In what read like a homily inspired by an acid trip, Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy channeled the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Abraham Joshua Heschel in a rambling but strangely moving New York Times op-ed published Monday.
The essay, titled “Is Your God Dead?”, asks the reader to look at one’s own beliefs and find God not in grand houses of worship, but in the homeless person whose pleas we ignore as we move about our daily lives.
Yancy specifically cited Heschel’s warning against “an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.”
This brings to mind the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ writings on benevolence and altruism. Levinas argued that caring for the “outsider” both precedes and is compromised by self-interest. This seems to be an implicit motif throughout “Is Your God Dead?”, with the interest of the self replaced by the interest of the ritual. Yet the premise is the same: true morality — or in Yancy’s case, true spirituality — comes from accepting the “Other” before yourself and as part of yourself.
As Yancy writes:
“The more important point here is that we need a paradigm shift in how we lay claim to our religious identities. Why not claim those that are suffused with compassion, a shared reality of suffering together, in which your pain is my pain?”
But Yancy goes beyond mere individual faith, expressing outrage at what he believes to be the theological and philosophical complacency that help prop up systematic racism, politically charged xenophobia and widespread poverty.
Taking aim at the Trump administration, Yancy reminds us of Heschel’s remark that that the Holocaust didn’t happen in a day — “It was in the making for several generations.” Citing the rise in antisemitism, the demonization of Mexican immigrants and the systemic and unfair criticisms of African-American culture, he seems fearful that the world has forgotten that lesson.
Michael Heckle is an editorial intern at The Forward.