Yesterday I was in a conversation about a stunning new book by Willie Jennings who teaches theology at Duke Divinity School. In 2010, Jennings published The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale). Here is a link with an online introduction and review.
I’m still getting into Part 1 of the book. But it seems significant for the moment to say Jennings is working at portraying how the Christian imagination (the ways we think, act and speak of ourselves as Christians) took a seriously wrong turn as it moved away from its own roots and place and became dislocated. In this process Christians lost their sense of place, their connections to Judaism. The wrong turn went even further afield as Christianity came to understand itself as the new Israel and the only faithful way and to export that understanding with the colonizing pursuits of western Europe. And “race” came to stand in as a way to classify people who were otherwise no longer connected to places or landscapes. It was an”architecture of displacement” that the white Christian imaginary built as it moved out from Europe in conquest of other places in the world. In the travelogues and writings about the “new world” there was solidified a set of distortions: “these two worlds, the imaginary and the real, are joined” (23).
Jennings writes, “Land and body are connected at the intersection of European imagination and expansion. The imagined geography diminished in strength as a more authentic and accurate geography emerged. The scale of existence, however, with white (unharmed) flesh at one end and black (armed) flesh at the other, grew in power precisely in the space created by Portuguese expansion into new lands” (24). In the book he goes on to explore other historical moments in which additional wrong turns are taken and the distortion of Christian imagination is further racialized.
These missed turns make for a profound woundedness that needs healing. And Jennings begins to re-imagine what Christian identity rooted in intimacy with God might look like and how it might be embodied in our relating and teaching and living in communities of faith. How might it look to join God by joining people, by making space for each other and reengaging physical, earthen places in order to undo the wrong turn of the Christian imaginary over centuries which has put us in such a devastating and separated existence?
I don’t do justice to Jennings’ arguments here. But I write this small bit to urge others to read and consider what he is trying to help us see.
Seeing the harm of mistranslations of scriptures and traditions and displacements of people in the name of Christianity, causes one to question (again) if there is any good, any liberation, anything worth holding on to in the broken tradition(s)? In the midst of that conversation I found myself saying to my colleagues, “We know how to create space for each other because we pray and because we worship.” It was like a coin dropping in place to hear myself say this out loud.
So much of my learning theology formally was split apart from clearly grounded spiritual practice. (This point is not unrelated to the story Jennings is telling, but part and parcel of it.) And yet over the last ten years I’ve been moving back and forth so regularly between prayer and worship on one hand and teaching and research on the other. In the presence of a conversation with colleagues about Jennings’ narrative of loss and harm, and his desire to re-imagine Christian identity, I managed to name one significant theological connection between the two – one I have been living into, but have not been able to articulate so simply.
We learn the theological work of making space for others, of God’s presence with and among us, when we enter fully into the ritual space of prayer and worship. We learn also to be received into this sacred space. It doesn’t always work. Worship and prayer, as one colleague pointed out, are not always practiced (by academics, she meant, but in other places, too). Neither are these practices guaranteed to offer this kind of intimate, relational, embodied encounter which in fact teaches one how to make space for another, or to enter into that space ourselves.
An unavoidable reality is that hospitality holds an enormous risk. The risk of welcoming or accepting the welcome of another is the possibility of destruction of the self or the other or both. In our desire for intimacy and joining we become necessarily vulnerable. And where there is vulnerability, there is defense. And psychological defenses are there for good reasons. They protect us initially, but as we grow up and grow sturdier, rather than lay the defenses aside, too often we hold on to them beyond their usefulness. And they are reinscribed in countless ways by the cultures in which we live. And those cultures harbor fear of the other and institutionalize it. And we are further paralyzed in our inability to stay present and extend or receive hospitable welcome without dropping back into our carefully constructed and culturally reinforced defenses.
God have mercy on us. God have mercy in us. God have mercy among us.