I have read several articles and a couple of books by Dr. Willie James Jennings, but I was not sure this book was really for me. On its face, it is a book about theological education. I am not in theological education, and I do not anticipate ever being a professor or teacher. I decided to finally pick it up after someone on Twitter talked about it as a discussion of spiritual formation, whether in or outside the academy. I am interested in spiritual formation. I commend listening to Dr. Jennings’ interview with Tyler Burns on Pass the Mic podcast or Wabash Center’s Dialogue on Teaching Podcast, which have very different interviews but are helpful to get at what the book is doing.
Jennings posits that Western education in general, but theological education has a model that emphasizes three virtue: possession, control, and mastery. These three virtues are generally assumed to be ‘masculine’ virtues, and as Jennings discussed in his previous book, Christian Imagination, these virtues are also identified with the colonization project. Because we are an individualized culture, these values are about asserting the individual as the one who is master and self-sufficient. To counter this image of the self-sufficient master of educational knowledge, Jennings takes the image of Jesus, who gathers together many who would not choose to be together if it were not for the desire of all of them to be near Jesus. Jennings’ corrected imagination rooted in Jesus’ ability to gather people together suggests that the point of theological education in particular, but western education in general, should be rooted in belonging, not exclusion, hence his subtitle, An Education in Belonging.
Part of what Jennings is addressing here is that the soul is not formed primarily through information. We are not, as James KA Smith suggests, ‘Brains on a stick’. Theological education, while it does include information, must have as a primary focus spiritual formation. And that spiritual formation, because it is a significant aspect of theological educators’ work must be concerned not only with the theological education of its students but also of its faculty and staff and the institutional aspects of its community.