be checking in with more as the weekend unfolds and I continue to learn from my colleagues in this rich setting.


(1) I have not captured the precise wording of what Cornel West said, but I have done my best to retain its original structure and essence. For this reason, I have not put it in quotation marks.

2 thoughts on ““I’ve never thought of myself as a scholar” – thoughts from the American Academy of Religion National Conference

  1. While I’m less familiar with how his work and identity is situated within religious studies, in my opinion Dr. West is a living example of how ‘scholarship’ can break out from the problem of having ‘narrow conversations’ (i.e. that scholars are engaged in conversations that are necessarily only intelligible to a small group). I find this inspiring, and I think many others do, since his approach to ‘being scholarly’ opens up the rich Public and Performative aspects of the scholar identity (e.g. being engaged with the world, shifting one’s identity from accomplishments and knowledge toward the act of living and toward the desires, beliefs, and principles that guide that living). In my experience, the modern world of academia is filled with rich and interesting persons who have so much to offer to the broader society around them, yet somehow the academic system generally incentivizes folks to (publish or perish) work very very hard for that narrow audience of other scholars, often leaving little time or energy to bring their skills to the broader world. I know none of what I’m saying here is probably breaking news, but I think you’re really highlighted in Dr. West’s statement a very important aspect of the Scholar Monk: that it is a way of being that calls us beyond the isolated and detached consideration of knowledge for its own sake.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beautifully articulated, Nate. You capture so much of what I am working through with this project and why it feels so important to me. And I appreciate your focus on how the academic system limits the ways in which its resources (the scholars) are disseminated, and therefore only tend to benefit few rather than many. Thank you!


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