Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Social Democracy: An equivalence may be drawn between Locke’s concepts of cultural pluralism and social democracy. In “Reason and Race” (1947), Locke underscores “the fact that the contemporary world situation clearly indicates that social democracy is the only safe choice for the survival of Western and Christian civilization.”804 In the Seventeenth Annual Convention and Bahá’í Congress (5 July 1925), Locke was reported to have said:
Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke of Washington, D.C., delivered a polished address, portraying the great part which America can play in the establishment of world peace, if alive to its opportunity. The working out of social democracy can be accomplished here. To this end we should not think in little arcs of experience, but in the big, comprehensive way. Let our country reform its own heart and life. Needed reforms cannot be worked out by the action of any one group, but a fine sense of cooperation must secure universal fellowship. He praised Green Acre, which he declared to be an oasis in the desert of materiality. He urged all who were favored by this glorious experience to carry forth its glorious message and thus awaken humanity. In final analysis, peace cannot exist anywhere without existing everywhere.805

Locke would say the same thing of democracy, if a license to transpose permits: In final analysis, democracy cannot exist anywhere without existing everywhere. Democracy, in this context, refers not to representation but to integration. Democracy without integration is flawed if only because it is incomplete. Democracy, ideally, is meant to be universal, to be enjoyed and participated in by the whole, not by the part of any human society. A democracy that diminishes or excludes segments of its population is selective at best, and oppressive at worst. The very integrity of democracy itself is put to test by the state of its race relations. At another Bahá’í-sponsored race amity event, Locke said:


When the merits of different races are understood they will bring a kinship of humanity. We shall not then consider superficial differences, nor deny our basic unity. We stand in our own shadows if we deny culture to others because their culture differs from our own. In religion we are interested only intellectually and render only lip service if we do not regard the stranger as our brother.806
The statement, “We stand in our own shadows if we deny culture to others because their culture differs from our own,” appears to set one definition of culture up against another. That is to say, the expression, “if we deny culture” refers to a lack of integration or mutuality, while “their culture” evidently refers to culture in the more traditional sense.

Spiritual Democracy: Democracy is more than a political system. It is a state of mind, a province of the heart, a radiation of attitudes, from which all actions flow. Spiritual democracy is the democracy of the heart. It’s a place, a state of mind that legislation cannot reach. It is the interiority of democracy that Locke emphasized:
Constitutional guarantees, legal and civil rights, political machinery of democratic action and control are, of course, the skeleton foundation of democracy, but you and I know that attitudes are the flesh and blood of democracy, and that without their vital reenforcement [sic] democracy is really moribund or dead. That is my reason for thinking that in any democracy, ours included, the crucial issue, the test touchstone of democracy is minority status, minority protection, minority rights.807
Minority rights are a reflection of the will of the majority. Since democracy is, by definition, majoritarian (although the U.S. Constitution is anti-majoritarian), the voices of racial and ethnic minorities are harder to hear. They can be muffled, or Peirce through the silence with the shrill tenor of protest. Indeed, the plight of minorities is the touchstone of the truth of those democratic ideals to which a nation professes. Collectively, minorities function as the litmus test of democracy, indeed as the very conscience of democracy. During the height of World War II, Locke wrote:
The world crisis has led to the reexamination of the traditional doctrines of human equality and brotherhood among the leading thinkers of the Christian churches. As a result, a fresh crusade for aligning organized religion with the constructive forces of world democracy has come to the vanguard of liberal religious thought and action. Both intercultural, intersectarian and interfaith movements have grown out of these considerations.808
In attempting to remold the American temperament, Alain Locke led a civil rights movement of the American spirit. Of particular importance are Locke’s views on “spiritual democracy”—an aspect of Locke’s thought that, so far, has received scant attention. In an evidently unpublished Bahá’í essay, Locke expresses his conviction that “Spiritual Democracy” is the “largest” dimension of democracy as a whole “and most inner meaning.” In his unpublished, “The Gospel for the Twentieth Century,” Locke states:
The gospel for the Twentieth Century rises out of the heart of its greatest problems […] Much has been accomplished in the name of Democracy, but Spiritual Democracy, its largest and most inner meaning, is so below our common horizons. […] [T]he land that is nearest to material democracy is furthest away from spiritual democracy […] The word of God is still insistent, […] and we have […] Bahá’u’lláh’s “one great trumpet-call to humanity”: “That all nations shall become one in faith, and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled […] These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and family.[” ]
Alain Locke preached a secular “gospel for the Twentieth Century” that was directly inspired by the ideals of the religion to which he had converted in 1918, the Bahá’í Faith. Locke’s use of term “gospel” to express his vision of America as “spiritual democracy” is not unlike Martin Luther King’s notion of the “gospel of freedom”—a neologism King coined in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” By representing their respective visions of America as a “gospel” message, these two race leaders had, in effect, sacralized the secular. Both “race men” had a deep religious commitment to racial justice and healing in an integrated America. But there were moments of profound doubt, lapses of faith, when Locke despaired of America ever becoming a “spiritual democracy.” In an unpublished note dated 26 March 1947, Alain Locke wrote: “The best argument against there being a God is the white man who says God made him.”809 This moment of exasperation and cynicism is a testament to Locke’s struggle to help resolve the racial crisis in America.

The notion of a spiritual democracy is not without precedent. For instance, in his essay, “Democratic Vistas,”810 Walt Whitman’s vision of the New World, unfolds in three stages. Two stages have already taken place:


For the New World, indeed, after two grand stages of preparation-strata, I perceive that now a third stage […]

The First stage was the planning and putting on record the political foundation rights of immense masses of people — indeed all people — in the organization of republican National, State, and municipal governments […] This is the American programme, not for classes, but for universal man, and is embodied in the compacts of the Declaration of Independence, and, as it began and has now grown, with its amendments, the Federal Constitution […]

The Second stage relates to material prosperity, wealth, produce, labor-saving machines, iron, cotton, local, State and continental railways, intercommunication and trade with all lands, steamships, mining, general employment, organization of great cities, cheap appliances for comfort, numberless technical schools, books, newspapers, a currency for money circulation, &c.

The Third stage, rising out of the previous ones, to make them and all illustrious, I, now, for one, promulgate, announcing a native expression-spirit […] and by a sublime and serious Religious Democracy sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off surfaces, and from its own interior and vital principles, reconstructing, democratizing society.811


First there is the foundation of democracy itself, as enshrined in the twin American scriptures, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Material civilization follows, with the technological wonders that Whitman praises in “Passage to India,” in which science plays an almost salvific role. Then there is spiritual democracy, which, for Whitman, is religious at a personal, not an institutional, level. Locke was keen to the power of organized religion, and, although highly critical of it at times, was not so dismissive of it as Whitman. Although a comparison between the two is limited at best, these three stages roughly correspond with Locke’s concepts of political, economic, and cultural democracy. Earlier in his essay, Whitman connects the notion of “spiritual” democracy to racial harmony:
And, topping democracy, this most alluring record, that it alone can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family. It is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, her fond philosophers and poets. Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all. Both are to be vitalized by religion, (sole worthiest elevator of man or State,) breathing into the proud, material tissues, the breath of life. For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there. Nor may the scheme step forth, clothed in resplendent beauty and command, till these, bearing the best, the latest fruit, the spiritual, shall fully appear.812
Whitman’s vision of race amity, if indeed we may accept this as authentic—beyond the merely poetic sentiment—would seem to anticipate Alain Locke’s own vision of racial unity within a “spiritual democracy.” Using other criteria, Charles Molesworth has formally compared the two visionaries in his thought-provoking article, “Alain Locke and Walt Whitman: Manifestos and National Identity.”813 In a speech he addressed to a Bahá’í-sponsored “race amity” convention, Locke expressed his conviction that there, indeed, is a “spiritual” dimension of democracy. Harking back to the Greek notion of the “barbarian” at the inception of democracy in the Greek city-state, Locke observes:
Let us first consider the question of morals. Our ideas of humanity are largely governed by the impressions of the small fraction we see. But it takes many a type to round out humanity. Cultural and spiritual democracy are impossible unless all humanity comes under its scope. Spiritual perception is necessary to understand the merits of others. For that which makes a man a barbarian, as we understand him, is the difference between him and ourselves. This difference measures the degree of our understanding. This is not his failing, but ours.814
Locke’s ideal of “spiritual democracy” appears primarily in his Bahá’í essays and speeches. Audience may have something to do with this, in that a religious audience is receptive to discourse on “spiritual matters.” But the primacy of “Spiritual Democracy” was probably inspired—and certainly catalyzed—by his Bahá’í orientation. In a secularized translation of his own Bahá’í ideals, Locke spoke of the dawn of “a new age of reason on the subject of race.”815 Locke’s concept of spiritual democracy synthesizes his social philosophy.

Locke’s own concept of spiritual democracy pivots on the notion of spirituality itself. Throughout his writings, Locke differentiates “spiritual” and “material” spheres of human activity. At the conclusion of his essay, “Enter the New Negro” (1925), Locke states: “[I]f in our life-time the Negro should not be able to celebrate his full initiation into American democracy, he can at least, on the warrant of these things, celebrate the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development, and with a spiritual Coming of Age.” This spiritual awakening that was stirring within the African American community was not defined by any specific religious reference, but represented the “spirit”—that is, consciousness—of a collective self-image.

Cultural pluralism, as opposed to “absolutism,” was Locke’s secular gospel. For Locke, cultural pluralism provided the social philosophy most needed by democracy,816 not just in America, but across the world. Cultural pluralism was thus “the philosophic faith that Alain Locke became a notable spokesman for.”817 As his primary philosophical framework, cultural pluralism would make possible a general theory of “unity in diversity.”818

One of the keys to Locke’s thought and role as a cultural pluralist is that he did not write or act from within a parochial perspective. Yet the more one studies him, the more one is struck by the resonances that resound an reverberate between Locke’s secular and religious speeches and essays, and the synergy between his philosophical and faith commitments. So far as I can tell, Locke did not mention the Bahá’í Faith by name outside of a Bahá’í venue or context. As universal and egalitarian as were his Bahá’í ideals, Locke took the far more practical route of transposing those ideals into philosophical discourse, educational reform, and cultural criticism.



World democracy: Democracy, ideally, is collective self-destiny. On a world scale, democracy is global self-governance. Locke’s universalism is most evident in his discussion of world democracy, for which “internationalism” appears to be a synonym. World democracy is really the logical and pragmatic expansion of the democratic principle, from a national to truly international level. “[W]orld democracy,” writes Locke, “presupposes the recognition of the essential equality of all peoples and the potential parity of all cultures.”819 On a radio program, “Woman’s Page of the Air,” with Adelaide Hawley, broadcast 6 August 1944 while World War II was at its height, Locke said: “Just as the foundation of democracy as a national principle made necessary the declaration of the basic equality of persons, so the founding of international democracy must guarantee the basic equality of human groups.”820

It is at this level that democracy attains its ultimate fruition, and finds its fullest expression. Both as a cultural pluralist and as a Bahá’í, Locke was a supporter of world federalism in principle, and of the United Nations in practice. It was the phoenix that rose out of the ashes of the conflagration of World War II, which Locke regarded as a global civil war. “Democracy at war,” Locke declared, “must more clearly outline its position and more unequivocally avow its principles.”821 Of that international body, Locke writes:

Significantly enough, the Phalanx of the United Nations unites an unprecedented assemblage of the races, cultures and peoples of the world. Could this war-born assemblage be welded by a constructive peace into an effective world order—one based on the essential parity of peoples and a truly democratic reciprocity of cultures—world democracy would be within reach of attainment.822

Moreover, the United States, with its composite population sampling all the human races and peoples, is by way of being almost a United Nations by herself. We could so easily and naturally, with the right dynamic, become the focus of thoroughgoing internationalism—thereby realizing, one might say, our manifest destiny.823


Accordingly, Locke noted, “we must find common human denominators of liberty, equality, and fraternity for humanity at large.”824 In the quest to universalize democracy, “color becomes the acid test of our fundamental honesty in putting into practice the democracy we preach.”825 As Johnny Washington points out in his essay, “The Need for Global Democracy,” the rest of the world judges America by how closely it acts in conformity with its democratic ideals, by observing how Americans “treat Blacks and other minorities.”826 Washington goes on to say that the world itself can assess how far it has yet to live up to “universal democracy” by “observing how it treats Third World peoples.”827 The parallel Washington draws is a classic Lockean, part-to-whole correlation. This peculiar, this singular nexus of America and the world has assumed an even more critical role in the world today than ever before, for the obvious reason, as the Dalai Lama has recently said, that America remains the world’s only superpower. As the saying goes, along with the territory goes the responsibility. In his essay, “The Unfinished Business of Democracy,” written during World War II, Locke eloquently defines America’s world role:
To the farsighted, the future is not divorced from present action. Every constructive step in social democracy, in social justice, is not only net gain for the present but assured dividends for the future. So linked up are the home and foreign fronts of race, that it matters little where the moves begin. Any gain is a world gain; any setback, a world loss. […]

Conversely, a lynching in Mississippi, over and above its enemy echo on a Tokyo short-wave, has as much symbolic meaning in Chunking, Bombay, and Brazzaville as it has in tragic reality in the hearts of Negro Americans. Steps taken to abolish second-class citizenship in Florida or to democratize the American army or our war industry have, on the other hand, favorable repercussions almost to the ends of the earth. It helps build up not necessarily a democracy of extended political power and domain, but a much more needed democracy of full moral stature, world influence and world respect. It is such unfinished business, foreign and domestic, that waits on democracy’s calendar today.828


Alain Locke’s theory of democracy, with its primary focus on America, may be seen as a secular application of the Bahá’í vision of America’s destiny, with which Locke himself was probably conversant. It remains a little-known fact that this great African American philosopher, Alain LeRoy Locke, had embraced a value system in the very year that he was awarded his Ph.D. from Harvard University for successfully defending his dissertation, “Problems of Classification in the Theory of Value.”829 That year was 1918, when Locke converted to the Bahá’í Faith. In an unpublished letter, dated 1 August 1934 to Bahá’í leader Shoghi Effendi (d. 1957), Locke spoke of the “factionalism of race” in America, and of his resolve to be “a modifying influence to radical sectionalism and to increasing materialistic trends—and in this indirect way to serve the [Bahá’í] Cause and help forward the universal principles.”830 In his essay, “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle” (1933), Locke effectively “translated” Bahá’í ideals “into more secular terms” so that “a greater practical range will be opened up for the application and final vindication of the Bahá’í principles” in order to achieve “a positive multiplication of spiritual power.” Locke’s philosophy of democracy, as it relates to America and world peace, may therefore be seen as an extension of his Bahá’í values.

What, then, are Locke’s moral imperatives for world peace and how can these imperatives be efficaciously instrumental in creating world peace? Locke forged a vital linkage between American democracy and world democracy. In his unpublished Bahá’í essay, Locke wrote that “[t]he gospel for the Twentieth Century” and the prospect of “social salvation” must first address “[t]he fundamental problems of current America,” which are “materiality and prejudice.” The sad irony is that America—“the land that is nearest to material democracy”—happens to be the land that “is furthest away from spiritual democracy.” In the same essay, Locke quotes a prophecy from Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1892), prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith: “That all nations shall become one in faith, and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled. […] These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and family.” This vision incorporates the three “basic corporate ideas” of nation, race and religion, of which Locke speaks in his paper, “Moral Imperatives for World Order” (1944).



Exploring the relationship between America and world democracy, Locke postulated that “World leadership […] must be moral leadership in democratic concert with humanity at large.”831 In so doing, America must perforce “abandon racial and cultural prejudice.”832 “A world democracy,” wrote Locke, “cannot possibly tolerate what a national democracy has countenanced too long.”833 This is an unmistakable allusion to America and racism. On the real and present danger of the racial crisis in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá warned: “The enmity and hatred which exist between the white and the black races is very dangerous and there is no doubt that it will end in bloodshed unless the influence of the Word of God, the breaths of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are diffused amongst them and harmony is established between the two races.” Inevitably, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “The power of the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh will remove this danger from America.”834 This accords with the Bahá’í principle, with which Locke was probably familiar: “For the accomplishment of unity between the colored and whites will be an assurance of the world’s peace.”835 Once her racial crisis is solved, the spiritual destiny of America will begin to manifest itself, as Shoghi Effendi explains:
Among some of the most momentous and thought-provoking pronouncements ever made by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, in the course of His epoch-making travels in the North American continent, are the following: “May this American Democracy be the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement. May it be the first nation to proclaim the unity of mankind. May it be the first to unfurl the Standard of the Most Great Peace.” And again: “The American people are indeed worthy of being the first to build the Tabernacle of the Great Peace, and proclaim the oneness of mankind. […] For America hath developed powers and capacities greater and more wonderful than other nations. […] The American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history, to become the envy of the world, and be blest in both the East and the West for the triumph of its people. […] The American continent gives signs and evidences of very great advancement. Its future is even more promising, for its influence and illumination are far-reaching. It will lead all nations spiritually.”836
The vision continues. On 23 December 2001, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad began with the headlines: The Destiny of America and The Promise of World Peace. This open letter to the American people begins: “At this time of world turmoil, the United States Bahá’í community offers a perspective on the destiny of America as the promoter of world peace.” Speaking of the world shrinking into a virtual “neighborhood,” the message goes on to say: “Paradoxical as it may seem, her [America’s] only hope of extricating herself from the perils gathering around her is to become entangled in that very web of international association which the Hand of an inscrutable Providence is weaving.” If faithful to her mission, the Bahá’í writings envision a glorious future for America. This may be summed up as follows: “The American nation, Bahá’ís believe, will evolve, through tests and trials to become a land of spiritual distinction and leadership, a champion of justice and unity among all peoples and nations, and a powerful servant of the cause of everlasting peace. This is the peace promised by God in the sacred texts of the world’s religions.”837

All human actions flow from consciousness. World peace, therefore, can only be established on a foundation of “the consciousness of the oneness of humankind”—harmony of races, religions, and nations. All peace-building policies and instruments depend on this. This is Locke’s vision of America and his prescription for world peace: “The moral imperatives of a new world order are an internationally limited idea of national sovereignty, a non-monopolistic and culturally tolerant concept of race and religious loyalties freed of sectarian bigotry.” (PAL 152). In “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy” (1942), Locke wrote that: “The intellectual core of the problems of the peace […] will be the discovery of the necessary common denominators and the basic equivalences involved in a democratic world order or democracy on a world scale” (PAL 62).


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