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After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging

Willie James Jennings
Published by Eerdmans in 2020

Willie Jennings, now a professor at Yale Divinity School, was an academic dean at Duke Divinity School for ten years, has been teaching divinity students for three decades and has served as a consultant for a number of institutions. He is well-qualified, then, to reflect on contemporary theological education, which, in many quarters, is undergoing significant challenges. He wants his readers to recognize that the real crisis in theological education is not shrinking enrollments or the ongoing shifts in delivery, but a choice between two kinds of formation. 

The first kind of formation nurtures institutions and practices which shape students in the “image . . . of a white self-sufficient man, his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, mastery” (6). The second kind of formation is “aimed at emancipation and at weaponizing learning” that “cultivates people into advocates for justice and discerning citizen subjects able to spy out the signs of oppression” (107-108). While Jennings is deeply sympathetic with the second kind of formation, he notes, as many others have warned, that it is also “hides as it assimilates” because it is constantly defined by a struggle against whiteness. It simply can be too dependent on whiteness for what it is. These two types of theological formation are two sides of the same “duplex” (107), either resisting each other or operating in parallel. Either way, they do not lead “a life together” (108). 

Jennings wants his readers to imagine new formative paths that recognize our colonial habits while leaning into the “overturning” (123) found in Jesus. He describes where he’d like theological education to go in these terms: “Our educational settings need to be aimed at forming erotic souls that are being cultivated in an art that joins to the bone and that announces a contrast life aimed at communion. By communion, I mean the deepest sense of God-drenched life attuned to life together, not with people in general but with the people that comprise the place of one’s concrete living and the places (the landscapes, the animals, and the built environments) that constitute the actual condition of one’s life” (13-14). In short, he wants theological education that forms human being in their belonging to God and all creatures who are close enough to embrace. That In order to elicit the desire for this in his readers, Jennings offers a book that is part cultural commentary, part manifesto, part memoir, part poetry, part short fiction, part prophecy.

There is no formula here for getting to this dream, this vision. Even more, other than a couple of paragraphs at the end of the book about an experience of a four-day mountain retreat with Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish colleagues, there is really not much in the way of a model. According to Jennings, “Education formed in this dream is yet to emerge” (152).

So, how does this book help the reader dream? Jennings fills the book with vignettes of his interactions with students, colleagues, supervisors, and friends who inhabit higher education with him. These stories arise from his experiences, but they are meant to be something like historical fiction. After I read the book, I realized that, other than that mountain retreat, every story ended in notes of frustration, disappointment, and longing. All the characters were caught within or between the two sides of the house, often despite their best intentions. That’s where Jennings wants his readers to be, yet longing with him for something else. That’s the work it did on me.

It worked on me, I suspect, because I’m largely convinced by what Jennings has been teaching so many of us over the last decade. I do not think that this book would move the needle with folks who are not already sympathetic with Jennings’ writing and speaking over the last ten years or so. Readers new to Jennings perspective might be well-served to explore his earlier work first. If anyone wants something more like that – something that would introduce them to Jennings’ picture of where we are, and where he’d have followers of Jesus end up at our cultural moment – they would best begin with his book The Christian Imagination or his essay “Can White People Be Saved?” in a volume with the same title (also available as a lecture on Youtube). If it works on you, just like After Whiteness, you’ll want more.

At the same time, I do not think that Jennings is right to say that the kind of educational formation he seeks is not emerging. A good example is NAITTS, an international theological learning community which, as noted on their website, is “dedicated to encouraging the Indigenous community to develop and articulate Indigenous perspectives on theology and practice.” From my limited experience of NAITTS over the last few years, this is the kind of formation that Jennings longs for. 

Meetings involve protocols for encounter. Christian worship is contexualized within Indigenous practices that respect land, place and culture. Presentations at meetings will address childbirth as ceremony, offer technical readings of Genesis 1, or will take as much time as is needed to honor the life of a deceased contributor to the group (think hours, not minutes). “Talking Circles” allow participants to dialogue with one another on multiple levels, without boiling all conversation down to evaluation. I have no doubt, then, that masters and doctoral students in the NAITTS community are not feeling pressured by their mentors to master German or French because they are the “scholarly languages” required for serious theological inquiry (see pgs 52-54 for a vignette about this).

I believe other examples could be brought forward as well. I do not mean to suggest in any way that this community or other experiments do not exemplify disappointment or frustration or are not burdened by lament in the face of their task. However, I do think that they have some capacity to escape the traps that Jennings spies around him. If the Spirit is indeed propelling Jennings into the kinds of insights and longings this book expresses, it would have to be the case. The Spirit does not leave bodies behind in the wake of dreams. Instead, as Peter noted at Pentecost with the prophet Joel, the Spirit falls on flesh (Acts 2.17). I pray that many will take up Jennings’ work so that they might desire the Spirit’s falling, wherever that might be.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Theological Seminary and directs the Vita Scholars Program, a 5 yr BA/MDiv program of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary.

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