Kin-Dom Come: My Living Creator

By Jamal Davis Neal, Jr., ’22 M.S.W., ’24 M.Div.

My faculty advisor Prof. Willie James Jennings, dedicated his most recent book to: 

“those who are in search 
of a place to fill out that 
Holy dream of a new world 
down to the details of a life.” [1]

It is within this dreaming, this yearning for formation, that I came to Divinity School in the middle of a global pandemic—that I answered the call my God sent through Yale on March 15, 2020. I hope that, in this reflection, I am able to illuminate a vision of a God worth believing in. May it be so.

To transcend our fearsomely death-haunted culture, we must collectively heal and liberate our fellow beings—and continue recognizing the Divine that dwells within us all. 

An Evolving Image of God

While studying at Yale Divinity School, I have been consistently challenged and nurtured by a community of loved ones—faculty, staff, and members of the student body. Many have joined me in dreaming of a better future, one where we co-create paths of collective healing and liberation. They have kept me grounded, helping me love every facet of what I’m learning and experiencing. 

My years here have also taught me to reckon with my past—to think critically about different points of my experience and to integrate them into my continual becoming. 

In this past, I inherited a particular image of a God. 

This God loved the good parts of me. He delighted in every living being and because of His sacrifices, I was able to reap the benefits of this delight. Because of my belief in Him, there was a seat ready for me in heaven. 

However, this God didn’t care too much for my mounting questions[2]—often rebuking them as questioning His divine plan. In high school, this God left me confused as to the salvation of my unbelieving friends who practiced goodness and compassion. Surely, there was no eternal hell for those who simply had not inherited my religious belief? That didn’t make sense to me. 

My idea of God grew to accommodate this difference. I now believed in a universal reconciling God—one who saved out of pure compassion and love for creatures. This God welcomed my questions openly, and critiques of Him were easy to ignore.[3] Yet this was limiting too. I didn’t want to lose the community of beloveds who grew around this God, including my family, but did this God accept the fact that I was Queer? How was I sure that my method of meaning-making was even right, or true? 

A Weaponized Hermeneutic

In college, as I was confronted with the realities of my being—a Queer, Black, fat person—and the hostilities that I and others like me have faced, this God was obliterated.[4] How did this omnipotent God allow himself to be weaponized by other believers throughout history? My ancestors were systematically enslaved, separated, forcibly converted, and subjected to violence in His name. How could I accept this tainted inheritance? Did this God even love the person He created? If He did, why did he make me Queer? Why would He allow me to be subject to even more hate, some from my own family, in His name

In retrospect, I understand the God that I inherited and co-created was one deeply enmeshed with the concept Prof. Jennings identifies as “white self-sufficient masculinity;” an image of a God warped by the human sins of possession, control, and mastery.[5]

This was a God that wanted to possess and coerce me into belonging to Him only, forcing me to abandon my material desires, including love, for some empirical, authoritarian version of Him

This was a God that controlled death and inflicted it according to His capricious will, on whomever He wished. He was the one that robbed me of my father too soon. His punishments were swift and calculating—if they felt unjust, I needed to adjust my understanding of justice. 

This was a God that I could only get close to through mastery of a very specific interpretation of His sacred text. Surely, I was told, if I had a proper biblical hermeneutic, I could become truly aware of my sins. The decision to become increasingly beloved of God was within my power if only I yielded to the “correct” hermeneutic.

Epiphany on the Dance Floor

These images of the Divine were death-dealing. They contradicted what I was taught about love when I was very young. They were at odds with what I was starting to know and believe about myself, about the people around me, and about our world. 

For my soul to remain unbroken, I had to build a new foundation.[6] In a decades-long journey of finding home within myself, of searching for healing, and of truly loving and respecting my being, I found my living, still-speaking God. I learned of the Divine that dwelled within me. I learned that the deep compassion I had for others arose from my sense that the Divine resided within them too. I realized it no longer matters how people articulate the Divine or what particular tradition they follow, as long as these images of the Divine are life-giving and life-sustaining; as long as the Divine rejects dehumanization.[7]

Embracing the Kin-dom

This made me understand that God’s will can be done through creaturely interventions—through us. For me, there was no longer a great arbiter in the skies, waiting for people to make a mistake, ready to inflict them with death and misery. This allowed me to release myself to the primordial chaos of the universe, to understanding that it is within our agency to make meaning out of it. 

I found a living Creator that greatly exceeds the cages of possession, control, and mastery. Instead, this Creator lives through inspiration, transcendence, and compassion.

This is a God that inspires me, continuously breathing the Divine life-giving breath into my being and entrusting the Divine within me to inspire others. This is a God of connection, one who yearns for communion with all of creation. There is no need for God to possess because everyone inherently belongs. 

This is a God that transcends the grave and our death-dealing systems. Though we are mortals caught in temporality, there is no need for us to control, conquer, fear, or eradicate death because this is a God of abundant life. In order for us to transcend our fearsomely death-haunted culture, to bring about God’s kin-dom on Earth as it is in heaven, we must collectively heal and liberate our fellow beings—and continue recognizing the Divine that dwells within us all. 

This is a God that has unconditional love and compassion for all of Creation. For God made everything and declared all of creation good. There is no mastery to be accomplished, nothing we can do, to become more than the ever-encompassed beloved creatures that we are. 

This is the God that I know is worth believing in. This is the God that I continue to find and continue to love throughout my life journey. May I learn to see the Divine in everyone and strive to build an ultimate kin-dom of beloveds, all inherently belonging to one another and worthy of the ever-encompassing compassion of my Living Creator.[8] May I inspire others to do the same. 

Jamal Davis Neal, Jr. ’22 M.S.W., ’24 M.Div. is a joint degree candidate, having graduated with a Master of Social Work from the University of Connecticut last summer. In the coming year, they will serve as YDS Student Government President. You can find more of their writing here.

[1] Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020), p. v. 

[2] Theologian James Fowler would describe this as the “Mythic-Literal” Stage 2 phase of my faith development, one marked by “a sense of reciprocity in the workings of the universe.” See Thomas Armstrong, “The Stages of Faith According to James W. Fowler,” American Institute for Learning and Human Development, June 12, 2020.

[3] Stage 3: “Synthetic-Conventional” Faith, marked by ignoring conflicts “because they represent too much of a threat to one’s faith-based identity” (Armstrong, “Stages of Faith”).

[4] Stage 4: “Individuate-Reflective” Faith, characterized by angst and struggle (Armstrong, “Stages of Faith”).

[5] Jennings, After Whiteness, p. 6.

[6] After listening for months to the song “Break My Soul” by Beyoncé, it was on the dance floor recently that I truly heard and connected with its lyrical content. This song, from Renaissance (2022), describes my release into the chaos of the universe and my subsequent embrace of a “new salvation.” 

[7] Stage 5: “Conjunctive” Faith, characterized by a “multi-dimensional perspective that acknowledges ‘truth’ as something that cannot be articulated through any particular statement of faith” (Armstrong, “Stages of Faith”).

[8] Stage 6: A “Universalizing” Faith, characterized by being seen as an exemplar of one’s faith (Armstrong, “Stages of Faith”).