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Freedom and Confinement in the Architecture of Theology

By July 16, 2015 No Comments

Earlier this year one of my students posted on social media a somewhat anguished comment about her relationship with Karl Barth. Barth represented a theological breath of fresh air for her. That may reflect, among other things, the heavy Calvinist bent of her theological education. But I suspect, too, that his commitment to social justice in the political realm added to Barth’s allure. Then she read what he had to say about women, the whole subordination stuff, the asymmetry in marriages stuff. Now she entered, or at least I imagine that she entered, a world familiar to me and other women who have long engaged Barth’s work. In this world, we wrestle and argue with the one(s) we’ve come to love, or if not love, then at least deeply appreciate.

I was introduced to Barth’s work in the first year of my M.Div. education. His thought ran like a dominant thread through the tapestry of that curriculum. Not only my theology courses but also my Christian education and pastoral care courses engaged him deeply. Learning to read Barth is an undertaking in and of itself. Thankfully I was surrounded by some of the best Barthian scholars in the world. I sat in their classes, listened to their differing Barth interpretations, and even cried at the beauty of certain passages in his Church Dogmatics. (I also cried while reading through the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, and no, I’m not a big crier. I was moved profoundly by the way these words opened up the reality of God’s dogged commitment to love.) Later, I wrote my dissertation and first book in conversation with Barth’s ecclesiology.

In doing so, I have wrestled with Barth, pushing him further on issues of interdisciplinarity (and I was far from the only one doing so), and flat out rejecting his interpretation of submission in marriage. I hope I have done so generously, acknowledging his social location and remembering that none of us escapes our contexts. We can become self-reflexive but we still internalize the many systems in which we live. Hopefully those who come after us will refine or redeem or, if necessary, reject that which we’ve preached and written.

Willie Jennings, associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School, has written a provocative article addressing this very dynamic, “The Content of Theological Education: What Shall We Teach?” in Teaching for a Culturally Diverse and Racially Just World. Jennings knows personally the very struggle that I have described above, having grown up in West Michigan and graduated from Calvin College. Jennings, too, has grappled with Barth, though this lies in the background behind his article.

Jennings articulates the contradictions faced by women and people of color who teach in theological schools. First, we find pleasure and satisfaction (if not love) in commitment to our disciplines; yet our interlocutors, those shoulders upon which those disciplines have been built, would never have imagined dialogue partners who look like us. Second, racism and sexism are laced throughout the very institutions in which we carry out this simultaneously hopeful and troubling work.

Jennings illuminates these contradictions by articulating the vocational (if not existential) questions burning in the bosoms who bear them: “What does it mean to love one’s discipline yet be at war with many of its modern foundational figures? How is it possible to challenge the concepts, paradigms, shared assumptions, etc. of one’s field of inquiry, yet demand that students learn and appreciate the ‘classical’ texts and arguments of that same field? Why would someone participate in a curricular schema and its ecology of assessment within an institution while opposing the hegemonic operations activated by that very curriculum and its processes of assessment?”

Jennings doesn’t answer these questions for us. Instead, he proposes a rethinking of the architecture of theological education on the basis of desire. Those who know Jennings award winning book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, will recognize the centrality of desire in his thought. Only desire for one another will motivate our participation in the transformation (death and resurrection) of oppressive structures. Only desire for one another will sustain us in cultivating multicultural communities of faith and institutions of higher learning. Here Jennings is replacing the often deadening and demotivating “ought” and “must” (the demands of the law) with “may” and “want” and “yearn for” (the promise of the Gospel).

Desire, too, can prompt an analysis of the curricular architecture of theological education. Jennings, a winsome and charitable interpreter, notes that curricula and individual courses are structured in certain ways because they have aesthetic beauty and clear functionality for some. They generate hope and elicit pleasure, to use his words. Therefore any critique ought to acknowledge the hopes and dreams (that is, the desire) of our theological architecture even as it boldly articulates the ways that this architecture stifles and confines and excludes.

Jennings is writing directly to theological educators who personally bear the contradictions named above. Yet his words speak to all who long for communities of faith and learning (churches and theological schools) to reflect the promises of God’s reign, calling us to “press more deeply into the logics of habitation in hopes of creating new more inviting spaces” for all.

This brings me back to Barth. Next to his Dogmatics on my shelf there is bell hooks and Martin Luther King Jr. and James Cone. Surrounded by this great cloud of witness, there is freedom and a creative play of disparate voices who together (even in opposition to one another) point us to the One who lights our desire for one another and invites us to join in the transformation of our communities and institutions.

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