Among the many Constantinian assumptions that much Protestantism shares quite uncritically with Rome is a commitment to modes of imperialism that preference and propagate particular cultural forms. The near-idolatry of, and proclivity to proliferate, its own forms, coupled with an ecclesiocentric view of the world, has very often restricted the church from entering into unfamiliar territory in anything but highly-qualified and guarded ways – ways usually accompanied by the violent protection of the state, such as was the case with the Conquistadors (lit. ‘conquerors’) who sought to extend the bounds of Europe to the Americas, to Oceania, to Africa, and to Asia.
I have been reminded of this narrative again recently while reading Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Jennings maps how among the many tragic consequences of associating Christian belief with the power of colonial conquest has been the ways that Christian theology has been harnessed as a ‘discourse of displacement’ which both imagines and appraises new situations ‘wholly within a colonialist logic’. This, as Jennings suggests, has ‘changed the trajectory of the teleological framework of Christianity’ and ‘established a strange kind of insularity and circularity for Christian traditions of enquiry’. One result of this decision has been that ‘the inner coherence of traditional Christian inquiry’ has been ‘grafted onto the inner coherence of colonialism’.
Reflecting upon the work of the Spanish theologian and naturalist José de Acosta who, in 1570 and at the age of 32, travelled with his Jesuit brothers from Spain via Columbia and Panama to teach at the newly-established mission in Peru, Jennings outlines the ways that the historic colonialist trajectory of much Christian theology is marked by ‘pedagogical imperialism’ and ‘epistemic insularity’ that makes it frightfully difficult for theologians to imagine whom we ‘belong to as we write, as we think, as we pray. This problem’, Jennings argues, ‘has fundamentally to do with a world formed and continuing to be formed to undermine the possibilities of Christians living together, loving together, and desiring each other. Such a desire is not a narcissistic longing for self to be seen in others, or an indulgent seeking for the comfort of like-minded doctrinal confessors. It is the necessary beginning for overturning the remade world’.
Naming some of the implications of this challenge for his own context as a teacher serving in the academy, Jennings argues that ‘Black Atlantic Christianity … lacks appeal because, enamored of the power and beauty of whiteness, … [it] presents itself to no one but itself and tragically invites “nonwhite” peoples to do the same. An intellectual life formed in so unappealing a setting becomes crushingly insular. It is exactly the insularity of Christian theology and all its identifiers (for example, orthodox, liberal, conservative, and so on) and the insularity of its Christian contextual responses and all its identifiers (for example, African, Asian, feminist, womanist) that repeatedly show Christians the missed opportunities of Christian intellectual life’.
Jennings’ is work launched by the assumption that worlds constituted on slave ships or by racial subjugation need to be overturned, and even where such efforts are provisional at best, such capsizing bears witness to the right orientation of things birthed of the hope gifted by the God of life. Such capsizing also calls for drawing from ‘the processes of displacement and translation clearer sight of something genuinely new in the formation of Christianity in modernity, the interpenetration of the vernacularization of Christianity and the production of space’. The logic of the incarnation means that the life and witness of the Christian community must not, as Jennings puts it, ‘stand over native flesh’. (Jennings is concerned to not dismiss what he calls ‘the important parental legacy of Christianity’ insofar as these nurture academic work in the modern West, especially for Black intellectuals. But, he argues, ‘we must not allow this legacy to blind us to the aching absence of a truly Christian intellectual community’ that reflects in its work ‘the incarnate reality of the Son who has joined the divine life to our lives and invites us to deep abiding intellectual joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only of beliefs and practices but of common life, and all of it of the multitude of many tongues’.) To proceed along such lines is to abandon one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones.