Ruby Sales is the founder and director of the Spirit House Project. Ruby Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate, if we want to make change. I interviewed her at a convening of 20 theologians seeking to reimagine the public good of theology for this century. She lives in Atlanta, where she runs the nonprofit, Spirit House Project. Tippett: Ruby, when I was getting ready to interview you, there are two sources that I found that were wonderful for me for preparing.
And one was a series of conversations you did with Vincent Harding, who we miss. Tippett: Yeah, who was such a great person — and also, a panel that you did at the American Academy of Religion meeting last year. And Serene Jones told me about this after it happened and said it was just so astonishing.
And that also motivated me to want to have you here with us. So I want to start where I always start my conversations, by just asking how you would start to talk about what was the spiritual background of your childhood. Sales: I grew up in the South. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher and a chaplain in the Army. And I was bred on black folk religion. It was a religion that combined the ideals of American democracy with a theological sense of justice.
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It was a religion that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although we were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible to even 7-year-olds. As a 7-year-old, I could sing 50 songs without missing a line, and everybody in the community had access to the theological microphone.
So as a little black girl growing up in the South, I was deeply influenced by this black folk religion. Sales: The winds, yes, to stand against the winds of Southern apartheid, to stand against the winds — how do I describe? I grew up in the heart of Southern apartheid. I grew up believing that I was a first-class human being and a first-class person, and our parents were spiritual geniuses who were able to shape a counterculture of black folk religion that raised us from disposability to being essential players in society.
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And it also taught us something serene about love. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart. Sales: Well, first of all, black folk religion grew up in the bush harbors on plantations. There were no buildings. There was not an institutionalized church. Sales: Yes, it was a gathering spot for the community.
And it was in this setting that black people began to talk about God in this society where they were enslaved. So it was not — and everybody participated. The spirituals came up out of this environment. It was participatory. It was black folk religion. It was ordinary black people and not black preachers. Most black preachers stood over and against the movement.
But it was really ordinary black people in the South who really forced the church to allow mass meetings and other places to meet there.
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And Martin Luther King should not be seen as the black church — he came out of black folk religion and was part of the Southern freedom movement. Tippett: And one of the things I start to understand, as I listen to you and read you, is that a lot of the themes that — when I talk to somebody like John Lewis, when I hear about how the — or Vincent Harding — how the philosophy of nonviolence was developed, and they were studying Gandhi and Thoreau and Jesus, and practicing and doing role-playing.
But what I understand from you is that a lot of the elements of that actually were in black folk religion. So when you say you learned to love…. When you look at black spirituals, you hear a theology and a philosophy of nonviolence, and so that this was an essential part of black folk religion. It was not a retaliatory religion. It was a religion predicated on right relations and love and nonviolence.
Tippett: And I also hear you saying things like, you learned agape.
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You lived agape. Sales: Yes.
That was very revolutionary and very profound. And it was like, my God, do we have to do this? I mean my year-old mind.
And so I lost religion that day, and I slowly became a Marxist. I became a materialist. I had no space in my life for — and I thought black folks were religious fanatics. And what did that mean? And so I think that although I thought that I was not religious, the truth of the matter is, I was, and I went to church all the time, and that was the Sweet Honey concerts, and Bernice Johnson Reagon kept us in church. And all of the songs that she sang, and all of the music and the God talk that she would do from the stage, she became the preacher for a generation of African-American young people.
She herself was the daughter of a preacher who thought that we had left the church, but black folk religion was so deeply ingrained in us that we never really left it.
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So I carried with me the songs. I carried with me the testimonies. I carried with me the whole notion of right relations. That was the cornerstone of how I imagined justice. Sales: Right, I really never left. And she had sores on her body. And she was just in a state — drugs. And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother. And she talked about having been incested. She talked about all of the things that had happened to her as a child. And she literally shared the source of her pain. And I realized, in that moment, listening to her and talking with her, that I needed a larger way to do this work, rather than a Marxist, materialist analysis of the human condition.
And also, I was riding down the road one day in Washington, D.
And those moments made me really begin to seek to go back, to really think deeply about black folk religion and to really want to develop, in a very intentional way, an inner life that had to do with how I lived in the world. Today, a conversation with civil rights veteran and public theologian, Ruby Sales. The years — were dominated by the publication of the four-volume System of Positive Polity , which was interrupted for a few months in order for him to write the Catechism of Positive Religion Disappointed by the unenthusiastic response his work got from the workers, Comte launched an Appeal to Conservatives in The next year, he published the first volume of a work on the philosophy of mathematics announced in , under the new title of Subjective Synthesis, or Universal System of the Conceptions Adapted to the Normal State of Humanity.
Comte died on September 5, , without having had time to draft the texts announced up to 35 years before: a Treatise of Universal Education , which he thought he could publish in , a System of Positive Industry, or Treatise on the Total Action of Humanity on the Planet , planned for , and, finally, for , a Treatise of First Philosophy. The early writings remain the required starting point for everyone who wishes to understand the goal that Comte incessantly pursued.
A thought of youth, executed by mature age. There, he got an education in science that was second to none in all of Europe; it left a permanent imprint on him. But he was equally a typical representative of the generation of Tocqueville and Guizot that saw itself confronted with the question of how to stop the Revolution after the collapse of the Empire. But in that task it had now succeeded.
The moment had come for reconstruction, and it was hard to see how these weapons could be of use in such work. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the young Comte turned to Saint-Simon. The latter, taking advantage of the relative freedom of the press granted by Louis XVIII, published more and more pamphlets and magazines, and therefore needed a collaborator.
Comte took over three ideas from the complex thought of Saint-Simon:. Comte quickly assimilated what Saint-Simon had to offer him. But Comte aspired to free himself of a tutelage that weighed ever heavier on him, as he found the unmethodical and fickle mind of the self-taught, philanthropic aristocrat barely tolerable. The break occurred in , occasioned by a shorter work of Comte that would prove to be fundamental.
Aware of already possessing the main ideas of his own philosophy, Comte accused his teacher of trying to appropriate his work and furthermore, he pointed out that he had not contented himself with giving a systematic form to borrowed concepts. The Philosophical Considerations on the Sciences and the Scientists contains the first and classical formulations of the two cornerstones of positivism: the law of the three stages, and the classification of the sciences.
The Considerations on Spiritual Power that followed some months later presents dogmatism as the normal state of the human mind. It is not difficult to find behind that statement, which may seem outrageous to us, the anti-Cartesianism that Comte shares with Peirce and that brings their philosophies closer to one another. As the mind spontaneously stays with what seems true to it, the irritation of doubt ceases when belief is fixed; what is in need of justification, one might say, is not the belief but the doubt.
Thus the concept of positive faith is brought out, that is to say, the necessity of a social theory of belief and its correlate, the logical theory of authority. In the year two major events take place. But in he postponed that project for an indeterminate period.