Why “Feminist” Theologies?

My coursework this semester has thus far been (a) curl-in-a-ball-of-anxiety overwhelmingly large in its stack of readings and paper-writings and (b) simultaneously the most exhilarating ride i’ve yet had academically at school. Considering how madly in love i am with Mount Holyoke – and that a certain religion class second semester my first year is what prompted many of my early blog posts – this is of weighted significance to me. There is never a way to do all of the reading expected of me (and never has been) unless i were to sacrifice all mealtimes and sleep, but discerning what is of the utmost priority has been excruciatingly difficult. I just really, really love it all. I truly feel the coursework i am doing now will directly apply to my thesis next year and, transitively, to the work i aspire to accomplish in the acquisition of a Ph.D. So this struggle to read it all out of unbridled love is a marvelous gift of a dilemma.

But something is still nagging at me.

Easily one of my favorite classes is a seminar entitled “Feminist Theologies,” taught by one of my most most most favorite professors to have ever graced academia. (For liturginerd friends, we just finished Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible and are well on our way into Audre Lorde!). Presently, i am making my way through one of my favorite theological texts: Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. To say i think Daly is one of the most critical, important, brilliant, and linguistically creative theologians of the twentieth century is a mild understatement. Though i have plenty of contentions with her work (as, i think, she would approve of considering the whole idea of a feminist space is one of lively discourse) i think her presence in the women’s movement and in the Church is fundamentally revolutionary.

And nothing speaks to me more of her relevance, even today, than this selection from “Chapter One: After the Death of God the Father,” first penned in 1973:

“The unfolding of God, then, is an event in which women participate as we participate in our own revolution. The process involves the creation of a new space, in which women are free to become who we are [ … ] The new space is always located ‘on the boundary.’ Its center is on the boundary of patriarchal institutions, such as churches, universities, national and international politics, families. Its center is the lives of women, whose experience of becoming changes the very meaning of center for us by putting it on the boundary of all that has been considered central. In many universities and seminaries, for example, the phenomenon of women’s studies is becoming widespread, and for many women involved this is the very heart of thought and action [ …] By contrast, many male administrators and faculty view ‘women’s studies’ as peripheral, even trivial …” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, Beacon Press, Boston, 41). 

To me, this begs a question that is tugging at my heart: why does Mary Daly have to be qualified as a “feminist” theologian? Certainly more close to my heart, why is that i always feel i have to qualify that i want to study feminist theology in graduate school? I know that qualification is one i am in control of professing, but it feels necessary that i denote my interest is in the study of egalitarianism and struggles for subverting oppression within the canon of theology. And, at least for now, i think the best label is “feminist” theology.

But i can’t help but feel this is, in some way, buying into this marginalization Daly is critiquing. Sure, she’s writing about the academy within a framework of religious patriarchal oppression, but social structures exist because we all play a part within them.

And i truly feel that Mary Daly is a landmark theologian for her critiques of patriarchy, misogyny, and the marginalization of women in the Christian faith. These criticisms are no less revolutionary than Luther with his 95 theses articulating his frustrations with malpractices in the Catholic church of the sixteenth century. The parallel that both Daly and Luther were practicing Catholics is not one that i think ought to be lost on us, either.

And yet, Mary Daly is studied in a context of gender and religion, rather than the scope of all theological history because, apparently, her words only matter if you’re into that sort of thing. The fact of the matter is, though, that gender and sexuality are an inextricable part of our lives. Gender informs the way we interact with other humans, larger social institutions, and thus our faith (or lack thereof) in whatever tradition practiced/not practiced.

Isn’t this qualifier of “feminist” theologian boxing her in within the religious study of theology the precise way she is critiquing the academy for pushing the study of gender to the boundary?

To be fair, i’ve not taken theological courses at a Divinity School. I’ve not done a comprehensive study of all theological courses across the country or world. So maybe i’m railing against a system that is undergoing important and necessary change.

But even if i am utterly mistaken and, in fact, we’re all secretly reading our womanist and feminist and gender study readers by flashlight late into the theological evenings, that doesn’t change the point Daly is making. And that was forty years ago.

So is the feminist qualifier necessary? Does it mark the boundary of people of all gender identities fighting for an egalitarian space within the framework of larger social institutions? Or does it continue to marginalize such ideals to the boundary of mainstream discourse? Can feminism even be used inclusively, when Daly herself was intensely critiqued by her contemporary, Audre Lorde, for her lack of accounting for the experience of women of color?

current jam: “apertura” gustavo santaolalla

best thing: celebrations.

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