Keith Johnson

Keith Johnson   Toward a Pedagogy of Discipleship.  Is it possible to teach Christian theology in a Christian way? On the face of it, this question seems absurd. How could Christian theology not be taught in a Christian way? But as history shows, it quite easy to teach theology in an unchristian way even when the content of that theology is orthodox. In fact, many if not most contemporary theologians were trained in, and unintentionally perpetuate, just such a pedagogy.

            Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination helps us understand why and how this unchristian pedagogy came into existence. His central claim is that the “story of race is also the story of place” (p. 289). He explains that Native peoples in the New World understood their personal and communal identities in relation to the land upon which they lived. This self-understanding was challenged when Europeans arrived. They viewed the New World primarily in light of its potential to be claimed as private property and then organized for economic benefit. This desire to possess and organize Native lands determined the colonialists’ approach to Native peoples. No longer would Native identities be determined by their relation to the land upon which they lived. Instead, their identities now would be defined by their own Native bodies as viewed in relation to the colonialists’ white bodies.

            Jennings argues that this displacement of Native peoples from their lands—and placement of their bodies into a relationship with the colonialists’ bodies—established a racial existence where white bodies become normative and serve as the reference for human identity. “In a real sense,” Jennings says, “whiteness comes into being as a form of landscape with all its facilitating realities” (p. 59). This new landscape was cultivated by the colonialists’ economic desires, and displaced Native and African lives soon found their value primarily within the realm of the market. Human identity was constructed within the parameters of an economic system intrinsically related to a racial imagination ordered around whiteness (p. 186). And Jennings shows that this imagination remains intact to this day. For example, even those who say that people must be judged by their inner selves rather than the color of their skin often presuppose a metric of judgment “gauged by the logic of [a] capitalism” linked to ideals shaped by the concept of whiteness (p. 278).

         Jennings spends much of the book showing how this racial imagination serves as the context within which the modern discipline of theology developed and still operates. Of course, some European theologians openly embraced racist distinctions and justified the displacement of Native and African peoples as the fulfillment of a divinely-sanctioned destiny. But many others were sympathetic and sought to include these displaced peoples within the Christian story. The problem is that, as they did so, these theologians presupposed the colonialists’ approach to space and identity. Instead of understanding the identities of Native and African peoples in connection to their lands, these theologians adopted the colonialists’ racial imagination and assimilated Christian claims to it. As theologians included Native and African peoples in the Christian story, they also assimilated them into the landscape of whiteness; and at the same time, these theologians understood both their own identities and the discipline of theology itself within the confines of this same racial landscape. The pedagogy of the theological academy still reflects this colonialist inheritance. This inheritance manifests itself whenever theologians assume an evaluative posture over against their students. In this “evaluative form” of theology, the task of teachers is to dispense wisdom while the students’ task is to adapt their own identities to the ideas and practices of their teachers. The result, Jennings argues, is “highly refined process of socialization” marked by “epistemic insularity” (p. 8, 202).

         The problem is that this kind of socialization, shaped by the racial landscape in which it operates, contradicts the central practices of discipleship to Jesus Christ. The incarnate Jesus embraced creatures who were different from him by joining his life to theirs so that the realities that defined their existence now belonged to him as well. Pedagogy shaped by the pattern of Jesus is distinguished by a desire for mutual transformation on the part of the student and the teacher. This kind of transformation occurs when their relationship is marked, as Jennings puts it, by a “joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only of beliefs and practices but of common life” (p. 202).

         What would theologians who embrace this pedagogy of discipleship look like? They would be distinguished by their vulnerability. They would put themselves in the position to be transformed in and through their encounters with other scholars and their students. Their teaching would go hand-in-hand with their learning. They would seek out opportunities to interact with people socially, economically, politically, and cultural different from themselves. Rather than focusing their scholarship around critically evaluating and then correcting the ideas of others, their scholarship would be ordered around the task of self-examination in light of their conversations with others. They would seek, not only to gain insights from diverse peoples, but to learn from these peoples who they themselves are. They would practice theology in a way that facilitates moments of joining and connection. Shared, cross-disciplinary projects would be the norm rather than the exception. They would engage with other disciplines, not merely to bring theological insights to bear on these disciplines, but to incorporate the best insights of these disciplines into the practice of theology. Their scholarship would be framed in an invitational way, not merely so a diverse set of people might be welcomed into the discipline of theology, but so these same people can help the discipline itself grow and change. And most of all, they would be marked by love—for their neighbors, for other ways of life, and for the risen Jesus whose eternal life manifests love’s transformative power.