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Willie James Jennings | Hollow Places, Hallowed Places

Jennings helps us to look back into history at a time when colonialist settlers came into contact with new land and new people and found in their theology a justification to bring order to the world they found.


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cave with light

Jennings helps us to look back into history at a time when colonialist settlers came into contact with new land and new people and found in their theology a justification to bring order to the world they found.

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on May 19, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

When faced with something completely new, how will our theology help us to respond? Willie James Jennings helps us to look back into history at a time when colonialist settlers came into contact with new land and new people and found in their theology a justification to bring order to the world they found. Our theology today is built upon the idea that the hollow places of the earth are filled with treasures for our taking, rather than the idea that the earth is a hallowed place that glorifies God in all its treasures. 

Additional Resources


Transcript

Jennings:

Wherever the colonial settlers came, they introduced to indigenous people, and in many ways, they introduced to themselves a different way of understanding possession: the possession of land. For so many indigenous peoples, they had an idea of possession as well. But for the colonial settlers, when they came, they thought ‘possession of’ long before they thought ‘possession by’. Let me explain the difference between those two. So yes, ‘possession of’ means that you make a claim on something, you claim this property, you claim this river, you claim this body of land, ‘possession by’ means that you are claimed by this river, this body of land, these animals, that you are a part of them, and they speak to you, they in fact speak through you. 

My name is Willie James Jennings. I teach Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

In the past few years BioLogos and the Language of God podcast has made a concerted effort to cover many of the relevant topics that fall in the intersection between science and faith. Included in that recently have been several episodes on creation care and several on race. We have sought to understand what science can tell us about these, and how our Christian faith ought to inform and motivate us to do something about them. Today’s episode is about both creation care and race, but comes at them from a different angle. We’re trying to understand why our Christian theology has not proved successful in solving the brokenness of our world, especially as it relates to people from other racial backgrounds and our treatment of the planet itself. 

Willie James Jennings helps us look back in history and trace a common root to these problems today. This historical context shows us that theology does not spring up out of nowhere, that it comes from people and is shaped by culture. The colonialist culture, specifically, had a big impact on our theology and in many ways perverted our understanding of the earth and of people who lived much differently than the Europeans of that time. And that influence remains today. It’s easy to look back in history and fault people for the obvious deficiencies of their theology and their thinking in the face of novelty, which we see much more clearly today. But it always makes me wonder what we’re not seeing so clearly today that will be obvious to our descendents. I hope that having conversations with lots of different people can help to expose those blindspots. And historians of theology like Willie James Jennings can help us to recognize—and hopefully not repeat—the mistakes of the past.

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Willie James Jennings, welcome to the podcast. It’s an honor to have you here.

Jennings:

I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for this invitation. 

Stump:

Yeah, well, one of the themes that runs through your work is the importance of place. So let’s start by connecting your work itself to the places that you have been. Where do you come from? Where’d you grow up? What was your family like? How have these things influenced you? 

Jennings:

I was born and raised in a town called Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Stump:

We’ve heard of that place.

Jennings:

It’s a wonderful town in Western Michigan, a very Christian place. I say Grand Rapids was the most theological town in America. It was a town that had churches on almost every corner. It was the home of a denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Its sister denomination Reformed Church of America is in the nearby town of Holland. But there are also Reformed churches in Grand Rapids, RCA churches, and there were Baptist and Pentecostal and AME and United Methodist and Seventh Day, every denomination on this sun was in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids was also a place that was the home of Christian publishers, four very celebrated publishers: Zondervan’s, Baker, now on Baker Academic, Eerdman’s, and a smaller press, not many people, unless you’re deep inside of the Christian world know, called Kregel’s. They were all there in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Everybody went to church, and ministers were evaluated on the quality of their sermons, the exegetical care of their preaching, the power of its application. And so, you know, Grand Rapids was full of what I call Christian connoisseurs. They are deeply embedded in the Christian faith. But Grand Rapids was also an incredibly racist town, deeply divided by race, a strong racial antagonism flowed through the city. It was also a town that still had the taste and feel and smell of an immigrant town, a lot of immigrant angst. So, growing up in Grand Rapids, I could not reconcile the fact that I was in a place so intensely Christian, but also so virulently racist. Where I grew up, the place I grew up, I grew up on Franklin Street, and it was the area in Grand Rapids where black people were allowed to move after they came from the South to the west side of town. Then slowly, through very subtle forms of redlining and other ways of controlling black populations, they were allowed to kind of move into that area. So I grew up about 100 yards from the mother church of the Christian Reformed denomination, First Christian Reformed Church, on the corner of Franklin and Henry. I used to come down the street with my basketball, with dreams in my mind of becoming a NBA player, to the basketball court that was there in the church’s parking lot and I played many a basketball game there in that parking lot. But alas, I did not have a great jump shot and being under five feet tall at the time, my dreams soon came to a very painful end. But I grew up in that town and I always appreciated the natural beauty that surrounded me in Grand Rapids, even though where I lived, it was fairly limited. But if you’ve ever been to Michigan, you know it’s filled with stunning trees, trees that are deep and rich and speak to you. And we are not that far from the majestic Lake Michigan. Even in that town, the beauty of the world and the power of it exerts itself on your mind, on your psyche. So that was always a reality of comfort inside of the craziness of this question I had about how a place could be, how I could reconcile a place that was both, as I said, deeply Christian and deeply racist, deeply tied into the racial antagonism of the world. So that’s where I grew up.

Stump:

So you’re having theological thoughts about this place already and its context. So if an NBA player was Plan A, for your vocation, when did you have to shift to Plan B and becoming a professional theologian. When did that occur to you as a real possibility?

Jennings:

It was really by accident. I had wanted to be a musician. But I was sensing a call to ministry and being raised as a black Baptist kid, when you sense a call to ministry, that basically stops whatever else you’re planning, because you have to, if you’re serious about being a Christian, and you sense a call, you have to try to understand what God is asking you to do. So I wandered into the school called Calvin, at the time it was a college, Calvin College, now, Calvin University, and I wandered into Calvin College. I met with this wonderful old gentleman, I can’t remember his name, but he was the admissions director. And I said to him, you know, I would like to take a few Bible courses, do you think I could do that here? [laughter] He said, well, Mr. Jenkins, I think we can help you with a few Bible courses and a few other things as well. I said, okay. Well, I just want a few Bible courses really, but okay, if there’s other things I can take that’s fine. So I wound up going to Calvin and just fell in love with the learning. It was and remains a school deeply steeped in the Christian Reformed tradition, but also deeply steeped in its Dutch ethnicity. And at the time I went there it was at least, it was very Dutch. But when I was there, I met the first and probably most important academic mentor I ever had in my life. And that was this gentleman who he lived—he taught at Calvin, but he lived in my community, he lived about five blocks off the street behind the store that was, at the time was known as Mrs. Tracy’s store, little small corner grocery store. And then during the summer months, this man would get up out of his house, and he would walk down the street, walk down Franklin Street, because he went to First Christian Reformed Church on the corner. He would, in the summer months, basically walk to church most Sundays. Every now and then, more often than not, he would see an elderly gentleman out in his yard, tending to his yard before church. He would sometimes stop and talk to that gentleman, and then he would go on and go to his church. So when I got to Calvin, I was assigned this professor as my academic advisor, came to his office, and he said, “where are you from?” I said, “Grand Rapids.” And he said, “what part?” I told him, and I told him where I live. He said, “you live on Franklin.” “Yeah.” And so this professor figured out that the man he was talking to, African American gentleman he talked to on his way to church, was my dad. His name was Richard Mouw, and Richard Mouw became my on campus uncle slash father, Dutch uncle mentor, who watched over me as I was going through Calvin, and remained and remains an important crucial mentor for me. I owe that man everything. He guided me as I moved through my academic programs, but he was the one who would talk to my dad as he walked to church. So that’s how I wound up there.

Stump:

Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting you to say. But it’s not surprising given how We know of Rich as well, and the important work that he’s done for so many of us in that regard. Well, because this is BioLogos, I also have to ask you about science, do you have any memorable interactions with science growing up either positive or negative?

Jennings:

Always positive. The first scientist I ever met was my mother. And my mother and my father out in the garden. They were sharecroppers in the South. Migrant sharecroppers didn’t own the land that they worked and then they came up with the Great Migration north. But they were exquisite gardeners and so they taught me how to pay attention to the soil, how to recognize which worms were important when and where, they helped me understand the importance of dirt, how to plant seed, how to pay attention to the weather, how to know when a plant is healthy or not healthy. How to know when a plant needs help, and when a plant needs you to leave it alone, because it’s going to figure it out. Then when it was time to harvest, and when it wasn’t quite ready. So they taught me how to pay attention, which to me, is at the very heart of good scientific method isn’t it? Just to pay attention, but to pay attention not to an object, but to pay attention to a living subject. And my parents, they taught me that.

Stump:

I suspect there’s a lot of good sermon illustrations in that.

Jennings:

I hadn’t thought about it that way. But I guess so.

Stump:

Well, two of the topics we talk a lot about BioLogos are what it means to be human, and creation care. And I’d like to explore each of these a bit with you. Under that first topic, we’ve had quite a few episodes about race addressing it from the perspective of science and trying to unpack the fact that racial categories as we use them today, don’t map on to genetic differences of people groups, but instead races are social constructs. Of course, that doesn’t make the reality of racism any less troubling. But I want to use our time here, instead of just rehashing the last couple of decades, or even the last couple of centuries of race relations, I want to go back even further than that, because ideas also have a place, they don’t spring up out of nowhere, but have a history and a context. Even more specifically, there has to be a conceptual space that allows us to begin thinking in certain ways. In your book, The Christian Imagination, I was really fascinated in this respect by the chapter about Jose de Acosta. That’s not a name most people will be familiar with. So could you tell us a bit about him and why he was so important for developing the conceptual space within which racism could flourish?

Jennings:

He was not the progenitor of any of these things, but he was a crucial example of what was happening in the world. Jose de Acosta was a Jesuit priest, theologian, one of the very first students of the Jesuit Order, was really seen as what the Germans would call a wunderkind. He was a brilliant young man, who at a very early age, was very serious about offering himself to God for service and his parents were happy to offer him to the Jesuit order. As he was being educated, the founding the founding fathers of the Jesuit order, if you’d have asked them to identify what is it that they’re trying to form in terms of someone for this new emerging order, they would have all pointed to this man and said he is exactly what we’re hoping to create. Absolutely brilliant man. 

Stump:

So we’re in the 1500’s now right?

Jennings:

Right. So he comes to, he obviously wants to be a missionary, and go where the Jesuit order would send him. And in the 15th and the 16th and the 17th century the Jesuit order, they were like Johnny Cash, they were everywhere, man. The Jesuit Order went everywhere, incredible courage, incredible discipline, incredible intellectual power, was present in that Order. And he embodied the best of the very best. He came to what was then the frontier of Peru, sent by the Order there. Already as he was coming to Peru on the ship as he was coming. This was a man who had encyclopedic knowledge, really, of the Christian tradition. Absolutely brilliant. As he was on the ship coming, he was kind of going through the rolodex of his mind, if you will, about all that he had read about the geography of the world and what the early church writers had said what Augustine had said, what the Cappadocians had said, and he was starting to realize that when it came to the actual geography of the world, they were wrong. It was a moment in which he said, well, how do I understand, not simply their inability to see but the way in which they actually got it wrong in terms of how the world is shaped? What its dimensions are, what does it mean, and what people that exist beyond the known world. And so he began to try to reposition what theology could say about the nature of the world. He came up, it wasn’t new, it wasn’t really novel, it was just a very interesting application to some of the thinking. So in brief, he put it this way, the matters of faith that the early church writers speak about, they are exactly right. But when it reaches beyond matters of faith to kind of the shape of the world, they can only go as far as revelation had allowed them to go. And then he said, in effect, this: had they stood where I am standing, then they would have been able to see more and understand more. So in a subtle way he himself became the point of correction, the point of reference, the point of recalibration for what it meant for theology to cover the world by speech, by its discourse. When he got to the New World, what he understood, as so many others did, is that he had been brought there by the sovereign providential Hand of God. He, like the other missionaries who were arriving, were there to do two things. They were there to bring order to the New World. That order would be tied to their own way of understanding the world, their own way of doing things, they would organize and order the world according to what they understood to be the truth. Then the second thing they would do is that they would bring people to maturity, they would mature their faith, but they would also mature their way of life, and they would mature the way they understood life. And fundamental to that was, again, to recognize that God had brought them there for that purpose. And the story, the story, he used, the rationale he used for this was, he had this analogy called the ugly daughter analogy. And in that time…

Stump:

It sounds like it’s not going to go well here. [laughing]

Jennings:

It’s not going to go well at all, you can tell already by just this. So in that time, you know, men, men of substance, if they wanted their daughters married, they would have a dowry that they would offer to a potential suitor if they would marry their daughter. And if the daughter was ugly, then the dowry will be even more enhanced to attract a suitor. Well, here’s what Acosta said, God, like that father, had placed, these are his words, God had placed in the hollow places of the earth precious minerals and gold and other things, silver and copper, to draw the Spanish to the New World, the Spanish and the Portuguese. And while they were there, to extract from the earth the things God had placed in the hollows, they would turn their attention to these Amerindians, these indigenous peoples, and they would bring them to the faith. So God used, in a sense, their greed and their desire for riches and gold, to bring them to a place where they would then turn around and evangelize. But now notice in what I just said what’s so what’s so profound about Acosta is that he gives a theological justification for extraction, that God had placed these things in the hollow of the earth, to bring people there. Now, while he was there, he also did something else, in the New World that is. He like so many other colonial settlers coming to the New World, they didn’t simply come to conquer, they came to compare. So they made profound comparisons about their bodies’ relationship to indigenous bodies. But at the same time, they were making comparisons with bodies all over the now expanding world, thanks to the Jesuit expansive work. So, as the Jesuits were in different places, they started to create a comparative logic about people. What we want to say is that that comparative logic at first was not necessarily hierarchical. It soon, however, became hierarchical. And it wasn’t at first necessarily derogatory; it soon however became derogatory, with white at the very top, and black at the very bottom. In a very short time, Acosta was at the center, he didn’t create any of this, but he was really at the center of what was emerging — a new way to look at the world as property, and a new way to look at people as encased in race.

Stump:

So this is really fascinating. I mean, in a tragic way of fascinating. But I wonder if you might speak a little bit more to the sort of methodological issue that’s going on here, because it informs it’s certainly not entirely dissimilar to what we do today with new scientific discoveries and attempt to understand them within the context of a historic Christian faith. So Acosta goes over to Peru and sees all of these people who have been there for centuries, right. And this just doesn’t fit with, as you say, the tradition that he has inherited. Saying that people like Augustine got it wrong, these other authorities got it wrong on these points, but then one of the one of the lines you use in the book describing this is that “he has to stretch theological speech in an attempt to make intelligible this vision of the world that he has now seen himself to the people of the Old World.” And you say, at the core of this is this idea of providence that this is God doing this. Is there some way that we can kind of understand at least what Acosta was attempting to do, not to agree with it, but to say, what’s the dilemma he’s facing here? He has to somehow incorporate all this new knowledge and experience into a pretty rigid framework. What are the better ways of doing that? And again, I’m just talking about methodologically here right now, not necessarily the specific conclusions that he comes to, but if we could rewind time and go back. Because this has to be enormously shocking, right, to discover all of these things that they discovered, so how do we go about assimilating new knowledge and experience to tradition?

Jennings:

This is the crucial question, you’re naming it. How do we think at the site of the new? And so for Acosta, when he came, we have to underscore the fact that he was, like so many others, absolutely overwhelmed. He’s overwhelmed first, by the fact that the old maps, the mental maps, the cognitive maps, that born of theology didn’t make sense, okay? Where the North Pole or the South Pole or you know, where the poles are supposed to be, where the end of the world was supposed to be, who was supposed to be there, those those didn’t work. That’s the first kind of realization that’s not working. Number two, when you come, vastly different kinds of people, not just one, but multiple peoples. But let’s also remember, animals, animals that they had never even imagined existed, here they are, staring them in the face. And the landscapes, unbelievable. The first time one comes to the mountains of Peru and looks, and you are overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty. All of this and then there, let’s not forget, there is the gold, there is the gold that has brought you there and the deep hunger, the obsessive hunger for gold. I mean, when we look at Christopher Columbus, for example, his journals, he talks almost incessantly about gold. You have all of that going on. And let’s also remember that the missionaries, like the priests, missionaries like Acosta are not alone. On the one side of them are the soldiers who are also there, on the other side of them are the merchants who are also there, all having a profound effect. So what happens initially is, as you mentioned, it’s trying to make sense of, at every level, the inexplicable. If we rewind it, there are two things that were right in front of them, obviously in front of them, and neither one of them did people like Acosta, and let’s stick with Acosta, did he even begin to take up. The first thing is that he was a student of Thomas Aquinas. In fact, as most historians would say, a person like Acosta probably understood Aquinas better than any of us would understand him at this moment, not only because he’s closer to him, historically speaking, but the depth of his ability to understand the Latin and think inside the frameworks of Thomas Aquinas. But with Aquinas, he also understood that here was a profound work of adaptation and synthesis. That is, Thomas Aquinas showed how to make use of someone who was outside of the faith that is Aristotle, and think the faith deeply inside of an intellectual structure that was not of the faith. So he already had the tools to be able to think differently. But, the most important thing that was not done, the road that was not traveled, and it is the most obvious road, you don’t find anywhere in Acosta where he ever listened to indigenous people. He never at any point in time said these words: what do you all think? Those are our words, in our modern colloquium, our modern way of speaking, it would not have been that exactly. But that effect of turning to indigenous peoples and seeing them as thinking subjects. He did not do that.

Stump:

Instead, he develops or at least was important in developing, a typology of barbarians. Explain that a little bit of how we treat these, with the theological point behind it, have this drive to want to convert them right so that logic takes over and dictates how we do that with different classes of people.

Jennings:

Well, he understood that the reason they were there is to convert and so being a good Jesuit who wants to think precisely and down to the bone of a matter, he wanted to say, okay, what are the conditions necessary to convert these people? So part of his organizing, his incredibly sophisticated mind, was to try to figure out who was going to be easier to convert, and under what conditions would it be necessary. Join on the work of other Jesuits from around the growing sense of the world, he put together a typology of the different, in a sense that this is typology before the scientists of the of the 16th and 17th century, we started to put together, he put together basically a typology of what kinds of people would be capable of what levels of understanding the gospel. At the very top, obviously, were what we would now call the European. Then after them were what we would now call people of Asian descent. Then after them, going down in terms of levels of possibility, where those Amerindians and then at the very bottom, closer to animals were the barbarians. These were some indigenous peoples, and many Africans. So he created this scale, as it were, that would help those who would follow, figure out the ways in which folks might be evangelized. But this is all the beginnings, if you will, of a very strange career for something called theological anthropology, which is bound up in the very strange career of something called a doctrine of providence.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. Thanks for tuning in to another conversation about the intersection of science and Christian Faith. If you’d like to hear more of these conversations you might be interested in inviting one of our speakers to your church, college, or another event near you. The BioLogos Voices speakers bureau includes some of the top scientists and scholars in the BioLogos community and they are all passionate about sharing their stories and expertise with others. Go to biologos.org/voices to learn more about how to request a speaker or find out if any of them will be coming to an event near you. Now, back to the conversation!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

I always, when I read something like this, try to imagine myself in these contexts, right? And hope that, if I were as well schooled in Aquinas as he was, that maybe would have taken a different path, but who knows? Then I tried to think of what examples today might be relevant or parallel in some sense. The best I can come up with would be what if we now today in some not too distant future, were to discover intelligent life on other planets? Have you ever thought about this? How would our Christian theology, would that be a similar kind of shocking revelation for many people? For how would we have to stretch theological speech in order to accommodate a discovery like that? Would we end up making a typology of different kinds of aliens? And how they should be treated?

Jennings:

We would, we would, we would. I used to always have a thought exercise with my students, what if we think into the future about these matters? So if we thought into the future about these matters, what would probably happen is that it wouldn’t be a government, it would be some wealthy set of businessmen, who would find some fuel, create some fuel, launch some rocket ship, that would allow it to go beyond the speed of light, come to a planet. And given the fact that we are inside a particular kind of economic system, they will claim that planet as their own. 

Stump:

Start exploiting the resources.

Jennings:

Right. They would hire their own mercenaries, they would hire the people they needed to exploit the resources. If there were resources that we all, let’s suppose that they come to a planet and the planet has water that if you drink it, it cures almost every form of cancer. Imagine the power they would have if first of all, they had the resources to get there. They had discovered this and they had the quote unquote, rights to it. And since the rest of us couldn’t get to the planet without going through one of their ships, only those people, only those governments, only those government officials that had worked out deals with them would be able to go . Then what you would find out is that while we are here, only God knows what they would be doing there, especially if they come to a planet with peoples who don’t have advanced technology. If we wind up going, we go with their blessing, that is to say, we serve them in some particular way, that’s why we’re allowed to go. So let’s suppose they allow ministers to go of various stripes. Well, the ministers would be beholden to them. They would arrive with them, with their mercenaries, serving their interests. As I said a moment ago, you would wind up having a very similar setup with the three crucial agents that helped to create the New World: merchants, missionaries, and soldiers. That’s always the difficulty. But, if we could do a thought exercise here right now, and think about it this way. Right now and on this planet, in many places that we will call remote, we have these same three agents active. We have the same dynamic of indigenous peoples not being spoken to, not being listened to, not being given the power to control the lands that they are on even now. The reality of it is that this colonial dynamic has never stopped, it continues to this very moment.

Stump:

With that, let’s transition a little bit to topics of creation care, because I think there’s a really interesting deep connection there. And you can already start to hear resonances of that in what you’ve just said in this thought experiment. But talk a little bit about the concept of possession. Where did this come from in the way that the dominant Western culture understands it today? And how does it connect to not just racism and treating some people as less than human but also to the mounting climate crisis that we can’t seem to work toward resolving very well? What does possession have to do with that?

Jennings:

It’s at the heart of so many of our problems. When the colonial settlers came to the New Worlds where and we can talk about that in terms of Latin America, North America, Canada, Pacific Islands, Australia, wherever that designation New Worlds sticks historically, wherever the colonial settlers came, they introduced to indigenous peoples, and in many ways, they introduced to themselves a different way of understanding possession, the possession of land. For so many indigenous peoples, they had an idea of possession as well. But for the colonial settlers, when they came, they thought possession of long before they thought possession by. And for indigenous peoples, they thought possession by long before they thought possession of. Let me explain the difference between those two. So possession of means that you make a claim on something, you claim this land, you claim this property, you claim this river, you claim this body of land, possession by means that you are claimed by this river, this body of land, these animals. That you are a part of them, and they speak to you, they in fact speak through you. They are kin, they are family, they are one with your ancestors. In fact, they are your ancestors.

So the colonial settlers came with an idea of possession of that they articulated long before, they had an idea of possession by. Indigenous peoples had an idea of possession by they’re possessed by these places. That’s no small difference because between those two ways of thinking, worlds are being transformed. And fundamentally the way the world is being transformed is that it is being turned into private property. The colonial settlers saw the world as object, as thing on its way to becoming segmental, plottable, and offered inside of the logics of exchange. For the indigenous peoples, the land and the animals the plants and the water and the sky were all profoundly connected to their very bodies. This represents a fundamentally different way of understanding what it means to live in the world. For indigenous peoples you live in the world with other persons, some of whom are human. For the colonial settlers, you live in a world in which it is a resource that God has invited you to steward and care for. And so creation care in this regard, really is a pretty bad deterioration of an idea of connection to the world.

Stump:

Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I want you to speak a little bit more towards this, because that’s the very logic that so many of us have used. We look at Genesis one and two, and say we’re supposed to be stewards, right? But we don’t understand that it has this whole other logic packed into that, that causes us to just keep spinning our wheels, and we’re never gonna get out of it if we keep thinking this way.

Jennings:

As long as we think of stewardship as ownership, then we’re already doomed to profound failure. Stewardship as ownership means that we see the world as an object, that we see the world as a set of resources for our use, our manipulation, our exploitation, and our reconfiguration. We are given permission by God to do whatever we want to the world, because as long as we care for it as we use it, then we’re okay. Whereas if you think about, if you think about this idea of possession by, then there’s a different framework that comes to mind. We are co-creatures with all of creation, and we give witness to that reality of a shared existence, with all the rest of creation. If by stewardship, we mean witness, then, well, first of all, I don’t even think we need the word stewardship, once we say that. But if we think of the world as a site of witness, then the question is, how do we live in the world to give witness, that we are in the fellowship of creation, the company of creation, as co-creature? Now for so many indigenous peoples, but also this is true when you read the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Bible. That the world and that both among indigenous peoples and in the Scriptures, the world is alive and communicative. And those are not just a bunch of metaphors in the crude sense of the word metaphor. That the world and all of creation is alive and communicative, it speaks of the glory of God and it speaks to us not like we speak to one another. But it offers a reality of meaning, it presents a reality of meaning to us, if we would only open ourselves to it.

Stump:

So help us open ourselves to this and particularly from scriptural texts themselves. I watched the lectures you gave at Fuller last summer. And there you argued in one place that the way we read the creation texts in Scripture doesn’t adequately account for the place and context of the text themselves. You said that we’ve banished Israel as a co-reader of the creation texts. That the way we read them, we interpret them exactly the same as if Israel had never existed. What does it mean for us to be co-readers with Israel of these texts? How should that shape the way we understand our place in the world if we were reading these texts differently? Because just even this metaphor of stewardship, I found myself going, yeah, that doesn’t matter at all that Israel ever existed. We just looked at these texts and say, oh, yeah, God made us human beings stewards. And we’ve skipped completely over the rest of that story.

Jennings:

Right, and that is a fundamental problem for us. So we have to come back to where we, when and where we enter the story. This is where, for so many of us Christians, we have never gotten the memo that there was a time and a place where we entered the story. And if we could have gotten that memo, so much would have been different. 

Stump:

Give us the memo.

Jennings:

That memo has as its title, look at Acts 10 and 11. Then under that heading on the memo, you would have the story of a sheet being lowered and a disciple of this now risen, Jesus of Nazareth, there waiting to eat, waiting to do what all creatures must do, eat. And what’s on that sheet are the animals that this pious Jewish man would have never touched. Because they represented, those animals represented the boundary of faithfulness, and the boundary of aesthetic reality, the boundary of taste. So this man, as a faithful, God-fearing, God-loving, Jesus following, Jewish man would have said, both in terms of Torah faithfulness, but also in terms of my taste, I would not eat any of this. Those foods were associated, as everyone would have understood, especially in his day, but even in many places around the world, animals are associated with their peoples, the peoples who eat them. So if he would have lowered a salmon, or a buffalo, or a caribou in many parts of this world, and in the history of this world, we would have known what peoples are associated with those animals. So to lower that sheet down, and to say, rise, kill and eat, it would have been understood that this is an invitation to be a part of people that you would never have imagined being a part of. And sure enough, that was where we entered, we Gentiles. But now here’s the point: if God is opening up a reality of peoples through their animals that were seen as unclean, and not permissible to touch, or to commune with, God is opening up a new reality, a new level of reality to all of creation, to Israel, and through Israel, to all these Gentiles. So what does that mean? It means that these Gentiles who will soon hear of this Jesus of Nazareth, are about to be introduced to their Creator. But they’re being introduced to their Creator through this Israel, through this god-fearer, through this disciple of Jesus. Now, why is that so important? It means that when we turn to the Hebrew Bible, and to Genesis, and obviously I’m summarizing a whole lot of theology here, but it’s important so let’s see if I can do this. As we turn to the the book of Genesis, one of the things that’s missing in the way all of us were taught to read it is precisely what I just said, that story by which these people outside of Israel are now reading the story of a beginning, that is not the beginning that they understood, but at the same time, historically, it is also the place where we should see Israel being invited to see the God who has created them as a creator of us all, down into the details of the way we eat food and the ways we connect with plant and animal. That’s the difference that’s missing for so many Christians that there is no sense of a world in which we are invited to read through each other the creation.

Stump:

Yeah, that’s fascinating. We’re running out of time here, and we’ve done a lot of history already. Maybe we could finish by having you speak a little bit to how we might most successfully move forward from here. We can’t go back and have our ancestors take a different path than they have already taken that pointed us in the direction we’re headed. But how do we move ahead on some of these issues, given where we are now?

Jennings:

We have to do a few very important things. The first thing we have to do is to start to pay far more attention to place. As I like to say, we Christians, I’m quoting the great anthropologist, Keith Basso, Westerners are people who are geographically adrift, and I can say definitively that we Christians are intensely people who are geographically adrift. That is, we don’t think much about the relationship between our actual discipleship and the places that we live and inhabit. We don’t think much about place, place is inconsequential to us. And this is part of the tragedy of our theology, it has taught us that time is more important to God than place that we’re simply in a holding pattern. As they say, we’re in a starter house until God really gets our next house ready for us. Because so many people who think about their life, in this world, their life and place as utterly inconsequential, it’s just a stage upon which I stand, to be launched into the next part of my life. So it has to begin by beginning to take the configuration of place seriously. Which brings me to the other thing that we have to do, we have to understand that race and place are inextricably tied together. Race and place have always gone together, and we cannot address the racial antagonisms of the Western world until we start addressing the way life is configured, what’s known as the built environment, the way the built environment is configured to sustain that racial antagonism, to sustain identities isolated and cultivated in segregation. And so Christians really need to get serious about the built environment, get serious about bringing moral critique, to real estate, land development, city planning, architecture, we need moral critique. Places that can be created, and have been created and are created, that are violent in the way they have been created, that are immoral in the way they have been structured, and are deeply demonic in what they promote. And so we have to get serious about that. Then finally, what we have to do is we have to learn freshly as Christians, to listen to our indigenous sisters and brothers, who can help us learn how to listen freshly to the environment. But listening to the environment, first of all means listening to them, and listening to the ways in which they continue to be treated incredibly violently in this world, especially in the Western world.

Stump:

Well, thank you for that. I hope I speak for our audience in saying that it’s been a pleasure listening to you, to hear these important words. I believe you’re working on a new book right now?

Jennings:

I am. I’m working on a book on the doctrine of creation, which I hope to get done before I turn 90. I’m making good progress, I hope to get it done in a short time. I’ll put it that way.

Stump:

Well, I hope when it’s ready for public consumption that we might talk again about it. This is I think, really, really important perspective on the work of Christians as a whole but particularly BioLogos has we have attempted to engage with doctrines of creation and understand this beautiful creation that God has given us. You interact with it appropriately so we look forward to seeing what you have to say about that. Thanks again just so much for spending an hour with us and sharing from your place.

Jennings:

My pleasure, glad to be with you.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Willie James Jennings

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. His book The Christian Imagination won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He has also published the book After Whiteness. He is an ordained Baptist minister and served as interim pastor for several North Carolina churches. He received in undergraduate degree from Calvin University, his M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D in religion and ethics from Duke.