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The goal of theological education should be to facilitate gathering

How can we imagine theological education beyond the false goals of possession, mastery and control? Eric D. Barreto and Willie James Jennings offer their thoughts.

This video clip and transcript are the second in a series of bonus content from a conversation between Eric Barretto and Willie James Jennings for Outlook’s April issue. Stay tuned for more extra content and read the magazine’s edit of their conversation here.


Eric: In your book After Whiteness, you teach us that theological education has gone astray. When we have centered everything on self-sufficiency supported by possession, mastery and control.

How might a focus on belonging help us imagine theological education beyond the false goals of possession, mastery and control?

Willie: The image I offer in After Whiteness is Jesus in a crowd. And that image, for me, helps us see what you were saying earlier, Eric, about the uncontrollability not only of life but the uncontrollability of the kind of vocation and work we should be about. In the heart of it, there’s the renunciation of the desire to control …. What’s so great about that image is that Jesus is drawing a crowd. And the crowd Jesus is drawing are people who would not, under any circumstance, be anywhere near each other. But here they are with Jesus. And the only thing keeping them from killing each other is that they want what Jesus offers.

Willie: But there’s the other side of it too. And that is, this is a crowd that Jesus and the disciples cannot control. They have to simply be present. And in point of fact, what we know is that it is precisely that crowd pulling at Jesus, tugging at Jesus, screaming out for him [that causes] Jesus to recognize that “I can’t hold myself back anymore. I have to give my body to this crowd.” And here lies the logic of the Eucharist: [Jesus] knows that he cannot control the crowd. All he can do is offer his body to them. And there is something fundamental both about … Jesus offering his body to them and the recognition that [the crowd is] together only because of him, that I want to center in theological education.

It means that our goal, at the heart of theological education, is to help cultivate people who have, who show, who are able to facilitate the gathering.

Willie: What does that mean? It means that our goal, at the heart of theological education, is to help cultivate people who have, who show, who are able to facilitate the gathering — the gathering of people together, no matter whether they’re gonna be pastors or artists or painters. They facilitate the gathering. They bring people together. And in that way, they invite people into a shared offering of themselves to one another. Now, if that drives theological education, then we have to rethink soup to nuts. We have to rethink admissions to graduation. Because that’s what we’re going after. We’re not going after somebody who’s able to stand up in a pulpit and, you know, … recite Ephesians 1 in Greek from memory — though that would be lovely.

They bring people together. And in that way, they invite people into a shared offering of themselves to one another.

Eric: Yeah. We’re still gonna teach them Greek!

Willie: But that would not be the (ultimate) point. … I once had a guy … say, “Well, don’t you think that in order to do the things that [you’re] talking about, you need people who have mastery and control?”

I told him: Listen: if you went up to a really great musician and asked her, “Do you feel like you have mastery, control and possession, full possession of your instrument and all the music you play?” She would look at you like you had three heads.

No great musician would ever say (unless they’re incredibly arrogant): … “I have mastery of the piano.” “I have mastery of the violin.” “I have complete possession of all the music that I’ll ever have to play.”

That way of thinking about what they’re doing is so far removed from how they understand what they’re doing. What they will say is that “I want people to hear the music.” And so, they’re always thinking about the crowd and how the crowd will respond to this work of art [they are] am presenting. And that, for me, is what we really want.

“I want people to hear the music.”

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