FOR those of us well-versed in the prophetic and righteous teachings of Professor Cornel West, it was quite something to watch him testify on the steps of Edinburgh’s National Records office this Thursday.

The professor and agitator, who is also running as an independent candidate for the US presidency, was in full preacher mode before the Gaza protesters.

“I am the first to say that my own government suffers from moral bankruptcy and spiritual obscenity by enabling genocide, by enabling ethnic cleansing”, he thundered, asserting full equivalence between “Palestinian babies” and any others’ children.

But his intense closing lines at Waverley begin to indicate West’s unique power.

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“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. And justice is what love looks like in public.”

It also explains why he’s in town. West is the latest speaker in Edinburgh University’s Gifford Lectures.

For well over a century, they have been a hugely prestigious opportunity for major thinkers to set out their intellectual stall.

The Giffords emphasis is on bridging the gap between religion and secular science/practice, under the venerable term of “natural theology”.

The list has included scientists like Werner Heisenberg, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees, as well as social philosophers like Hilary Putnam, Roger Scruton, and Bruno Latour (whose 2013 lectures on “Facing Gaia” are an ecological tour-de-force).

So Professor West is a highly appropriate speaker for the Giffords.

The National: Animal-based food, such as dairy and honey, could be scrapped from Edinburgh University's menu by 2027The grounds of Edinburgh University 

He began with (and has now returned to) the Union Theological Seminary in New York, passing through positions in teaching religion at Harvard and Princeton.

I have loved West’s work ever since I heard him speak, in the late 80s and early 90s, about the Black American music tradition.

He doesn’t just regard that tradition for its superlative virtuosity and invention. He claims these very qualities are themselves a kind of moral action – a template for a higher way of being in the world.

That tradition managed to compose a graceful, joyful, and experimental response to what West calls the “catastrophe” of racism and white supremacy.

Jazz and blues (and all the popular developments from them) took the rigid “bars” of Western European melody and rhythm, and “swung” against them, or “funked” with them.

As West put it in his first Gifford Lecture this week, this musical “dissonance” is “a way of life”, which helps black folks “fight against nihilism and despair”. To sing the blues is about “wounded hurters becoming wounded healers”.

“In a situation of no way out” – for example, the continuing oppressions of 20th-century Jim Crow America – these musicians “found a way through, and beyond”, continues West.

Their improvisations and new forms represent a reckoning with death (the brutalised and murdered black body of American slavery and after).

Yet they are also, and equally, a celebration of love, vitality, and community. One which “overflows from the chocolate side of the city”, as West earthily calls it, to raise up the cause of the poor and the dominated, of all colours and states.

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These Gifford Lectures have, so far, been a great opportunity for West to speak in this expansive mode.

Their overall title is A Jazz-soaked Philosophy For Our Catastrophic Times: From Socrates To Coltrane. His second lecture last week fully delivered on that.

The Greek philosopher Socrates (as rendered by Plato) has the quality of a “good jazz musician”, says West. Both try to be “unclassifiable and unsubsumable” by any school of thought.

West cites Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald especially, as representing “a wave in an ocean, so distinctive that there’s no conceptual net that can catch her richness”.

The National: Ella Fitzgerald, whose Glasgow gig in 1948 was her UK debut.Legendary jazz musician Ella Fitzgerald

That ocean of the black music tradition can teach us about “collective voicing”, in our politics and activism. We source the courage to act by honouring the struggles of forebears.

But also, in another crossover between black music and Greek philosophy, West also cites the concept of kenosis – “a flow of love and compassion, the emptying of oneself towards others”.

The jazz tradition does this too, according to West: it “democratises the voice”.

West incants: “I can be just a brief, brief creature in space and time by means of seeing and feeling and acting, grounded in lenses, broader lenses, to view the world … Deeper feelings, swings and grooves, polyrhythms, and then, most importantly, the actions, the deeds, the praxis”.

You’re right: that isn’t your boilerplate presidential stump speech.

As a reporter from New York magazine captured, in a piece about the controlled chaos of his campaigning, West admitted that “it’s jazz all the way down”.

From the start of his campaign in June 2023, West has been rendered as a “spoiler” to Biden and the Democrats’ potential electoral victory this November.

West parries that he’s speaking as much to the 38.5% of Americans who simply don’t vote or participate in the system.

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But it’s the way West speaks that is something of a lesson to politicised, secular Scots like myself, mulling steadily over the relationship between faith and politics.

Why do I exult in the good Professor’s religion-sourced political vision, while worrying deeply about its role in current Scottish political affairs?

In a recent interview with Stephen Sackur on BBC’s HardTalk, West raised some familiar visions from the mountaintop.

“I’m not a Machiavellian politician that’s just concerned with interest groups, I’m concerned with vision, morality, political courage, statesmanship”, West pronounced.

“This is not about common-garden political calculation. I am a revolutionary Christian running for politics!”

And another religious reference: “When I look at Trump, I see Civil War II. When I look at Biden, I see World War III. That’s Pharaoh on both sides of the bloody Red Sea. [Facing that] is the history of me and my people. You don’t sell out, you don’t give in. How else are you supposed to live?”

The National: President Joe Biden issued a warning to Israel about a potential ground offensive in RafahUS President Joe Biden

The religiosity of American political culture is a long-standing given, right across the ideological spectrum. So West (who has described himself as a “non-Marxist socialist”) is only continuing what Martin Luther King Jr took to a new level.

West is also undoubtedly a patriot – but this is rooted precisely in his African-American cultural tradition.

He claims that the black church, and black musical precedents, are the “best of us” in America. Their creative, passionate advocacy of human liberation “spills over” its boundaries and locations, addressing general poverty and disempowerment in the country.

Should we allow such ethno-religiosity into the public sphere of Scottish political life?

In his opening lecture, and with reference to Scotland, West wryly cites Thomas Chalmers in his opening lecture, the founder of the Free Church, as an example of “powerful Presbyterianism”.

But he also states his ambivalence about the Scottish Enlightenment’s David Hume.

He’s “the greatest Western philosopher”, whose radical and humanist pragmatism West has long promised a book about.

Yet Hume “was also a white supremacist” – one part of his capacious mind determined by the assumptions of his time.

That theology (and philosophy) can provide the foundation for our civil and ethical actions is something that West exemplifies.

One of the great joys you take in his discourse is that even his political opponents receive an equal-under-God prefix: “Brother Trump… Sister (Kamala) Harris… Brother Biden…”

It’s hard not to be attracted by the rhetorical and emotional resources that West’s “revolutionary Christianity” provides.

Yet those of us who are secular materialists, by conviction, would surely be morally bereft to adopt the language of faith, merely for persuasive reasons. There have to be other, plural ways to integrate the head and heart of citizens.

The last line has to be with the Professor: “I’ve been a black man living in America for 70 years. I am not an optimist. I’m a prisoner of hope.”

The remainder of Cornel West’s Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh are available free, if you register at