The Rev. Willie James Jennings has always been inquisitive.
“I have always been drawn to questions about the way life is. Questions about God. It wasn’t just a question about why people believe, but really questions about God,” Jennings said. “If God exists, now what? And I was raised in a context which said God does exist. Now what?”
These questions led him to his livelihood now. Jennings is a professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University, as well as an author on the intersections of race and religion.
One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”
Jennings will discuss Christianity, culture, and race at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform for Interfaith Friday. He looks forward to sharing this conversation with more than just his Christian peers.
“One of the great things about the life of faith is that it does offer people a way to see the world, a way to see not only what is, but what ought to be, or what could be,” Jennings said. “Oftentimes when you get people of faith together, you have a lively, creative moment for people to dream about what could be different.”
From his research to his writing, Jennings’ outlook on religion is informed by his religious upbringing.
“I grew up watching two things happen simultaneously. I grew up watching people who were serious about their faith, in our case Christianity, but who were also very comfortable in a very thick racial world,” Jennings said. “I couldn’t understand how one could be deeply serious about one’s faith, but also deeply committed to a racial, and in many cases racist, vision of the world. That’s why (race and religion) have always been together for me.”
This manifested in his career as an author. In 2011, Jennings wrote The Christain Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, which examined how Christianity inadvertently creates racial divides despite being built on neighborly love.
For his next book, Jennings will shift from the lens of a minister to the lens of an educator. In his upcoming book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Jennings will explore harmful expectations of education.
“What I’m arguing in this book is that Western education, along with theological education, has been plagued by a very detrimental, overarching pedagogical image that is an image for what we’re trying to form when people go to school,” Jennings said. “That overarching image that presses the goal of education is to form everyone to be white, self-sufficient men who embody three, what I call, demonic virtues in their education: master, control and possession.”
Jennings said that in this book he will argue that the “overarching image of what it means to be educated in the West” must change to something less harmful or narrow.
Through his work, Jennings hopes to encourage those of all faiths to pursue a deeper meaning in life.
“My goal is twofold,” Jennings said. “One is to help people think a little more deeply inside their faith, with a view toward giving witness to a God that wants the fullness of life for everyone. And (the second goal is) to help people who have no faith, or different faith, envision the possibilities of a better life together.”
This program is made possible by the H. Parker and Emma O. Sharp Lectureship Fund.