It was a quiet room. That was really the only description I could come up with. I toyed with the idea of the room being calm, maybe civil or peaceful. But mostly it was just quiet. No one did much; even the clapping was very polite. Two people spoke before Cornel West and Radhanath Swami came on stage; both had dramatic pauses between every other word and these soft voices that made you think of a sojourn in a spring meadow during a long journey, with birds chirping and Swedish maidens singing as they picked berries. The guy next to me was doing his Spanish assignment. Two rows in front of me sat a middle-aged man who looked like he had gotten lost on his way to a hunting trip. And from my seat in the balcony I could see that only one person stood up when the two speakers walked onto the stage—a hipster-ish twenty-something year old in tight blue jeans and a red scarf. Everyone was quiet.
I had never heard Cornel West speak before this lecture. Truth be told, I always had the impression that his talks consisted solely of references to John Coltrane, dramatic hand gestures, vague discussions about peace and justice, and West repeating his favorite inspirational quotes. Truth be told, that’s exactly what happened. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a brilliant man and quite the character. And Radhanath Swami had a very interesting story to tell. But I spent more time looking at everyone around me than I did listening to what they said. By the time the question and answer portion began I had pretty much had enough of the big picture, feel-good monologues. I stayed for one question, then left. I hardly remember their responses to it, and I remember even less of their opening comments. Looking back, I realize the scenery stuck with me more than the actual talk.
I guess my real problem wasn’t that it was a bad lecture, but that I attended as an “intellectual observer,” not a “religious observer.” Ever since I came to Princeton, I’ve become increasingly agnostic, and, as is required at Princeton, increasingly analytical of everything (in this case religion). I’m sure, had I still been making my mother proud as a devout Catholic, I would have greatly enjoyed listening to what Cornel West and Radhanath Swami had to say. But, being that during my time here at Princeton I’ve been programmed to question everything, their ideas went right over my head. I’m all for peace and love, but it just wasn’t concrete enough for me.
The fact that I didn’t enjoy the talk was, I realized, no one’s fault but my own. I trashed on West for several days afterward, until it hit me. So what if he never really says anything? So what if the interview he did with Stephen Colbert is exactly what I heard on that stage? So what if this sounds bitingly sarcastic (it really isn’t)? I think on this campus it’s easy to forget that there are people out there who genuinely believe in these things. I myself am involved in MANNA Christian Fellowship (part of my sad attempt at rediscovering my faith), and still find it strange to see so many Christians. (I exclude other religions here because I, regrettably, have very little interaction with them.) Again, this might just be me, but it’s not common to find students who are actively involved in groups or projects that shine a spotlight on their religion. Maybe we don’t have time for it? Maybe we’re embarrassed? Maybe no one really thinks about these things inside the Orange Bubble? Who needs God when you have Shirley Tilghman, right?
Whatever the reason, I’m sure it’ll be quite some time until I can attend a Cornel West event without feeling the need to roll my eyes pretentiously. I guess it’s probably time I rethink taking any of his classes.