Confessions of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian (1)

 

Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows

 Published in On Religion Magazine Issue 12, Autumn 2015 

http://www.OnlineReligion.co.uk

Twitter: @OnReligionMag

 

As someone who was once an atheistic feminist but became something of a ‘born-again’ Christian in my late thirties, I now understand all too well why pioneering feminist theologians like Mary Daly gave up on patriarchal religion altogether. In my youth I believed that all religion was composed of myths and fairy-tales that stereotype women in one way or another, and that institutional religion in particular is simply another means of social control of women. I agreed with the Marxist view that religion is a tool of oppression wielded by elites, and that we’d all be better off without it. I could never understand why women of Daly’s intellectual calibre would seriously engage with religious doctrines and beliefs.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and I found myself teaching Theology and Religious Studies at university level in a denominational institution. How and why that happened is a whole other story, though a typically ‘born-again’ one. A consequence of my late conversion was that I would never again be able to look down my nose at women like Daly who had chosen to engage intellectually with Christianity; I also had to learn the hard way why so many had tried and finally given up. I was far from having lost my feminist principles, and the collision of a somewhat evangelical Christian faith with political feminism led to a situation that was – and continues to be – extremely uncomfortable for me at times. For, in addition to working in such an authoritarian male environment, I have had to confront the inescapable fact that no matter how attractive and unconventional a character Jesus was, no matter how remarkable the way he, a first century Palestinian Jew, related to women, he was male and he referred to God as Father. Feminists generally have serious problems with the idea of a male God almighty (whether Allah, Yahweh, or God the Father) since this God is all too often invoked by men to justify war, tyranny and persecution.

How have I dealt with the latter difficulties? Well, dealing with them is an ongoing theological task. It is helpful that, theologically speaking, God does not have gender; God is neither male nor female, nor some combination of both. The most we can say is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God seems to have some female and some male characteristics. Reading the work of pioneering feminist theologians such as Daly and Elizabeth Johnson also helped. Johnson’s “She Who Is” (International Journal of Orthodox Theology: Issue 1: 2 (2010), with its scholarly highlighting of the many female images and metaphors of God in the Old Testament, has been particularly comforting and enlightening as have the three principles she articulates that must form the basis of all attempts at understanding the nature of God: the incomprehensibility of God, the non-literal nature of religious language, and the need for many divine names. Johnson presents a myriad of biblical texts that depict the ‘Father’ God as female, of which the most striking to me are those that depict God as a woman in labour (see, for example, Isaiah 42:14: Thus says God, the Lord…… “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”)

What, however, can be said about the incontrovertible maleness of Jesus? Plenty, as it turns out. Interestingly, the Trinitarian, creedal depiction of Jesus as ‘begotten’ of the Father is – as the well-known chauvinist St. Augustine pointed out – analogous to the female generation of a child from his or her mother’s womb; Augustine sees it as an intellectual/spiritual version of the physical birth process. Added to this is the fact that according to tradition, Jesus was brought into the world by his mother Mary without any contribution from a human male ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’; the third person of the Trinity is closely associated with the Old Testament concept of Sophia or God’s Wisdom, a personalised, female figure. So, while Jesus himself may be male, his eternal and human generations are accomplished in a way that is feminine on multiple levels and without any analogous male role. As we understand it in human terms, Jesus actually doesn’t have a ‘Father’. So in using the biblical concept of the Father God it must be remembered that we are using limited human language to describe a God who transcends our limited notions of gender. Yet imaging the divine in a female/feminine way is, in my opinion, one of the two most important tasks for feminist theology today; the other is to present scriptural, theological and pastoral justification for female ministry and authority in all Christian denominations, especially the largest one, Roman Catholicism.

“Imagine…..no religion” sang John Lennon back in the day; but can you imagine a world in which our concepts of the divine have been broadened out to encompass the feminine, one in which conventional images of a stern, authoritarian father figure God have been expanded to include non-hierarchical female behaviours; a world where women exercise religious authority equally with men and in accordance with their female gifts? Ecclesial Christianity in the third millennium may well evolve into a place in which men and women can fully express themselves, with men being able to display their capacity for empathy and compassion, and women allowed to fulfill their administrative and leadership abilities. I don’t believe I’m being over optimistic in my hope that the clash between political feminism and patriarchal religion which gave rise to feminist theology may yet be the defining event of the twenty-first century for religion and, by example, politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

imageIt’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

The discovery of blogs and blogging has opened up a whole new world for women working and writing in the religious domain. This is due to its openness and speed, the fact that it provides a platform for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and the ease with which it facilitates the mutual interpenetration of religious feminism with mainstream, political feminism. It also encourages a dynamic combination of lively narrative non-fiction writing and scholarly research, as various women transform their daily and religious experiences into feminist theology.

It is the latter aspect of online feminist blogging that, as a theologian, I have found most necessary and fulfilling. Reading and writing blogs provides a much needed outlet for the intensity of the experiences of women who are new to the religious domain. Within Christianity this category includes ordained ministers and female theologians. In my own Roman Catholic denomination, the opening of the seminaries to women post Vatican II has allowed female theological input for the first time in two thousand years. We are also beginning to understand the inner workings of this patriarchal organisation; I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII knew exactly what the impact on the Church would be of allowing lay people and lay women in particular into the seminaries. This has brought about a radically new situation as regards relationships between the clerical dimension of the Church, and the laity; the encounter between the male clergy and women within an academic context has, and will continue to have, ever more radical implications. The Irish situation is, in my opinion, a sort of microcosm of Catholicism as a whole since Vatican 11. This is because Catholic Ireland has had no tradition of theology as a university subject, meaning that when it became available to the laity, it necessitated the opening of the seminaries; this proved to be the catalyst for what I can only describe as a new type of encounter between clergy and laity, as well as between male celibates and women of all ages and types. As someone who spent several years studying theology in St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, I can vouch for the impact on the institutional Church of its encounter in this new context with lay Catholics and particularly with lay women Catholics. From a laywoman’s perspective, it was interesting to observe the mutual adjustments that had to be made; it was also reassuring to see the high calibre of the dedicated and idealistic young men who were training for the priesthood. While some of the older priests found our presence a bit uncomfortable, the overall result was greater mutual understanding and a relaxing of the boundaries between the clerical and lay groupings in the Church, one of the main aims of Vatican II. And even though there seems to be no question at the moment of women being admitted to the Catholic priesthood, the growing impact of female and feminist theologians should not be underestimated; I also believe that the entry of women into seminaries and Catholic universities where they are meeting and interacting with seminarians has made the eventual relaxing of the celibacy rule inevitable, though I know from experience that there are many in the clerical realm who have the gift of celibacy and would prefer not to marry. If the rule is relaxed, however – and again I think Pope John XXIII had this in mind when he opened the seminaries – it will provide another gateway for women to be assimilated into the institutional Church and exert influence within it. I have no doubt that the bestowal of religious authority on women in some major Protestant denominations is partly due to the fact that male priests and ministers were allowed to marry, hence making their institutions more comfortable with female input and gifts.

As regards women in the academic sphere, the theology of pioneering feminist theologians is all the more effective and authentic because it has been informed by the difficulties associated with being a woman in such a dense patriarchal space.  Experience has always been a popular theological category, and women’s experiences in religious universities and departments not only affects their theological and political opinions, but also constitute a powerful catalyst for both theological speculation and activism in the feminist cause.

The cumulative effect of women’s experiences in religion has now given rise in fact to what amounts to a tidal wave of feminist scholarship and activism in the religious domain. Blogging in particular has the power to break through all boundaries and I have every hope that it will soon burst through the ecclesiastical dam behind which institutional gatekeepers – both ecclesiastical and scholarly – who fear change are keeping their fingers grimly plugged into the ever-widening channels through which the healing water is ready to gush. After two thousand years of male dominated Christianity, I am convinced that feminist theology and scholarly feminist blogs have the alchemic power to transform women’s experiences in the religious and secular domains into theological and ecclesiastical gold. Theology is being formulated by women now at a very fast pace, and online blogs allow it to be communicated almost instantly. It is giving us the means to make up the ground that we have lost over the past two millennia.

Non-Religious Women in the Church: In my last post I mentioned that, as a feminist theologian, I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of all or most women who spend a significant amount of time within an environment where male power and authority are even more pervasive than in the secular world.

However, female theologians from the secular sphere face their own particular challenges, and these challenges are both new and unique in the context of Church history and indeed history in general. We are a type of hybrid who must, at least some of the time, come across as upstarts in an environment that has managed to do without us for two thousand years. We are not bound by the strict vows and rules  of obedience by which those in the religious life must abide; yet we feel free to comment upon,  and criticise  (negatively as well as positively) the theological doctrines and speculations of some of the greatest minds that Western civilisation has produced. To return to our hybrid status, if we sometimes come across as impertinent to our colleagues in the religious life we are influenced by them and by the theology and philosophy we have studied. This can cause changes in our behaviour and outlook on life that spouses, children, relatives and friends can find disconcerting.

I am often surprised by the media focus on the question of women priests, as though this is the only role that women can play within the Church. Most Irish theologians are now women, and far more female than male students are studying theology. The opening of the seminaries to lay (or secular, a term I prefer) Catholics on foot of Vatican 2 was revolutionary, especially in relation to female participation in the life of the institutional Church. It has been a quiet revolution so far, probably out of respect for our colleagues who devote their whole lives to God and the Church. It is a revolution nonetheless; despite criticism that Vatican 2 has not borne the fruit that was expected of it, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Who can say how things will look in a few generations as a result of the pioneering work of this one?

See Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anxieties: Catholic Women Since Vatican II by Susan Ross in New Theology Review (available online).

The X Factor Pope

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When I read in the New York Times that Rolling Stone magazine had premiered a pop/rock track from an album to be released shortly by the Pope, I assumed it was a joke. Having checked it out, however, I discovered it to be true (see here). It seems that our Western celebrity culture has engulfed everything, even the Vatican: Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for.

I find it a little disappointing that the Pope should seek to bask in the reflected, superficial glow of showbiz. It would be far more meaningful and popular in the best way if he were to make real, doctrinal changes in relation to, for example, the requirement for priestly celibacy and the need for female religious authority within Catholicism. At the upcoming Synod on the family, he will be presented with the opportunity to relax stringent Church moral norms regarding contraception, homosexuality and divorce. Will he be prepared to make the hard choices, or is a nod to celebrity culture as far as he is prepared to go in keeping up with the zeitgeist? Francis talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?

Of course there is always the chance that the Pope’s pop debut is a shrewd and calculated effort to get public opinion behind him before attempting doctrinal change. If this is the case, then the Pope will have transcended anodyne pop culture: is this the precursor of meaningful change? Now that would  be real rock’n roll!

The Confederate Flag and the Fight to End Racism

If you don’t understand the interconnections between all forms of prejudice, if you don’t understand what ‘white privilege’ means, you will when you read this.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

flagHere is my latest Huffington Post “The Confederate Flag and the Fight to End Racism”. This piece was co-written with Rev. Jesse Jackson. Feel free to share…..

In the wake of the devastating terrorist attack on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist

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Marriage Equality, Pope Francis and Mary McAleese

rainbow IrelandThe resounding ‘yes’ to marriage equality that resulted from Ireland’s referendum on the subject has provoked a great deal of comment, much of it on the implications for Catholic Church authority in Ireland. Some commentators are suggesting that the rejection of Church teaching on homosexuality, despite the Bishops’ request for a ‘no’ vote, is the sound of the death knell for the institutional Irish Church; Mary Hunt certainly sees it as the death knell for “a top-down, clergy-heavy model of church….” Other commentators have pointed to a somewhat surprising fact of which I, for one, was ignorant until now: this is the link between the political acceptance of same-sex marriage and Catholicism. Frank Bruni, in his New York Times article on the referendum ( On Same–Sex Marriage, Catholics are Leading the Way) remarks that Belgium, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Luxembourg and now Ireland – all countries with a Catholic majority – are ‘in the vanguard’ of those 20 nations that have legalised marriage between two men and two women. For Bruni, this is a sign that Catholics are not so much defying Church authority as following their informed, Catholic Christian consciences. Cynthia Garrity-Bond, a feminist theologian and social ethicist makes a similar point in her “Ireland’s Same-Sex Referendum & The Necessity for Reconstructing Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Church” when she says that the ‘yes’ vote is a manifestation of the sensus fidei (sense of the faithful); the latter is “a spiritual instinct that enables the [non-ordained] believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith”. If Bruni and Garrity-Bond are right (and I find myself in agreement with them) this is not a case of religion versus politics, but of religion and politics in reciprocal, positive relationship. In the Irish case there were, I believe, other factors that influenced the sensus fidei: these were Pope Francis’s more flexible and personal approach to Church moral teachings, which permitted a breaking of ranks in the priesthood on the issue; several well-known and influential priests came out in favour of a ‘yes’ vote (see, for example, the Independent article Ireland’s Same-Sex marriage vote). Behind the Argentinian Pope’s more sensitive attitude is the influence of liberation theology, by which he admits to having been profoundly affected. Liberation theology emerged from the Latin American experience of poverty and political oppression; its main influence is Marxist philosophy and, in particular, a key Marxist insight: this is that the prevailing world view or system of knowledge of a society in any particular time or place supports the interest of the ruling class by justifying and concealing the reality of domination. In Marxism, all existing claims to knowledge are therefore considered to be ‘ideological’: they are distorted representations of reality that create a ‘false consciousness’. A related claim of Marxist epistemology is the claim that people who are oppressed have a clearer view of reality than their oppressors. Pope Francis has certainly shown himself to be on the side of those who suffer from various forms of oppression, and while there has as yet been no doctrinal change, his inclusive statements and refusal to judge a person’s sexual morality have been as influential in Ireland as they have elsewhere. Even more influential in the Irish context, however, was the input of former Irish President Mary McAleese, a lifelong devout Catholic who, when her term as President was over, went to Rome to study for a doctorate in canon law. The reason she gave for this is her desire to understand why Church canon law never helped the victims of abuse in any of the cases she had studied; when she was President, McAleese herself went to great lengths to be kind and supportive to those who had been abused by Church personnel. While initially sceptical of McAleese as someone who has always appeared to be a successful pillar of the establishment, I have grown to admire the ex-President tremendously over the years. Unlike many of those who achieve power and influence, McAleese has never grown smug or arrogant; she consistently shows empathy for those who are abused or oppressed, and her solidarity with women is especially noteworthy. She has criticised the hierarchy for refusing to allow women to become priests, and in 1998 was told by Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, that he was “Sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President”. More recently she has declared that the upcoming Synod on the Family is ‘bonkers’ due to the fact that a celibate male caste will be discussing and pronouncing on matters of which they have absolutely no experience. In response to a questionnaire seeking feedback on marriage and the family circulated worldwide on behalf of the Pope, McAleese posed the following question: “How many of the men who will gather to advise you as pope on the family have ever changed a baby’s nappy? I regard that as a very, very serious question”. One of McAleese’s sons is gay, and she gave several moving interviews during the referendum campaign that described his teenage struggles in coming to terms with his sexuality and the bullying he had to endure. All of this was made even more traumatic by the fact that Justin was an altar boy and committed Catholic, who discovered in adolescence that his Church considered him to have a tendency towards ‘intrinsic evil’. Her declaration that she would be voting for equality is considered to have influenced older voters and conservative Catholics to vote ‘yes’. Mary McAleese’s testimony to her son’s experiences as well as her admonishment of the hierarchy for refusing to take women’s experience into account in their Synod on the Family put me in mind – and not for the first time – of two great feminist theologians and the theological category that they pioneered. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are two Catholic-identified theologians who have preferred to work within rather than outside the Christian tradition. Their work shows influences of both post-modernist philosophy, and liberation theology’s Marxist analysis. They expanded the theological category of experience to emphasise women’s experience and the human experience of oppression, with particular emphasis on women’s experience of oppression. Their basic argument is that in patriarchal Christian cultures women’s voices and experiences were not heard or considered when canonical texts were being chosen and moral doctrines formulated; their theological category seeks to transform the way in which Scripture and Tradition are interpreted. Both theologians argue that women’s experience must be the ultimate norm in accepting, rejecting, or otherwise criticising texts, traditions and norms. Both recommend the establishment of ‘women-churches’, similar to the communidades de base of liberation theology, as locations from which to engage in praxis. Praxis is a Marxist concept that refers to human rational activity that is directed towards the transformation of the world; it encompasses physical work, political revolution, criticism and theoretical activity. Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, has attempted to develop a theological hermeneutics grounded in the ideological suspicion of Marxist critical theory. Her hermeneutics adopts an advocacy stance for women, critiquing the androcentric bias of, for example, previous biblical scholarship and seeking to uncover women’s contribution to the early Christian churches. In Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (p. x) she states that her aim is “to develop a feminist biblical hermeneutics…..a theory, method or perspective for understanding and interpretation……in doing so….. [to] contribute to the feminist articulation of a new scholarly paradigm of biblical interpretation and theology”. Like Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether takes women’s experience as the critical principle of feminist theology, although her focus is more on women’s experience generally than on the experience of oppression. Women’s experience has been largely absent from theological reflection in the past; as a result, the use of women’s experience in feminist theology “explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience”. The latter sentence has always struck me as a perfect description of McAleese’s impact within the Irish ecclesial context. I have been reminded of my college studies on the work of Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether many times in relation to McAleese’s various confrontations with the hierarchy. Though religious and a canon lawyer, she is not a theologian, and probably has no idea that there is a formal theological category to describe what she is attempting to do; yet the resonance of her actions with feminist theology is hardly mere coincidence. The fact is that gains for women brought about by mainstream feminism are allowing women’s voices to be heard in increasing numbers in the public sphere; McAleese’s voice was not the only influential female one to be heard during the referendum campaign. The powerful testimony of young Irish Times journalist Una Mullally and television journalist Ursula Halligan on their experiences of growing up gay in Catholic Ireland also caused a major stir. Halligan, devoutly religious as a young girl, actually came out publicly during the campaign at the age of 54. The impact and example of such women highlights the prophetic aspect of the work of theologians such as Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether. Their work offers theological support and validation for such interventions which, in turn, provide a real life illustration of their theoretical formulations. Interestingly, the critical and praxical theological category of women’s experience is perhaps one whose time has come, as a result both of feminist progress and the fact that the present Pope has an understanding of and appreciation for liberation theology, which has been a major source of inspiration for feminist theology. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, remarked that the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote is a ‘reality check’ for the Church. There is now every hope that the Irish referendum will be a force for positive change where Church teaching on human sexuality is concerned. It is already being reported that the referendum’s implications will be on the agenda of next October’s Synod on the Family in the Vatican. Moreover, McAleese’s input in particular has been vindicated, and this vindication casts a favourable light on her past protests against patriarchal pomposity and arrogance within the Church as well as lending weight to any future pronouncements she may make. If change comes, it will surely be thanks in no small part to lay Irish Catholicism in general, and to the persistent activism and growing influence of lay woman Mary McAleese in particular.   This article was originally published at http://www.fsrinc.org/blog/irish-marriage-equality-referendum-liberation-theology-and-womens-experience