Theology & the Construction of Race

Instructor: Ted Vial

Course Description

Several important books have recently been published making the case that religion, and more specifically, Christian theology, have played a constitutive role in creating the ideas of race and racial hierarchies. This course is an extended argument (with which students are free to agree or disagree in part or in whole—in any case they will become familiar with the relevant literature and concepts) that 1. In significant ways religion and race are modern, not universal or permanent, constructions; that 2.  Religion and race are two of the very few fundamental conceptual building blocks of the modern world, such that, no matter what one thinks of religion and race, one is unable to think or operate in the modern world without them; and that 3. Religion and race are mutually imbricated in such a way that, even when race is not explicitly a topic of discussion or observation, modern religion is always already racialized.

Course Goals

  1. to see the way religion and race have been constructed in the modern world
  2. to see the way that religion and race are linked in the modern world;
  3. to see the work that these concepts do;
  4. and to become familiar with many of the leading theorists religion, theology, and race.

Required Books

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Vintage 1992)

Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination:  Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale 2010)

Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (CreateSpace 2017)

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press 1996)

Theodore Vial, Modern Religion, Modern Race (Oxford, 2016) (e-copy available through Iliff’s library:

Additional required readings (marked with an asterisk* in the Schedule of Readings) are available on the course Canvas page.

Each student will prepare 4 papers of 3 pages each.  You will choose which three readings you will write about in the Paper Sign up assignment.  Papers will be posted by Monday at midnight.  All students will post a one-paragraph response to the paper and/or reading by Wednesday at midnight.  All students will read all postings and post an additional one paragraph reflection or comment by Friday at midnight.  Each paper is worth 20% of your grade, and the quality of your postings over the quarter is worth 10% of your grade. Late postings will not be accepted.  Students presenting on the readings that are on the syllabus for our gathering days sessions should bring 2 copies of their papers to class and be prepared to read them as a way of initiating discussion.

Papers will be graded according to the following 4 criteria:

  1. A clearly stated claim;
  2. Textual evidence to support the claim;
  3. Quality of writing (organization, proper use of sentences and paragraphs, grammar, spelling, and all other mechanics);
  4. Depth and seriousness of analysis. 

In a short paper the claim typically appears as the last sentence of the introductory paragraph (if it is not there the writer needs clearly to mark where it is, since otherwise readers will assume that sentence is the claim).  A claim states the conclusion of the argument put forward in the paper.  You have a great deal of freedom here.  A claim might state what is the most important idea in the reading, or what the author must assume to make his or her argument, or what the logical extension of that argument might be, or how that argument relates to other readings on our syllabus, or what the author gets right or wrong, etc.   In a short paper you will likely not be able to summarize the all the points the author makes, nor should you try.  Part of your task of analysis is to prioritize what is most important to lift up for discussion for our class.  Your paper will likely not follow the same organization as the reading under analysis, since the logic of your argument will not be the same as the logic of the argument of the reading.  If your paragraphs tend to begin “And then . . .;  Next . . .” then it is probably time to go back and do at least one more draft and re-think what you are presenting and how.  Papers for this class are a little closer to the summary end of the spectrum than a term paper might be, since they are the basis for our discussion.  But they are still papers that make engage the text by making a point about the text.  At the end, some questions for discussion should be proposed.

The purpose of the papers is three-fold: the first is to encourage deep engagement with the texts; the second is to encourage a habit of discussion that is open, respectful, and rigorous.  This is best accomplished when the analytical essays take a charitable stance towards the readings.  Some of them will seem old-fashioned, and the writers may have different concerns than do we.  As in any good conversation, it is important first to try to see where the writer is coming from, rather than to be dismissive of his or her ideas.  There will be plenty of time later to decide what is useful to you and what is not.   We must begin with an accurate understanding of what is actually going on in the essay.  Third, these section papers will help develop your skills as readers and writers.  A great number of studies show that “peer-review” is a very effective way to teach writing.  The feedback you get on these papers during discussion will be quite valuable.

Papers will be graded on the following scale:

4 = A
3 = B
2 = C
1 = D
0 = F

Each student will prepare some background information on one person we are either reading or reading about. It is worth 10% of your grade. These should be posted by Sunday night at midnight on the week you signed up for in the discussion for that topic. They are intended as orientation to help understand the readings--"I've never heard of this person; what do I need to know"? They should be short, accessible, and fun if possible! You may write a paragraph (250 words-ish), post short videos of you talking, or link to clips. Please do not simply link to a webpage that gives background--that is your job! Please keep it to something your classmates can read/watch in 2 or 3 minutes.

Throughout the quarter, we will have weekly discussions which will compose a large part of our engagement with each other in this online learning space. You must participate in each discussion at least twice during the week. Your grade for participation (10%) is based on the timely and useful quality of your postings. For these discussions to be meaningful conversation spaces, we all need to take responsibility for consistent and substantial participation. Over the course of a conversation, substantial engagement means:

  1. Extend the conversation - creatively and critically push the conversation forward, do not just regurgitate what has already been said. If 1 or 2 other students have already responded directly to a point raised in a student paper, do not simply write another response to that point unless it adds something new to the conversation. You need to extend the conversation by adding an additional or different insight from the course materials, by asking a new question that stems from one of the posts already offered, by offering a related and contextualized example of the issue being discussed from your own experience, or by creatively integrating your own perspective with what has already been posted. 
  2. Ask contextualized questions - situate your questions within the discussion by referencing the course materials and other parts of the conversation thread that inform your inquiry. Give us a little background as to why this question matters to you and how it relates to the course.
  3. Ask for help if there is an important passage or idea with which you are struggling. This is why we have class.
  4. Engage others in the course - thoughtful engagement with other students in the course and with the instructional team. 
  5. Engage the course materials - thoughtful engagement with readings, lectures, student presentations, and any other materials related to the course. Referencing and citing course materials in your posts where appropriate is encouraged. 
  6. Participate Respectfully - discussions in this course are likely to raise sensitive topics. Please strive for respect in all your comments, and charity in reading the comments of others.

Each post need not do all of these things, but your overall participation in each conversation should demonstrate all of these components. You might have several short posts and a handful of longer posts in a week or you might have only a few strategic substantial posts (minimum of 2 posts per discussion). Either way, your overall participation in each conversation will be evaluated for substantial engagement. The goal of this discussion design is to encourage and reward interchange, so post often and engage each other with meaningful questions that open to other questions.

Degree Learning Goals: Please take some time to look over the Professional Degree Learning Goals (MDiv, MASC, MAPSC) and the Academic Degree Learning Goals (MTS, MA).

Incompletes:  If incompletes are allowed in this course, see the Master's Student Handbook for Policies and Procedures.

Pass/Fail:  Masters students wishing to take the class pass/fail should discuss this with the instructor by the second class session.

Academic Integrity and Community Covenant:  All students are expected to abide by Iliff’s statement on Academic Integrity, as published in the Masters Student Handbook, or the Joint PhD Statement on Academic Honesty, as published in the Joint PhD Student Handbook, as appropriate.  All participants in this class are expected to be familiar with Iliff’s Community Covenant.

Core ValuesAs a community, Iliff strives to live by this set of Core Values.

Accommodations:  Iliff engages in a collaborative effort with students with disabilities to reasonably accommodate student needs.   Students are encouraged to contact their assigned advisor to initiate the process of requesting accommodations.  The advising center can be contacted at or by phone at 303-765-1146. 

Writing Lab:  Grammar and organization are important for all written assignments.  Additional help is available from the Iliff Writing Lab, which is available for students of any level who need help beginning an assignment, organizing thoughts, or reviewing a final draft. 

Inclusive Language:  It is expected that all course participants will use inclusive language in speaking and writing, and will use terms that do not create barriers to classroom community. 

Jun 14, 2018ThuWeek 1 (week of June 10--that's Sunday!): Intro to Theology and the Construction of Racedue by 05:59AM
Jun 16, 2018SatSign up for papers and backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Jun 18, 2018MonBackground on James Baldwindue by 05:59AM
Jun 19, 2018TueJames Baldwin Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jun 21, 2018ThuJames Baldwin Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Jun 23, 2018SatJames Baldwin Discussion, Continueddue by 05:59AM
Jun 25, 2018MonDu Bois and Modern Definitions of Race Backgrounddue by 05:59AM
Jun 26, 2018TueDu Bois and Modern Definitions of Race Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jun 28, 2018ThuDu Bois and Modern Definitions of Race Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Jun 30, 2018SatDu Bois and Modern Definitions of Race Continueddue by 05:59AM
Jul 02, 2018MonKant, Race, and Modernity Backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Jul 03, 2018TueKant, Race, and Modernity Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jul 05, 2018ThuKant, Race, and Modernity Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Jul 07, 2018SatKant, Race, and Modernity Continueddue by 05:59AM
Jul 09, 2018MonLee, Thandeka, and Jennings Backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Jul 10, 2018TueLee, Thandeka, and Jennings Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jul 12, 2018ThuGathering Daysdue by 07:00PM
Jul 13, 2018FriGathering Days Continueddue by 02:00PM
Jul 16, 2018MonModern Religious Thought Backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Jul 17, 2018TueModern Religious Thought Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jul 19, 2018ThuModern Religious Thought Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Jul 21, 2018SatModern Religious Thought Continueddue by 05:59AM
Jul 23, 2018MonRace, Religion, and Language Backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Jul 24, 2018TueRace, Religion, and Language Papersdue by 05:59AM
Jul 26, 2018ThuRace, Religion, and Langauge Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Jul 28, 2018SatRace, Religion, and Language Continueddue by 05:59AM
Jul 31, 2018TueTheology, Race, and Judaism Papersdue by 05:59AM
Aug 02, 2018ThuTheology, Race, and Judaism Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Aug 04, 2018SatTheology, Race, and Judaism Continueddue by 05:59AM
Aug 07, 2018TueTheology, Race, and Judaism Part 2 Papersdue by 05:59AM
Aug 09, 2018ThuTheology, Race, and Judaism Part 2 Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Aug 11, 2018SatTheology, Race, and Judaism Part 2 Continueddue by 05:59AM
Aug 13, 2018MonMoving Forward? Backgroundsdue by 05:59AM
Aug 14, 2018TueMoving Forward? Papersdue by 05:59AM
Aug 16, 2018ThuMoving Forward? Discussiondue by 05:59AM
Aug 18, 2018SatMoving Forward? Discussion Continueddue by 05:59AM
Aug 22, 2018Weddiscussion participationdue by 05:59AM