Willie Jennings: Belonging
Dr. Willie James Jennings is is an American theologian, known for his contributions on liberation theologies, cultural identities, and theological anthropology. He is currently an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University. For many years, Dr. Jennings taught theology and black church studies at Duke University Divinity School. Dr. Jennings has recently published a book that examines the problems of theological education within western education, entitled After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.
Like Willie, one of my interns is from Grand Rapids, MI and would like everyone to know that it’s a great place to visit. GR has beaches, museums, and great food.
Whenever I think of how our bodies tell a story, I’m reminded of this beautifully heavy book by Bessel Van Der Kolk called The Body Keeps the Score.
If you want a great visual for what Willie Means when he describes academics as merchants of ideas, watch a video of the It’s a Small World ride, here. (But be warned – you will have it stuck in your head all day!)
Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. I’m a historian, author, aggressively, fast walker. But lately, in a world that promises endless progress, even now in a pandemic, I realized I just need to be a person. It’s hard to give up on the feeling that the life you want is just out of reach. If only you tried to eat this food, find that relationship, just get the kids graduated or the parents this kind of care. Only then will I feel different. Better. Whole. But that’s not the way this works. When I was 35, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And here’s the very fun thing about that. The world loves you better when you are shiny, when you are cheerful, when you still believe that your best life now is right around the corner. I’ve written multiple books on the history of the idea that you can always fix your life. So I’m going to be the one to say it. There are some things we can change and some things we can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always getting better. We can have beauty and meaning, community and love, and we will need each other if we’re going to tell the truth. Life is a chronic condition and there’s no cure for being human.
Kate Bowler: Our bodies tell a story, right? Whether we’re thick or thin or curvy, heavy instep or shoulders like a swimmer, the deep or light shade of our skin, the width of our noses, the texture of our hair. Our pregnant bodies, the ones that move with canes and wheelchairs, with a limp or a tremor, whether we tower above people or look up to meet their eye. Our bodies tell a story and we find ourselves having to live inside of it. At work, at home, in church, in clubs and book groups, and sometimes more than we would like, our bodies tell a story that is too hard for others to hear. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. And it’s one thing to say, screw it, I don’t need them, I didn’t want that job or need that church or, you know, miss being on Twitter without hearing opinions I can’t unknow. But usually it’s a mixed blessing. We love that place. We love that community. We hunger for them when they’re gone, they made us somehow. So when we’re stuck with a fundamental problem, what happens when the places we love don’t always love us back?
Kate: Today, I am talking with a dear friend and intellectual powerhouse, Dr. Willie Jennings, about that kind of love. Dr. Willie Jennings is a big deal. He is a professor at Yale Divinity, a Baptist pastor and the author of many works, including a beautiful book called The Christian Imagination, Theology and the Origins of Race, which rightfully won a lot of awards, including one which was the largest prize for a theological work in North America. So I hope it is obvious to you, dear listener, that Dr. Jennings is one of the most well respected theologians on our beloved planet. And today, we’ll be talking about his brand new book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. And for people who are not necessarily familiar with theological education in Ivy League schools, a word of context, they’re predominantly white institutions and places where pastors and Christian professionals and academics are all taught together. So it’s a strange mix of elite pretension, deep wisdom and church basement coffee. Dr. Jennings served as the Academic Dean of one such theological school, Duke Divinity School. My place of employment and a place where we have a lot of history. Willie, how ominous did that sound? I am so grateful you’re here with me. Thank you so much for having this conversation in advance. I’m sorry for whatever I will say.
Willie Jennings: It’s a joy to be here with you, joy, to be here with you Kate.
Kate: We’ve known each other for I counted 15 years, which makes me feel wonderfully old. If I knew you when you were a kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What kind of Willie would I have met? And did you ever imagine you would become a theologian?
Willie: You know, I never imagined I would be a theologian. I used to tell people what I wanted to be right away was a weather man.
Kate: Really? You’re a theological weatherman for sure.
Willie: I wanted to be a weatherman because they looked like they always had a job.
Kate: I prefer your current vision where you’re like, and there’s some heresy coming in from the north and just a light breeze of,… a weatherman that’s so great.
Willie: Had you been around me as a pre-teen or teenager, you would have you been around a really soft-spoken, really shy, bookish kid who loved to laugh and loved to watch people do really crazy things and would make deep mental notes about the craziness.
Kate: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re a watcher.
Willie: Thinking to myself that will come in handy later. You know, growing up in Grand Rapids was an amazing thing. As I look back on it now, given, you know, what I’ve fond of doing because God was in the air, you know, and you know this very well when you grow up in Christian subculture. Whoo.
Willie: You see everything that is good to see and everything that is not good to see.
Kate: Yeah, that’s right. Too early. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I’m sorry that I don’t know this Willie but like Grand Rapids, I know it now as being a very reformed, very I know the white religious culture. But was it a predominantly white town at the time?
Willie: It was. Grand Rapids is highly segregated, gridline controlled, but it was always hidden. There was never really out front. So but you you quickly understood that it was a it was very white, very immigrant, Dutch immigrant. And so it had that immigrant feel. There were other other groups there, significant numbers of Polish people, Italians, some Irish. A very incredibly densely religious and theological. I remember there used to be the, you know, in the newspaper, they would have the heresy trials.
Willie: Oh, yeah. So you could you could if you read this religious section, you could find out what passions are being brought up for heresy. If they you know, if they didn’t properly preach the Belgian confession or Heidelberg Catechism.
Kate: Oh, my gosh.
Willie: It was a it was a very, very religious town, but a very, very racist town at the same time. And so, ergo my life trying to understand how something can be so profoundly, deeply committed to Christianity and so profoundly, deeply committed to racism and looking at the world at the same time.
Willie: And not skip a beat.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. You’re like my biography is Grand Rapids, Michigan. I love that. That’s right. So you’re this sensitive. Incredibly, powerfully perceptive young person, what was it, do you think, about the world of ideas that felt like an escape for you?
Willie: It was the freedom, it was the freedom to listen and then actually decide whether that made sense, which Kate, it fit my personality? I mean, had you had, you known me as the church kid, you would have understood because my poor pastor, he was a nice man.
Willie: But not very bright to be honest. And I would constantly ask the man questions. And he had this look on his face like, dear God, poor boy.
Kate: Yes, who can take this boy away?
Willie: Yeah, as a kid I would say Reverend, what you said just now, kind of omits what you said yesterday. Or, Reverend, what you just said doesn’t make any sense. Could you explain it to me some more? I’m I’m not following. And this was you know, we’re talking, you know, 12 years old, 13.
Kate: Oh my gosh, it’s so great. I believe they call those kids precocious.
Willie: I’ll never forget when the pastor pulled my mother aside one day. And we said, Mrs. Jennings, I hate to tell you this but your boy isn’t saved. I’m sorry.
Kate: Willie, that’s the greatest thing ever.
Willie: My mother said, I think he’s going to be OK. I questioned everything I questioned everything, he was having such a hard time with me. You’ve never seen a minister so happy to see a kid leave town and go to school.
Kate: Congratulations. I loved reading this book because I felt I just I love the fact that I could see the the world that you’ve been able to make by pulling things apart just a bit and letting the bits in between them breathe a little. But the cost of your ability to observe so carefully, though, has really been been high, like the way you describe freedom, like the ability to to notice everything also as as part of your survival.
Willie: I often say that one of the curses that comes with being an academic or intellectual, however you want to define it, is that we are often people who are very sensitive.
Willie: And sensitivity. And intellectual curiosity are often two sides of the same coin, which means that you see things deeply. But you feel things deeply and so things that might not cut others deeply, will cut you deeply because you sense and see you don’t just see you sense. I think it’s been a part of my reality in the academy, that, you know, really some pretty deep cuts.
Kate: Yeah, well, you did try to explain that to me. I mean, honestly, looking back, I can see how I was quite naive and had been permitted to remain so because of my privilege. I am really I’m really sorry that I can I can see now. I just I remember this moment where we were walking down the corridor where all the powerful people in our school have their offices. And you said, Kate, walking through these hallways as a black man, it’s like you have to wear a second skin. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized that you were you were trying to say like, no, I can feel so much more like my body is telling a story right now and I can feel so much more than like your senses might be dulled to the story that’s being told. You were saying it very nicely, but I did feel I did realize much later how much how much more you were feeling because you could you could see more clearly.
Willie: Yeah, this is one of the parts about being in an institution that, you know, people who love to talk about institutions, really often don’t grasp as they should. That, you know, there’s not only institution thinking, but there’s institution feeling there’s not only moving through an institution, thinking there’s moving through an institution feeling. Feeling what it does well and feeling what it does horribly.
Willie: And the horrible things it can do. And so as you and I both know, there are many people who when you ask what afflicts their soul, you have to look at, what an institution, especially educational institutions, what institutions will sometimes do inadvertently, sometimes do really on purpose.
Kate: Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh yeah. No, I trying.
Willie: I was trying to hurt you.
Kate: Yes. It’s a very difficult truth to communicate when the institution that you’re in imagines itself as neutral and and so much of your work has been in, in uncovering the racialized identity that is actually like a part of the functioning of our institutions. And I’ve seen the response. The response is, Willie, this is about ideas like we are an idea factory. Welcome to this neutrality of ideas, what kind of neutral self does it imagine?
Willie: Well, you know, the at the heart of what I consider the problem with moving through educational institutions and moving through the academy, thinking that is that we’re just merchants of ideas, is that there is, as I say in this book, there’s an overarching image of formation that’s there driving us. I mean, it’s like that ride at Disneyland, you know, where, you know, you sit down and the thing is moving and all you can all you hear, it’s a small world after all. But, you know, this is moving all the time. And I just think that there’s something that that’s pushing moving this thing forward and what’s moving it forward is to form us all, forms us all into white, self-sufficient men who embody three, what I call demonic virtues: a possession, control and mastery. And no matter how we say, we’re only about ideas, the reality is, is that what enables us to say such a thing and believe such a fantasy. Is because we have we have entered fully into the aspiration of being formed into that image. And that’s what makes it so profoundly, so profoundly painful that many are led to believe that it’s possible. To function just as someone who is concerned about ideas. And anything else that’s on the table shouldn’t be on the table when, in fact, there’s all kinds of stuff on that table.
Kate: Yeah, yes. Yes. But at first you get confused. I mean, there’s this vision, the what you’re describing of this vision of sameness, this vision of whiteness, this vision of like that self-sufficient person. And it’s one of the only ways that I have understood, like, how gender functions, really, which is just the the thousand little signals you get about what makes you seem and feel acceptable, like there’s just so many little ways you’re being nudged in a certain direction. And and we’ve seen the end result where sometimes all of a sudden you’re in the academy, you’re from Iowa, but you have a British accent. And I’m not sure why. You’re just like I really thought it’d be a serious person. And then, you know, Willie, I had fake classes for like the first three months of that job. I don’t think I ever told you that. It was just non-prescription glass. I wanted that minute where in a lecture, you take your glasses off and you’re like, let me tell you more about that, because I just need to perform.
Willie: My my dear friend Paul, who teaches at the Wabash Center, he often tells a story that one of the participants in one of the workshops he was helping to facilitate tells of a young woman who’s a professor, and she’s running her first seminar and she sits back in her chair and then she she puts her hand on her chin and starts rubbing her chin. And then she realizes she’s doing like her mentor, stroking her beard. Oh, wait, I don’t have a beard what am I doing?
Kate: If any of us had a diary for times we spent in institutions where it was like Dear Diary, I believe things have gotten very out of control.
Willie: All of this is tied to the utter reality of self-sufficiency, the magnanimous man, the one who is able by.
Kate: Who has everything to give.
Willie: Who understands and this is why it’s so important, because magnanimous man is one who never apologizes. We have seen male purpose here. He never apologizes for his power.
Willie: He’s not prideful. He’s just clear eyed on the power he has and understands that it is power underneath, you know, power within the sovereign reality of God, that God has equipped him. So that with this power, that is his by God’s design, he operates in the world not given to extremes of either anger or joy, not given to extremes of gluttony or excess or needless self-denial. And so when you put all that together and you think about the education that all of us move through, you can start to see that. You can start to see the form there.
Kate: Yes, that’s right.
Willie: You start to see that man.
Willie: That man has to be has to be a white man. And what it means for everyone, male or female. Non binary people. For people of all persuasions, cultures. Later on we would call all races is that this is what it means to be educated. You’re aiming toward that.
Willie: And. Kate, as you and I both know, the bodies that are laid, laid on the side of the road. Of the many who have never been able to achieve that. And the bodies of those who have achieved it and are in daily cry their tears inwardly because they think they’ve achieved it and they figured out how to hide the pain of achieving it is all around us. The academy is filled with people who are in deep pain because this is what they were told they had to become in order to be seen.
Kate: Yeah, that makes sense to me. That really speaks to me, Willie. I just that really reminds me of one of your great gifts is in mentoring and the I mean, generosity with which you have mentored like big groups of young faculty and midcareer faculty and, you know, insecure people like me who did a lot of crying in airports and I have so many strong memories of you when we had the privilege of going out to Wabash, Indiana, where they have this wonderful what is it called like it’s it’s like a formation program. What do they call it Willie?
Willie: Yes. It’s the the pre-tenure, or should I say early career workshop.
Kate: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it ended up being kind of like an exhaust valve a minute for one week in the fall and spring semester for a bit you would get to be with other professors from other institutions and just get a second to say, I have to do this. Do you have to do this? And what is your culture like? And as in like faculty culture and like what are what am I going in the direction I was hoping I would go in my life? And it was wonderful because you had a minute to ask yourself if this is the way it was supposed to be. And I’ll never forget that there was an exercise where there was a big circle of chairs where everyone sat and if you wanted you could go into the middle of the circle and sit down and respond to a question or idea. And people were kind of digging into their hopes and and and sort of like bigger emotions. And you said, and I’ll never forget this. Now, if you’d like, please share what has your body meant to your institution? And that thought blew me away because I never thought of it like that, and I before I could even finish a breath, I got up, sat down in the middle of the circle, and I think maybe only you, very few people knew that I’d been suffering from an undiagnosed paralysis in both arms. And I heard myself saying I am a profound disappointment. And like you knew that someone dear to me had filed a complaint against me with the administration that I wasn’t sufficiently disabled and that I was, in fact, taking advantage of the system. And I don’t mean to compare our experiences of disability with racism, but I saw how able, that you knew exactly how to read the story of whether or not we experience ourselves as disappointments, whether we have met this unarticulated standard of the master itself. Like I knew I had failed. I just didn’t know how to how to mourn that, I guess. And you were so good at at accounting for the cost of that sort of fragility. And I I don’t mean to congratulate you on emotional labor that you shouldn’t have to to do, but I I’ve just been struck in your work again and again, how your experience has opened you up to being able to do really careful math about how people experience the deficits of what their formation is always requiring of them.
Willie: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s I always appreciate that the power of your vulnerability, my dear friend, and the truth that you courageously always speak. And so what does that mean? It means that there is such a need, especially at this moment, to rethink the whole point of education.
Kate: Yeah, yeah.
Willie: And that that that’s really I think, especially at this moment, what we really do need to understand belonging as a crucial idea, around which to rethink the overarching image of what we’re educating people toward, I mean, you and I are in the business of theological education, but I think this is true for all of education that the self-sufficient man is haunts all of Western education.
Willie: And the need to put him to death and to give life to a different vision that actually has belonging as the overarching goal for education formation. That would really be great. It would have. You know, obviously it would mean something very different, would have been a very different education you and I both had, and especially as young professors trying to figure out how to be professors. Yeah, good Lord. Oh, my God.
Kate: Let’s talk more about this belonging. I love that. How do we sink into that vision of like what is the opposite of the kind of obsessive self mastery, the the the fake invulnerability, the that were there were supposed to be launching atoms out into the world, little self contained when really I mean, our experiences are whether it’s our our bodies or our circumstances or but like all of us are, man, we’re just like, we’re fragile, we are dependent at our best, we are needy and and messy and I’m just thinking of all the ways in which, like, your book is so beautifully poetic. But that’s another call to like to not just know things through theological proof texting or like giant lists that like we we learn and know and find our being in a much more embodied and wider way than our educational system has set up.
Willie: Yes, I think you just you just said what’s at the heart of it. How how do we live into embodiment? How how do we take hold of the fullness of life lived with others? And I think and you and I both know all of this has to come back down to little decisions that you have to make, that, you know, they take courage to think toward people as opposed to thinking over people and to think about a different vision of the design of courses, a design of being a professor, the design of life.
Willie: How do you design for a healthy form of attention and affection and resistance? You know, what I try to do is I try to after all those many years of of being in the as we say in the bowels of an institution, I try my best to put on the table the little things that have to be done, that signal one crucial thing, so the one crucial thing that has to be signaled by the intellectual life is I want you I want to be with you, I want to gather people together. Not as my servants but as my companion. In that gathering people together becomes the showing I want, the showing is not that I look like the self sufficient, clearly in control, clearly in possession, clearly having mastery, intellectual. The showing that I want is I am someone whose bringing people together who would normally not want to be together. And I am showing the joy and the excitement of communion that I just a communion that I that I am able to conjure belonging.
Kate: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Willie: Now that that whether you are a theologian or a historian or a nurse or a chemist, that is a worthy goal of formation, far more worthy than what what we have been given, because that one means if if you are someone aiming toward cultivating that reality of belonging, that means you are you are now putting whatever work you’re going to be doing in the best possible context, the best possible light, the most and the most life giving form that it can possibly be in.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. You know, when you describe this, it just the image I have. Is it just the the idea that like so much of us, the way we’re formed in whatever profession, the that the image is like feudalism? Right. It’s it’s so strictly hierarchical. There’s information, we wanted it and it’s structured from the top down. And then we thought, you know, if I just buy in more and more, I will become this mythical person that that has finally achieved. I just think your word is so right, like mastery. I will have arrived at this mountaintop. And like the problem is, of course, along the way is is that like at the heart of this is that like we went into we went into these formation processes in the first place because we could we could see something and feel something. And we wanted to know we wanted to be remade by this knowledge. And you’re right like that those that those structures are preventing us from being able to be cracked open to each other’s experiences and not just like caught up in this endless echo chamber of never having really ever become that person.
Willie: You know, and I tell you, the possibilities are really wonderful for rethinking, especially at this moment rethinking the policy of education. My hope is that that, you know, we can get people to start asking a different set of questions about this whole world. The intellectual life I’m arguing, the intellectual life should be a place of gathering, it should you know, this is the way, you know, someone has entered fully into the intellectual life because they are really, and whatever they’re doing, they’re causing people to see each other in a different light.
Kate: They’re facing each other.
Willie: Yeah, but because this person and whatever this endeavor is, you know, I still see that person. But by seeing that person, I’m also now seeing others because this is the way that person does their work. This is how they understand their work.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. That always seemed to me to be like the very best part of, you know, and and anyone gets it when they read a book or but the the beauty and the intimacy of entering into somebody else’s mind. And like, just how much just how much like love that feels like to me.
Willie: The reality of it is, is that education should, at the end of the day, be not only about love, but about creating love.
Willie: And that that’s that’s what belonging always points to, the possibility of creating love.
Kate: ] I see exactly what you mean. For some reason, truth, as ugly as as it is, is always a little bit beautiful. And like even just looking at it together always really feels like, I really I really saw something. Dr. Willie Jennings, you are disciplined in the art of hope, and I love talking with you. Thanks so much for doing this with me.
Willie: My pleasure. My pleasure, great one. Anytime I get to be with you, it’s a holiday.
Kate: There’s a hunger in us, isn’t there? To belong, to feel ourselves slip into the grooves of the communities and places we love, and sometimes we get the permission we’re looking for and sometimes we don’t. So here’s a blessing for when your body doesn’t quite belong and when you need a moment to let that reality breathe a little. Blessed are you, dear, one who have been told that you are too big, too loud, too brown, too weird, too old, too much. You belong here. Blessed are you. You navigate your workplace while juggling parenting and pregnancy, aging and technological hurdles that leave you always playing catch up. Blessed are you who have hidden your symptoms or been quiet about your pain, whose gender or race or disability has taught you institutional gymnastics. Blessed are you who make space for others who notice the hurts, said and unsaid, and you who make institutions bigger, more generous and set longer tables for everyone to be seated. Belonging is strange and long work. Work, as Dr. Jennings believes that is disciplined by hope. So may we learn how to see hope in our own bodies, in our own longings, and formation and places where we seek shelter. There will always be the loneliness of living itself, of trying and surviving and living inside our own skin. So may we not despise our desire to see and be seen and for the hope that our hungers will lead us back to each other at last.
Kate: We are in the season of Lent, the time in the church calendar that challenges us all to turn ourselves toward the truth that the world is both terrible and beautiful and somehow God meets us there. I’ve been posting a video every morning on Instagram and Facebook, as well as sending out daily email reflections to help orient our day. So if that’s your thing and you want to join a long visit, KateBowler.com/Lent to sign up for free. Today’s episode was made possible by our lovely partners, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment and Duke Divinity School, who support our faith and media project. We are so grateful for their generosity and investment in what we do. And of course, my team, who I am completely obsessed with, Jessica Richie, our executive producer, Harriet Putman, our associate producer, Keith Weston, our sound designer. And the rest of the Everything Happens crew who make this project so much fun. Dan Wells, AJ Walton, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson, Launa Steward, Kelly Dunlap, Erin Lane, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. This is Everything Happens with Me, Kate Bowler.