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Lecture Six: Religion and the Politics of Explanation

Professor Stout delivered the sixth and final of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion George Walters-Sleyon will provide his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s final lecture. George is PhD candidate in Practical Theology and Christian Ethics at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout began the first section of his final lecture speaking about “ethical religion and coalitional politics.” He referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait (1963) and to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in solitary confinement also in 1963. His letter was written in response to eight “moderate” clergymen who had publicly expressed their disapproval of the civil rights protests going on.  Stout then quoted King’s question to these clergymen that has been at the center of his own lectures: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” In many ways, these lectures have been an endeavor to more fully understand what King wrote here in this letter. Stout went on to note Emerson’s influence on King and King’s appropriation of aspects from “the traditions of black preaching, natural law, and personalist theology, each of which distinguishes ethical from unethical religion in its own terms.”

Stout went on to note that “King treats the separation of religion from politics as a heresy that moderate clergy use to excuse inaction in the face of oppression” and that both King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed the bifurcation of the sacred and the secular to be a cause of racism. Stout went on to mention that “King and Heschel used the term religion to form a political coalition of Christians and Jews” and in doing so they challenged the relegation of religion to the private realm. Stout ended the first section of his lecture by noting that Gandhi, too, was a “a multilingual coalition builder.”

In the next section of his lecture stout focused on “ethical religion and critical explanation.” He started by noting Malcolm X’s retention of the distinction between good and bad religion while he “rejected King’s Christianity and Gandhi’s nonviolence.” He then noted James Baldwin’s use of the distinction and both Baldwin and King’s attempts to explain unethical religion, which they have in common with Livy and Emerson. As Stout has shown throughout these lectures, these thinkers do not take religion to be inherently illusory or oppressive. Religion can be done well or it can be done badly. It can be good for society or harmful. Therefore, religion ought to be critically examined, not rashly abandoned.

He went on to talk about how Baldwin understood political freedom in spiritual terms and how both Baldwin and King linked social ills to a nation’s spiritual health. He moved on to talk about how King sought to critically examine the social ill of racial domination by attempting to explain its existence. As Stout said, “Domination of one or another sort is said to obtain here or there in part because some people justify it religiously or their religion excuses them from actively opposing it.” Stout then again went on to talk about the role of immanent criticism in addressing these issues. He spoke of the Socratic and Emersonian approaches to explaining how “religion can reinforce domination without necessarily intending to do so.” He then went on to speak of three more in the style of Livy, Cicero, and Tacitus/Genesis. The first emphasizes the role that religious corruption plays in explaining examples of domination. The second utilizes paternalist arguments that promote proper suspicion whenever a particular group benefits unjustly at the expense of others. The third concerns unmasking the role that the “psychodynamics of servility” play in “the acceptance of oppression by the oppressed.” Stout ended this section of his lecture by asking how King’s approach to analyzing and evaluating religion compared to more familiar approaches such as Marx, Weber, and Nietzsche. Stout then recognized Cornel West’s expertise in these issues and stated that he would spend the remainder of this lecture engaging with his work. Stout went on to say that “it is with gratitude for friendship and conversation over more than four decades that I hereby dedicate this series of lectures to him.”

In this next section of his lecture Stout focused on “two types of Marxist secularism.” He again highlighted the contrast between those like King and Baldwin who recognize a distinction between ethical and unethical religion from those secularists who follow Picture1Lucretius in refusing to make that distinction. These secularists, according to Stout, “define religion as essentially bad; seek to limit religion’s bad effects either by restricting it to private life or by extinguishing it; and build political coalitions unified by agreement on these points.” With this understanding of secularism Stout then went on to discuss two of its Marxist forms in conversation with alternative approaches found in King, Baldwin, and West. He moved on to talk about how the various approaches deal with critiquing “vitiated religion.”  As Stout explained, “The main difference is that Marxist secularism selects religion as such, rather than religion corrupted by vice, as its explanatory target—the object of its critical debunking.” He went on to talk about the problematic attempts to rely on a supposed scientific objectivity. As he stated, “West argues that a non-arbitrary criterion of objectivity has proven as difficult for Marxists to secure as it has for everyone else” and the value of such methods to discern and diagnose moral ills is questionable.  Stout went on to question the claim that Marxist ideology critique consists in a “higher form of thought,” and, with West, highlighted the need for multiple perspectives and standpoints to be engaged in democratic debate, as we are all finite and fallible. Stout ended this section of his lecture by noting the importance of attending to “other common markers of domination” (e.g. class, empire, gender, sexual orientation) in addition to racial oppression. As he said, “our critical explanations of tyrannical and oppressive religion need to keep all of these factors in view—and to determine, if possible, how they are related.”

Stout then focused more closely on “genealogy, domination, and resistance.” He spoke of West’s engagement with Nietzsche, of the need to continue to engage with the truths found within Nietzsche’s writings, and of King’s continued legacy despite his disagreements with aspects of Nietzsche. He moved on to speak of the imperfection of exemplars and of ethical religion. As he said, “In our time, the herd’s vigilant enforcement of conformity turns love into niceness and critique into cant. Ethical religion cannot honestly claim to have escaped these snares.” He then noted the “pattern of disappointed democratic hopes” and the tendency of victories achieved in the name of justice to morph into new forms of injustice. As Stout conceded, “the suspicion that domination is ubiquitous, that it can defeat any foe simply by shifting shape, has empirical support.” Stout, however, calls out an inconsistency among those today who believe that domination is both “ubiquitous and objectionable.” One can be consistently Nietzschean if one believes that domination is not always objectionable (and one could hold out hope for an elite group of dominators). However, the belief that domination is both ubiquitous and objectionable (as some modern followers of Nietzsche do) renders resistance futile since any form of resistance  will just bring about another form of domination. This line of thinking undercuts the motivation to resist and to act in hope to transform situations for the better.

It is better to go the route that West does and deny the ubiquity of domination; where he utilizes the notions of faith and hope understood not “as arbitrary givens, but rather as rationally permissible practical attitudes.” As Stout perceptively asks (alluding to a previous lecture dealing with cuo bono), if we are tempted to “imagine domination as a shape-shifting monster so powerful that resistance would be pointless,” then “we do well to ask who benefits from that fantasy?”

Stout moved on to talk about the importance of wagering that certain forms of dominance are worth fighting against as well as the role that faith and hope play in that fight. He then went on to mention that “the work of justice is to correct our relationships insofar as we can, beginning with the friendships that make further corrections possible.” This emphasis on relationships among friends of justice is an integral aspect and Stout spent time unpacking it further.

Stout then moved on to talk about the relationship between rational dissatisfaction and inherited ideals. He likens the genealogy that he has been doing in these lectures with the genealogy that West has done with pragmatism. Unlike some other genealogical approaches, “contingency and arbitrariness cannot be the whole truth about values without undercutting genealogy itself. If the history being recounted were itself merely another expression of contingency and arbitrariness, it would provide no reason for anyone to endorse it or care about what it says.” As he went on to further explain, this rational dissatisfaction needs to be understood as a motive for change because otherwise a history of powers and ideals “has no means of explaining the rational acceptability of the evaluative standpoint it adopts.” The worthy ideals that great past figures embodied through struggle and friendship had a dimension of rational dissatisfaction about them. Stout went on to say, “we need to acknowledge our debts to them while protecting ourselves from mystification and slavishness,” acknowledging both their genuine virtues and vices. Stout ended this section of his lecture by highlighting the importance of venturing in faith and wagering in hope against tyrannical oppositions.

Still 2_001

In the next section of his lecture Stout focused on “how not to name social ills.” He spoke of the evaluative dimension of ethical religion and contrasted this with the value-free approach found in Max Weber. Weber’s approach, according to Stout, is ultimately problematic because “His sociology has no way of distinguishing King’s charisma from Trump’s and no way of saying why a master’s domination of a servile and mystified slave is illegitimate.”

In the last section of the lecture Stout spoke about “catastrophic events and sacred value.” Stout compared his critiques of academic sociology with West’s critiques of scientific Marxism. After discussing Weber’s “insight into religion’s function as theodicy-provider” and the common strand of elitism found in both liberal secularists and Marxists, Stout went on to mention John Dewey’s influence on both his thought and West’s, even though they find his “pragmatist talk of problem solving too bland a way of integrating value judgments with critical explanation.” For Stout and West, “problem” is too generic a term to talk about all the various kinds of social ills. As Stout said, “Not all ills are best described as problems. Some of them are catastrophic or horrendous.” Our diction ought to reflect the depth of life in its goodness and in its corruption. As Stout said, “The diction of Las Casas, Savonarola, Winstanley, Milton, Heyrick, and Walker is sublime. Emerson described critical eloquence as a modulated ‘habit of heat.’” Stout went on to speak about how the presence of the horrific points to the presence of that which is “worthy of reverent protection, celebration, and sacrifice,” since the horrific exists as a recognized or intuited violation of the sacred in concrete circumstances. As Stout defined it, “something is sacred if it is worthy of reverence, awesome if it is worthy of awe, divine if it is worthy of worship. Reverence, awe, and worship are distinguishable religious modalities.”

Stout went on to talk about how reverence for sacred value was significant for members of the egalitarian freedom movements even while various figures disagreed over the nature and existence of God. He went on to say that we may one day be able to leave behind religion-talk when discussing matters concerning reverence and piety, but that in the “meantime, the history of religion-talk will be good to know.” Stout again touched on the various dimensions of exemplarity and emulation and the costs and benefits that come with standing for something. In presenting the final portions of his lecture Stout emulated Emerson’s characteristic hand gesture. He stated, “The past is where the precedents are. The present is where we shall make of them what we will.”

George Walters-Sleyon will now provide his initial reflection.


3 replies to “Lecture Six: Religion and the Politics of Explanation”

  1. It will be historically etched in the annals of Scotland’s intellectual discourse that Princeton University once descended on Edinburgh for two weeks to reverse the course from ethical servility to an ethical imagination of organic “ethical religion.” The occasion was the 2017 University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectures and the main speaker was renowned Princeton University professor Dr. Jeffrey Stout. He provided six inspiring lectures characteristic of Lord Gifford’s own fascination with religion: “You cannot produce and you cannot maintain a religious vacuum and if you could, even secularism would die in it.”

    Stout brought with him a cadre of family members, colleagues and former students including his friend of several years from Harvard University professor Dr. Cornel West, to whom he dedicated a portion of his final lecture. Like Aaron and Hur assigned to “support the hands” of Moses against the “Amalekites” (Exodus 17:10), they filled the front seats of the auditorium like an “Amen corner” in the Black Church providing the interpolative “Amen.”

    Unlike Deacon William Brodie (1741-88), Stout wasted no time in making plain his main argument: True religion is a “moral virtue” and false religion is a “moral vice” and “superstitious.” True religion is political, egalitarian and democratic. False religion is tyrannical, arbitrary and oppressive. His goal was to revisit Lord Gifford’s concept of true religion influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1848 lectures in Edinburgh.

    Deacon Brodie on the other hand, was a well-respected, pious and wealthy citizen of the city of Edinburgh. A talented cabinet-maker and elected member (1781) of the Town Council as the deacon (head) of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. While his day job was respectable, his night job was a reflection of religious vice. Deacon Brodie was the ringleader of a gang of burglars who stole from homes in the night. He had access to homes through his day job as a skillful cabinet-maker. Deacon Brodie was eventually caught after his attempt to steal from His Majesty’s Excise Office in Chessel’s Court. Upon his sentencing, Deacon Brodie was hanged and buried in the cemetery of the Parish Church in Buccleuch. According to Stout’s definition of ethical religion, Deacon Brodie was religiously tyrannical.

    Stout’s notion of ethical religion is non-theistic and not otherworldly. It is concrete, pragmatic and tangibly evident in human actions, human relations and human freedom. Ethical religion is positive religion and humanely liberating, the opposite of which is negative religion leading to human oppression. Stout’s interlocutors can be categorized as Minor and Major Prophets but were nonetheless prophetic in their analyses, their description of ethical religion and its “expressive pragmatism” as concrete religious engagement. They were available to give him the analytical scalpel he needed to meticulously distinguish religion as piety and justice from religion as impious and unjust. Stout candidly presented his lectures to hit a climax as a mature and seasoned professor Socratically explicating particular themes under the concept of “imminent criticism.”

    In Lecture Six, Stout became emotional in expressing his gratitude to his wife and son, colleagues, the Gifford Lectures committee and the audience that walked the path of sublime elocution with him for six lectures, and a panel discussion of a “combustible mixture” of intellects. Themes including domination, servility, conformity and theodicy in relation to ethical religion were addressed. In this last lecture, Stout finally arrived at King—metaphorically depicted as the embodiment of socio-religious resistance to the misrepresentation of ethical religion as just action against the social ills of oppression, exclusion, criminalization, deprivation of liberty, and their existential angst.

    In King and the Civil Rights Movement, religion in the United States is civilly extricated from religion as “bound to the status quo.” King and his colleagues critiqued “vertical religion” to engage in “horizontal religion” against the despair of social marginalization, poverty, racial dehumanization, and disregard for the inherent dignity of all persons innate to the American social psyche. King was a Boston personalist. He trained under Edger Brightman at Boston University. About Boston Personalism he wrote: personalism “strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” Brightman’s brand of personalism was theistic. It emphasized the “moral law of individuality” and “persons-in community” largely evident in King’s assertion of the “Beloved Community.” In addition, it has been argued that King’s brand of ethical religion was also informed by his upbringing in the Black Church prior to his Morehouse and Boston University training. King’s father was a preacher and he came from a family of preachers raised in a racially segregated era in Atlanta Georgia.

    If ethical religion as Stout argues, “holds that the effects of religion on society depend on how just that society is and whether the religion being considered is good or bad,” then Christianity in the United States as the dominant religion has not done enough work to transform the American social consciousness with respect to egalitarian principles and the racially polarized nature of the American Church. As King once said, 10am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States.

    Religion’s lack of holistic impact on the American social consciousness is best expressed in the phenomenon of mass incarceration. The US holds the distinct honor of the world’s highest incarcerator of its citizens with over 2.2 million individuals incarcerated and over 20 million having their rights as citizens eclipsed because of conviction records. Similarly, when the majority of Scotland’s incarcerated population are men of economically disadvantaged backgrounds, it reflects the rate at which ethical religion has become a lesser part of the fabric of Scotland’s religious institution. Speaking of the high rates at which the poor are incarcerated in Scotland, Hazel Croall et. al. argue that “one in nine young men from the most deprived communities will spend time in prison at the age of 23” (Croall and Mooney 2016, 55). They further contend: “It can be argued on the basis of court and prison statistics that poor young men from deprived areas are far more likely to end up in court” (Croall 2016, 49).

    While Stout’s ethical religion negates Deacon Brodie’s religious vice, the ethics of Brodiesm continues to prevail against the poor through structural and institutional forms of deprivation. I conclude with the following questions: Is justice possible when the institutions of injustice are legally and legislatively enhanced? Secondly, how can social movements achieve sustainable reform especially in the United States when the social consciousness is often polarized into “they” against “us” or “us” against “them”?

    According to Lord Gifford “If injustice reigns and wrong prevails around us it is impossible for us to avoid the contact and the contagion.”


    Burrow, R. (1999). Personalism: A Critical Introduction. Missouri: Charlice Press.

    Croall, H. G. (2016). Crime, Justice and Society in Scotland. London: Routledge.

    Union, A. C. (November 2011). Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration. New York, NY : American Civil Liberties Union .

  2. Professor Stout has given us much food for thought in these lectures and I would not be so audacious as to give a critique of them but I would just like to broadcast an impression of what they have made on me.

    He talks of ethical religion and the great separation between religion and politics. The aims of ethical religion should be to instill moral virtues into the politicians as well as the politically aware populace. People and politicians are more implicit than explicit in their religious convictions. There are no political heroes anymore, the last being Nelson Mandela flawed as all heroes. Professor Stout if I understand him says we should not imitate them but go beyond this forming our own moral standards. Consensus politics for him, I think, is an ideal. When the Scottish parliament came into being this was the dream but it has deteriorated into narrow party politics and unabated nationalism. Racism (and to lesser extent UK) is but one of the intractable problems in the USA and least understandable to European minds is the ownership of guns by private individuals with the resulting massacres by unstable individuals. This is the result of a virtually unchangeable written constitution and a series of checks and balances resulting in political gridlock. Elites are here to stay with the power balance changing but the overriding ideology of capitalism triumphant viz a viz Fukuyama’s End of History.

    Thank you Professor Stout for a fascinating and enlightening lecture series and for the Gifford committee for making it possible. Until next year.

  3. Eric Robertson Advocate says:

    Emerson’s call to put your creed into your deed was wonderfully exemplified in Professor Stour’s series of six lectures. Those of us fortunate enough to be present at the University’s Business School over the last two weeks travelled across two millennia of thought and action, taken around by a wise and eloquent guide.

    Revisiting a range of Western sources has clearly shown how religious thought and inspiration, at critical moments, have made positive contributions in checking power relations of domination and tyranny and in seeking justice for the oppressed. The abolition of slavery and the US Civil Rights movements have huge resonance for the situations of bonded slavery and human trafficking that persist today.

    Another strong theme of these energising lectures is the transformative power of emulation of clear thought directed to practical action in realistic ways. In the coalition of secular and religious against the evils of the slave trade and slavery as a whole, the religious contribution was belief in action on the main line, not privatised piety in a siding.

    The bad effects of complacent or wrong-headed religion are exemplified too in those debates. There is a parallel in Scottish jurisprudence from the Court of Session from the century before Lord Gifford. In 1778 the lawyers arguing for an aristocrat’s claim for return of his runaway African servant deployed a battery of legal, political, prudential and philosophical arguments. The case papers of Knight v Wedderburn held in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh are an invaluable record of the clash of those ideas. Alongside the pseudo-scientific race arguments were misguided interpretations of Biblical passages, inferring the correctness of slavery from the fact of its being recorded as historical fact in Biblical times.

    While Las Casas’ intercessions to the Spanish Crown for Indians were courageous and sacrificial, his advocacy of African substitutionary servitude was a tragic error for which he later expressed remorse. The deceptiveness of vice as semblances of virtue, as noted by Machiavelli, is a powerful corrective to complacency or overconfidence in making or applying moral judgments.

    This year’s “bonus feature” of the Royal Society of Edinburgh colloquium was a joy and a delight, for which many thanks are due. The evident bonhomie, mutual respect for differing convictions and lively interplay of ideas epitomised what these two weeks have been about.

    Thank you Professor Stout and friends.
    Thank you University of Edinburgh and Gifford Lecture Committee.

    We eagerly await the book!

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