Since early mid-February I’ve been doing the systematic theology course “Christianity and the Current U.S. Crisis” through video podcasts provided by Union Theological Seminary. The three professors in the course are Serene Jones (the president of Union who is by training a feminist theologian concentrating in gender studies and Reformed theology), Gary Dorrien (a social ethicist and theologian, who also has an incredible background in economics and politics), and Cornel West (who I’m not sure how to describe—philosopher? civil rights activist? black theologian? bit player in the Matrix movies?). Guest speakers such as political theorist Benjamin Barber would also be speaking. I’d taken Black Theology and Marxist Thought, a course that West co-taught with Jim Cone back in the 80s, and learned a lot from him. Then two years ago I heard West speak again at a special lecture at Union and enjoyed it. So when Union alerted alumni about the course it seemed like a natural thing to do.
The first several weeks were spent reading Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr and studying the social gospel and its role in Reformed theology. The class time was used so that one professor took the lead, the others followed up with comments or questions, and then other people asked follow-up questions. Jones seemed to spend most of her time playing hostess, while West acted like West—spending a lot of time greeting people in the audience he hadn’t seen in years who had come into town for one evening, showing the breadth of his knowledge (which I think is perhaps the most extensive of anyone I’ve ever known) while jumping all over the place on the broad topic at hand, and every once in a while throwing in a hugely insightful zinger about, for example, what Obama’s current economic advisors say about his politics and his theology. Gary Dorrien doesn’t have any of West’s flamboyant style or language patterns but he gave very organized, cogent presentations each week. They were interesting and informative but seemed very academic. I began to feel like there was some missing bridge between the kind of material covered in my Union classes (which were very heady and academic) and the types of things covered in my Drew classes (which were very practical and grounded but sometimes left me feeling like the theoretical background for the material should have been examined in some detail.) It was frustrating.
But then last week Dorrien started the class off on the day’s topic: progressive responses to the American economy. He did a nice romp through the history of the economic responses of the two major US political parties, talked about the waves of globalization and how they differed, and then turned his attention to a progressive alternative economic model—economic democracy. He was great, weaving together the theoretical and the practical. Here’s a clip covering part of what he said in that class: