Expanding the Theological Project

An Interview with Willie Jennings

In his work, Willie James Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at YDS, addresses interlocking issues of racist violence, the ideology of whiteness, and environmental crisis. Western Christians, he argues, need a bigger version of God’s dream for the world.[1] His ideas flow from the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead: God’s desire for us is an “uncontrollable reconciliation.” “This, of course, is a dream, but it is God’s dream,” he has written. Jennings is the author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale, 2010), Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Westminster John Knox, 2017), and After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020), and is at work on a book that recasts the Christian doctrine of creation. This is an edited version of a conversation with Reflections in summer 2022. 

Reflections: YDS has historically had a strong commitment to church life, to preparing students for congregational leadership. Is the nature of that commitment changing?

Willie Jennings: YDS has always called on the heart of the Christian tradition to do its work—that’s the hallmark of the school, our identity with the Christian project, with Christian thinking in the faculty. We take the Bible seriously, take the arts and practices of church life seriously. The question is how do we articulate that church commitment today. We’ve inherited the old legacy of Yale: to prepare people who will provide leadership to the significant sites within American Christianity. Which is great. But in order to sustain our mission we need to articulate to ourselves the nature of the project today. Because that project now is not going to be white upper middle-class mainline churches primarily. It certainly won’t exclude that, but the next generation must take with absolute seriousness the voices of non-white practitioners who are thinking about religion, including those who are marginalized in terms of their gender, sexuality, or designation of race or ethnicity.

We’ve always had two fundamentally different Christianities in this country. We’ve had the Christianity of the master class, the slave-owning class, and we’ve had the Christianity of the marginalized. The struggle is to convince people of a faith that is setting captives free. But it’s always lived next door to a faith that is confining, controlling, a servant of the nation-state.

We’ll continue a legacy of training people for inhabiting elite places, but we will expand to position ourselves to be in conversation with those where Christianity is alive, to understand their needs for leadership, for training, for engaging questions about what it means to be Christian. We are abandoning the idea that Yale or any other institution can survive if it just angles toward high-steeple pulpits, because those are shrinking rapidly—that can’t be a winning strategy for a viable future. The solution is to be where the spirit of God is working, and partner with those for whom the Christian faith is a vibrant option.

So this is what leadership will look like: to be in conversation with those who are trying to live the faith, and ask the question, “How might we help?” That’s where the future is, us coming alongside people who are living Christianity. That’s an anti-colonial model. It’s a little old fashioned and colonialist to talk as if Christianity depends on the idea of a white self-sufficient deep-voiced upper-middle class man stepping into the pulpit to lead the world back to the church.

Another challenge in front of us in our work is to engage in a serious critique of the Eurocentrism that still permeates programs of doctoral formation. At this point, that Eurocentrism is almost indefensible. Unfortunately, we still are deeply inside an unrepentant Eurocentricism when it comes to forming intellectuals, as if somehow the most penetrating thought that the planet has ever seen rose out of and continues to arise out of Europe.

Reflections: How does theology contribute to the aims of a contemporary university?

Jennings: Theology needs to keep clarifying its identity as a site of moral formation and critical thinking in a university, clarifying why it should be a part of a university as the university understands its own educational project.

It’s a two-fold challenge: the modern university is struggling to articulate across its entire spectrum of constituents what its project is. To say things like, “We are about the creation of new forms of knowledge” is too facile. That’s a description of a research lab, not a university. The struggle is to articulate a broad-based consensus-reaching vision of what the university is supposed to do in order to form people into good citizens, who know how to pay attention to the world and in the world, citizens not just of a nation but of the planet, forming people who have an eye toward the common good. Theology has an important role in establishing that project of formation, giving moral and intellectual contours to it. We should be in the conversations that help create those contours.

Every site in Yale is a site of formation whether people call it that or not—in the College, the professional schools, doctoral programs, certificate programs. We’re all working inside formation projects. A lot of people don’t want to use that word formation—they don’t want to use the f-word! The challenge is to become clear about it, explicit about it and not be sneaky about it, even to themselves.

Theology (understood here as the entire project of divinity education) has a crucial part to play in the university, but theology must be careful not to become the servant of the king—that is to say, the servant to the master class and the powerful. Our goal must never be to function like court chaplains to the powerful, offering them a complacent religious vision that affirms the current order of the world and its prevailing economic, social, and political practices. Theology loses its identity when it forgets its own revolutionary nature—that we are inside the overturning of the existing order. That’s what Christian theology at its best has always been about, the overturning of the existing order. Anyone involved in divinity education really can’t be trusted, because at the end of the day we are part of the overturning. We want those who are poor and voiceless to have voice, the marginalized and oppressed to have their conditions addressed, those who suffer injustice to be respected and restored. As the Magnificat of Mary says, we want to pull down the powerful in their conceits. All of this is fundamental to theological education. The overturning, however, is not just to destroy things but also rebuild inside the overturning. We aim in our work to build up—people, places, projects, plans big and small—inside the thriving life God intends for the creation. So, we are dreamers with both (sledge)hammers and nails. Theology inside the university is in danger of losing its identity if we forget this and if our work is aimed merely at being intellectually acceptable.

YDS has always been a respected partner in the University. On the one hand, we rejoice in that fact. On the other hand, we need to constantly ask what are the conditions for that respectability? If the conditions of respectability are not clearly understood by the faculty, then the danger is we might work at cross-purposes in trying to sustain that respectability at all costs. Respectability is a great thing. But we don’t want our respectability to be at the cost of our revolutionary birthright.

Reflections: Can the word Christian be rescued from its current politicized public identity?

Jennings: The challenge is we’ve always had two fundamentally different Christianities in this country. We’ve had the Christianity of the master class, the slave-owning class, and we’ve had the Christianity of the marginalized. We’re seeing that right now—a Christianity that believes it must defend a certain way of life that they believe is under threat, and they are willing to do things that are fundamentally insane in relation to their faith. The struggle is to convince people there is another Christianity, which has always been there, a faith that is liberating, emancipatory, and setting captives free. But it’s always lived next door to a faith that is confining, controlling, a servant of the nation-state.

There are competing visions of what kind of control of my life is supposed to come with being a Christian. In Western history, the faith was formed with a mistaken, highly refined vision of Christianity that promised a certain level of control—not control over the unforeseen in life (natural disasters or disease) but control over the conditions of identity, and control over the ways I choose to interact with people who aren’t like me. Let’s call that Western vision of control a colonial vision. This was faith presented inside the colonial operation—faith was stuffed inside it—and a person became a Christian inside that merger. So, the prayers and hymns and worship acted as sites for the control of indigenous bodies and the control (the taking) of Indigenous lands. Colonialists took the land and built the church and gave God thanks for the land. At no time did the vast majority of Christians see this as in any way incongruent.

That is what is driving the strange fever afflicting so many Christians in the Western world and especially this country—a vision of control of a world that aligns bodies and land inside a guiding whiteness. And without that guiding whiteness the world feels as if it is on the verge of a menacing chaos that would destroy families and societies. Control is not at all what their Christianity should have promised them. Christianity is diametrically opposed to that kind of control, the urge to control the shape and contours of life, all the way down to the kinds of relationships and communities we build. 

How do you break the fever of white Christianity? The doctors have not come out of huddle yet. There’s a significant number of Christians in the Western world who never in their life had to think about whiteness and its connection to their Christianity. And so we are in the midst of two profound struggles 1) to convince them that there’s some thinking ahead of them about whiteness that they are resisting doing and 2) there’s a necessary process of separating Christianity from whiteness that they must begin now. For so many Christians in the West, what I’ve just said is a new memo. They hear this as a threat, as if I’m trying to destroy their life when all I’m trying to do is bring them closer to the important work their non-white siblings in Christ have been doing all this time. That’s the struggle we’re facing. The doctors are huddling because the question is not whether they have a good treatment plan—the question is whether the patient will reject the treatment plan, and how might they get the patient’s body to accept it?

But ironically this does bring us back to the idea of control. The colonial vision of control stands alongside another vision of control that sought to turn people away from violence, from self-hatred, from abuse of the others or the planet. This second vision of control aimed self-discipline toward the common good and articulated freedom as freedom for others, not a freedom conditioned on the oppression and exploitation of others. We need to inhabit this second vision of control more than ever right now. 

Reflections: Is it inevitable that “God” becomes a corrupted political slogan in a pluralistic society?

Jennings: God has always been a slogan in political life. That doesn’t mean a lot of people don’t take God seriously, but the function of God as a slogan has been to underwrite our political activities. The name “G-d” is called on to position a nation-state or political action in alignment with the will of God and/or the hope of blessing from the Almighty for our actions. It is always interesting to see how many political rallies always begin with a word of prayer or blessing from some religious leader and/or an endorsement from them as well. Many people are losing patience with this kind of invocation and involvement, seeing it as merely an unnecessary façade. 

Given this complicated history of God-speech in relation political speech, it is understandable that some would want to separate them. But I don’t believe in a strictly secular space especially in relation to how we present our desires for the common good, our hopes for the eradication of injustice, and our demands for the redressing of racial harm and ongoing colonial practice. If we are serious about speaking these desires and announcing our hopes, then we will inevitably speak of God, seeking to discern what God wills for the thriving of all creatures. 

The problem is not political speech tinged with God-talk. The problem is God-talk that has lost sight of its own political implications—that is, God-talk that has forgotten the desire of a God who has redeemed the creation and longs for us to take seriously the divine desire for a thriving creation where creatures are cared for by other creatures and injustice is no more. The problem is that the God-talk as deployed by political operatives lacks the bite and sting and cut that should come with its use so that to say the word “God” demands you care for the poor, to invoke divine blessings demands you examine your own economic practices and policies, and to say you are on God’s side means that you stand with those marginalized because of their racial and gender identity, or who they love, or their disability, or their lack of usefulness to a political party. 

The Rev. William Barber, for example, draws on this kind of theological language in public life, articulating that prophetic tradition of what God demands in the way we treat the poor and oppressed, language that aims to overturn hegemony—there’s a long and beautiful tradition in America where public speech draws on the right kind of God-talk, the dangerous and revolutionary kind. 

[1] Ray Waddle, “This Grand Errand”: A Bicentennial History of Yale Divinity School (YDS, 2022), p. 218. See Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020).