After Whiteness (Willie James Jennings) -- A Review

 

AFTER WHITENESS: An Education in Belonging (Theological Education Between the Times). By Willie James Jennings. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. X +165 pages.

I am a product of theological education in America. I have a bachelor's degree in Bible and Ministry from a Christian college. I also have a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from a leading seminary. I've taught church history at a seminary and theology and Bible at a Christian college. For the past twenty-two years, I've been a pastor, drawing on that education. Over the years, I have thought a lot about theological education. For the most part, I've been satisfied with my experiences. But, I have to confess that I'm a white male, and the system that I participated in, the system that formed me as a historian, theologian, and pastor, was designed with me in mind. That is, it was designed to form white men for an educated ministry. But what if you are not white or male. How might you experience the system that seemed to fit me like a glove?

In After Whiteness, Willie James Jennings addresses this question. The answer reveals that those who do not share my background did not find the experience to be nearly as satisfactory as I found it. Indeed, most found that belonging was a challenge. Thus, we need a consciousness-raising experience so we can better understand the situation and perhaps make the kinds of changes necessary so that all might find their theological education to be satisfactory.

Jennings comes at this question from the position of being a theologian who has spent his career in theological education. Among his accomplishments is service for ten years as the academic dean at a major university divinity school. Thus, he speaks from within the inner sanctums of the seminary experience. He continues teaching theology at a different divinity school, no longer engaged in administration. We’ve never met, as far as I know, but we are both graduates of the same seminary (Fuller Theological Seminary). We likely overlapped as Jennings began his tenure as an M.Div. student at Fuller during my final year as an M.Div. student. He currently is a trustee of the seminary. What makes us different is that I'm White and he is Black. Thus, while both of us appreciate our tenures at Fuller, we also experienced it differently. While experienced seminary life as a student and as an adjunct professor, Jennings has experienced theological education as a student, as a professor, and as an administrator, while being Black.

It needs to be noted that After Whiteness is subtitled An Education in Belonging. That is an apt description of the book because the core question has to do with belonging. Jennings writes in the prologue that the most important word that we will encounter in the book is "formation." While formation is the goal of all education this is especially true of theological education. (p. 4). Unfortunately, although this is true, the act of formation in theological education has been distorted by a White colonialist ideology. His goal here, in this brief book, which includes his poetry and stories drawn from his experience as a teacher, dean, and student, is to point us beyond this distortion.

When it comes to theological education there is a lot of conversation going on as to what it should look like. Some emphasize scholarship while others emphasize the practical side. Some of that conversation takes a rather commodified vocational perspective. In other words, we go to seminary to get the tools we need so we can be successful in ministry. Thus, theological education is a commodity provided to those who are pursuing a vocation in ministry. It makes sense, but James sees things a bit differently. He is concerned about the formation of persons. He also wants to make sure that this formation is not distorted by a White male colonialist ideology. That requires recognizing that this system is designed to form the "white self-sufficient man, his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, and mastery." (p. 6). Here’s the thing, this is true even of progressive seminaries. That’s because it's deeply rooted in the ethos of theological education.

The book is composed of five chapters: Fragments, Designs, Buildings, Motions, and Eros. In the first chapter focused on fragments, Jennings focuses on three kinds of fragments that are present in the academy. The first fragment is the faith itself. It's all the stuff we work within theological education, including the Bible and theology. The second fragment is the one formed by the colonial power. This is the fragment experienced and understood by people of color but is likely missed by the White males for whom the system is designed to form. The fragments are the pieces of life that are too often excised by the colonial power, including one’s ethnicity and/or gender. The third fragment is the "work of reduction" or the "commodity fragment." This is something that is possessed and even stolen from persons. If, like me, you are white, you will start to become uncomfortable here, but that is the point. The goal here, however, is not to leave us in fragments, but to find communion.

The second chapter is titled "Designs." It is focused on the way that theological education is designed—things like curriculum. Design, he writes, has to do with organizing things around attention, affection, and resistance. The problem here is that theological education is designed in such a way that it distorts creativity. Jennings writes that the "deepest desire that should drive our educational designs is to cultivate people who serve, but that requires us forming them in a vision of people being formed to a people. Such a vision articulates servant leadership through the desire to be a place of communion and in doing so to follow our savior informing Jesus space." (pp. 75-76). From here we move to buildings, which includes institutions, and the way they are formed. Jennings understands that there is a need for institutions, but he raises the question as to how they are designed and operated. He suggests that the institutions have been designed and operated in a way that serves White men, but not people of color. Part of the problem is that the institution is not set up in ways that one can recognize understand the racial components of the system. That blinds those involved to the persons who enter the buildings.

Chapter four is titled "Motions." Here he talks about the need to transform the way those engaged in theological education can reshape and reframe the operations of the school "inside a new vision of edification" that "builds people toward each other." (p. 105). This involves assimilation, but in such a way that people are healed and not harmed. This leads to chapter 5, "Eros." Here the focus is on desire. He writes that the "urgent work calling us in theological education is to touch the divine reality of longing, to enter into its power and newness as the logic inside the work of gathering and inside the formation that should be at the heart of theological education." (p. 143). The problem is that this goal is thwarted by whiteness and a form of greed that destroys the communal metaphysic. Thus, we come to the point of the book, belonging. If the system is designed to form white male pastors who are self-sufficient, then those who do not fit do not belong. Truth be told, none of us is self-sufficient and all of us wish to belong. Unfortunately, the system isn't always designed for that.

This is a compelling book that is written for those engaged in theological education, what we call the Academy. While these institutions might be the focus of the book and the series, I think it also speaks to those of us who have gone through the system and have been formed by it. Jennings invites us to look at the system and important questions about how we were formed. Perhaps it will challenge the way one understands one’s experiences. As I read After Whiteness, having gone through the system and even taught in it, I recognized how that system was designed with me in mind. My teachers, many of whom I regard highly, were mostly White men. I went through Fuller in the 1980s. With few exceptions,  everyone I studied with was white. I think the only person of color who has been my professor was my Korean Old Testament professor in college. We read White theologians and White commentators. I did take a class in Latin American Theology so I could read Liberation theology, but my professor was a White man. Yes, I enjoyed seminary. I learned a lot. I value my experiences. But not everyone fared as well as did I!

For a number of reasons, many institutions of theological education are rethinking and re-envisioning their offerings. They have heard that people need more practical learning. My fear has been that seminary would become a vo-tech school, with the theological and biblical disciplines being displaced. Willie James Jennings reminds us that there is another component that must be addressed and that is the role of belonging. It’s important that as we rethink and reconfigure theological education we do so in a way that includes and empowers rather than excludes and disempowers. As Jennings writes in the final chapter, “theological education could mark a new path for Western education, one that builds a vision of education that cultivates the new belonging that this world longs to inhabit. But we cannot give witness to that newness if we imagine that our fundament struggle is one of institutional survival, or the challenge of educational delivery systems, or the alignment of financial modeling with our desired outcomes or the expansion of pedagogical models. All these matters are important, but they are not where the struggle meets us or from where the vision of our futures will come” (p. 154). It will take wisdom to move forward, but it appears that wisdom is present in people like Willie James Jennings, as he reveals it in After Whiteness.   

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