Black History Month Spotlight: Willie Jennings

Tara C. Trapani

  For Black History Month, we'll be highlighting a few outstanding black scholars in the field, starting with our own Yale family. Today, we'd like to shine a light on the work of Willie Jennings. 

Willie Jennings is the Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. His main areas of interest and expertise include liberation theologies, cultural identities, and theological anthropology. Some of his recent work includes research into the interplay of religion, race, and the built environment and some fascinating exposition on Christian animism. Those who have taken the Religion and Ecology Coursera courses will remember Willie's engaging talks on “Christianity and Environmental Justice: Race, Habitation, and the Legacy of Extraction” in the Christianity course and “The Christian Doctrine of Creation: Reimagining an Animate and Communicative World” from the Western religions course (you can view a clip from that second discussion here–to watch the full interviews, sign up for the courses, which are completely free to audit).

He won both the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion (in the Constructive-Reflective category) and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his volume The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010). More recently, he published After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020). Listen to this Wabash Center podcast with Willie, speaking about the book, which focuses on the problems of theological education within a western context. 

His current project is a volume titled Reframing the World: Toward an Actual Doctrine of Creation. Here is the abstract of his 2019 article of the same name:

Christian theologies of creation are in crisis. They have become overly determined by questions of human origins and interaction with evolutionary theorization. They have also focused myopically on ecological concerns without thinking ecologically and holistically about the built environment in relation to racial and gender formation and multispecies connectivity and relationality. These and other problems stem from a twofold failure. We have failed to take seriously the loss of our gentile positionality in relation to reading the world as creation and we have also failed to grasp the fundamental transformation of the world with the emergence of modern colonialism. This article suggests the possibility of a reframing of a doctrine of creation to address this crisis.

    There are many wonderful talks and conversations with Willie Jennings on YouTube, but we'd like to highlight a few that may be of particular interest to Forum readers:

Facing the Anthropocene
Willie Jennings in conversation with Norman Wirzba

“Why the Body is the Land and the Land is the Body”
Willie Jennings in conversation with John Thatmanil
Union Theological Seminary 

“Gathering the pieces that remain: Weaving life together from the fragments of faith, race, and land”
J.J. Theissen Lecture
Canadian Mennonite University