Andre Willis came to Brown for many reasons. Talk to him in his third-floor office at the Department of Religious Studies, and two of them emerge immediately: He loves to teach, and he's still astonished at the immense historical, philosophical, and cultural terrain that religious studies opens to intellectual exploration.
“I went to divinity school to learn more about religions, yes, but when I matriculated at Harvard, I already knew I wanted to be a high school teacher.” Two years and a Master of Theological Studies later, Willis signed on as a history teacher at Newton South High School in the Boston suburbs. “I stayed there for five years and I loved it,” he said. “Teaching was a place to express myself in ways that enabled me to learn best. The thrill of it! The improvisational possibilities!”
Still, there was that portal offered by religious studies. "Public schools see religion as a volatile area. Families — parents — approach religion in a non-academic way, part of what they want to instill in their kids. Schools might try a Bible-as-literature approach, but the formal study of religion is not that,” Willis said. “Wonderful as it was, being a high school teacher meant that I did not have time to read and write, which are also passions of mine. So I applied to do a Ph.D. in religion and went back to Harvard.”
Forward eight years, and Dr. Willis has traveled from the Yale Divinity School to an appointment as assistant professor of religious studies at Brown. The terrain is wide open. This fall, he is teaching a sophomore seminar on Christianity and economic inequality, examining the beliefs — not necessarily religious beliefs — behind the drive toward consumption and wealth, and listening to a variety of voices, not strictly economics. “That’s the can I want to open.”
He's also teaching “Foundational Texts in African-American Theology” — academic writing since 1969. “We’ll look at work by James Cone, my own teacher Cornel West, Delores Williams, and others.” That opens the vast historical and cultural landscape of civil rights, traditional African American spirituality, the theological message of a generation of leaders — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy — and poses a compelling question.
“The book I’m working on now is tied to what remains viable in the African American historical religious tradition. How do we reach back into a rich tradition and pull from it what can be of use now?” Willis said. “My premise is Have we gotten off track as black society and as a people? How can we understand our present circumstances in terms that make older resources useful? I think that the more robust part of African American religion considers How can we make America more free, more just? The great Martin Luther King Jr. was exemplary in this regard.”
Then next semester, Willis will lead a philosophy of religion seminar on the seminal works of David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher who is generally regarded as a skeptic and a critic of religion. Willis believes that Hume can be reconstructed as a useful interlocutor in religious studies circles, especially for his notion of “true religion.” Willis’s new book, Hume’s True Religion: Universal Causality, Practical Morality and Moderate Passions, is due out in February from the Pennsylvania State University Press.
“Hume used the term ‘true religion’ about five times in his corpus of seven books, so I had to go hunting and mine his works very closely,” Willis said. “He does briefly describe it, not as a panacea or an answer to social ills but as something of a religious ideal. He admits that true religion would be rare and stipulates that popular religion will continue to be conventional until human history develops in certain ways. I’m hoping my book will bring a more generative Hume into the study of religion and philosophy.”
Which brings him back to the classroom as a creative and productive arena for ideas. “Because of the Brown Curriculum, you get a range – religious studies concentrators and students who are taking their first course. It’s challenging for me as a teacher, but it’s a fascinating mix. At Brown, they are all there because they want to be there. They want to do the readings. Talk about earnestness! They have made an investment to learn. It keeps me on top of my game.”