Willie Jennings on Education

“There is nothing inherently good about gathering people together,” writes Willie James Jennings, a professor at Yale Divinity School, “but there is something inherently powerful.” His new book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging names the distorted powers at work in Western theological education (and Western education more broadly). More than naming the distorted powers, he tries to describe a way, a vision, a hope for a theological education healed from this distortion.

Jennings has written a book the academy and the church need right now.

Set aside thoughts of a book on education detailing how to redesign curriculum step-by-step or detailed analysis of studies on pedagogy. This is a theological critique of the presumptions of theological education. He pushes back on the questions that drive the way institutions are organized, what it means to be a professor, and the motives beneath education.

For example, he challenges an overemphasis on the question of what students should know through their education, urging us to ask instead, “What should be the shape of the journey to know? What should be the character of the search?” Jennings knows that the content of education matters. His point is that the information is not the purpose of theological education.

So, what is the purpose? Belonging. Communion with Christ and with one another, “a profoundly creaturely belonging that performs the returning of the creature to the creator.” If the roots of the word education together mean something like “to lead one out,” then the exodus of theological education is from the loneliness of individualistic self-sufficiency into a joyful, overflowing experience of communion. “Theological education,” he writes, “is supposed to open up sites where we enter the struggle to rethink our people. We think them again, but now with others who must rethink their people.” He continues,

And in this thinking together we begin to see what we had not seen before: we belong to each other, we belong together. Belonging must become the hermeneutic starting point from which we think the social, the political, the individual, the ecclesial, and most crucial for this work, the educational…Theological education must capture its central work–to form us in the art of cultivating belonging.

Throughout the book, Jennings weds prose, storytelling, and poetry. Since I am not accustomed to this kind of writing, I found it at times disorienting and but mostly gripping. It was in one of his poetic sections that I saw just how powerful communion or belonging as a hermeneutic could be. Listen:

He blessed it and broke open his dream, one part in each hand.
To those on his left and to those on his right, he said the same thing
as he handed them his dream, “Eat this dream,
and it will kill the dream that kills.”
Hands trembling, they wondered which of their dreams
would die and which would grow stronger.

The dream of belonging requires a risk. We risk the death of certain other dreams and ideas and hopes. We risk them being overthrown by the breath of Christ which unites us and the glory of Christ’s presence which defines us (2 Thess. 2). Are we willing to allow the Truth to displace the great delusions that have held us in captivity?

But why isn’t belonging the center of theological education, or education more generally? For Jennings, the answer is in “White self-sufficient masculinity,” which he defines as

a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of a dense life together. In this regard, my use of the term “whiteness” does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making.

For example, Jennings often uses stories of women and people of color who have accepted a “way of being” in theological education that is based on the exaltation of “self-sufficiency.” But self-sufficiency “strangles the possibilities of a dense life together.” Self-sufficiency is a dream that must die because it resists our life together. We simply cannot exist without one another; and the idol of self-sufficiency only leads us to dismiss or disregard the contributions of others (and to deny the others in general). This is, in fact, at the heart of Jennings’ discussion about plagiarism. “We should take plagiarism seriously, not first because it is theft, but because it is a painful absence of voice alongside other voices.” Belonging isn’t at the heart of theological education, because the “way of being” of the Western world has emphasized individualism and self-sufficiency.

Some readers may find this way of naming the problem frustrating, even unkind. “If you’re not talking about white men then why use ‘white’ or ‘masculinity’ to name the problem that has distorted theological education?” Yet, the name points to the intricate story Jennings elaborated in his highly acclaimed book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. If the name Jennings gives the problem troubles you, then perhaps it would be best to read The Christian Imagination first, for context. The image Jennings paints of theological education demands charity. Attention to others, to what they’re actually saying and where they’re coming from, is essential. I urge readers who feel wary because of the name After Whiteness or “white self-sufficient masculinity” to practice charity, to read the book and to listen patiently to Jennings. It is worth it.

I mentioned that Jennings utilizes storytelling. Through his stories, we glimpse the complicated, difficult work theological educators do. Not just teachers, professors often are tasked with organizational duties and administrative responsibilities. What is clear from Jennings’ stories is that university life is complex and messy. Anyone who works at the knots of their institution’s complexity day after day will find themselves in this book.

I believe professors and administrators will find much in this book speaks to their joys and sorrows about working within a university. (It also gives context for why so many PhD-holding folks are finding alternatives to university teaching.) Students interested in PhD studies with a goal toward teaching positions should also read this book for a sober look at the complex world you might not know hides “in the belly” of the institution, as Jennings puts it.

Yet, it is clear the whole way through that Jennings speaks less as a disgruntled employee and more as a lover who wants his beloved to be true to herself, to remember who she is, to become what she was made to be. (He holds to his own conviction that critique must always point toward communion.) If professors and administrators are waning in their hope for theological education, I believe this book may rekindle your love for education and for the work that comes along with it.

I read this book as a pastor, hoping that Jennings’ thoughts on theological education might crossover into the world of parish ministry. Because Jennings’ sees theological education as Christological–the purpose of communion with Christ–the parallels between the work of a pastor and a professor are manifold. I won’t offer a litany of parallels here, but just one beautiful moment of clarity and encouragement.

Jennings tells the story of a young man named Win who begins to reckon with the worldview he inherited from his family. Though he was grateful for the life his family had given him, he was beginning to see that the old way of doing things was broken. “Win needed friends,” Jennings writes, “who would discern with him the crumbling and live in it and toward it. He needed companions on a journey of building that together would discover what blueprints emerged from overturning.”

In an era of racial unrest, pandemic, and ongoing ecclesial crises, how can we not notice the crumbling of what has been? The longer we resist or deny the crumbling, the harder it will be to discover what is being built. Christians are not people who fear crumbling. Jesus died and raised from the dead as a sign that crumbled bodies are built anew by God’s grace. In our situation, we must see the world and what is happening in it, and let the pressure of the present reveal the problems of our past. How have our churches been inadequately organized to respond faithfully to the issues now facing us? How had we been misled by things previously taken for granted? Jennings writes, “The shared work of discerning the overturning in the midst of the building is by far one of the most difficult tasks for theological institutions.” Things are being overturned for us, but we must also overturn old things that now stand in the way of building what Christ is now calling us to build. Thank God for the church, who is our needed companion “on a journey of building that together discover[s] what blueprints emerged from the overturning.” I am not sufficient to do that work alone.

I am convicted by this book, troubled by it in many ways. But I am encouraged by it more so. Maybe you will be, too. I leave you with another poetic section:

Do you hear the calling
from the new nothing,
not the old one
born of robbery and lack
but the nothing out of which
came that voice speaking light
to see clearly
the beginning of a new day
of rubble turned to hill and lifting head
and in an instant make refuse
the stuff of freeing legend
to glory thine be and belong

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