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In the sixteenth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies, Yale University. Jennings begins by talking about defining theology, where efforts to practice theology went awry in recent decades in the North Atlantic world, and how a properly ordered and, in turn, properly practiced theology proves critical to the Church, the seminary, and the Church-related university. Jennings then talks about his widely acclaimed The Christian Imagination, ways in which it was misunderstood and ways in which it was properly understood. Ream and Jennings then close their conversation by talking about Jennings’s After Whiteness and the implications of ideas defining that book for the seminary as well as the Church-related university.
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School. Thank you for joining us.
Willie Jennings: Glad to be with you.
Todd Ream: Let’s start out with a, with a tough question here, uh, then. We’ll go right, right to the heart of the matter here. How do you define theology?
Willie Jennings: Well, the way I define theology comes back to the way so many theologians have started to define it, and that is, it is, theology is the practice of thinking after the life of God, thinking inside the life of God. And it’s a practice that then opens up to a reflection on a wide variety of practices that are all tied to following and thinking after God.
Todd Ream: In what ways then, if any, do you believe our appreciation for theology has declined over the course of the 20th century, particularly in the North Atlantic world?
Willie Jennings: Well, theology in the North Atlantic world has gotten a, um, well deserved, uh, bad reputation. And that reputation is rooted in, you know, we have to ask ourselves that basic question, has theology really been about following God and following the way of God? And for a lot of people, the answer has come back, not at all.
And so theology has gotten a bad reputation, well earned bad reputation, because in many ways, theology as a practice, a practice done both in the Church and in the academy, has struggled to say honestly that it is following the way of God, that it is following after the life of God that has been revealed to us.
And so it’s earned, it’s earned a reputation for following many things, the least of which is following God.
Todd Ream: Thank you. In what ways then, if any, amidst these challenges do you believe our appreciation for theology has improved?
Willie Jennings: It has improved in this sense, that our appreciation for theology has improved in the fact that a wider variety of peoples, a wider diversity of people who have claimed life in God are also claiming to do theology and being theologians. And so, from the academy to the Church, from the street to the pew, we have more people taking up the practice and the mantle of thinking theologically, doing theology, reflecting theologically.
And so, that has been the great enhancement. And that enhancement, I think I should rush to add, that enhancement has been built inside nothing less than a miracle. What is that miracle? That so many people who were offered a destructive vision of theology and destructive theology were able to spy out in the midst of that destructive stuff that they were given something life giving.
And that is nothing less than a miracle of the Holy Spirit, that people who were raised in context where theology was used to destroy their very life were able to spy out a different kind of theology or different possibility for theology right amidst horror. And we have to give God thanks for that kind of clarity that was given and continues to be given by the Holy Spirit.
Todd Ream: I love that phrase, spy out, uh, and that the operative work of the Holy Spirit is in such a fashion in our lives at times. In your estimation then, what if anything would the Church-related university lose if theology disappeared from its offerings?
Willie Jennings: If we lost theology, especially from Church-related universities and colleges, what we would lose is we would lose the heart of an intellectual, not only struggle, but the heart of an intellectual journey that needs to be present in the middle of every university. And what is that journey? The journey is life with God.
And it is a journey that is not only worth keeping at the center of an intellectual endeavor, but it really enlightens, vivifies, brings to life all intellectual endeavors, to have that endeavor at the center of our work in the academy.
Todd Ream: In your estimation then, what would the Church lose if theology disappeared from the Church-related university’s offerings?
Willie Jennings: The Church would lose its depth, its depth of thinking that is not only its responsibility but its, its inheritance. Deep calling to deep. And the university has many problems, the modern academy has many problems, but one thing that it, it does provide, it provides the space and the time to hear the deep calling to the deep.
And so churches need the university, and they need the university setting, the college setting, the academic setting, in order to understand the depth of life with God that God is calling us into, and a depth that reaches into the very character of our existence as creatures. And so without that, we fall, we, we, we wander into a superficiality, not only of our faith, but of our life in God.
Todd Ream: Thank you. That’s beautiful. In what ways, then, should the practice of theology in the Church-related university be comparable to the practice of theology in seminary contexts?
Willie Jennings: Well, what we’re talking about are degrees of intensity, and, um, with, with the, uh, freestanding seminary or the seminary that’s not connected to a university, there is a beautiful intensity that should be there in the intellectual endeavor, in the work of theology. And that intensity is magnified in the university setting where you are engaged with more disciplines.
And so in the context of these other disciplines and there points of inquiry, their ways of life of inquiry, uh, it deepens the- it intensifies, if you will, the what theology should be about because we’re talking to a wider variety of people in the university.
And so it’s not a difference of kind. It’s not a difference of quality. It’s not a difference of character. It is a difference of intensity. We press further into more in the context of the major university and the modern university.
Todd Ream: Your education includes both a study at a Church-related university, uh, Calvin College, now Calvin University, as an undergraduate, and then-
Willie Jennings: Go Knights!
Todd Ream: and then a free, a freestanding seminary at Fuller Seminary, and then did doctoral work at Duke University. At what point did you believe you were called to the ministry?
Willie Jennings: You know, I wandered into college because I sensed a call to ministry. I had no idea what Calvin at the time, Calvin College, as you said, now Calvin University, I had no idea what Calvin was. I showed up and said, I want to take a few courses on the Bible. And the admissions director, now a blessed memory, the older gentleman said, well, Willie, I think we can help you with that.
Todd Ream: And few other courses.
Willie Jennings: So, um, when I stepped into Calvin, I realized that there was a greater calling that was starting to unfold for me when I was walking through those halls. And that greater calling was to being a teacher. I’d always seen myself, in a sense, as a teacher. But at Calvin, I came to understood what it meant to enter the life, the teaching life, the learning life.
And so, what happened is that the entire fabric of the academy started to, I started to feel that fabric. The, the learning experience, the teaching experience, the conversations, the moments of enlightenment, the moments of frustration, all of that became a part of the calling for me of recognizing that I’m called to being a teacher.
And I put it that way rather than saying the life of the mind because I don’t, I don’t want to give the impression of what’s often given when you say the life of the mind, a certain disembodied reality of seeking a certain very narrowed vision of intellectual life. And for me, it wasn’t so much the life of the mind, it was the life of the teacher.
And so, I sensed very early that this was my calling to teach, and to teach meant to learn as deeply as possible about the weighty matters of life. I was always the kind of kid who asked questions that were pretty far down in the hole to the, to the deep unhappiness of the minister I grew up with. He was a lovely man and did the best he could. But I was that kind of kid who kept asking those questions that, you know, you would make a seminary professor’s head scratch. And so this poor little pastor, he’s like, I don’t know what to do with this guy.
But for me, um, as I was going through Calvin, and then when I went to, um, the great Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, when I was there, the great David Allen Hubbard was the president. And when I was at Fuller, you know, when I, I, when I got to Fuller, I realized that I was going to do a PhD. I didn’t know what it was going to be in yet. I was, I was still trying to get clear on that.
I came in thinking I was going to do Hebrew, Bible, Old Testament, and then after taking my first, um, course in Hebrew, I thought, no, this is not going to do it for me. I, I learned to enjoy my Hebrew course, but I realized that this just was not, it was not meeting it for me. And so when I took my first theology course, at that level, I had taken some theology at Calvin, but when I took it at that level, I realized, ah, I have found my home.
Todd Ream: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Speaking of that, that pastor in that church then, in what ways did your education foster within you a greater appreciation for the state of theology as practiced in the Church?
Willie Jennings: From the very beginning, my theology teachers were all people who understood that the, the deepest, most penetrating thinking going on about the life of God happens in the Church. And the problem is that it’s often misidentified, not as deep weighty matters, deep philosophical and theological matters. And so there, it was always an orientation to the life of faith.
And the, the, the thing that- I had a professor in my first year at Calvin College, who said, um, you know, theology, theology can either turn someone toward heaven or turn someone toward hell. And it took me a long time to understand what he was saying, but it was clear that the weighty matters of life, I keep using that phrase, the weighty matters of life are at stake in theology.
And my teachers made clear to me that if you’re doing theology that does not attend to the weighty matters, it’s not theology.
Todd Ream: Wow, thank you. In what ways then did that education foster within you any concerns about the state of the practice of theology in the Church?
Willie Jennings: I learned very early, and this was a part of my own work, that, that there were people missing, um, in theological studies, and there was history missing. There was the history, the colonial history was missing from, um, the theology I was learning, and the reality of people being shaped, and the racial wound, and the wound of, um, various realities of oppression running through the history of the world.
And so I realized that while I was learning some really important things, some things were being left out that should not be left out. But they were not, they were not minor things, and these were not accidents, these were not appendages to theology, that there was something amiss in theology itself, because if it was supposed to attend to the weighty matters of life, why were all these weighty matters not there in theology?
And so I learned very early that, um, there were questions forming in me that my teachers were not answering, not asking. And so, um, I also learned that there were certain questions that I really couldn’t ask my teachers because they were not attuned to the world as I lived in it. And so, um, I was slowly coming to the recognition of the limitations of the way theology was configured in the Western world.
And we often, we often, um, collapse those two things, the problem and the configuration of theology with the problem of theological reflection itself. And that, that configuration, how it is shaped, how it’s presented, how it’s taught, how it’s written, has its own set of problems that then impinge upon, press upon what theological reflection should look like.
And so I was recognizing that I was in the midst of, as I say, some glory and some horror at the same time.
Todd Ream: Prior to accepting a faculty appointment at Yale University Divinity School in 2015, you served as a faculty member and as administrator at Duke Divinity School for approximately 25 years. As Duke made the transition from intersecting with a secular culture to what some have called a post-secular culture, in what ways, if any, did your role as an administrator within the divinity school change?
Willie Jennings: I, um, had the great honor of being the academic dean, uh, for nine and a half years in the midst of what for so much in theology in the Western world was a shift to something called the post-secular And in that context, I watched theology in a sense, trying to find itself afresh. And what that meant was that, uh, for so many of the scholars who understood themselves to be inside of a post-secular project, they were trying to reestablish what was the, the very character and identity of Christian theology itself.
And so, um, I found myself as an administrator trying to, trying to do two things at the same time. With, um, students coming from all backgrounds, trying to help them see what it meant to go from a secular vision to a post-secular vision, which for many students, um, they didn’t even realize they were in a secular vision and so how to be in a post-secular vision, that was a real challenge.
And so there was a sense in which that, that work in and of itself is still the unfinished business of theology in the Western world. We have not yet made clear what it means to go from secular to post-secular. Um, it’s been in many ways too narrowly defined for so many people, and they don’t- they still, it goes over their heads when you talk about a secular vision or a post-secular vision, especially when you’re talking about theological studies.
But in the other direction, I was trying to get the many people who were interested in a post-secularist vision that would reestablish the identity and character of a theology and what theological reflection was, to understand what had gone into the creation of the secular for so many people who were, as I mentioned earlier, had been completely left out of the shape and configuration of theology. And so those folks who were very concerned about trying to establish a theological identity beyond the strictures of secularism, in many ways they had, they had walked away from some fundamental problematics, fundamental problems that were there from the very beginning of the secular.
Problems, problems about the takeover of land, the, the destruction of indigenous life, the um, constant underwriting of forms of oppression in the lives of women, they had walked away from the creation of economic systems that inevitably turn us all into extractors, and all of those matters were not fully captured in the move from the secular to the post-secular.
And so, I found myself in the task of doing translation in two directions, to try to get people to understand that the assertion of a theological identity in our moment, at that moment, but even in our moment now, the assertion of a theological identity, it has to be, it has more to do than with just going from secular to post-secular.
It really has to do with establishing what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the face of those who have claimed to be followers of Jesus and have used Jesus to do the demonic. And that, we still haven’t gotten our minds around.
Todd Ream: No, that’s fascinating. Thank you. In your work then, as you represented the divinity school to the wider university, as culture made that transition, in what ways did your role change, if at all?
Willie Jennings: So in the wider university, the goal was always to show the ongoing value of theological study, and this remains, uh, it was a, it was a challenge when I was an academic dean, but it remains a challenge for every university-related divinity school and theology department, because in many ways what theology is, um, is both a mystery and a problem for so many people.
And here, here we often forget this. There are many people in the university, no matter what university we’re talking about, no matter what college we’re talking about, there are many people that inhabit the university who come out of churches, come out of religious institutions with a lot of hurt and a lot of wounds and who automatically have their hands up in a stopping gesture and deep suspicion of anything Christian and anything religious. And so we work against, in many cases, a bias against Christianity, but we want to be clear here, this is a well earned bias.
I mean Christians worked hard to become, um, um, both feared and hated. And so, um, the, the response has got to be one of humility and openness and honesty that is at the center of a, of an intellectual witness of seeking truth and living in truth, recognizing that we don’t really have a defense against bad Christian behavior.
What we have is a different kind of behavior that we want to put alongside the legacy of bad behavior. And for so many people, that continues to be a point that they miss. They, they’re kind of stuck in an old fashioned apologetic mode. If I can just show you the rationality of Christianity, the reasonableness of it, that, that’s my task in the modern university.
And there’s an element of that. There’s an element of that for those who, in the old, in the old way of thinking, kind of the old secular vision, they see Christianity as a, as a constellation of irrational ideas and propositions and so forth. But the larger reality, the wider reality, is that it’s not a question, it’s not an apologetic question in that sense.
It’s a question of placing in front of people a different set of practices, a different kind of intellectual vision that stands alongside the horror, acknowledges it but then presents a different way of life. You can argue better against a horrific way of life with a different way of life than when you can, than when you can with a set of postulates that are disembodied.
And so in the modern university, our task is to present two things. First, a shared intellectual project of seeking truth, of deepening understanding, a shared project with all those universities. And then second, the presentation of a way of life that houses our intellectual practice with integrity and humility and most important, with joy. There should be joy for the Christian in the university. There should be joy in the work we do in theology.
That if they don’t sense celebration, festival, even in the midst of taking the weighty matters of this world seriously, then we are not honoring what it means to do theology. We do theology both with great seriousness and with great joy at the same time, because we know that life, life is worth living. This is what we confess and that confession needs to work its way into our intellectual work.
At this moment, especially in the theological academy, there’s a growing number of people who the seriousness of our task has been presented in such a way that it robs, it drains the joy of our task. And so as I try to say to many people, yes, you need to take what we’re facing seriously in this world, but you, you, the seriousness means you also recognize that you are inside the life of God as you do it, and the seriousness with which God is taking the struggles of the world, is also bound up with the seriousness with which God has brought you into the joy of the Lord at the same time.
Now, for so many intellectuals that I meet in the academy, especially those outside of Christianity, they are looking for two things. The first thing they’re looking for is they’re looking for a way of life to anchor their intellectual work. They’re looking for that. And we in the, we in the theological academy, we can, we can present one. So here’s one.
The second thing they’re looking for is a reality of joy coupled with hope that sustains the looking at the horrors of this world, the stubborn problems of this world but yet there is joy and hope even in the hard work of looking and analyzing. And what they’re looking for are people who, who show both of those things.
That to me, that to me is true apologetics if you want apologetics. That’s true apologetics..
Todd Ream: No, that’s beautiful. In a, in a conversation I previously had, uh, in this series with Alister McGrath, he said, people are desperate for, and this is what theology can offer intellectually interesting engagement, but also engagement that must be existentially compelling. And we’ve got to have both.
And especially we’ve got to have latter. Um, yeah. And that the academy, people in the academy are desperate for that today and theology can and should offer that.
Thank you. Your book, The Christian Imagination, then, if we could turn to, to talk about that for here for a few minutes, uh, Theology and the Origins of Race, it garnered widespread acclaim, including, you know, two such prizes, the, the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion and the American Academy Award for Excellence. Would you please begin by explaining how you came to conceive of such a project?
Willie Jennings: Well, it gets back to what you asked me earlier about, um, what I saw amiss in theology. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and many of your listeners might know that Grand Rapids, Michigan is the most theological town in America.
It is the home of, um, a denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. It’s the home of four of the most important Christian book publishers in the world, Eerdmans, Baker Academic, Zondervan, and a smaller press that only us theology nerds know about, Kregel Press, all out of Grand Rapids.
It was also the home of the um, the uh, Radio Bible Hour. Uh, that’s not the proper name of it, but it was a famous radio program that came out of Grand Rapids. It was the home of every denomination that you could possibly imagine. They had churches on every corner.
I grew up on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids and I could throw a rock in any direction and hit a church window and break one. And I did a few.
But I grew up in this profoundly Christian, deeply Christian context, but I also grew up in a place that was deeply divided racially. And, uh, the racial antagonism was so thick in Grand Rapids, that it cut the air, you could sense it. And so, growing up, I had this question, this burning question that um, that continued to grow as I went through my educational journey.
How can I be in a place so seriously Christian, seriously Christian now- theology, the confessions, everything, the practices, seriously Christian- but also seriously racist at the same time? I could not get my mind around how that was possible. And that question drove me as I moved through my education, as I entered my career as a professor.
And, um, the Christian Imagination comes out of trying to understand that. And what I came to is I realized that the Christian imagination is profoundly diseased. As I like to say, what we are inside of is that there is a racial architecture to modern Christianity and there is a Christian architecture to modern racial reasoning.
And until we understand how those two things are deeply intertwined, we can’t answer that crucial question that has haunted me my entire life.
And so in the, in the Christian Imagination, what I tried to do, as carefully as I could, is to bring my reader into how we have come into this. And the problem on the ground being that the way the Christian life ought to create, ought to establish a power of connection and belonging and life together, more powerful than any other form, has been fundamentally thwarted by the racial condition.
And the reason is, it’s because it drew, like a parasite, it drew the power, of Christian belonging, into itself. And that power is, has remained stolen from Christianity. And it is inside the racial imagination, which is a fundamental, we’re living in right now, is a fundamental part of the architecture of our current political and social disasters. Because that energy to establish connection, to create allegiance that was born of Christianity was sucked from Christianity inside the racial imagination.
And so, that’s what, um, the Christian Imagination tries to lay out. And in doing that, I put on the table some fundamental ideas that over the years, I’m so glad more and more people had started to work with and think about the relationship between land and race, the relationship between land and the body, the relationship between supersessionism and the, and a Christian vision or, or should I say a destructive Christian vision? All of that, I lay out there.
Todd Ream: Yeah, your, uh, book was widely read, widely debated, and I would say well received by a variety of individuals. In what ways did readers of color, in your opinion, properly appreciate your book?
Willie Jennings: I think they all, the ones who read it all, appreciated two things. One, the laying out as clearly as possible how race and theology are woven together, in ways that I think many have been trying to say, but had not been able to show its architecture. Okay, this is where it comes from.
And I think there was also deep appreciation of the complexities of trying to establish a Christian vision of existence and of life that is more powerful than a racial vision of life. And so there was great appreciation for me showing what’s at stake in trying to actually be a Christian at this moment.
Todd Ream: In what ways then did white readers properly appreciate your book and what you tried to do?
Willie Jennings: The most important takeaway that many white readers came to as, as one dear person said to me, I finally understand what whiteness is. I had no, I had no idea what it was, but when I read your book, I finally understand that being white is not biology. I did not know. People, you know, folks have said to me, someone had told me it was a social construct, but I didn’t know what they meant by that until I read your book.
And so, um, that, but I think what was also the case is, for so many white readers, to see in which, see the ways in which, the supersessionist logic that was born of Christianity, to see how it actually laid the groundwork for a destructive theological vision. And so, there was great appreciation for that.
Todd Ream: If I may then, ask sort of the reverse question here, then. In what ways, if any, did readers of color improperly appreciate your book?
Willie Jennings: Probably the one place where, um, some people have struggled with it is the, um, the way in which I showed that racial existence has not been good for anyone. Not, not only not good for people who identify as white, but not good for people who identify as black. Not good for people who identify along the entire spectrum of racial existence.
That it’s, um, though we are in a sense still working with, you know, these ideas, I was, I always say these junkyard ideas, what many people struggle with is how to think beyond. And it’s not so much thinking beyond race. It’s recognizing that these categories themselves in the way they want to shape our imagination moving forward have to be subverted.
And so for, for many people, but this was also true for, for my white readers, white readers as well, that how to imagine life together in ways that create the ground for a new self-definition has been a real struggle, real struggle.
Todd Ream: That was gonna be my next question, was the other side of that. And that, you know, in what ways did white readers improperly, uh, understand your book? But-
Willie Jennings: Well, you know, it gets back to the thing I mentioned a moment ago that while some said thank you for the, thank you, I never understood what whiteness is, others have said, I still don’t know what whiteness is.
One of the most difficult things that, um, the Christian Imagination put on the table was to show to my white readers that there’s a difference between, um, this phenomenon of whiteness and what it means to identify as a white person. And that difference has to do with a way of being in the world that forms something called whiteness, that people of European descent worked themselves up into, that they aspired to it and then formed their families and legacies and trajectories into it.
And so for some people, because we live on the other side for so many people of that immigrant transformation, where people uh, accomplished what their, what, what their foreparents wanted, that is, as some literally said, there will be a day in which my great grandchildren will not know anything about the old world, not know the old world language. They will simply be American. They will simply be French. They will simply be, uh, uh, of European descent. They will simply be seen as, um, of the classes that are to be honored, that day has come.
And so for many people to understand that difference between whiteness as an achievement and a historical achievement and who they are as they identify as white people, that is still a struggle for many people.
Now, the way I’ve tried to help people help since I wrote, um, the Christian Imagination, is I’ve invited them to talk to their non-white friends, and, and they will. It’s help them explain it. Uh, it’ll take only five minutes for someone of Asian descent to explain to someone who identifies as white, the difference between being who they are as a Filipino or Vietmanese and this thing called Asian. And having to deal with all the stereotypes and images of this thing called Asian, when this is who they actually are. And that, it’s that very process that for some of my white readers, they’ve been struggling, continue to struggle to understand.
Todd Ream: Thank you, thank you. When it comes to race relations then in and beyond the Church, one assessment of the last 10 to 15 years, is they’re ones forged by fear. What is your view of such an assessment in the moment in which we live right now?
Willie Jennings: Yeah, I wouldn’t say fear.
Todd Ream: Okay.
Willie Jennings: I would say it’s formed by a failure of imagination, and that failure of imagination has to do with how we understand our being in the world and the practices that constantly reaffirm who we are in this world. And what has failed, especially for the Christian, um, are those practices that establish for us the ongoing unfolding of who we are in God and with one another.
That has been what’s driving so much of our problem. We, we don’t understand that we are in a project of becoming with God. And that’s, that’s a failure of imagination. When people show up at church, and they don’t understand that you are, you are becoming who you should be in God. And that becoming isn’t just, isn’t just in your head, isn’t just ephemeral, that becoming has to do with how you understand yourself, who you live with, how you live your life, how you connect, how you deepen your connections with people different from yourself. There are so many Christians who have never gotten a memo- excuse me. Never gotten a memo on that becoming. And so that’s the failure. It’s a failure in the way we understand the story we’re inside of.
To be inside God’s story, to be inside God’s story is to be inside God’s desire to unfold the divine life in us, and that unfolding is with others. And that, until we face the fact, specifically for Christians, that we have denied the, as I like to say, the not yet appearing that’s there in, in 1 John, who we shall be has not yet appeared, but when He appears, we shall be like Him. That’s on the way. We are in the not yet appearing.
And so that, that reality of an unfolding, a becoming is what should be narrating our day-to-day existence. And because that is not, we’re caught not seeing where the journey is taking us and what not seeing what God is calling us.
Todd Ream: What practices does the Church, then, possess to contend with that failure of imagination or to even expose the roots of it?
Willie Jennings: We have to become much, much better storytellers. To be a Christian is to be a storyteller. It’s the story you tell about your life in God. It’s the story you tell with others about our life in God, and then it’s the way you embody and perform that story daily. And we as Christians, we have done a terrible job of being good storytellers.
You know, as I like to say, storytellers are the most powerful people in the world. I’ll give you all the guns in the, in the world, and if you gimme the power of story, I’ll win every time. But we have walked away from our calling to be storytellers. And that storytelling has to do with remembering, as Ephesians tells us to do, remember. But it also has to do with testimony, and articulating what it means to be, to have our life in God.
And so many of us have got to be schooled again in the practice, the practices of storytelling. Remembering, testimony, articulation of my life in God, the recalibrating of how I understand my struggles as struggles within God. The recalibrating of how I understand what it means to be a disciple who is listening to the Spirit of God. All of this has to be re-initialized in churches so that the preaching and the teaching and the worship and the service that happens outside are all story form, story shape, and story revitalized constantly.
And for so many churches, we have failed at that. We allow every other story to be decisive, especially in this country. We imagine that the most dominant story in this country is to be an American. That’s, that’s a small story in relationship to the story we’re inside of. And as you and I know, for so many Christians, they never got the memo that the American story is a small story. It’s not the big story. Democracy is a lovely story, but it’s not the big story.
And for so many, they have no idea that there’s a bigger story that they’re inside of than those stories. And so the question we have to ask ourselves is, what is amiss in us? That the story of God’s ongoing unfolding of the divine life is not palpable enough to reframe what it means to be inside this country and its, and its project, what it means to be inside any kind of corporate reality, what it means to be inside the current struggles, because that story has not been placed in us, embedded in us, embodied in us.
It continues to be sidelined. From my mind, that’s what drives forward the racial condition of the Western world. The racial condition is a story itself, as I said earlier, stolen from, stolen from Christianity, many of its elements. And until we take back what does not belong to it, we will continue to make it the most dominant story.
Todd Ream: Thank you. In your recent book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, a work that recently also won the 2023 Lily Fellows Program Book Award, you address the, uh, opportunities, but also the challenges of this kind of imagination as it relates to theological education.
In what ways, if any, do you think those possibilities are comparable to the possibilities that define the Church-related university?
Willie Jennings: I lodge one of the great problems of Western education, both at the feet of the Church and the academy. And it ties in with what we’ve just been talking about in terms of the story. What’s inside of the story? What’s inside of the story is a vision of formation, of what we’re being formed toward.
The problem we face in the Western world, in terms of education, is that there is one overarching dominant image that has shaped the trajectory, the formation trajectory, of Western education. And that’s to shape all of us, whether we’re male or female, whether we are rich or poor, no matter what our nationality, no matter what our gender, no matter what our sexuality, no matter what we are.
It has taken all of us and aimed us toward becoming this one kind of person. And that is the persona of a white self-sufficient man who, as I say, exercises three dismal virtues: possession, mastery, and control. And so much of Western education, both tied to the Church, tied to the university, tied to all, um, the academy, has been to shape us into him. And that image continues to work so much horror in this world.
If I had time, I would love to tell you about the many people who have read After Whiteness and given me testimony after testimony of the horror of their education. And as I like to say, I’ve heard from people from everywhere except mainland China and Hong Kong, who have stories about being forced to become or aim their life toward that man.
And so the alternative vision that I lay out in After Whiteness that I think is so important for the Church and for the academy is Jesus and the crowd. That image. I want, I want all of us to meditate on that image. Jesus gathers a crowd. And this for me is so crucial because the crowd is not Christian. The crowd are people, many of whom hate each other, many of whom without Jesus would be killing each other, but they are gathered because they want something from this Jesus. They want to hear something or get something from it, or they’ve heard about Him, a curiosity or a desperation, but they are there because of Jesus.
And that reality of gathering a crowd, I want us to put that at the very center of our pedagogical imagination, at the very center of our educational trajectory, to cultivate people, no matter what they are hoping to do with their career, with their life, what they do are gather people together who would never want to come together except because of the way you do your work.
I was recently talking to a group of undergraduates at a wonderful school here in Connecticut and I was saying to the students that, you know, your parents sent you here because they want you to have wonderful careers, and I want that too for you but more than a great career, I want you to be people who through your careers create great community.
And that’s, that’s crucial for us. And that joins both Church and academy at the site of where the beginning and end of Jesus’s ministry is, what is that? Jesus gathers the multitudes. And if we’re lucky, if we’re blessed, what, what comes out of that gathering of the multitude are those who will linger with Jesus and form something we call congregation.
Todd Ream: As we take this image, you know, that you put before us as a sort of properly ordered understanding of the Christian academic vocation, what practices, when we think about, you know, faculty formation, what practices should we offer our colleagues and should draw us together as we prepare them to engage this crowd?
Willie Jennings: I think the first thing we should be offering is that they ought to see in us exquisite listeners, people who have the ability to listen carefully. And as I like to say, we should focus in on the most important characteristic that a scholar cultivates in themselves and in others. And what is that? Attention.
We show people who pay exquisite attention, to the details, but also to the people in front of us, that we see them. We see them as we’re listening to them. So we show, we show that we are people who listen and that listening, um, works itself out into a beautiful ability to pay close attention.
Secondly, what we show ourselves to be are learners. I’d like to say this is one of the things about Western education and the Western intellectual that we have not gotten our mind around. This is part of the colonial wound.
You see, the colonialists, the missionaries and those who followed who weren’t missionaries, when they came into the New World, they saw themselves first and foremost, and in fact, exclusively, as teachers, not learners, and so they imagine that what it means to give witness to God is to always be teaching and never learning, which is a profound reversal of what we learn from the incarnation.
The baby Jesus did not show up teaching. He learned, and even as One who learned, He was yet God. And that, for us, is a crucial reality in which to think our own life. That there is a witness, a deep and profound and beautiful witness of the God of Israel found in Jesus by simply shutting our mouths and learning and showing ourselves to be people, learning. And that’s, you know, that’s the second thing that’s so crucial for us. Listening, then learning.
Then the third thing, and I talk about this in the After Whiteness book, is showing ourselves to be beautiful fragment workers, working with the fragments. And I, and I note three kinds of fragments that we ought to show ourselves working with.
First is the fragments of the knowledge that we’re, that our disciplines are presenting to us. Shunning the idea that we’re going to show that we have mastery of it all, but that we are simply working with pieces, trying to weave with other people, a way of being in that discipline and with those questions, that invite a shared project of weaving.
But then we take that fragment of knowledge and we join it to the fragmentation that so many peoples have experienced due to the history of colonialism and racism and sexism, that the the shattering of lives and the little pieces that people are trying to hold together and sew together, and to take those two realities of fragment and with students and with others start to weave them together to announce a shared project of learning.
And we do all that resisting the thing that we are all faced with in education. And that is that it’s utter and complete commodification to turn people’s lives and their stories and their struggles and their, and their histories into little bite-sized pieces of information that can be bought and sold.
And as I say, we who are in the academy, we are always in danger of turning people’s lives and what we learn about their lives into commodities. And we are in danger of becoming merchants. And so we resist that one while we do our best to show ourselves to be beautiful quilters, weavers of the fragment.
Todd Ream: It’s a wonderful way to end our time together today. Thank you, Willie. Our guest has been Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.
Willie Jennings: Oh, so glad to be with you.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.