Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Creative Womanness

"Women learn in such a system that, though they are usually tolerated in life and often loved, they are seldom respected for themselves, for their opinions, for their talents, for their perspectives. The life of a woman shrivels under the weight of an unnatural deference and lost development. Women live knowing that inside themselves is a capped well, a fount of untapped treasure, a person gone to waste. The spiritual life of a woman never knows total maturation in an environment that never seeks her opinions, her interpretations, her insights, and her experience of God. Whatever ministry she was born to perform never comes to light, is lost to the church, dies on the vines that were never cultivated." -- Joan D. Chittister

            I first read this quote, by feminist theologian Joan Chittister, at work on Monday. I had been searching for quotes to use in the formulation of a prayer service I was composing for work. Earlier on Monday I had read an article on Buzzfeed of all things about the writings of esteemed theologian Elizabeth Johnson. The article did well to articulate Johnson's courage in the face of a paternal hierarchy that is determined to quiet her powerful, illuminating voice. I have heard of and studied both of these women in my theology courses. While their writings have never been ‘assigned’ I have pursued their ideas in my own research and have written a few papers on their publications on God, the Church, and the development of women throughout Church history. What strikes me about these women, and many others like them, is their unmistakable imaginative muscle power.
            I remember hearing once – I don’t remember in what context – a particular story. The point of this story was to say that if young children of color do not seem themselves represented in a certain profession – say, as physicians, or politicians, or movie stars – then they will have great difficulty believing they are worthy and capable of filling such a position in their own future. I think this same concept can be brought into conversation with the experience of many women in the institutional church. What creativity, imagination, and sheer will power it must take to imagine oneself in a position that you have never been invited to consider, let alone have seen anyone like you fill? What spiritual mysticism there must be for a theologian to articulate an image of God that has never before been welcomed in conversation? What creativity it must require for a woman to name a desire to be and fight for the opportunity to become an ordained priest in the Church?
            Chittister has further questions on the subject. "What happens to the spiritual life of a young girl who is made to understand, consciously or subconsciously, that she has no place in the spiritual domain except as a consumer of someone else's God?" It's a harsh question, but it begins to reveal the damage that has been done by the church to women throughout its history. Women have not been a part of the structuring and defining of this institution or its teachings. Women have not been present for conversations on birth control or virginity. Woman have not been present for the dogmatic and doctrinal developments that have left them pigeonholed in the pews of global congregations. Woman have not been a welcomed voice to the conversation of faith and theology. Only with the creative minds of courageous women in recent history have women been able to claim a stake in the movement and growth of the Church, as people of faith equally called to be in relationship with God.
            The work of feminist theologians in the last half-century has done much to bridge the gap for women of my generation. While women still cannot be ordained, more and more women are visible in the sacramental, ministerial, and organizational operations of the Church. They have been able to fight for an articulation of faith that resonates with the daily experience of women, and even of those who don’t identify within the gender binary. Feminist theologians have lived into the conflict and tension that Freud might say is the starting point, the catalyst for creativity (Motivation and Creativity, Collins and Amabile). And there has been plenty of conflict.
            Beth Johnson has received much backlash from the hierarchy on her most recent publication, Quest for the Living God, which includes chapter titles like God Acting Womanish, Mother God, and The Crucified God of Compassion. “Though it met with high accolades from both the academy and laypeople, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a condemnation of the book. They declared that the publication ‘completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in God.’ Its feminist themes were a particular sticking point for the nine-man committee, who criticized Johnson’s 'characterization of the Church’s names for God as humanly-constructed metaphors,' arguing that the titles that the Church uses for God cannot be supplanted ‘by novel human constructions’ aimed at ‘promoting the socio-political status of women.’” (Buzzfeed). So far as I can see, the pushback received by Johnson, and by so many of these feminist theologians, who often risk excommunication and isolation from the communities which have sustained them, is a sign of a slow moving, unfeeling, and complacent group of leaders who benefit from the system as it currently exists. Even Pope Francis hasn’t offered too much hope on the subject. While he has been able to incorporate women’s voices into the conversations happening in Rome, he has explicitly stated that the question of women’s ordination is not up for debate. Women will continue to, as Chittester says, “die on vines that were never cultivated.”
            The energy behind the feminist movement in the Church does not seem to be losing any ground, though, and I am hopeful for the energy and creativity that will come as more and more women grow up in a Church that celebrates them and their unique womanness. More and more conversations will begin to invite all people to recognize God in the world as more than Father. Perhaps in a few hundred years, with patience, steadfast faith, and a little bit of creativity, the Church will be able to invite women to discern the priesthood and to share experiences of God who is not limited by gender. That is my hope at least. “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. And if it delays, wait for it” (The Prophet Habakkuk).

1 comment:

  1. This is a gorgeous column. I studied Elizabeth Johnson in my Women in Religious course last semester, and I became fascinated by the debate about the role of women in the Church. I realized that it requires determination and true faith to remain committed to a religion that denies your ability to lead, but you are right in highlighting that it requires creativity as well. Many people view examples of institutional oppression as norms that do not merit questioning, but Johnson was able to articulate the impact of patriarchal language in religion. She was able to see beyond the norms entrenched in our society to express the negative impact of our words. I am curious to see the creative was in which feminist theologians will continue to challenge and/or change the Church. It does require creativity when you are working from the margins are denied access to the resources utilized by the mainstream.


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