Interview: A progressive path to the prophetic voice

By Robert Jensen

Published in New Left Project; Progressive Christianity · February, 2010

This interview was published at the New Left Project on February 1, 2010. That website is no longer available. A similar podcast interview is available at

New Left Project
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. He is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity among other works. NLP spoke to Professor Jensen about his latest book – All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice…

New Left Project: In your book you describe how after many years of engagement in radical politics and having lived most of your life as an atheist you came to join a Presbyterian church. Can you explain what led you to that decision?

Robert Jensen: As I was beginning to confront the limits of the left/progressive organizing I was involved in, I started looking for other institutions and networks that could be vehicles for a radical message. About that time, I met Jim Rigby, the pastor of a local church. Jim shared my politics, but he helped me realize that there was a theological tradition that could support that politics without making supernatural claims about a god or the divinity of a single person. That led me to start reading and spending time at his church, and eventually it seemed clear to me that I could find a place in that church. Once I joined, I also realized I had long yearned for a space in which I could explore my own questions about the intersection of politics, philosophy, and psychology, a place in which the primary task was to ponder the question “what does it mean to be a human being?” and to ponder it in a very personal way.

You describe yourself as an atheist-Christian. What does that mean? Is it not a pre-condition of Christian faith that one must believe in God?

Early in this process I used the term atheist to describe myself, but I no longer do that. I don’t believe in God, defined as a being, entity, or force, but that is only one way to understand the concept of God. So, I don’t believe in a God or in gods, but I do believe that the concept of God is useful in human life. For me, God is a synonym for mystery, for the recognition that most of the world is mystery to us. I think we miss the power of the concept when we reduce God to a being, entity, or force; that kind of religion is idolatry. We have to look for, as many have put it, “the God beyond God,” the task of exploring God without reducing God to a human projection. It’s a task at which we inevitably fail, but the question is whether or not we can fail creatively.

In your book you write: “To imagine a just and sustainable world, we need not just a politics but a theology that can help us face the delusional arrogance and disastrous self-indulgence of humans, especially we humans of the modern industrial era.” Why do you believe that we need theology? What can it provide us that political theory and political action cannot?”

First, we should recognize that achieving a just and sustainable world may not be possible. It may be that the forces set in motion by what we call “civilization” are beyond the point of no return, in both social and ecological terms. I am not optimistic at this point, but I don’t think there’s a way to know the answer to that. So, I continue to look for ways to deepen our understanding of the pathology of the system and to deepen our connections to the earth and to each other. Secular philosophy and politics can, in theory, do that, but I see no evidence that any secular movement today has managed it. So, I want to explore the theological approaches, rooted in real church communities. I want to understand the narratives of religion (Christian narratives in my case, given when and where I was born) and the power of those narratives.

In the end, a crucial question for me is: In times of multiple crises and limited resources, what will help people stay connected to the best of our traditions, and stay connected to each other in humane ways, as we face very difficult times? I think religion can help in that. It also may prove to be a destructive force, as it often has been, which is part of the reason I want to fight for its progressive possibilities.

The US is an unusually religious society. Often the approach of liberals or leftists towards especially Christian fundamentalists is one of disparagement or mockery. What do you think of that approach?

At one point in my life, I enjoyed mocking religion and religious people, but the older I get the less I enjoy mocking anyone. That’s partly because I’m more keenly aware of how mock-able we all are, and partly because when I’m focused on making fun of others it is hard to learn from them. I’m not suggesting that I’m waiting for Christian fundamentalists to show me the way, but I am aware that there is something to learn about human nature from listening to people with that kind of faith. Listening doesn’t mean accepting reactionary ideas. One can listen to others and then fight fiercely against them.

What do you think of the new breed of militant atheists who have such prominence – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al?

Each one of these writers is different, and I have different evaluations of the writing of each. But in general, I don’t find that work very satisfying. As a group, they strike me as arrogant and, frankly, a bit childish. In that regard, they have a lot in common with religious fundamentalists.

What was the response of fellow activists when you joined St Andrew’s?

Some friends wondered if I had lost my mind. Others wondered if I was running some kind of scam. But most recognized that exploring this part of life didn’t mean I had given up on radical analysis or abandoned secular political activity. Capitalism and imperialism are wrong from a secular viewpoint and wrong from a religious viewpoint.

One of the common critiques of religion is that in elevating one’s own tradition one is implicitly denigrating other religions. How do you view that argument?

Given the complexity of the world, it would be odd to conclude that one tradition can be definitive or that one tradition has unique insights into the human condition. Of course many people, religious and secular alike, often do conclude that about their traditions, reminding us that we are, indeed, an odd species. I am odd in certain ways, no doubt, but not in this way. I don’t elevate my tradition above others. I’m a Christian not because I think it’s a superior tradition, but because it is the tradition that supplied many of the narratives I grew up with. They are the narratives I want to work with. If one does not anchor one’s membership in a religious community in supernatural claims—that is, if I don’t argue that God is a being, entity, or force, and I don’t contend Jesus is the son of God who rose from the dead—then it is easy to settle into one tradition as a home but recognize the value of engaging other traditions.

Richard Dawkins argues that even the mildest forms of faith are based in dangerous irrationality and that in allowing mild forms of irrationality to proliferate we prepare the ground for more dangerous ideas. What is your view?

I agree that we shouldn’t make knowledge claims beyond our capacity to know. We shouldn’t overdrive our intellectual headlights. That’s good advice for preachers and scientists and everyone else, because we humans don’t really know very much. Humans are clever but not very good at recognizing the limits of our cleverness. As a result of our failure to understand that, we stand at a dangerous moment in time. Ecologically, human intervention into the ecosystem (on a scale made possible by modern science) threatens to undermine the capacity of that ecosystem to sustain human life as we know it. Socially, human claims to know the truth about ultimate realities (offered by religions that began before modernity) lead some to believe we can know what is beyond the ecosystem.
Which form of hubris will destroy us first? It’s hard to say.

Every human being I’ve ever met is irrational at some basic level, and that irrationality produces all sorts of dangers. We are complex beings who do not fully understand ourselves, let alone the larger world of which we are a small part. That should remind us of the need for humility, in matters of faith and reason.

Can you tell us some of the writers on religion who have been important to you and your engagement with Christianity.

There are a number of contemporary theologians, such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who have helped me understand alternative approaches to Christian theology. Historians such as Elaine Pagels have deepened my understanding of the complex roots of the faith. Karen Armstrong is a great resource on religion in general. The writings of the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero are an example of faith in action. I also try to read about other traditions, and the writings of a friend, Farid Esack, on progressive Islam were very helpful to me in fashioning a progressive Christianity. But the most important influence on me is Jim Rigby, the pastor at St. Andrew’s. He’s working on a book, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to talk with him as his ideas evolve. It all goes into the mix.

Can you describe what it is about being part of a church that you find so valuable in your life?

There are two reasons I go to church. One is for the community, the connection to others and the social/political action that arises out of those connections. It’s not the only place I have those kinds of relationships, but it is one place where those connections are meaningful in my life.

The other is more personal and harder to describe. It has something to do with what I feel when I’m in church, something about what I let go of when I’m in that space. This morning in church we sang a version of the doxology, as we do every Sunday: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise God all creatures here below/God does create, redeem, sustain/All creatures praise God’s holy name.” As is often the case, today when I started to sing I started to cry. I am not sure why I react that way. I’m not sure there’s one answer to the question. But that reaction, and what it allows me to ponder, are at the core of what church is to me.