“Maybe we are doing it wrong?”: On Diversity in the Theological Academy

Readers interested in the theological academy should go to Brandy Daniels’ latest piece at  AUFS. Brandy is responding to a post by Tony Baker, following up on some questions at a meeting tangential to the AAR last weekend. I was not at the Theology Studio meeting, but I’ve seen the same white-male dynamic enough to be familiar with what went on.

I want to append one comment to my recommendation of Brandy’s post, which looks to be the beginning of a longer series. After reading Tony’s post. I really wish that, for once, the response to a question about the overwhelming predominance of white men in certain kinds of conversations would be something along the lines of, “Hmmm… Maybe we’re doing this wrong?”

Instead, the most common response  is something of the sort that Tony has written in which the discourse continues on as usual (with a touch more sensitivity mixed in). There seems to be an operating assumption that if the discourses are just a little more open to participation from women and folks of color, eventually the non white-male people will “catch up” and want to join in. There is rarely, if ever, serious reflection about how the structure of the discourse itself, and that of the institutions, organizations, and histories that make up the discipline of systematic theology as it stands have—to put it nicely—“privilege problems” that run all the way to the core.

I am a theologian; I’m a part of the game too, and I’m not giving up on the questions and concerns that drive theological inquiry. But responses like the one Tony has offered remind me all too much of MLK’s claim with regard to civil rights that the real impediment to change wasn’t the fire-breathing racists of the KKK, but the sensitive, well meaning, sympathetic white moderates who were “on the right side” but just wanted to think things through on their own terms a little longer.

crowd-sourcing :: women’s conversion narratives

For the introductory theology course I’m teaching this fall, I’m not using any single text for the day-to-day readings because no text could be quite so impossibly broad as the range of issues I’m hoping to get into (from historical-criticism to liberation theology), and because I’d rather have the students read the nitty-gritty “real thing” on these issues  than some 30,000 foot overview. But, I think that it’s important to work through a whole book as well. So one of the assignments will have the students read a literary or biographical conversion narrative (somewhat broadly conceived) and write a fairly lengthy review essay on the questions raised.

The students will have the opportunity to choose between a range of texts, and I want there to be a pretty broad representation. At this point, here are the texts I have listed for them to choose from:

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions [books 1-10]

David James Duncan, The River Why

Shusako Endo, Silence

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha,

Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I would like to add another text (and perhaps replace Duncan, though it’s a phenomenal book), one authored by a woman, because the list is a little dude-heavy at the moment. Being thoroughly embedded in an androcentric/patriarchal atmosphere, I have not been able to think of another good woman’s conversion narrative (preferably penned by a woman) that I’d like to include, and so I’m asking for help. Do you have any that come to mind?

On Footnoting the Holocaust :: Poor Taste

I was reading two books yesterday (not at the same time, though that would be a nice skill to develop). In a striking bit of serendipity, the one book denounced the other. I suppose that this is the reader’s version of the “small-world” encounter in which a total stranger turns out to know all your best friends.

At any rate, it was the tone of the denunciation that caught my attention as being particularly tacky. Robert Jenson, in a footnote, warns about Marcionism as a particularly dangerous form of idolatry, and then adduces the Nazi regime as a particularly virulent example of this idolatry. So far so good. He then appends one more sentence suggesting that the “apostasy” of those who speak of God/ess (which is, of course, primarily Rosemary Radford Ruether—whose Sexism and God-Talk I’d just finished) is no less serious, and presupposes no less thorough a rejection of Israel’s scriptures than that of the Third Reich.

Unfortunately, even if someone wants to make the argument that Ruether has traveled beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in speaking of God/ess, it’s unhelpful to ascribe a rejection of the Hebrew scriptures to someone whose writings are quite full of appreciative references  to those scriptures. Further, when making mention of the holocaust in a footnote, it ought to be universally agreeable that one ought to avoid mentioning contemporary colleagues as guilty of the same theological errors. Even polemic theology ought to strive for a charitable measure of accuracy; this is slander, not dialogue.

The unjustified vitriol was particularly disappointing to me because on any given page, I’m much more likely to find myself in agreement with Jenson than Ruether (gender issues excepted). I’ve also seen Jenson handle similar slander with dignity and good-humor, so I had hopes that he was less likely to dish it out.

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

Elizabeth Johnson :: gendered language about God

In a passage exploring the difficulty of gendered vocabulary used in naming God, Elizabeth Johnson rejects as inadequate two approaches before moving forward within the parameters of a third. Neither attributing female traits or characteristics to God (who remains primarily “male”), nor speaking of a female dimension within God’s life is finally adequate. Rather, she argues that male and female images of God are equally fitting (and equally inadequate) and therefore ought to be used with greater parity, breaking the dominance of patriarchal imagery. 

Unexamined presuppositions about the doctrine of God itself raise a further theological question about this [preceding] approach [namely, identifying the Holy Spirit as a female dimension of God’s being]. In what sense can it be claimed that God has “dimensions,” let along the the dualistically conceived dimensions of masculine and feminine? Such an idea extends human divisions to the godhead itself. It actually ontologizes sex in God, making sexuality a dimension of divine being, rather than respecting the symbolic nature of religious language.

We must be very clear about this. Speech about God in female metaphors does not mean that God has a feminine dimension, revealed by Mary or other women. Nor does the use of male metaphors mean that God has a masculine dimension, revealed by Jesus or other men; or an animal dimension, revealed by lions or great mother birds; or a mineral dimension, which corresponds with naming God a rock. Images and names of God do not aim to identify merely “part” of the divine mystery, were that even possible. Rather, they intend to evoke the whole. Female imagery by itself points to God as such and has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but as powerful, initiating, creating-redeeming-saving, and victorious over the powers of this world. If women are created in the image of God, then God can be spoken of in female metaphors in as full and a limited a way as God is imaged in male ones, without talk of feminine dimensions reducing the impact of this imagery. Understanding the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the divine within a patriarchal framework is no solution. [1]

Johnson’s approach in this book does two things supremely well. First, she articulates God’s transcendence patiently and persistently. Thinking and speaking about God in exclusively male terms is not wrong because God is beyond all gender and totally outside the known. It is wrong because it imposes false limits upon the God who transcends created gender in a way that encompasses both maleness and femaleness and extends beyond typological confinement in one or the other. Johnson recognizes that the plenitude of God’s inner life extends beyond the boundaries of either maleness or femaleness, while both men and women are “true” images of God. 

Secondly, Johnson recognizes that patriarchal repression of women is an aberration in both thought and practice from the orthodox Christian gospel. Correcting this error, then, does not require an overthrow of the whole tradition and a rejection of the church’s rich theological heritage. It would be naive and simplistic to dismiss a tradition in which so many women have found genuine liberation and genuine self-expression for the reason that the same tradition has been used (perhaps with a great frequency) to subdue and silence them. Johnson recognizes that the language and symbols of tradition do not need to be cast away to start again with a blank slate, but demand to be enlivened  and expanded by filling them out with the suppressed language and experience of the church’s women. When we have understood our theological heritage more fully, we will understand that the dismissal and subordination of women cuts against the grain of the gospel. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remains YHWH’s first Christian name, the most prominent appellation for God given to the Church in both the New Testament scripture and subsequent tradition. Attempts to displace or discard God’s self-revelation in this form are misguided and unnecessarily divisive. Yet, there are other ways of speaking about God, appropriate for both the Church’s liturgy and theology, that rekindle the biblical practice of naming God in feminine terms as Mother, as Wisdom incarnate, as the Spirit who gives new-birth. The church’s language is impoverished and watered down where it neglects the full range of imagery available for its prayers and preaching.  

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 54. 

muscular christianity re-visited

Several friends, both real and virtual, have offered posts lately on the muscular Christianity of Mark Driscoll, head pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. I commend both posts to those who might be interested, particularly because their respective rhetorical tones balance one another well.

A muscular Christian I’ve yet to see Charles Kingsley’s name mentioned in either discussion, but he was the first figure I thought of when I heard about Driscoll’s campaign for a manlier church. In the middle of the Victorian era, at the height of the Oxford movement (whose most prominent figures are John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey), Kingsley lamented the “feminization” of the gospel. His sermons and his novels alike lambaste this weakness as something sub-Christian with invective that Driscoll seems to be at pains to emulate. In time, he came to be seen as the leader of a movement whose opponents offered it the epithet “muscular Christianity” (Kingsley himself preferred the slightly less-brutish adjective, “manly”). The movement spawned the strange conjunction of faith and patriotism that is the Boy Scout movement and the cultural ideology supporting the expansion of the British Empire.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Kingsley for a course on gender and spiritual identity. One can hardly find a richer place or period for investigating this connection than Victorian England, which provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about both faith and gender in our own times (and shows how deeply a Victorian hangover affects our own culture). Here is a copy of that paper if anyone is interested in a bit more background or an interesting comparison with Driscoll’s brand of Christianity. From what I know of Driscoll, Kingsley may even come out looking pretty good in that comparison.