Friday, October 22, 2010

Theology and Race: A "Duke School?"

When I read J. Kameron Carter's commanding Race: A Theological Account, I had just a twinge of concern that his senior colleague at Duke, Willie James Jennings, had been "scooped" just a bit. Jennings began work along these lines back in the early 1990s, but then he got swept up into administrative duties at Duke Divinity School which then sidetracked him from his original research. But I have often come back, for instance, to his 1996 Modern Theology essay, "'He Became Truly Human': Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity" as a touchstone for starting conversations about theology and race. And Carter himself tips his hat to Jennings' pioneering work.

So I am thrilled to see Jennings' work has finally culminated in his new book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale UP, 2010). While its argument echoes Carter's narrative about race and theology in Western thought, it looks like Jennings' work also makes unique contributions. I'm eager to read it.

I also wonder whether we're not seeing the emergence of a kind of "Duke school" on theology and race. As further evidence, consider Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice's contributions along these lines as well (for example in their co-authored more popular book, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing). Or consider Brian Bantum's new book, originally a Duke dissertation: Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor UP, 2010).

In suggesting an emerging "Duke school," I don't mean to attribute to them some imperial program for a "school of thought." Nor do I mean to attribute to them some concern to formulate a "party line." Nonetheless, one can detect a similar sensibility in the work of Carter, Jennings, Katongole, and Bantum: a theological engagement with race that is "post-liberationist," one might say: not because they're somehow in favor of "oppression," but rather because, having come through liberationist paradigms, they have also seen the problems with such an approach (in particular, the way in which it still remains mired in modern categories that are at the root of the problem). It requires a certain courage to articulate this sort of position, since (as I've seen with my students), it can sometimes be mistaken for a 'color-blind' approach, or could appear to give comfort to those who would pretend to "transcend" race. But they are decidedly not advocating either. It's just that our imagination on these issues tends to remain binary and simplistic, whereas they are inviting us beyond such simple oppositions. Indeed, to use Bantum's term, they might be inviting us to a more "hybrid" theology.

I'm encouraged by this development, mainly because I have students who are so interested in working through these issues with rigor and nuance. I'm grateful to be able to point them to the Duke school, so to speak.