Robert Jensen: “Without a Net” — TexasObserver


Review essay:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (Random House) [This IS a great book.]
The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics,

the New Brain Sciences, and

the Myth of Free Will, by Heidi M. Ravven (New Press)

It’s not easy being a human in the 21st century, knowing so much. The more we learn about how the world works, the more we realize how many ways we are destroying that world. Despite all that knowledge piling up, humans continue to treat the only home we have like a mine from which we can endlessly extract and a landfill into which we can endlessly dump.

No surprise that we’re just a bit anxious, deep down in a place Xanax can’t reach. Where do we find comfort and hope when all seems so hopeless?

Some seek divine deliverance or forgiveness, while others assert that we can think our way out of the problems we have created. We have long sought solace in faith or facts, but what options remain when faith and facts are revealed as dead ends? Neither God nor Reason can save us, because God and Reason (as conventionally understood) don’t exist. But rather than abandon those terms, we can explore unconventional understandings.

Two new books point in the right direction. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan sets Jesus’ life in historical context, helping remind us that we need not accept supernatural claims about God to tell stories about God that can help us make sense of our lives. In The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, Heidi M. Ravven draws on yesterday’s philosophers and today’s scientists to demonstrate why simplistic stories about human reason are unreasonable.

Aslan doesn’t break new ground about the historical Jesus, but instead provides what the best theological/political/moral writing offers: great storytelling that challenges us to rethink the conventional wisdom in search of a deeper wisdom. The strength of Zealot is Aslan’s explanation of the world in which Jesus lived and, just as important, the post-Jesus world in which people struggled over what his life meant. That context—the Jewish resistance to Roman rule while Jesus lived, and the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death—is crucial.

Aslan argues that the evidence suggests Jesus was a revolutionary zealot in a time when he had competition to lead the Jews against Roman rule. All these aspirants met the same fate: execution by the imperial state for treason. That left Jesus’ followers with a problem; everyone expected a true messiah to triumph, not get crucified. A resurrection story solved that problem, and the apostle Paul got busy creating a theology that had less to do with Jesus the failed revolutionary and more to do with Jesus the Christ—not just a messiah, but fully divine. Paul replaced Jesus’ call for “the kingdom of God”—understood by contemporaries as a revolution on earth—with the notion of salvation in the afterlife, and what had been merely a sect within Judaism became a brand-new religion.

Though this analysis is not new, Zealot briefly became controversial because the Iranian-born Aslan is a Muslim (with a brief evangelical Christian period as a young man), leading some on the right-wing fringe to challenge of his ability to write fairly about Christianity’s founding figure. (A clip of Aslan being grilled on FOX News was so strange, even by FOX standards, that it went viral.)

Aslan comes not to bury Jesus but to praise him, not to lament belief in Christ but what people don’t know about Jesus. Although the book will likely prove unsatisfying to readers who believe that Jesus’ resurrection and divinity are necessary to give Christianity meaning, Aslan ends his book with an endorsement:

“Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

For those who believe that knowledge trumps faith, talk of God—whether theological or historical, supernatural or symbolic—is diversionary. The secularly inclined typically put their money not on God but on Reason; they entrust science, not religion, with the keys to the kingdom.

The bad news for disciples of Reason is contemporary neuroscience’s suggestion that humans are hardly reasonable beings. Heidi M. Ravven’s book demonstrate in great detail that this irony—rational science demonstrating the basic irrationality of humans, presumably including scientists—should be not ignored but explored.

Nitty-gritty neuroscience and psychology make Ravven’s book a more difficult read than Aslan’s vivid accounts of temple intrigue and revolutionary scheming in Jerusalem. But The Self Beyond Itself does an admirable job making sense of the latest developments in brain science in the context of Western philosophy, starting with St. Augustine, whose 5th-century Christian theology emphasized the free will of autonomous individuals. Modern secular philosophy has ditched the God-talk but remains stuck in the Augustinian mode, Ravven says. Why is that a problem? Because free will and individual autonomy are illusions.

Do humans have the ability to exercise control over our conduct in such a way that makes it reasonable to hold us morally responsibility for our actions? Most people would answer yes—we make what seem like free-willed choices all the time. But most of us also accept that we live in a material world determined by scientific laws, starting with physics, not of our creation or control. If we belong to a world shaped by forces we can’t control, just exactly where does our free will come in?

A detailed exploration of the longstanding free will-versus-determinism debate is beyond the scope of this review (which is another way of saying I’m not sure I really understand it myself). People stake out positions at both ends, alongside various types of what philosophers call compatibilists, who say something like this: We experience ourselves deciding among options and making choices that originate our actions. But our actions are the result of complex interactions of biological, psychological, social, cultural, historical, quantum, and cosmological systems we don’t control. Both statements are true; deal with it.

Ravven points out that new research complicates even this common-sense understanding of how we “make” choices. It turns out that we become consciously aware of our decisions only after we have made them and begun enacting them. And this “decision-making” process has a lot more to do with what we call “emotion” than what we call “reason”:

“We act from emotion, but we fool ourselves that we are acting entirely or principally from rational considerations alone. We falsely believe that we act upon the reasons we come up with ex post facto to explain and justify our actions.”

But while free will and the self-contained self may be illusions, Ravven argues that we’re stuck with these concepts and have to make the best of them, redefining the self not as an entity but as the mess that emerges from a complex adaptive system, and free will not as self-control but as a flexible set of feedback loops. She suggests that we can understand our minds better by thinking of them as embodied (not brains in a vat, but complex organisms), embedded (in a complex environment), extended (our cognition extending beyond the boundaries of our physical selves), and enacted (our perception and cognition influenced by our interaction with the world).

In short: Most talk of “the self” in contemporary culture leads us inward; Ravven focuses outward. Most talk about ethics focuses on individual choices; Ravven considers the systems that structure those choices. For those keeping philosophical score, Ravven concludes that Augustine, Descartes and Kant got it mostly wrong, while Aristotle, Maimonides and Spinoza were on the right track.

Rejecting free will has a tendency to turn some folks nihilistic, but Ravven believes that giving up the myth can allow us “to accept ourselves and others for who we and they are.” The result? “Compassion (as well as reasonable self-protection) would then replace punitive moral outrage as the resulting emotion and motivation,” leading us to a more ecological and universal perspective on human behavior.

These books remind us that rather than feeling perpetually anxious about the comforts and assurances that we know God and Reason can’t provide, we can redefine the terms. Instead of a supernatural god, “god” could simply refer to the world’s mystery, another way of saying “We don’t know about that, and we never will.” Instead of insisting on reason uncontaminated by emotion, we can accept a messier process over which we have less control than we might wish, another way of saying “We think we have good reasons to know, but we’re aware that we don’t think with reason only.”

These philosophical moves might lessen the pain of uncertainty with the realization that we don’t need certainty. Some would say that religion untethered from supernatural claims carries no more authority than any earthbound ethical or political system. That’s fine with me; instead of “the truth,” we get ancient narratives that help us explore the world’s mysteries. If science has to become more cautious in light of the finding that we’re largely irrational beings, that’s fine with me, too; the hubris of science and technology has created a lot of problems in the world, and more humility is welcome.

Back to our anxiety. The most vexing aspects of modern life aren’t about what we don’t know. They’re about what we do know—just how much damage we have done and can do. In a hierarchical world of obscene inequalities based on race, gender, and economic status, we know that we have not done right by each other. In an industrial world that is fundamentally unsustainable, we know that we are not doing right by the larger living world.

Rather than stay stuck in anxiety, we would be better off embracing the unavoidable anguish that comes with this awareness. Anxiety tends to get in the way of action. Anguish helps us come to terms with who and where we are, without illusions about God or Reason.

If that seems too much to bear, we can at least know that we aren’t the first people who have faced an apparent dead end, which is where those ancient stories come in handy. In the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah lamented, “My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me.” Why? “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

Our task is to face that anguish, to do our best to lessen inequality and stop the destruction. There are no guarantees that we will succeed. Our season may truly be over, and that may well define what it means to be truly human in the 21st century: the determination to act, knowing we cannot be saved.


Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue,, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, in print at and on Kindle at

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002).

Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online at

Jensen can be reached at and his articles can be found online at To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

About Thom Prentice

"Thom Prentice? Well, he planted a lot of trees." We are a part OF Nature — not apart FROM Nature. Lennonist. Poet and Naturalist. Living life of the mind. Journo. thom prentice [at] (g) male dot com *****Someone just "followed" me on twitter, a "corporate trainer". How can a corporation be trained? Is a corporation a person? A person that can be trained? I am a teacher, I have never "trained" anyone nor would I even think of it let alone think of assembling those words. I taught people, not subjects. Most doctors treat diseases, not people. The subject areas in which I facilitated learning for people were journalism, English, Limited Proficient English, history, government, and a variety of Teacher Education and Learning Theory and Practice (praxis) courses where there were people -- human beings -- Homo sapiens sapiens -- seeking to learn.***** Noam Chomsky. Poet. Naturalist. Philosophe. Albert Schweitzer. Seeker. Prizes wisdom and truth. Likes to drive with the windows down and sunroof open/No A/C. Diogenes looking for an honest person. Deborah Tannen. Knowledge pusher. Mindfulness. Urban Hermit. Eschews language which obscures the humanity of human beings, causality, and the sentience of all beings: "staffing," "collateral damage," "decedent," "the poor," "targeting," "'pure'/'impure'," "customer care center," "casualties," "working class", "audience", "original sin". Diogenes looking for an open-minded person. Derrick Jensen. Longtime Global Warming Alarmist. Declasse Intellectual. Avec sans culottes. Urban Anchorite. Wakefulness. Longtime Global Capitalism-Ain'tWorking alarmist. Naomi Klein. Longtime pro-Democracy, pro-civil rights and pro- human rights activist/Alarmist. ***** Did the revolutionary Mae West rattle the Puritan fascist American teacups or what? ***** IS IT NOT TIME TO GET OUT OF THE RESTLESS AMNESIA OF THE NEWS CYCLE WHICH DISTRACTS FROM ONGOING, SYSTEMIC, STRUCTURAL DEFECTS OF KAPITALISM/QAPITALISM, MILITARISM, FASCISM, EMPIRE AND INDUSTRIAL HIGH TECH SURVEILLANCE/POLICE STATE CIVILIZATION***** The role of public intellectuals is to question accepted dogmas, conceive of new methods of analysis, and expand the terms of public debate. (The New Yorker) Like Thomas Piketty, when I start reading and thinking, collecting data and making observations, I have no idea where it will go. Historical Conceptualist, Not Minute Detailist (Francois Furet) A Texas Public Intellectual: Public Intellecty'all ***** Journalist/former teacher/prof. Trying to live counterculturally, limiting travel, living with less stuff, using less electricity and natural gas, Turned the TV Off in 2011... Anti-Fascist. Jeffrey St. Clair. Egalitarian. Robert Frost. Humanist. Naturalist. Earthist. Absolutely Pro-Democracy/Democracies. Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted in a civilization which comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted.***** Undermining assumptions. Poet. Essayist. Photographer. Writer. George Lakoff. Authentic Journalist. FreeThinker. CriticalThinker. Controversialist.*****Either capitalism carries fascism in its DNA or fascism carries capitalism in ITS DNA. It is clear that capitalism and democracy cannot co-exist. Democracy should rule capitalism but capitalism should Not rule democracy. John Michael Greer. Capitalism is in catastrophic failure as we speak. Chris Hedges. It is time to talk about ***** a Socialista alternative? a Mixed Economy alternative? *****. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union: glasnost, perestroika, democratizya and the Evil US Empire could use a big dose of all three. Richard D. Wolff. POLITICAL democracy is USELESS without ECONOMIC democracy. ***** I carry a cosmic perspective with me per Neil deGrasse Tyson. Public Intellecty'all. Ally Fogg. Authentic Journalist. Pro-Democracy Advocate. Anti-Stalinist/Fascist. bell hooks. Ralph Ellison. Human Rights Activist. GWM. Contrarian. Howard Zinn. ***** CounterNarratives and CounterForces (checks and balances against societal power structures) are required for a society to be free and democratic. ***** Atomist. Epicurean. Lucretius: “De Rerum Natura” or "On The Nature of Things"Liere Keith.***** I do not trust a single institution in this society from the ground up. Asker of awkward and inconvenient questions. Turn off the TV. I like Bonobos (the animals, NOT the pants), dogs and elephants. Failed parallel parking. Post-partisan and post-ideological. People First. Democracy First. Used to dance with his shirt off. *****Carl Sagan. If more people would have more sex more often -- even if self-inflicted -- the world would be a much happier place***** WhistleBlower from the ground up. Speaking Truth to Power/Truth for People. "I think it is primarily getting TRUTH into discussion" -- stolen from my friend Chuck. Arundhati Roy.***** Gay White Male, educated, comfortably middle class [but now poor], and born in the United States—in short, “a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system.” (Direct steal from Dr. Robert Jensen, UT-Austin)***** WhiteGuy, Intellecty'all, James Baldwin. Symbologist [for those who like Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code], Deconstructioneer, Scribbler, Scrivener, Authentic Journalist, Reader, Thinker, Lifelong Learner, 14 year cancer fighter/survivor (it keeps coming back) just finishing yet another year of chemo, former high school teacher, editor, and college prof, Ph.D. - UT-Austin - 1995. Elizabeth Kolbert. "Dr. Democracy", Return to 'The Customer Is Always Right' Capitalism Advocate. Shameless flirt. "The Ruin".*****24601***** “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” - Francisco Goya***** The more we learn about animals, the more we learned about ourselves.***** Curtis White. It is time for Direct Non-Violent Resistance, Rebellion, Revolt against the entire system, except that I find it credible that the entire system is collapsing on itself and we might not have to do anything except think about how we want our society organized after the collapse. Henry Giroux. ***** Facebook Page: Thomas Prentice***** There is no conscience in Capitalism. Democracy should rule Capitalism but Capitalism should NEVER rule Democracy. Without Economic Democracy, political democracy is useless and worthless and even deranged.***** Barrington Moore. Our economic and social arrangements need to be changed but not just from one bad, rigid, closed, arbitrary, bureaucratic, Stalinist/Fascist or State Capitalist ideology to another. Let’s talk about and create new social arrangements, new democracies. Douglass Kellner. Les Miserables.***** Karl Marx was accurate and correct about how Industrial Capitalism causes people to become alienated from each other. He was also accurate and correct about his 'labor theory of value' which shows why/how Capitalist thieves steal the value of a person's labor. A person works so many hours or days for s/himself and the rest of the labor is "free" and therefore that “free labor value” goes to the Capitalist One Per Centers as profit. And Marx was also accurate and correct in a whole lot of other things, principally his critique of capitalism and his analysis of society. We don't know anything about Marx -- who was a sociologist and not an economist btw -- and neither do we know anything about Adam Smith and capitalism -- except to bow down and worship the "wisdom of the (monopoly controlled) market". That is because neither capitalism nor socialism nor plain basic economics is a graduation requirement for any high school or university in the US Empire. White Rock lake park in Dallas. Lake Travis. Lady Bird Lake in Austin. The San Marcos River. Yosemite. Yellowstone. *****Mars Attacks.***** The United States was founded on the pillars of genocide; slavery; racism; white supremacy; male supremacy; christian supremacy; compulsory heterosexuality; abuse of humans and nature; exploitation of humans and nature; and especially full-blown hypocrisy. And Jesus did not like hypocrisy or hypocrites. ***** Chris Hedges, Rimbaud, Thomas Piketty, Rumi, Glenn Greenwald. Lewis Mumford, Richard Hofstadter, Derrick Jensen, Chris Hedges, Jesus/Yehsua and Buddha, Paul Krugman, David Foster Wallace, Henry A. Giroux, Christopher Lasch, Horkheimer and Adorno, Chris Hedges, Douglass Kellner, Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, Jeffrey St. Clair, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, JFK, Normon Solomon, Richard Wolff, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Albert Camus, Federico Garcia Lorca, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Voltaire, Evidence is everywhere indicating the looming apocalypse.***** People tell me that I "pull no punches": and I agree. But as I try to avoid racist and misogynist words and phrases and thinking, I also try to avoid masculinist terms and thinking, especially terms of violence and sports terms, military terms. In high school my newspaper column was called "Like it Is" and I prefer to think of myself in those terms -- telling it "Like It Is".*****TURN OFF THE TV NEWS! INDEED TURN OFF THE TV! It is the very MEDIUM of television that is so toxic, hypnotizing, and mind-numbing. Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan, ins a time of black and white TV and only three channels said that "the medium is the message". In other words, it doesn't matter WHAT programming you watch on TV, the very MEDIUM is the REAL MESSAGE. The MEDIUM of TV is a MASS DRUG used by the capitalist and state power to turn people numb and dumb. TV is a mind transducer, keeping watchers from even thinking let alone engaging in reflection and achieving self-awareness as engaging in human interactions. What matters is if the TV is ON or if it is OFF. TURN OFF THE TV!

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