Two Days, Four Miles

The last two days have been similar: clear skies, chilly temps (6° and 7°), though this morning I had a bad case of heavy legs and a slower pace, while Sunday I was more limber and ran to a more favourable time. Another day, another two miles.

Saturday, I neglected to mention, Margaret and I had a leisurely breakfast with our griend from grad-school days, Willie James Jennings. Willie and I entered Duke in the same year, during years in which Duke admitted large groups of doctoral students. In contemporary terms, there’s much to criticise about that scheme, but it made for splendid, intoxicating debates and conversations in the grad lounge and in seminars. Stan Hauerwas’s premise was the we would learn best when we learned from one another, and that worked out pretty well. Willie and I were in the theology seminar for two years, in Ken Surin’s seminar once, and maybe another class I’m not remembering now (and I used to attend the theology grad seminar as well, though I was an interloper from biblical studies). In those days, American theology was in the beginning, perhaps the preparatory, stages of a range of changes: some convulsive, some evolutionary, some retrievals, but all with a sense of vigour and exhilarating range, and among the many who emerged from those years as prominent theologians on the US scene, I kept a watchful eye on Willie as a bellwether of the convergence of good, grounded sense and the expectation that a change was coming. We took part in some fascinating disagreements, some especially valuable sympathies.

When Margaret began her doctoral work fifteen years or so later, Willie was working in admin at Duke. In a field overcrowded with status and egos, he toiled with students to help them get through the various struggles with which seminary training confronts us. I imagine, though I haven’t pried into this, the intricate forms in which institutional and structural racism subtly permeated a wealthy university in the American South must have played a significant part of his role, and as is often the case, the administrative bearer of that burden was not so much appreciated for their negotiating fraught demands and injuries as they were neglected as the messenger with unwelcome news. It looked to us as though Willie didn’t get a chance to flourish as a theologian in his own right; for all the marvellous strengths Duke afforded to its students and staff, harmony and mutual respect did not rank highly enough (especially for women and scholars of colour). When I was a visiting professor there, we saw Willie from time to time, but he was always, always busy.

At that time, Willie had begun to attract attention as a leading figure in a new generation of Black theology; he and Jay Carter stood to represent a powerhouse of Black theology, and Duke was the place to study. For whatever reason — I’m not enough of an insider to give a well-sourced account, though I can make some plausible guesses — both Jay and Willie left Duke around 2010, so that instead of entering the twenty-first century with a staff poised to confront the recrudescence of white supremacist backwash with two front-line theological stars, Duke needed to scramble to salvage some measure of credibility with scholars who care about theology in ways not defined and limited by white scholarship. Willie moved to Yale Divinity School, where he’s understood and appreciated as the gentle, profound, critical theologian and mentor that he didn’t get a chance to be at Duke. He’s giving the Bampton Lectures here at Oxford — I’ll link to the first two below, and the he’ll deliver the second two tomorrow.

(I should add that Jay’s thriving at Indiana, and he has a new book coming out soon if it’s not already out, dealing with race and expression [my characterisation], a mode of religious study, practice, and resistance that emerges from colonial, captialist, and of course racist models for what ‘religion’ might be. I’m eager to read it.)

Anyway, here’s to Willie and the Bampton Lectures and Yale Div and collegial coffee and the future of Black theology!

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