Graduate Theological Union

Imaginative Theology

Jennifer Veninga“I believe imagination is the central part of our identity as humans, our belief system, and how we conceive of God.”

So says Graduate Theological Union 2007-2008 Newhall Scholar Jennifer (Jenny) Veninga, who will teach a course next spring under the supervision of Dr. George Greiner, on the relevancy of 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s existentialist thought in the 21st century. “Theology,” Veninga says, “can emerge in the imagination. Kierkegaard wrote extensively about imagination, the media, and religious thought, but this work is seldom discussed among scholars.”

Veninga discovered Kierkegaard in his own country when she spent an undergraduate semester studying in Copenhagen. The Dane’s influence has held sway for a decade, leading her last summer to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where she did research at the world’s top Kierkegaard collection and studied Danish.

“I fell in love with Kierkegaard’s passion,” says Veninga, “and his relentless questions about what it means to exist and be in relationship with God.”

Veninga just completed her comprehensive exams at the GTU, exploring the intersection of media — especially the Internet — with public imagination. “Is there such as thing as a cultural imagination?” she said. “How is it informed by culture, politics, and religion?”

Another question for Veninga is — how does one group imagine the identity of the other, such as Palestinians and Israelis, who seem unable to reach across the divide. How do they learn to practice “responsible imagination” concerning their own identity and that of others?

“My belief is that each of us is endowed with the capability of imagination. How do we encourage it? Kierkegaard would answer — through a passion for life.”

“Kierkegaard,” she said, “saw imagination as so powerful it could be used for good or evil. Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Kierkegaard were certainly visionaries. But so was Hitler. My belief is that each of us is endowed with the capability of imagination. How do we encourage it? Kierkegaard would answer — through a passion for life. Being who we’re called to be. I want to help awaken denied, dormant, or unrecognized imagination.”

In the course she will teach this year as a Newhall Scholar, “Rediscovering Kierkegaard in the Present Age,” Veninga will aim for elements of the philosopher’s legacy she says have been overlooked or narrowly interpreted.

Through films such as “Babette’s Feast,” novels by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, and music by Mozart, one of Kierkegaard’s favorite composers, Veninga will lead students to his main themes, among them paradox, anxiety, despair, redemption, and the relation between self and society.

“I want to find fresh ways of looking at Kierkegaard,” Veninga says, “including his critique of the newspapers of his day and his preference for indirect communication as a way of conveying theological ideas. Kierkegaard said Jesus himself used storytelling.”

Veninga’s interest in imagination may have started with Walt Whitman. As a Southern Methodist University (SMU) undergraduate majoring in religious studies, she wrote a paper about the noted American poet, finding him a “mystic of the ordinary,” a man of great vision who was able to imagine and understand how human beings live in this world.
Whitman, a writer who found beauty in the commonplace, seems a fitting start for a young woman from a two-stoplight Texas town, who still misses her cowgirl boots. After SMU, Veninga went to Harvard Divinity School, where she earned a master’s degree in theological studies, then returned to SMU for a yearlong fellowship in the chaplain’s office. She chose the GTU, which she describes as “one of the best decisions of my life,” for her doctoral program in the area of Systematic and Philosophical Theology.

Veninga’s passion calls her to two roles—teacher and minister. She expects to finish her doctorate in the next two years as she also completes the ordination process for the United Church of Christ.

“If I can create my dream job,” she says, “I will serve as a university or college chaplain and also teach in a religious studies department or affiliated theology school.”