The answers are autobiographical in nature, delineating the intellectual and, in many cases, the physical landscapes their authors inhabit. I have therefore borrowed from Jennifer Berlinda Thompson's piece the title for this section. "Spiritual Geographies" gives a better sense of the movement and change that are part of feminist theology, evoking not just "experience" but mapping places of "origin" and tracing journeys over differing kinds of spiritual and intellectual terrain. Though these theologians and scholars address methodology, they more importantly address motivation - what keeps them practicing this hybrid discipline that is often so hard to define, "unthreatened," as Mary McClintock Fulkerson writes, "by the false anxiety that if we look too close, God's presence might vanish."
Susan M. Simonaitis
Before attending the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, I knew little of the non-Catholic world. After Catholic grammar school and high school, I went to St. Mary's College. At these places of Catholic formation, I lived with a notion of vocation that was both unexamined and happily familiar. When my interest in theology and religious reflection emerged, teachers and professors (and other adults, mostly Roman Catholic priests and nuns) asked me if I thought I had a vocation in the Church. This, if you were a girl, meant becoming a nun.
There was nothing odd or unwelcome about the suggestion. Given my interests and commitments, it was certainly an idea worth exploring. But what was odd was the change that occurred in my formation as a Catholic woman when, in my senior year at college, I finally clarified that I wanted to pursue theology without entering vowed religious Fife. Many friends who were nuns (who had opened their lives to me, who had shared their networks of sisterhood and spirituality with me) drifted away, one with the stinging comment that I might like "floating about" in my twenties, but I would no doubt wake up and realize my lack of commitment when I reached thirty. Others offered me, at most, modest support. Shaped by the sociology of the Roman Catholic Church, they shared the question that lingered in my mind: in the end, what does a Catholic woman who studies theology do in the Catholic Church?
With this transition, I began my formal theological training at the University of Chicago. In contrast to my earlier experience, this new situation was marked by the absence of communal religious support. There were no invitations, no probing questions, no wisdom shared. Though a member of the Catholic Church, I nonetheless felt "unsponsored," both practically and symbolically. Certainly I felt welcome "to attend Church" in the anonymous way that most Catholics engage their tradition. But increasingly I felt like a "free agent."
How does one become a theologian while feeling like a free agent? I learned the history, debates, and methods of theology. I engaged - and continue to engage - questions of violence, suffering, conflict, community, and subject formation. If asked why I "do theology," I answered, basically, that I did theology in order to remain active in a conversation that I loved, a conversation about right relations, about justice, about the depth and complexity of human experience, about the mysterious extravagance of forgiveness, love, solidarity, and kindness. My conversation partners? Other feminists committed to religious reflection, theologians struggling with postmodern criticism of modernity, academics fascinated by the experiments in theological discourse offered by Christian mystics and prophets.
My horizons were broadened in welcome ways at Chicago, and I sometimes think this happened precisely because - intellectually and religiously - I was looking for a new home. At the end of my training, however, I found myself relocating once again. When Fordham University pursued my application to their Department of Theology, I was both wary and profoundly moved. Surely I wasn't "Catholic enough." Surely they were misinformed about the work of Georges Bataille (the figure in my dissertation). And yet, when Sister Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, commented during a postinterview chat that what she really wanted to know was whether or not I wanted to contribute to Roman Catholic theology broadly understood, I found myself confronting a personal question. Though my colleagues at Fordham did not realize it, I joined their faculty primarily because I felt invited, through the process of interviews with them, by my Church to be a theologian of that Church.
Though my story is not without its ambiguities (after all, as a free agent, I did study under Bernard McGinn, Anne Carr, and David Tracy - three Roman Catholic scholars), I tell it to make two points. First, I have a certain cynicism regarding my Church's ability to foster my spiritual and intellectual development. To think through the vocation of the theologian in light of a deeply ambiguous relationship to my Church is difficult. Second, my experiences of betrayal, guilt, transgression, fragmentation, and the puzzle of gift-giving are not what they are so often portrayed to be. In the midst of the loss that generates cynicism, I discovered new intellectual and theological categories that now shape my personal spirituality. My scholarly engagement of the trajectories in postmodern philosophy is not a frivolous intellectual game. On the contrary, it seems to me that "real life" is increasingly being shaped by violence, plurality, and ambiguity. My happy "return" to the Roman Catholic Church is not a public event. The Church as an institution does not see or hear me, and it certainly does not support me. To think through the "vocation" of the theologian from this place/space is necessary, in part because many Roman Catholic women are becoming theologians. But it is also necessary to think through vocation from this location because we are shaping vocation by thinking it. Many voices, speaking from diverse social and religious locations, are more likely to reflect our current situation and our hope for the future better than any single voice.
In the practical life of the church, women have discovered the wisdom of living the future. Official acceptance of the ordination of women will happen, some have argued, only after women serve as priests, in both old and new ways. Many Roman Catholic women are acting as priests, fully aware that they may never receive institutional recognition of their vocation. Likewise, I think that the task of thinking through the vocation of the theologian must proceed with an orientation toward future justice. This future justice may require the disruption, perhaps even betrayal, of currently cherished notions. And yet, precisely because any and all "thinking through" is constructive, we must think carefully and critically about what it is that we want to construct.
Feminist theologians often note the power inherent in the ability to name one's own experience; my experience as a Jewish feminist theologian is marked by several changes in the names I claim. I began graduate school with the desire to be a Jewish feminist theologian; rejected that designation for that of feminist theorist; and now contemplate a partial reclamation of a theological vocation. In reflecting upon this process, several aspects of the personal and political stakes in doing feminist theology as a Jew in the late twentieth century have become clear.
I cannot overemphasize Judith Plaskow's role in my introduction to Jewish feminism and identification as a Jewish feminist theologian. I was a student in Columbia, Missouri - a hotbed of Jewish feminism when I first read Standing Again at Sinai. Her description of the androcentrism of Jewish tradition and its consequence of alienation resonated with many of my experiences growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and thus allowed me to place my anger, frustration and disappointments in a larger context. Plaskow credits theology with the ability to analyze this larger context. It enabled her structural critique and subsequent animating vision. Her Judaism from a feminist perspective inspired me to become a Jewish feminist theologian, and I chose my graduate program so that I could study Jewish feminism with other Jewish feminists.
In 1991, there were no Ph.D. programs in Jewish theology, and I could not bring myself to apply to a program whose catalog had a cross on the cover. Thus, I continued my feminist praxis in the supposedly more value-neutral discipline of religious studies where I quickly discovered that not all Jewish feminists, even those who study religion, are theologians. My teacher Laura Levitt refused the title Jewish feminist theologian and called herself a feminist theorist. These past five years of conversation with her have allowed me to acknowledge several limitations to Jewish feminist theology. Perhaps the most trivial and yet most persistent problem is the image of theology as a Christian enterprise. Webster's dictionary, for example, describes theology as (1) study of God; (2) systematic reflection of such study. It is a definition far removed from the work I do. Intellectually, the idea of studying God clashes with my understanding of classical Judaism as a tradition focused on practice; existentially, it arouses my particularly Reform Jewish discomfort with god-talk. And of course even if one accepts the argument that Jews do theology, it is not systematic reflection. For me the image of the abstract and systematic theologian (I always imagined Thomas Aquinas) undercut the usefulness of theological reflection, and so I also made the turn to theory.
I found three advantages to claiming the identity of feminist theorist. First, I felt free to tackle a portion of the problem, rather than the entire structure. This was a liberating move. Second, it enabled ongoing conversation with Marian Ronan and Tania Oldenhage, other feminist scholars of religion, without an explicitly Christian discourse setting the terms of the conversation. Third, the designation feminist theorist allowed me to study texts and practices without making normative claims. After reading works by too many (male) theologians who equate their work with God's will, I could not speak for others with an authority not my own.
Yet, as recent conversations with Rachel Adler have pushed me to see, I do have a normative vision of a just Judaism. Can theology serve as its source and ground? The answer, a heavily qualified yes, points to the current tension in my work. When I name myself a feminist theorist, I lose the religious dimension of my vocation, specifically the ways the ethics embedded in Exodus, and emphasized in Reform Judaism, shape my sense of what constitutes right relationships. I used to think it was sufficient to describe my vision as simply feminist; now I want to acknowledge the religious framework out of which my feminism emerges. Yet, I remain wary of the easy slippage between acknowledging the precarious religious ground on which one stands and imposing the ground of that vision on others.
But perhaps to ask if theology can serve as source and ground is to ask the wrong question, to put more weight on the theological discourse than it can bear. In discussion, my teacher Bob Flanagan countered that the term could suggest more: reflection on practice with reference to the visions of real life and power embedded there, the individual and social consequences of these visions, and the committed proposal of some visions and rejection of others. I want to hold on to theological reflection yet recognize that too often theology aligns with power relations differently. Thus, at this moment, I am a (reluctant) theologian.
Jennifer Betlinda Thompson
My background, Black Baptist and Black Spiritualist, seems at first glance contradictory, even confusing, which is the reason I choose to think of this essay as a geography rather than an autobiography. To borrow the words of a seventies gospel song, "I've come up the rough side of the mountain," yet, by God's grace, I have synthesized and integrated my family's diverse religious traditions and am deeply spiritual in my own way.
I was born, on my maternal side, into an extended family of Black "conjuring" women and healers, many of them ordained Black Spiritualist ministers - women originally from the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama and Florida gulf areas. Their gifts included the bringing of babies into the world; the laying on of hands; prayers, meditations, and incantations to give hope to the hopeless, cure the lovesick, and bring lost loved ones home; and bittersweet teas and oils to heal the body and soothe the soul. The Black Spiritualist Churches, a small (5 to 6 percent of the Black population), heavily matriarchal, and in my case matrifocal, religious sect practices an eclectic mixture of elements of Roman Catholicism, Black Protestantism (Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal, etc.), nineteenth-century American Spiritualism, and African diasporic religions. (Most of the working class practitioners are unaware of these syncretic roots.) The women in past generations were midwives who learned their skills through apprenticeship rather than formal schooling. The membership of these churches is becoming increasingly middle class as educated, professional Black women join, disillusioned by the seemingly irrelevant doctrine, empty rituals, sexism, and classism of the mainline Black denominations.
Because I was a sickly child unable to play and roughhouse with the other children, I spent a great deal of time in the company of Reverend Mother Jones, my seventy-three-year-old godmother and the spiritual director of St. Michael's Prayer Band. Long before I could read or write, Mother taught me to pray the rosary, to say Hail Marys and the Apostle's Creed, to read signs, to water gaze, to memorize scripture (KJV, of course), to recognize medicinal herbs and their uses, to love storytelling, and to pray to Jesus whenever I was in trouble. Through Mother's example, I became possessed with a fury to know God and God's purpose for my life and for creation, and to help others to lead religiously informed lives.
Mother was for me a womanist in the truest sense - not an educated Black middle-class woman like Anna Julia Cooper or Ida Wells Barnett, but an average Black woman widowed in her early twenties, who raised two daughters alone while serving her God and her community. Although I didn't then realize it, my nurturing experiences with Mother and the "other mothers" of St. Michael's would shape my habitus, life, and career choices. The Prayer Band's concern for the "survival and wholeness of an entire people" led me to embrace womanism as a seminarian. From these hardworking, powerful, outspoken women, I gained a sensitivity to class issues that most Protestant clergy and laity lack, and developed a lifelong affinity for Black folk culture and the working poor. St. Michael's and the homes it represented were places for the world-weary to lay down their burdens and to seek material sustenance (e.g., food and childcare). Mother's legacy of service taught me the importance of community activism. I learned the two womanist virtues that I continue to practice in my preaching, teaching and counseling: (1) truth-telling, even in adversity, and (2) approaching institutional faiths and dogma with a hermeneutics of suspicion.
Many mainline Black American Protestants distrust all things nonProtestant, particularly the "hidden traditions" of Black folk religion. This view, inherited in part from the white Protestant missionaries, also arises from the need of some Black communities to distance themselves from historically devalued forms of cultural expression in order to facilitate acceptance in the dominant culture. My Black Spiritualist influences were balanced by my educator father and his mostly Baptist relatives, who were suspicious of what they considered the occult practices of my mother's relatives. From my Dad I learned passion for the life of the mind. I often felt torn between the Black Spiritualist nontraditional "ways of knowing," my father's positivist values, and the middle-class values of my Black Baptist paternal relatives.
The Black Baptists became my community of faith after my mother left the family during my preadolescence. I came to love the music, decorum, and structured education program. I also learned the power of Black preaching, religion as the practice of freedom (within reason), and the ritual and symbolic significance of baptism and communion. Ironically, the church that teaches the priesthood of all believers also taught me that sometimes it's not so good to be a girl. It was not until I first sought ordination in the mid-1980s that I came to fully understand that, because I was born female, my church saw me as hopelessly flawed. In seeking ordination I had stepped out of "my place" within the denomination and the community.
Today, I place myself squarely within the Baptist camp, a tradition that historically nurtured and sustained generations of Blacks, and have committed myself to work for change from within while maintaining my Black Spiritualist roots. And I believe that such transformation is possible for "with God all things are possible." Although I continue to value the women of St. Michael's and their spiritual supports, my interest in the Black Spiritual Churches is now primarily academic. After twenty-plus years of schooling, I seek a community of faith that can nurture and sustain a balance between faith and intellect. My future as a minister seems uncertain. What is certain is that I will continue my vocation of spiritual direction through theological education. In the meantime, the autonomous nature of Baptist congregations provides me some assurance that I will eventually find that one congregation where, when the pastor says, "the doors of the church are open," my unique gifts and theological perspective will be welcome.
Ellen T. Armour
My work resides on the boundary between theology and philosophy. Theology has traditionally turned to philosophy as a handmaid, as a resource that can provide theological claims with firmer ground. However, I turn to philosophy to trouble theological assumptions and to push theological boundaries. Similarly, while I publish in philosophical arenas, my religious interests position me slightly outside that discipline as well. Both my scholarship and my teaching are shaped by commitments to understanding and resisting sexism, racism, and heterosexism (understood as systemic problems afflicting philosophy, theology, and Western culture in general). I use my training in theology to explore Christianity's role on both sides of these oppressions: as their sustaining ground and fund for resistance to them.
I am particularly interested in the interaction between sexism and racism in feminist thinking itself. The book manuscript I recently finished attempts to get at the roots of white feminist theology and theory's dominance by white hegemony. My interest in this area dates from graduate school, but is not purely academic. I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University. The Divinity School, where my classes were taught, prided itself on its history of activism on behalf of racial justice. The faculty, under the leadership of deans Walter Harrelson and Sallie McFague, had taken courageous stands in the '60s and '70s against racial discrimination - stands that placed them at personal and professional risk. However, events in the late '80s brought the institution (and many of those same faculty members) face to face with its failure to sustain that legacy. I got involved with an interracial student coalition formed to develop concrete proposals for change in curriculum, hiring practices, and in student support systems.
My experiences at Vanderbilt during these troubling times taught me that holding liberal attitudes about race was not enough. Simply believing that all people, regardless of skin color, are created equal does not begin to deal with the complexity of racism. My confidence in feminism was also called into question through this experience. I had believed Rosemary Ruether when, in Sexism and God-Talk, she identified feminist theology with speaking for "the oppressed of the oppressed; namely, women of the oppressed." However, womanist critiques of feminist theology challenged the veracity of Ruether's claim. My own reading of white feminist theologians found a double erasure of race: African-American women's issues were considered as afterthoughts, at best, while the effects of white privilege went unremarked. In student and faculty groups, I witnessed firsthand what I was reading in books; white people - even white women - of good intention seemed unable to hear what African Americans were saying - and I was no exception.
While I was confronting the shortcomings of both academic and activist feminism, I was also delving more deeply into deconstruction. My encounter with deconstruction had come first through its nasty reputation in some academic circles. Reputedly, deconstruction (and its chief practitioner, Jacques Derrida) was the latest form of nihilism. There is nothing outside language, Derrida was supposed to believe. Distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, were mere linguistic conventions; they had no reality in and of themselves. When I began reading Derrida's work, I found a mode of questioning that could unearth dynamics that led our best intentions astray, dynamics that remained otherwise unchallenged. I began to see that deconstruction could help feminism uncover the roots of its allergy to racial difference and perhaps even move beyond it. My scholarship critically appropriates deconstruction and uses it to these ends.
I am in my seventh year of teaching at Rhodes College, a small liberal arts college in Memphis. Most of the courses I teach are in religion, not in philosophy, so I rarely get to introduce students to my own work with deconstruction. However, I have found ways of incorporating its issues. The white, middle-class students who choose to take my courses in feminist theory or feminist theology are aware of sexism and racism, but they think of feminism as color-blind. I design these classes to explore feminism's difficulties with differences among women. Exposing students to feminists writing from different perspectives (womanist, queer liberation, etc.) would make them aware that differences exist, but to ensure that they grapple with the challenges these perspectives present, I approach them through their critiques of feminism. These discussions allow my students to critically evaluate efforts by scholars to move feminism closer to the vision Ruether described. My hope is that educating students in this way will prepare them to contribute to a feminist movement based in difference rather than in assumptions of sameness.
Phyllis H. Kaminski
As David Tracy reflected in The Analogical Imagination, theologians are called upon to converse in a credible and persuasive manner with interlocutors from three distinct yet related "publics" - the academy, the church, and the wider society. As a Catholic feminist theologian, the primary question I ask is: "How can I best use my energies to make a difference in the multiple conversations of which I am a part?" I have no simple answer. Rather, my identifications with one community or another emphasize specific kinds of commitments and call forth varying conversational skills and strategies. Each of the terms- Catholic, feminist, theologian - speaks to me of communities grounded in a living relation of word and body, what our tradition calls the mystery of incarnation.
My history has drawn me to the centrality of this mystery for Catholic faith and life. Years of language teaching have given me reverence for words and the power of language. Feminist theological research has made me respect the human body, struggle with the body in pain, and rejoice in the pleasures of physical expression. Bodies - my own body and the individual and corporate bodies with whom I converse - set limits for any verbal exchange, yet the very process of speaking with and to others tests those limits. Theological reflection requires negotiation of boundaries. When there is communication across borders, an energizing dynamic often makes the boundaries permeable.
Today, feminists in all disciplines, including theology, are exploring difference, its construction, and its expression. We ask how we can address differences so that they do not cause division but further dialogue. What happens when we do not just add women's voices to public conversations but try to change the discourses themselves? What we make of difference(s) can help or hinder living. For me, that means I must analyze theological positions in terms of their practical consequences. What actions flow from or support theological affirmations? Who benefits? Who sacrifices? In short, to borrow terms from Luce Irigaray, I suggest that theology calls me to live in "ethical fidelity to incarnation."
As a member of a religious studies department at a midwestern Catholic college for women, I spend most of my energy teaching undergraduates. I labor to make a difference not only in how students think about things Catholic and religious, but in how they think about themselves as women. We struggle with the tension between various identities, identifications, and loyalties. I listen carefully to their hopes and fears and struggles. I also note the silences, the words not spoken, the topics left untouched. From these I learn their issues and give them tools to reflect critically on their lives as women. They quickly grasp that no question is off limits. Yet I spend most of my energy helping students learn how to question so that they can become aware of their present boundaries and either choose to affirm them consciously or move beyond them conscientiously.
My college community offers us myriad opportunities for cross-disciplinary conversations and collaboration. Teaching religious studies as women's studies has kept me accountable not only to the academy and the church but also to the theoretical frameworks and political controversies of the broader feminist community. My colleagues and I pour countless woman-hours into education for transformation. We agree that feminist scholarship calls for new ways of thinking and speaking about and as women.
Participation in a local church community that is racially and economically diverse reminds me that bridging academic and popular conceptions of Catholic life is more than an exercise in translation. There is no escaping the interconnection of race, class, gender and the impact of power on the vulnerable. I have become keenly aware of the privilege of whiteness and education as I learn the staying power of faith from the men and women of my parish. They show me the cost of resisting sinful structures and creating a more graceful future. They embody the difference incarnate love can make.
Mary McClintock Fulkerson
I interpret contemporary reality through the stories of Christian faith, work to interpret those stories through the lens of gender, and t the more difficult task - ask how these projects are to be done differently when material social relations are factored in. As I define my task in this way rather than simply identifying my institutional slots and course offerings, I cannot help but wonder what relation these interests have to the history and social realities that are background to my own production as a theologian. These social realities seemed as invisible to me as I lived in them as material reality often appears to the doing of theology in much theological education today.
Raised southern, white, and middle class, I silently witnessed significant historical events in the South. I was born in Little Rock in 1950, living there during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. My family moved away just barely a year before the historic incidents at Little Rock High School in 1956, a firestorm of racial violence of which I remained oblivious for years. Later, I was twelve years old and living in Dallas, Texas the year President Kennedy was shot. I remember my puzzled but apolitical feeling as many students yelled their delight when the assassination was announced. In college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I wore "hippy" as a style, not as a politics, and remained oblivious to the women's movement. Therefore, the fact that I was one of only three women who entered a Presbyterian seminary in 1972 was not a conscious act of courage. Rather, it was simply because the institution that provided the education for the woman-appropriate Christian vocation to which I aspired (director of Christian education) did not have as many courses as the school across the street. And I was curious. My gender consciousness was raised at seminary only to the extent that knowing women who aspired to ordination enabled me to imagine that vocation for myself.
This began to change in graduate school. Surrounded by a wonderful group of feminists- Sharon Welch, Martie Reineke, Gay Welch, Mary Kelly, Linda Tober, and faculty member Sallie McFague- I was introduced to a challenge to the solidity of the Christian tradition that changed me forever. My first academic job as the only woman on a divinity faculty obliged me to become a feminist myself. My paranoia about the dangers of being feminist in a moderately conservative school proved to be not entirely the product of an overanxious imagination. A colleague tried unsuccessfully to stop my tenure by sending a 40-page manuscript documenting my "heresies" to influential church people in the area, only to find himself out of a job after a painful university process. Now, as a teacher of feminist theology in a University Divinity School and as a member of the University Women's Studies faculty, I participate avidly in the intellectual transition from second-wave feminism in the U.S. into the third wave.
The first big intellectual problem of feminist theology for me was the need to press further the logic of Latin American and Black liberation theologies, which see Christian tradition as not simply historical in the sense of being temporally distant, but also displaying the features of both benign and corruptive power, and the self-deceptive forces of interest. However, they had not pursued the ideological character of Scripture, which might have allowed them to analyze these features, as had such feminists as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.
In many traditional theological worlds (particularly Protestant), feminism threatens because it challenges the continuity of Christianity with its authorities. This fear accounts for at least part of my anti-feminist colleagues' problems with my work. As I tried to redefine continuity in a way that refused to dehumanize these authorities, another problem emerged. The discourse of my own favorite theologians - Rosemary Ruether, Sallie McFague, Lefty Russell, and Mary Daly - could not fully account for the nonfeminist women of my past, or the forces involved in sustaining my own apolitical religious consciousness for so many years. This concern, along with the limited resources of my modern, liberal theological tools, led me to a new approach, combining materialist literary criticism and poststructuralism. My intellectual journey into "lit crit" allowed me to apply poststructuralism's "destabilizing of the subject" to the world of middle-class white women among whom I was nurtured, and to open up its social-material character, invisible to me before. Perhaps in revisiting my own past, I could then celebrate the accomplishments of women of this world, as well as sketch out the structural limitations that constrain them.
Currently I am taken up with issues that extend these early concerns. How do the social relations that flesh out our discourse impact the work of theological analysis, particularly with regard to the construction of identities by race, class, and the heterosexist regimes of the contemporary social formation? I draw on cultural studies, postmodern ethnography, and the many resources of black feminist, Womanist, feminist, and queer theorists as I try to read Christian communities as places where sinful orderings of social life are resisted and alternatives created. I look forward to the time when those doing traditional theology - even postliberal theologians - will no longer ignore the social as constitutive of theological practice, a habit of my own past and one I struggle to break. Feminist theologians, it seems to me, have a wonderful habit of taking seriously the realities of social, embodied existence. With a commendable willingness (at our best) to scrap inadequate old accounts, we seem unthreatened by the false anxiety that if we look too close, God's presence might vanish.
Who is the feminist theologian when she's teaching freshman composition?
Although (or maybe because) it seems so remote from feminist theology, teaching freshman composition as a graduate assistant has challenged my sense of vocation. Perhaps if it had been my first teaching experience, it would have been easier to keep separate the work of a feminist theologian and the labor of a writing teacher. But for several years, I had participated in and coordinated classes in theology using feminist pedagogical methods at the Center for Women and Religion in Berkeley. The purpose of this feminist theological pedagogy is to empower people to bring justice - right-relationship - into being in the classroom and in the lives of the participants. But making justice a reality is hampered by the web of systematic injustices in which each of us is immersed.
Feminist theology embraces ambiguity and contradiction. At its best, it uses them to empower active engagement in the struggle for justice. For if part of what it means to be empowered is to recognize our power to speak as subject of our lives, it is in the midst of ambiguity that we find space to speak our own truths on behalf of ourselves and our communities. And so part of my vocation as a feminist is to facilitate the creation of ambiguous and contradictory space through which my students can enter the conversation, theological or otherwise. I felt I had successfully done that in Berkeley; I thought I could do the same in composition.
But freshman composition is itself ambiguous: a contentless course, a perpetual prerequisite that promises students who master its skills entree into the discourse, but does not itself tender the invitation. Ambiguity and contradiction became the enemy in freshman composition. Whatever my own vision, my students knew that academic writing pretends to clear truth claims, logically argued. Empowerment here happens, we think, in the elimination of ambiguity and contradiction in student writing. A clearly written, well-argued paper is the sign of an intelligent mind, one with something of its own to contribute to the discourse.
I have told myself I am doing an act of justice by teaching someone to write, giving her the tools to express herself once she receives her invitation to be part of the conversation. Even if I occasionally lapse into an authoritarian defense of the rules of grammar and the logic of the syllogism, it is in the interest of my student. Once she has mastered compound sentences, unified paragraphs, claim and counterclaim, she will be ready. Once she can find and eliminate her own logical contradictions she will be able to critique the contradictions in others'. Once she can state her own position- her own truth- unambiguously, she will be able to take her voice into the conversation.
But will she recognize her invitation in the ambiguous and contradictory spaces of the classroom? Having been taught that learning produces clarity and certainty, students are often angry at being asked to see ambiguity where they thought there was none - or where they want there to be none. Last semester, teaching a religion class, I introduced my students to contemporary biblical scholarship. I was determined to complicate their thinking, to create a space wherein they could see that religion was not always dogma and the text not always literal, to invite them into the divine pleasures of ambiguity. I was met by frustration and resistance. To interpret the Bible by bringing to bear the insights of history, sociology, and literary criticism would, they feared, change Christianity into "some other religion." In my own frustration, I had to remind myself that part of making space for their voices means living with their anger at being given a space they don't yet know how to inhabit. Or perhaps it means discovering that I cannot give them that space at all. They must discover it, create it themselves, sometimes in conversation with me and sometimes in resistance to me.
I am one of the founding mothers of a movement that has transfused life-giving energy into the Jewish enterprise. Twenty-five years ago, nearly all of the structures by which Judaism is sustained and reproduced were male preserves. Now, because of our vision and our struggle, women are everywhere.
My own struggle, however, is not for equal access. I am looking for a home for a still-fragile theological project. Non-Orthodox Judaisms now agree that women may do anything men do, but men do not (yet) do feminist theology. In fact, as Arnold Eisen notes, theology altogether, as opposed to acculturation/promoting ideologies, is a new phenomenon in American Judaism. Jewish academe still views theology with lingering suspicion, unclear as to how it differs from mere apologetics, and how its methodology is grounded academically. But after years of sporadically writing theology outside the academy, I gave up a career in another field to get a Ph.D. and become a full-time feminist theologian.
Theology is new, unsettling, academically marginal. Feminist theology is even more disturbing. Susannah Heschel writes that feminism spotlights Judaism's unfinished adjustment to modernity. Once we become conscious of the constructedness of gender, we lose our innocence; we know that we are choosing how to construct it and that we are responsible for the versions of Jewish law, ethics, liturgy, hermeneutics, history, and institutions those constructions of gender shape or reshape.
Some Jewish academics have tried to contain these cataclysmic implications by creating an institutional ghetto: courses exclusively for and about women, taught by women, often on a part-time, nontenured basis. As an independent contractor, I was often offered such courses. Miriam Peskowitz observes that the fallacy on which this arrangement is premised is that there exists a pure Judaism unaffected by gender to which data concerning women may be appended.
Sometimes being a feminist theologian has felt like a double whammy: the stigma of gender studies conjoined with the stigma of theology. For several years I have kept a Talmudic proverb above my desk: Flay carcasses in the street to earn your way and do not grumble, "I am a great man." When I am hurt or disheartened, I reread the sign and try to stop taking my troubles personally. I am helping to formulate a discipline whose methodology is still in messy infancy, and I am an agent of rupture in a community whose current watchword is "Jewish continuity." When I look at it this way, it is less surprising that it has taken so long for me to obtain a academic appointment.
This year three volumes of Jewish feminist theology are out: mine, Rebecca Alpert's, and Marcia Falk's. Jewish theologians, men and women, have begun to speak to one another. At conferences, gender considerations are no longer confined to the "Women and Religion" section. My academic appointment this year is all my heart could desire: kind colleagues, stimulating students, supportive administrators. I am on the threshold of a home I have never had. I hope I get to stay.
Suddenly I have what Weber called institutional authority. Before, whatever authority I had was charismatic. Journals like Tikkun printed my work, synagogues invited me to speak, people listened to me and learned from me despite my lack of institutional credentials, because I said what urgently needed to be said. The enormous responsibility kept me honest. Now I've got a title, an address and new temptations. There's an institutional incentive for scholars to address their work only to other scholars. That's where the prestige is. But feminist theology gets its vigor from being a broad communal conversation. That means writing jargon-free prose that nonspecialists can read and publishing pieces in popular periodicals that could have gone to refereed journals.
More about honesty: Years ago, I wrote an influential article about menstruation ritual that kept being reprinted long after I had rejected the beliefs it expressed. Finally I wrote a second article deconstructing the first. It felt like taking off my clothes in public. But by exposing the unstated investments in the earlier piece, I showed people how theology is made, and I assumed responsibility for words I had written that other people went off and lived by.
My project and my personal position are, as I said, still fragile. But I am filled with hope for the Judaism we are reshaping and amazed at all we have accomplished. Here are my sisters in positions of power and honor, once empty bookcases crammed with our work, synagogues transformed by our presence. And our blossoms continue to unfold.
SUSAN M. SIMONAITIS is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University. She is co-editor of Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists (Fortress, 1993).
LIORA GUBKIN is a doctoral candidate in the School of Religion at the University of Southern California. She is currently teaching and writing about the Holocaust.
JENNIFER BERLINDA THOMPSON, a Ph.D. candidate in religion and literature at Emory University, teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.
ELLEN T. ARMOUR is Associate Professor in religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. Her book Deconstruction, Feminist Theology and the Problem of Difference: Subverting the Race/Gender Divide is currently under review for publication.
PHYLLIS H. KAMINSKI is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. With Mary Ann Hinsdale, she co-edited Women and Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995).
MARY MCCLINTOCK FULKERSON teaches theology at Duke Divinity School and women's studies at Duke University. She is author of Changing the Subject: Women's Discourses and Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), and is currently working on a theological ethnography of an interracial church.
LIZ NUTTING is a doctoral student in religion and social ethics at Temple University in Philadelphia.
RACHEL ADLER teaches at the University of Southern California and Hebrew Union College. She is the author of Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Her article, "The Jew Who Wasn't There," published in 1971, is considered the first piece of feminist Jewish theology.
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|Title Annotation:||perspectives of feminist theologians|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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