A Call Like Fire Shut Up In My Bones - Princeton Theological Seminary
Editor’s note: This article was written prior to Dr. Katie Cannon’s death in August 2018. Read her obituary in The New York Times.

March 2, 2018—During Women’s History Month, the Princeton Theological Seminary community celebrates the work of women in ministry. Last fall, we had the privilege to host Dr. Katie Cannon, the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary (Richmond, Virginia), at our 2017 Women in Ministry Conference. A prominent and pioneering womanist theologian, Dr. Cannon is the first African-American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We caught up with Dr. Cannon when she was on campus, and we’re delighted to share her reflections on her work as a professor, advocate, and trailblazing scholar.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your ministry?

A: The call to teach is like fire shut up in my bones. As a Christian womanist liberation theological ethicist, embodied, mediated knowledge is a fundamental component of my pedagogy. I bring my biotext and students bring their existential stories, rooted in remembering, to the common, centering point in each course of study. Working together as co-learners, we introduce into existence new forms of moral praxis.

Scattered throughout my teaching career is the mantra, there is no value-free space.

Q: How does womanist theology and ethics challenge and speak to the church?
A: Womanism is a way of knowing. Womanist scholarship is cognizant, intuitive, and a legitimate academic enterprise. Womanist Theological Ethics is rigorous inquiry whereby we change the index in theological education by centering the differentiated experiences, perspectives, and realities of Black women as the touchstone. In other words, as women of the African Diaspora living in the United States, we examine our inherited forms of survivalist intentions in a wider sociocultural context at the hermeneutical center, instead of being a superfluous afterthought, hanging off the peripheral ecclesiastical margin. Womanist intellectual activists shift paradigms, both in content and methodologies in biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology, due to our commitment to work in solidarity with real-world liberation struggles for freedom, justice, and fullness of life.

Scattered throughout my teaching career is the mantra, there is no value-free space. It is impossible to do authentic liberation ethics sitting in armchairs pretending only to be dispassionate, color-blank, objective talking heads. Instead, as embodied social selves, we create collaborative dialectic space—a learning environment where we can sandpaper with each other’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Students who enroll in my courses know we are going to look at justice issues, counter falsely constructed realities, and investigate lines of demarcation between the valued-haves and the devalued-have-nots. My modus operandi consists of wrestling with difficult contestable issues in order to eradicate systemic oppression.

In essence, as a professor, my joy is knowing that long after my courses end and exams have faded from memory, I still get calls and email correspondences from students struggling to stay open-minded in their growing desire to live ethically as they identify the patterns that must be altered, and the accountable actions that must be taken in order to live justly, love mercifully, and walk humbly with our God.

Dr. Katie Cannon delivering the keynote lecture for last fall's Women in Ministry Conference

Dr. Katie Cannon delivering the keynote lecture for last fall’s Women in Ministry Conference

Q: As the keynote speaker of last fall’s Women in Ministry Conference, what were you hoping to share with attendees/how did you hope to inspire them?

A: I accepted the invitation to share my gifts and graces with Princeton Seminary’s Women in Ministry Conference because for three decades I have participated in different activities sponsored by women at PTS and I knew this was a history-making event whose time had come. It was great to experience substantive communication and collaboration between intergenerational women from different racial/ethnic communities, geographical locations, and religious denominations during the Women in Ministry Conference. The labor of love by the conference planners was especially evident in the incredible opening worship service.

In my keynote address I shared my head-on collision with malestream pedagogy and white supremacist roadblocks as a cautionary tale. A major part of my professional development is mastering life lessons that bolster against unthinking rudeness, obnoxious animosity, and overt bias that church folk express regarding women’s historic exclusion from religious leadership in Christianity as being divinely ordained. Part of the problem is that—like many of the males and females who feel that the ordination of women is a cruel joke—they have never been obliged to respect an ordained Black woman scholar called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. So, early on, I learned how to enter the inner sanctum, take my seat on the front pew and brace myself for the confrontational inquiry that inevitably occurs whenever I climb the steps and stand behind the sacred desk to proclaim “thus saith the Lord.” Oftentimes, as the visiting guest preacher, I have no words, or even mental categories for the barrage of interrogative probing amidst exchanged pleasantries during the coffee hour.

As God-fearing women, we must continue to cultivate our God consciousness, as doers of justice.

By delineating the meaning of embodied mediated knowledge in relations to our particular social-cultural-historical locations, I demonstrated the integral connections between “thinking hearts and feeling brains.” My hope was to invite conference attendees to identify the empowering testimonies and religious commitments we inherited from our foremothers, as well as the faithful witness and usable truth we are learning from contemporary women in our circle of life. As God-fearing women, we must continue to cultivate our God consciousness, as doers of justice.

Despite the never-ending work as an advocate for racial-gender justice, I remain positive, resilient, and faithful to my vocational call, by continuing to deepen my devotional life, morning by morning.