Per Caritatem

Syndicate Theology’s symposium on Willie James Jennings’s book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, begins tomorrow, July 21. Below I have copied (from Syndicate’s website) an overview of the book and the opening paragraph from each panelist’s review. Please join us for what will be, no doubt, an excellent and lively conversation. Christian Imagination @ Syndicate Theology

Overview

Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

About the Author

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, where he previously served as academic dean. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

PANELISTS

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Cross the Sea and Cleanse the Temple” (July 21)

CHRISTIANITY IN THE AMERICAS is shrouded in a dark past of white supremacy and colonial violence. Given Christianity’s history of colonial captivity, is the Christian imagination exhausted or can it still speak meaningfully and creatively today? In The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings lays out a persuasive case detailing the racist and capitalist underpinnings of colonial Christianity in Portugal, Peru, South Africa, and the United States, showing how this colonial legacy continues to dominate the establishment agenda of the theological academy. Despite these realities, he further argues that the Christian imagination can be fired once again if the church can reconnect to Israel, creation, and the Creator. His call to theological intimacy amidst a world of cultural fragmentation is prophetic, hearkening a post-colonial future for the world Christian communion.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Rending New Life From Mangled Places” (July 23)

WILLIE JAMES JENNINGS’ BOOK, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is a revolutionary study in the ongoing conversation of the relation between race and Christian theology and practice. In my essay, I discuss key themes of the book, which include: the connection between land and identity, the role of whiteness as an evaluative form or racialized lens for interpreting others and the world, the injurious and dehumanizing effects of Christianity’s embrace of colonizing practices, and Jennings’ original insights regarding how such practices can be understood as expressions of de-formed Christian doctrines. Toward the end of my essay, I transition to a more critical dialogue, both for the purpose of furthering the conversation and for my own education.

A. J. Walton, “Supersessionist Sensibilities, Supremacist Imagination” (July 28)

PERHAPS IT’S A TAD ODD to state upfront the many ways a theologian has influenced a young academic. But setting aside worries that I may come across as some crazed fan—a Beyoncé or Beatles type of groupie, you know?—I find no need to deny the fact that Willie James Jennings—the teacher, the mentor, and the many other descriptors that can follow his name—has and continues to shape not only how I understand Christian theology proper (if there is such a thing), but also how I navigate the everyday complexities that is life and vocation in this our (post?) modern context. The truth is this: Jennings is a theological genius and a force with whom we must all reckon.

Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “The Colorblindness of a Diseased Social Imagination” (July 30)

AFTER DOING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC study of a white southern Protestant church that decided to become multiracial I have seen how crucial it is to better understand and complexify the subject of “race” and Christianity. Initially thinking this church was a real gem, given how few significantly interracial churches exist, I discovered all sorts of problems, including continuing white obliviousness about race. Some of the white members who intentionally formed this interracial church, performed racist behavior. Some decided the church was getting “too black” and left. Other whites reacted negatively when the founding white pastor was replaced by a black pastor. Many white members just did not want to talk about race. As a southern white girl raised in a white church in a family that totally ignored race issues, I did not think I was either racist or privileged. Not until this experience as an adult did I even begin to discover my own obliviousness.

 

Jennings Christian ImaginationIn August I will participate in Syndicate’s online symposium focusing on Willie James Jennings’s landmark study, The Christian Imagination. Theology and the Origins of Race. What follows is a preview of my discussion of key themes in Part III of Jennings’s book. I encourage you to check Syndicate’s website regularly for additional information, updates, and future symposia. Lastly, I hope that you will join us in August for the actual Syndicate forum dedicated to Jennings’s outstanding and timely work.

The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter five, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).

Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’s most important and original claims: (1) place and identity are intricately linked, (2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land, and (3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had disregarded completely the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,

[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system (225–26).

With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”

In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had to acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,

[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces (241).

If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).

 

Expulsion from ParadiseReading Plato’s dialogue the Symposium in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets is a rather fruitful exercise. In the Symposium, often considered Plato’s premier dialogue about Love, we find a group of males assembled for a night of festivities, which includes offering their respective panegyrics to Love. One alleged female voice, however, is permitted a hearing at this overwhelmingly male-populated gathering, namely, Diotima, the philosopher-priest. Yet one could argue that this female voice doesn’t actually represent full female subjectivity, but rather is ventriloquized and functions as Socrates’ mouthpiece, or keeping with the Dionysian themes animating the drama, Socrates’ mask—and a mask-wearer extraordinaire! Of the speeches prior to “Diotima’s,” I find Aristophanes’s account the most captivating. His discourse contains a myth about human origins in a primordial past when all was well or at least significantly better than our present fractured, fragmented, and estranged human existence. As Aristophanes explains, there were originally three kinds of human beings—male/male, female/female, and female/male. These originary pairs are described as spherical in shape, possessing four arms, four legs, and two sets of genitalia. More importantly, each partner was in perfect relational unity with his or her, so to speak, soul mate. However, for some inexplicable reason these original humans became proud and plotted to usurp the gods. The gods—rather nasty and needy beings, whose status and identity required sacrifices and continual worship—opted to punish rather than obliterate them. After some deliberation, it was decided that Zeus would cut them in half, thus producing their current embodied state, their experience of love now as shadowy incompleteness, discontented lack, and painful longing—an ever-present chronic desire for an intimacy and wholeness that was and is no more.

What I find incredibly interesting about this ancient Greek account of humanity’s “fall” and its explanation of our present restless condition is how well it resonates with T.S. Eliot’s Christian account presented in his poem, Four Quartets.[1] Listen to Eliot’s hauntingly beautiful word imagery in part I of the first movement of the poem, “Burnt Norton.” Having introduced his first major theme, “time,” or better our problem living with and in time and the dismal thought that our past might be unredeemable, a mere series of pointless and disconnected sequential events—a view, which of course, Eliot does not share—he urges us to confront our telos. That is, we ought not think of our telos as some far-off future event, but as an ever-present reality shaping our lives now.

Just as we find time and memory closely linked in St. Augustine’s Confessions, so too in Eliot’s account.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

Somehow we are drawn in by echoes sounding, presumably, in our memory. But echoes of what? Footfalls, that is, paths not taken, doors not opened. Thus, the echoes seem to be sounds ringing through our head of things lost, more specifically potential opportunities lost because we either choose not to pursue them. Perhaps we failed to act when we should have, or perhaps the opportunities were lost simply by virtue of our having chosen an alternative path. But what does the rose-garden symbolize? The Garden of Eden, childhood innocence, lost love? And why do my words echo in your mind? In God’s mind? A lover’s mind? Whatever the case, these faint sounds are infused with a hint of melancholy—surely the tonal center is minor, not major.

But Eliot continues, giving more content to these barely audible sounds. Now he introduces us to “other echoes,” which are, I assume, different echoes from those described above. Of these, Eliot writes,

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden.

Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,

Round the corner. Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

Here the “other echoes” recall a garden, which now more explicitly gestures toward the Garden of Eden, “our first world.” But this is precisely the place where, according to the Genesis account, we cannot go, as a sword marks our expulsion and bars our re-entry. When these particular echoes are heard, we come to recognize our exiled state. Stated slightly differently, our Edenic yearnings confirm our exilic state. For us as banished peregrinators, this “unheard music,” to which the bird summoning us somehow is somehow aware, falls upon tone-challenged ears. Or so it seems most of the time. Yet, when those tragic, heart-rending moments in life unhinge us, such times create the conditions for intense and rigorously focused soul-reflections. At such moments our sense of hearing, like a brief but all-too-needed extended interlude from the deafening daily grind, is attuned or re-tuned or a bit of both. Changing metaphors, we glimpse a vision of what we were originally created for and of what we could have been. In this vision we see pools “filled with water out of sunlight, and the lotos rose,” reposing quietly atop the water whose “surface glittered out of heart of light.” In the water, we see a reflection of them—but of whom we ask? Adam and Eve in their pristine state? Humanity as it once was? Suddenly, the vision ends. Our cataract sight returns, and “and the pool was empty.” Why, we ask?

Go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

As Howard observes in his excellent little book, Dove Descending, Eliot is not calling us to live in some illusionary nostalgia. Eliot is far too much of a realist for that. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. That is, like the authors of Scripture recounting what happens to prophets who experience theophanies—i.e., they tend rather quickly to fall prostrate—Eliot understands how fragile we truly are, how quickly we become undone when confronted with Reality. We can’t bear it. Thus, it is a good thing—even an act of divine mercy—that these soul-awakening encounters with Reality are meted out over time, and if the poet isn’t a liar, are somehow purposed with our telos in view—a telos that Eliot this early in the poem happily leaves ambiguous.

Notes

[1] My reflections in this post were inspired and shaped through my reading of Thomas Howard’s book, Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006

*The icon is entitled, The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; “The Expulsion from Paradise,” Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.

 

Dr. Kristina Zolatova, featured for the first time here, is seeking suggestions for a title for her new poem (see below).  Since I have encountered so many creative people through my blog, I encouraged Kristina to post her poem on my blog in order to see what ideas might be presented. With that said, enjoy the poem and let’s hear your poetic and aesthetically attuned ideas (commentary on the poem is also welcome.)

 ***

Cast aside, televised and captured as an image.
But we all know that one-size fits none.
When “echoes” talk back, they signify
Actively, aggressively to the double, triple, it’s not so simple.
Interpellation meets improvisation and continues to this day.
Transgressing boundaries
Around me
Around you
Isn’t this what we’re called to do?
Not a diminishment of black, white, brown, or yellow.
Rather a collage, a harmony of multiplicity
Unfolding, (re)writing
And in-our-hopes uniting
“on the one” as we process toward a
Rhythmic, uninterrupted you-and-me—
In a word,
True solidarity.

Kristina Zolatova (Dec. 16, 2013)

 

Nativity of JesusArchbishop Rowan Williams describes Advent as a “time of waiting.” He then unpacks what that means for the Christian and how our Western culture generally speaking (Christians included), have real difficulties with waiting.  We want immediate gratification; we don’t want to wait—if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load, we complain, throw a fit, curse, or try to figure out a way to purchase a newer, faster, sleeker computer.  Waiting is a concept for twenty-first century globalized folks thoroughly infused with negativity.  We just don’t “do it” well.  Even so, as Williams explains, as Christians we are called to

“remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and [to] remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophesies of Isaiah, metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.”[1]

The four weeks before Christmas have blown by and now our waiting, our counting and marking the days on the calendar before opening the gifts is nearly over.  But what about this other Gift, a far grander Gift, this baby born in a manger so long ago? What difference does His birth, His life, His Incarnation make?

“When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians, Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.”

Here’s another word we’re not particularly found of, nor very skilled at cultivating (myself included)—quiet, reflective periods of quietness in which we can ask ourselves “[w]hat would it be for the good news really to change me’ […]for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away, all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis, all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom – a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time where we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”

With John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom learned to wait and to wonder at this Christ who would turn the world upside down, we too are challenged to “see what the reality of God is like,” which of course is not an easy task.   Truth be told,  “[i]t may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgment, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that even with the pain and the risk. Or God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth –the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.”

Notes


[1] The full transcript may be accessed via the Archbishop’s webpage: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2040.

 

“The renunciation of the ‘form of God’ and the taking on of the ‘form of a slave’ with all their consequences do not Resurrection Icon_Russianentail any alienation within the Trinitarian life of God.  God is so divine that by way of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection, he can truly and not just in seeming become that which as God he already and always is.  Without under-estimating the depth to which God stooped down in Christ, but perceiving that this ‘supreme’ abasement (John 13, 1) formed, with the exaltation, one single reality, for the two movements express the self-same divine love, John was able to apply to both the categories of ‘exaltation’ and ‘glorification’:  yet in a way which is, (to use the language of the Chalcedonian Definition) asynchtōs, achōristōs; ‘without confusion’, ‘without separation’ (DS 302).  In this integrated vision, it is no longer contradictory for John to ascribe to the Son who died and was raised by the Father the power not just to give his life but also to take it up again (10, 18; 2, 19), as well as, thought this power, to raise up (11, 25) the dead both in time (12, 1, 9 and 17) and at the end of time (5, 21; 6, 39 etc., auto-anastasis ‘the Resurrection itself’ one might call him, imitating Origen’s celebrated neologisim).  In fact, the Son’s absolute obedience ‘even unto death, the death of the Cross’ is intrinsically oriented to the Father (otherwise, it would be meaningless, and not in any case an absolute, divine obedience).  Resting on the Father’s power, which is itself identical with the Father’s sending of his Son, the Son allows himself to be reduced to the uttermost weakness.  But this obedience is so thoroughly love for the Father and by that very fact is so altogether one (John 10, 30) with the Father’s own love that he who sends and he who obeys act by virtue of the same divine liberty in love—the Son inasmuch as he allows the Father the freedom to command to the point of his own death, the Father inasmuch as he allows the Son the freedom to obey right down to the same point.  When, accordingly, the Father grants to the Son, now raised into eternal life, the absolute freedom to show himself to his disciples in his identity with the dead Jesus of Nazareth, bearing the marks of his wounds, he gives him no new different or alien freedom but that freedom which is most deeply the Son’s very own.  It is precisely in this freedom of his that the Son reveals, ultimately, the freedom of the Father” (Mysterium Paschale, 209).