“A Future So Bright We Can’t Fully See It Yet”

By Laura Salah Nasrallah

The future of theological education is bright. It may not feel bright: mainline Protestant churches in the United States are declining in size; stand-alone Christian seminaries in the United States are struggling with enrollments and finances. But religious practices, whether violent or beautiful, persist, offering themselves up for study. And, in the university, we find a theological turn in the humanities, as well as a larger trend to recognize (at least sometimes) the value of activist-inclusive scholarship and the persistent student request—at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level—for the investigation and disclosure of normative and ethical and even theological study. 

Most theological schools in the U.S. emerge from Christian traditions. It might be the most Christian of practices to give hospitality, to decenter Christianity: not to lose it, but to humbly place it alongside other religions and ritual practices.

So what? Why does this matter and to whom? For whom do we do our intellectual work? In my experience, these questions are humming more loudly and more explicitly through our classrooms and our research and writing. And if Karen Barad, feminist physicist, can talk about the theological implications of quantum field theory in their Terry Lectures at Yale—and they did—then my hopes for the relevance and urgency of theological education are well grounded.

Young Flashes of Light

What we need is a shift in theological education. Curricula need not only to be balanced by faculty wisdom about the past goods and future promise of the fields, but also to be rethought in light of the energies and concerns our students bring. We would learn more, and newly, and more justly, if we shifted our ways of thinking away from the aesthetics and inheritances of whiteness, as YDS faculty colleague Willie Jennings explains. Even as we teach our students, we also learn from them. We respect and center these students and their concerns for two reasons. First, because our students are our colleagues of the future: despite the grind of end-of-semester paper writing, there are flashes of brilliance; in the midst of the drone of grading, it is a deep and humbling joy to nurture voices far greater than the professor’s. Our student-colleagues bring vision, thoughts, and actions that push toward future horizons, a flash of light around the corner. Second, and related, we respect these student concerns because they give us an expanded vision: our student body of today does not look like our student body of yesterday. There is greater racial diversity, a greater range of expressions of gendered identities, a broader theological range, students of various religious inclinations. This greater diversity of voices on campus brings new epistemological insights, new embodied knowledge, new interests and questions. 

Theological schools always have the opportunity to tilt towards quasi-utopian potential. Even as the contemporary university begins to realize that activism and scholarship are not always opposed, and that students long to have discussions about how their areas of study are also locations for meaning making, it still disrespects theological schools, which often embody that kind of work. We are misunderstood as places of pious prayer only, locations of conversion, or as vestigial organs sure to fade out as modernist rationalist thought makes religions—useless and dangerous like an appendix—extinct. Theological institutions are, after all, an unusual blend of standard academic research, spiritual practices, normative practices, and professionalization for a range of students who become activists, professors, writers, religious leaders. 

Alternative Social Worlds

Sites of theological education should stop being ashamed that we do not nestle comfortably within the larger university; we should lean into our ad hoc and multiple purposes. Our odd institutional sitings, often literally at the edge of campuses, give us space to think toward “otherwise possibilities,” to borrow Ashon Crawley’s phrase, or to nurture a “radical hope” that “offers the conditions that give rise to alternative social worlds out of which beloved communities can emerge and flourish,” to borrow from Keri Day ’04 M.A.R.[1] We could become a place of the “undercommons,” to take a term from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney: a place where the work gets done and where revolutionary thought happens.

But to do this we have to think historically and to reckon with our histories: histories holy and luminous, revealing otherwise possibilities, but also history the hateful. In what I have expressed so far, my indebtedness to critical Black theorists of our time and place is evident. Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy recounts universities’ connections with the slave trade and enslavers; Yale among other institutions has been investigating its own histories of complicity in the idea of humans as property. Theological schools need to study and to counter our universities’ origins and our own origins in racial capitalism and colonialism.

Repentance and Joy

The future of theological education is to be a vanguard of imagining for the academy and for religious institutions. But first, theological education needs to work toward repentance and reparation, as well as to routing Christian anti-Semitism, sober tasks that balance with the joy of studying and celebrating our religious traditions. We can do this work of repentance and reparation on every level within our teaching. Every syllabus is a self-confessed curation, open to revision and debate. Every conversation is a practice toward justice, a moment to reconsider: Who is speaking? What spiritual and intellectual practice of listening is going on? Every classroom is a laboratory for new topics in religion and new ways of knowing.

Concretely, this might mean:

• building diversity in representation and epistemology as we seek new knowledge and different ways of knowing. This affects our admissions, our faculty hires, our staff structures. This might include actions, such as recognition that HBCUs do not have Ph.D. programs in religious studies and thus active partnering with HBCUs, if they are willing, to create joint programming.

• generating deeper funding reserves to finance students, especially those who have had unequal access to resources because of forced migration or unequal distribution of wealth, including inherited wealth, in a country and a world in which humans have been considered property.

• welcoming international students more actively and humbly, in decolonial frameworks, aware that our knowledge and community are incomplete without these students.

• being responsible to our particular place. Faculty, staff, and students come from diverse places and kinships, often far from the institutions of theological education in which they participate. But we are still accountable to the communities that now give us hospitality, responsible to learn about their histories and from them. How does YDS, for example, answer to New Haven, with its strong Black and Latinx populations, its economic inequalities, its history of the Black Panthers, its Native communities?

To reach toward a strong future for theological education, we should value our institutions’ storied histories less, and vision their hopeful futures more. Or let me make it more personal: from my privileged position as faculty in a privileged institution, I don’t want to participate in the “crime of non-assistance,” to borrow from Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.[2] I’m in the academy because I love learning: I love to learn about the evolution of the university, horrible as many of its stories are, because it is so deeply my home, and I love to study the forms of ancient Christianities within the contexts of Roman imperial power. I can’t love this learning and take in this knowledge without pushing myself in my syllabi, my teaching, and my research to analyze and, I hope, to ameliorate structural injustices and operations of power.

We can work and hope hard for institutions of theological education that look different in 10 to 20 years: a future so bright we can’t fully see it yet. Most theological schools in the United States emerge from Christian traditions. It might be the most Christian of practices to give hospitality, to decenter Christianity: not to lose it, but to humbly place it alongside other religions and ritual practices; not to upend our institutions of theological education, but to guide and trust their radical evolutions, to see what we might become. 

Laura Salah Nasrallah is Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at YDS, with a joint appointment in the Yale Department of Religious Studies. Her research and teaching bring together New Testament and early Christian literature with the archaeological remains of the Mediterranean world, and often engage issues of colonialism, gender, race, status, and power. She is the author of Archaeology and the Letters of Paul (Oxford, 2019) and other books.

[1] Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 161.

[2] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake (Duke, 2016), p. 59.