After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings

after whiteness cover imageSummary: An exploration of theological education as spiritual formation emphasizing its need to create belonging and explore how it has historically promoted white male normativity and individualism.

I have read several articles and a couple of Dr. Willie James Jennings’ books, but I was not sure this book was for me. On its face, it is a book about theological education. I am not in theological education and do not anticipate ever being a professor or teacher. I finally picked 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 has very different interviews but is helpful to get at what the book is doing.

Jennings posits that Western education, in general, but theological education in particular, has a model that emphasizes three virtues: 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 addresses 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 spiritual formation as a primary focus. 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 with the faculty and staff and the institutional aspects of its community.

Like many, this is a book that I should read again.  Spiritual formation matters. But so do the institutions that help form the pastors that lead the congregations that spiritually form the future generations. What keeps being emphasized in my reading on racial issues is how long these issues stick around. Again, my grandfather was born a year before Harriet Tubman died.  She escaped slavery in 1849 but lived until 1913. My grandfather, born in 1912, lived until 2005. If I, not yet 50, have a grandparent who overlapped with people who were adults in slavery, it is likely that there are ongoing implications for historical racial realities. My mother was born three weeks after Ruby Bridges. The school my mother would have gone to for kindergarten did not integrate until the year before I was born. Ruby Bridges and others of her generation who were the first to go to integrated schools are just now starting to retire. Our senior seminary professors, teaching the new generation of pastors, were likely early in the integration process, and some probably did not go to integrated schools. It would be odd to think that all theological education has been ‘fixed’ to solve the historical issues within those currently teaching.

My seminary education included a systemic theology professor who was a liberation theologian. But there are more than a few seminaries that have not done much, if any, work to address their curriculum. It was only a couple of years ago that Masters Seminary made news because it was possible to have gone the whole way through without having a book assigned by any authors that were not White. And that is more common than many believe. I am in a 2.5-year part-time graduate-level certificate program. Until now, the only book I have been assigned by a non-White author is a Brazilian theologian writing about the Lord’s Prayer in an elective class. I plan on taking a class about Black Catholicism in the US, again an elective; it has two books written by Black authors, one by a woman. But that is probably 2-3 books out of all I have been assigned over the past two years. The problem of theological formation orienting toward white experience as normative is still a very present problem.

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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