Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Keri Day: I think that intrinsic to theology is the normative moment. And what's been the problem with the research ideal is the extraction of the normative.
Willie Jennings: Theology ought to be able to pinpoint the thing that everybody's thinking - the difficult thing, the painful thing, the hurtful thing - offer it up, and say, "Let's think about this in light of what the good life might be in the face of this difficulty." That's what's been missing, right?
Martin Luther King Jr.: So the first question that the priest asks, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. Let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center For Faith and Culture. I know you recognize that last voice you just heard, but you might not know that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words the day before he died. April 3rd, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King preached a powerful and urgent message in Memphis, Tennessee. It's come to be known as "I've Been to the Mountain Top." In it, he considers the parable of the good Samaritan and the need to cultivate what he called a dangerous unselfishness.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life.
Evan Rosa: He would go on to speak prophetically of the dangers he himself faced, not knowing how very true his words were.
Martin Luther King Jr.: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Evan Rosa: The following day, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was thirty-nine years old.
And on Monday as the collective consciousness of the world and the media turns its eyes to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it's important to remember that he was not only a civil rights activist and a pastor. He was also a theologian whose spiritual logic has profoundly impacted the church, the United States and the world.
That's why today as we commemorate the legacy of Dr. King, we ask the question: how should we do theology? What is the future of theology? What's going right? What's going wrong? And how should theology impact real human life - an impact that might even cultivate the dangerous unselfishness that Jesus lived, the good Samaritan lived, and Dr. King lived? In today's episode, theologians Keri Day and Willie Jennings reflect on these questions. Keri is associate professor of constructive theology in African-American religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Willie is associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School.
As they talk about the prospects and perils of how theology is being done today, they both share the vision that theology should touch the lives and hearts of people, a public endeavor motivated by a love for the world. They stress that theology should be inherently practical, transformative, and life-giving.
And finally, as a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and his distinctive, influential theological perspective, we're honored to have been given permission by the King estate to feature a very moving passage from "I've Been to the Mountaintop," in which he displays a deep and courageous and prophetic understanding of what should be at stake for the theology he preached.
It's a theology of life and justice, a theology of profound and emanating love, a theology that envisions the promised land of flourishing that all God's children should be able to enjoy. First up, we'll listen to Matt Croasmun interviewing Keri Day about the future of theology. Thanks for listening today.
Matt Croasmun: What's going right in theology? As you look at the landscape, each of us, we're located somewhere different, but from your vantage point, what's going right? What do we have to celebrate within the theological disciplines?
Keri Day: Absolutely. Of course this will, I would imagine this answer will be biased by, depending on which area you're in, and as a Christian ethicist, and of course a Black religious scholar, to me, I think what is going right, I'm really excited about. And of course my work, my actual intellectual work, centers around this. It's sort of the revival of political theology, as well as public theology, and this revival not being just among ethicists proper, right, sort of the domain of what ethicists do, but it's being revived by theologians that are beginning to do this incredibly important work, as well as with people I think who would identify themselves as religious scholars, but that they're doing work in political theology that are teaching in department of religion programs.
And so to me, I think what's right about that is that perhaps the field, the discourses, as well as the thinkers are understanding that, in some ways, theology and the political or the social are wholeconstituted. They're inextricably linked, right? It's not as if the first order is theology, and then sort of sitting over here is the political, and simply it's about relating these radically discrete and separate conversations, but how they're inextricably linked and mutually inclusive. And to me, there's something right about that. And I think another amazing thing about the revival of political theology, public theology, is that it is placing at the center what perhaps decolonial, postcolonial theologians would refer to as a subaltern voice. Now I'll say this, I think, and I know you said we'll get to this today, but all the things that are wrong, I still think there's some ways to go in terms of the epistemic intervention, to how we're thinking about our theological and even epistemological categories in relationship to the subaltern voice. But I do think that the subaltern voice is moving to the center in a way that I am finding generative and fruitful for theology.
Matt Croasmun: So you've already anticipated some of this. Obviously there's still work to be done going in that direction. What else kind of gives you pause or has you troubled or worried about the kind of state of theology as it is?
Keri Day: For me, what still troubles me is this idea that theology, as in the department, area of theology, let's say ethics, let's say the history of Christianity, is something separate from practical theologies. And so I guess here what I'm getting at is the disciplinary parameters, how we understand particular fields.
And to me, I think what gives me pause and what is troublesome is this sense that they are so radically alienated from one another. And this is saying in how we structure the areas within our institutions, in and of themselves, that somehow theology proper, ethics, perhaps the history of Christianity, maybe philosophy of religion is seen as more abstract, as more philosophical. And then we have the practical stuff over there dealing with... and so for me, you know, for the Greeks, that philosophy was just not about sort of intellectual contemplation, but it was about the good life. It was about the formation of oneself and virtue and so forth within societal life.
And so that gives me pause, because I think that intrinsic to a theology is the normative moment. And what's been the problem with the research ideal is the extraction of the normative. Right now, of course, for fear of all kinds of reasons, because whenever you're talking about the normative or the ethical, there's all kinds of contestations around that within a pluralistic society.
Matt Croasmun: And exlusion.
Keri Day: That's right. And always exclusion sitting there.
But I think that theology can be in the vanguard because I think the departure point is this robust sense of attempting to envision the world. But not only that - I know there's a lot of conversations on the, well, can we speak of theory for theory's sake? Must we speak of theory in service to practice, that theory must have a telos and it must be towards a concrete set of practices?
I think there are good arguments on both sides actually. But it seems to me that the Christian vision or an account of Christian theology wants to make the claim that the telos is toward something much larger, about the love of God and creation.
Matt Croasmun: Yeah. And that's a stirring vision and it's strikingly particular and Christian, right, when you start to fill it out and yet you said, and I'm absolutely, we're in agreement on this, that some of the exciting things that are happening right now in theology is a kind of revival of political theology, revival of public theology, a theology able to be done and able to contribute in the public square. I think for some that seems actually like, that'd be, I think that might be surprising to some folks outside, outside the field. They think, what on earth does Christianity have to offer a kind of pluralistic moment like ours?
But how do we navigate that? Both the kind of Christian particularity of our articulation and also a kind of vocation in the public sphere.
Keri Day: Part of what I hear behind that is how do we articulate that in a way that is not dismissive of the kind of diversity and plurality that is present in the public sphere? And I always like to begin when I'm teaching my introduction to contemporary theological ethics at Brite, I always like to begin by talking about when we're speaking of the Christian tradition, we're sort of always and already speaking about Christian traditions, plural, and the heterogeneous nature, from the very beginning, not just slapped on or applied to the Christian tradition, but intrinsic to Christian traditions, the kind of multifocality and plurality that is always there.
And for me, I actually think that Christian traditions already have the internal resources. And I think it's a return to those internal resources that at least, I'm not saying provide the answer, but at least allow those that are seeking to enter Christian theology into the public space, that they're able to navigate and negotiate that in a way that is attentive and cautious to when the claims that we're making might be exclusionary or... even right now, when I say exclusionary, there's, there's a whole bunch of literature right now coming out on sort of contesting how we think and uncritically talk about ideas of exclusion, but certainly that are not life-giving. I like to say that: they're not life-giving to others who may not believe what I believe or have a different account of what the good life is. I'm thinking here, for example, of reproductive justice issues, pro-life and pro-choice, and sort of, at least for me, on both sides, I've heard scholars that have really compelling accounts of the good life, deeply rooted in Christian traditions that lead them to that particular position. So I want to be...
Matt Croasmun: Different positions?
Keri Day: Yeah. I'm sorry. Different positions to their positions. Different positions. And so I want to sit in that, that sense of complexity and that ambiguity, but to say that all those internal resources sit within Christian traditions.
Evan Rosa: Now Matt Croasmun asks Willie Jennings about what's going well with theology and the crises that it faces.
Matt Croasmun: What is right with theology these days? What's going well?
Willie Jennings: I think are several things going well. There are a lot of people interested in theological questions, people who you would not imagine are interested in theological questions, not only at the informal level - people on the street, churches, communities, temples, mosques, interested in things theological - but in the university. There are a lot of people in fields far and wide, removed from theology, who are asking theological questions... literary studies, philosophy, political theory, postcolonial theory, feminist, womanist. There's a lot of people asking theological questions. And so I think it's an interesting time to be a theologian and to be doing theology. I also think that theology, even in places where people are depressed about the state of theology, there's still really interesting work being done. I think the big question is whether people can see the opportunity in the midst of the crisis realities of theology. I think that's what it is, but I think there's a lot of good that's there. And I always think that you find people asking questions about God in really interesting places. And you just have to open your ear to hear the questions about God and life that are being asked.
Matt Croasmun: So you talk about the opportunities present in the crisis. What are some of the features of that crisis as you see it?
Willie Jennings: I think the crisis really is at two, maybe three levels. One, it's a crisis of communication. Those of us who do theology, we really don't know how to communicate, not only to ourselves, but to those outside, and our ability to speak in ways that show dexterity, sensitivity and even appreciation of the world. That's a serious problem.
I think the second level of crisis is that we don't know how to think together through challenging topics, challenging issues. It's not just a question of that we don't know how to fight or debate. I don't think that really comes to the heart. I think we just don't know how to find a shared project in the work and move toward bringing all the incredible mental and intellectual power that so many theologians across the country and the world have in shared projects.
I think the third, the kind of third problem we have is that it's a problem of formation. We have lost the imaginative capacity for how to form theological interests and thinkers. We don't know how to do that. In some ways, in the last couple of centuries, we've never had to hone those skills of how to make theology attractive to people and invite people into a formation. People just showed up. But the inability of being able to think strategically, think with sophistication and imagination about formation.
I think this is a crisis for theology itself. In many ways, we're like, we're very flat-footed. We're like people who can't dance anymore. We don't know how to dance. We don't have any rhythm, you know, we're off-key. We just don't know how to invite people in the complexity of their lives into a new way of life that is theology. I think for me, this is where the crisis is. I think all the other problems, money problems, audience problems, I think those are symptoms of this, what I call a constricted pedagogical artery. We just don't know how to breathe and have a heartbeat that's theology for the new world, for this world.
Matt Croasmun: Well then, let me, let's go right at it, then. Right? That's, if that's where the crisis is, and I share that, I share that sense: what would a pedagogy sufficient for this world... what would a theological pedagogy look like that's sufficient for our context, for this day?
Willie Jennings: I think we have to think theologically about the three things I just mentioned. So the first thing we have to do is start to think theologically about communication. What does it mean to communicate? What would a theology of media look like at this moment? And by that, I don't mean just how do we make use of media, but what does it mean that we are inside of, if you will, immediate modality of God? God became incarnate, right? And that there's a reality of communication of openness, of receptivity that the divine life showed us that we have not been able to follow.
And so I think the first thing we have to do is to start to think more holistically about communication. And that comes down to not only how we write, what we write about, but what we're trying to do when we write. It comes down to the kind of communal dimensions of our writing projects, our communication projects as theologians. What are we trying to do? What are we trying to say? It comes down to, what are we trying to accomplish with the production of our texts and what we do in the classroom? And to start to think, to be more thoughtful about those things. So a lot of that has been on automatic for us, and unfortunately it's a kind of automation that's of the steam engine. It's kind of dated automation.
So we have to think very seriously again about that. I think this comes to the second thing I mentioned a moment ago, how do we create shared projects? And I don't simply mean the big projects, how do we all work on the environment... no, these things are important, but how do we present theology in such a way that it always speaks invitation, always speaks sharing, always speaks, come join a work. I tend to think in musical metaphor. Just like you're forming a band, you're looking for people who can hear the sound. So how do we, in a sense, embody, perform that kind of open invitation? And so I think that we have to give some serious thought to that.
All of these things are not tacked on to theology. These are inherent to a theological work. So if we're doing doctrinal exploration, these things are inherit to that. And then I think the third aspect really does have to do with who we imagine ourselves to teach and want to teach, to invite and want to invite into this project called theology.
And here we have to do a lot more work in opening up the kind of constricted imagination of so many in the academy, especially in the university, especially what theology is being done there. We ought to be the people who are, to use old language, the greatest intellectual evangelists in the university, inviting as many people as possible to think, not only with us, but to imagine the possibility of a theological form of life that is commensurate with what they're doing.
And part of this gets back to the idea of the good life. To invite people into a vision of the good life begins with inviting people into the possibilities of a theological reflection that is not just an activity, but could be a way of life. Not a way of life so foreign to them that they're scared of it, but a way of life that really is saying to them, oh, this is what I've always been after.
There's a lot of people in the university, as I said, who are asking theological questions, but we have just not had the dexterity and the sophistication to hear the theological questions they're asking and speak to them in ways that capture their interest and imagination.
Matt Croasmun: In this pluralistic moment, right, where Christian theology isn't speaking to a Christian public, it's speaking to a diverse public - some of it includes Christians, but there's a diverse public - what are the opportunities that you see for Christian theology to speak to this pluralistic context, maybe starting within the university, which is a real touchpoint for that kind of pluralistic conversation, but also in the broader culture?
Willie Jennings: I think there's tremendous opportunity, but I think it begins with having, in some ways, the skill and the abilities of an artist. Let's take a comic, for example. What makes a comic so wonderful, a good comic? What makes their genius so beautiful is that they say the thing that everybody's thinking, right? And they say it with courage. And they can take the topic that's painful, difficult, challenging, and present it, but get people to laugh about it. Oh, that's genius, right? Well, theology ought to be, do something like that. Not make everybody laugh, but theology ought to be able to pinpoint the thing that everybody's thinking - the difficult thing, the painful thing, the hurtful thing - offer it up, and say, "Let's think about this in light of what the good life might be in the face of this difficult thing." That's what's been missing, right?
What's been missing - and I think often we approach the conversation about pluralism, about diversity, about different faiths, we approach it from the outside looking in, rather than from the inside of the challenges. Violence is a problem for all of us. Theology ought to name the specific pressure points in violence that draw all peoples of various faiths to these crucial pressure points. The seduction of guns, the love of weapons, the money made around the development of weapons, all these kinds of things. And this is often what we miss. We don't know how to identify what a good comic can identify. That's what people are concerned about. That's the itch. Scratch that. But it takes courage. It takes courage, but it also takes an ability to hear, see, and listen. It takes senses finely tuned to suffering and pain and difficulty and conflict, and able to tease it out, name it in a way that people can say, oh, okay. Yeah. Now you're talking about something.
We tend to get really mystified by the front door of difference. That is to say, okay, here's someone who's Muslim. Here's someone who's Buddhist. Here's someone who's Hindu. What do we do? Rather than, okay, that's the front door. Can we come inside? What's inside is that in this community, there are no sources of fresh water. Do we have something to say about that, that invites conversation among these others?
I think we desperately need that ability to name the pressure points of suffering and pain. I think that's crucial for us to create projects that draw all of us together in shared work. And there's so little of that. I've been involved for many years with the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. And I've been a part of many voter registration drives, marches, going to the state legislature to press for this or that issue. And I'm shoulder to shoulder with a mom or a rabbi or someone who's agnostic, someone who hates Christianity, all of us together doing this work. And interesting moments, yeah, thanks to the leadership of that movement. All of us singing hymns together. Now my friends here who are not Christian, don't become Christian because they're singing hymns, but they see a possibility of doing the good inside of a Christian frame while not being Christian, because we're focused in on crucial matters. We're touching real pressure points. That's what, that's what it takes.
Evan Rosa: On April 3rd, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech "I've Been to the Mountain Top." He gave this speech in Memphis, Tennessee to support the sanitation workers who were striking for labor rights, including higher wages and better safety measures. We selected two excerpts from the speech.
The first is his exposition of the good Samaritan, where with simplicity and power, he shows us how theology should be done as described by Keri and Willie. The second passage is the haunting and prescient crescendo of the speech, the last words he would speak in public. The following day on April 4th, 1968, after having been to the mountaintop, after having seen the Promised Land, he was murdered.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base.
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on the dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man who fell among theives. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the side. They didn't stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy, going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. And every now and then we begin to wonder, well, maybe they were going down to Jerusalem, down to Jericho, rather, to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles, or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen to twenty minutes later, you're about 2,200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus, it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, "We're sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."
And then I got into Memphis and some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center For Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologians Martin Luther King Jr., Keri Day, Willie Jennings and Matt Croasmun. Editorial and production assistance by Martin Chan. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edit and produce the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday, sometimes midweek. If you're new to the show, welcome, friend. Hit subscribe on your favorite podcast listening app, and we'd love your feedback. Ratings and reviews in Apple Podcasts are particularly helpful, but we're just as happy to hear from you by email at email@example.com. We read each comment and do our best to respond and improve the show, bringing you the people and topics that you want to hear.
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