In March 2018, I had the privilege to interview Emilie M. Townes for “10 questions.” Townes is dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do in your position as dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School?
Emilie Townes: I am an American Baptist clergywoman and a native of Durham, NC. I have a DMin from the University of Chicago Divinity School and PhD in Religion in Society and Personality from Northwestern University.
I have taught at Saint Paul School of Theology, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Yale Divinity School, and now Vanderbilt University Divinity School where I am also Dean of the school.
As dean, I am responsible for guiding the institution in regard to curriculum, fiscal affairs, faculty and faculty development, student affairs, and the overall mission of the school and how we interact as a part of the larger University as well as religious and secular communities and society at large.
Kurt Manwaring: You had a rather remarkable experience that led you to Divinity School. For those not familiar with your background, could you explain what your choices were at the time and what ultimately led you down your current path?
Emilie Townes: I was trying to decide between going to law school or going to divinity school (and also getting a degree in social work). I ultimately realized that I was to go to divinity school when I had a profound sign from God that this was the path I must take.
I’ve always been bemused that the sign said “divinity school” and not “seminary.”
It could be that since I was attending the University of Chicago for college and had taken a couple of courses in the Divinity School that this is what stuck in my subconscious.
But I’m not sure…
Kurt Manwaring: You seem to place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of students taking care of themselves mentally/emotionally and warn against trying to please everyone. Could you share an example from your own graduate studies in which you learned this lesson the hard way?
Emilie Townes: This was not directly related to my studies at the time.
I served as interim minister for a small church for three of the four years I was working on my PhD. I was having a hard time with one member of the church. The situation worsened over time and as I was debriefing what was going on with one of my mentors, she listened patiently and then said: “What makes you think that it is your job to change this person?
That is God’s job.
Your job is to live the beliefs you espouse and model the life you hope is representative of what God wills for us all.”
Kurt Manwaring: What is your personal relationship with faith? Is there a certain portion of the bible you have found yourself referring back to over the years during times of great personal need?
Emilie Townes: Faith is what helps me get up each day and try one more time to get the gift of life that God has given me right by reaching out in grace and love to those around me and to live and work to help build the new heaven and new earth.
I often turn to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in time of great personal need— particularly the psalms of lament such as Psalm 22 or 137 because they help remind me that one must speak the truth of what is going wrong or troubling (lament) in order to reach God’s salvation in the midst of the suffering.
Kurt Manwaring: As a prominent theologian, do you feel you have a duty to comment on issues of morality in the political sphere? Is there a line somewhere delineating ethics and theology?
Emilie Townes: As a citizen of this country and as a woman of active faith, it is my responsibility to comment on issues of morality in the political sphere.
Ethics and theology are intimate dance partners — theology helps me think through how I experience God; ethics helps me think through how I must respond to this experience and also act on it.
Kurt Manaring: As you become increasingly more prominent, are there dangers associated with others oversimplifying what you bring to the table by referring to you as a ‘Black woman theologian’ or a ‘Black womanist ethicist’? Or are those demographic descriptions essential to understanding who you are and what you have to say?
Emilie Townes: Well, since I am a Black woman who uses womanist methodology as a social ethicist, the descriptions are apt.
What gives me pause is why we all don’t claim the social locations we come from when describing what we do so that we stop claiming false universals and instead recognize that we all begin our reflections from a particular place with a history that helps form us and what we see, think, and feel.
Where we come from is important and if we were more aware and honest about this and respected where others hail from as well, I think we’d have a much more humane society.
Kurt Manwaring: The Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions has as one if its goals to promote inter-professional collaboration in addressing social problems. Could you provide an example of an especially successful endeavor in which individuals from different professional backgrounds worked together?
Emilie Townes: To answer this one, I turned to the Director of the Cal Turner Program (CTP), Graham Reside, for help.
There have been several initiatives over the years that demonstrate the kind of trans-professional collaborations the CTP fosters from homelessness to health care to restorative justice.
The Clinic at Mercury Courts, one of the examples, involves a CTP has partnership with the clinic to provide a range of services, from education, to counseling to legal services, to healthcare to indigent population in Nashville by supporting that clinic. Through these partnerships and cross-professional engagements, that clinic has been able to do more than simply meet medical needs. Complex social problems such as homelessness require multiple forms of professional expertise.
The fellows (Divinity, Law, Owen, Peabody, Medicine, and Nursing) working through the CTP gain experience in drawing on their respective expertise in the service of a community agency such as the Clinic at Mercury Courts that is now able to provide a wider range of services in its community.
Kurt Manwaring: What is the relationship between theology and faith? Have you ever encountered a theological issue that tried your faith?
Emilie Townes: Theology is “God-talk.” Faith is how I respond to “God-talk.” Thus, they are intricately related and serve as both prod and comfort as I live my life.
Kurt Manwaring: President Donald Trump has rolled back heath care efforts put in place under the presidency of President Barack Obama, and yet the Affordable Care Act vote was the most partisan vote in our history when it comes to such significant overhaul efforts. In this era of vitriolic partisanship, do you foresee national health care becoming a reality? Why or why not?
Emilie Townes: No, I do not in our current environment. The politicians have stopped governing this country and are more interested in being re-elected. In this kind of atmosphere, that has been growing for more than twenty years, the common good takes a backseat to crass politics that is more about winning and losing than creating a caring society.
Kurt Manwaring: Mormons do not have a formal system of theology, and yet there are calls by scholars such as Terryl and Fiona Givens to develop one. What are some advantages Mormonism might see if it pursued such a course — and what are some of the dangers that would be associated with trying to systematize theology in a church so reliant upon inspiration?
Emilie Townes: Having a formal theology provides an explanation that why one is a Mormon from a faith perspective.
For instance, in my own Baptist faith, the concept of “soul freedom” that states that each one of us is responsible before God; and with that responsibility, each of us is free is intrinsic to being a Baptist — regardless of the many ways that those with in the Baptist express themselves.
For me, one can have a theology and also rely on inspiration as the former can describe form and the latter function in how one responds to the Divine in our lives.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could magically make three books appear on the shelves of everyone in America (who would then read them), which books would you choose and why?
Bryan Stevenson, Justice Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Stevenson, a lawyer who has dedicated his life to defending death row prisoners gives pull back the harsh inequities in the American criminal justice system while showing us the power of mercy, justice, and hope.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By turning to the powerful figures of the cross and lynching tree, Cone helps us understand the terror and hope that holds racism in place in our culture and our churches.
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God
Brown Douglas helps us understand the tragic consequences of the “stand-your-ground-culture” for not only black bodies, but all bodies in our culture.