Tags: ecofeminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson, God's suffering, Vatican Council II
In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?
In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.
Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.
In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.
No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)
Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.
Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.
Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.
Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.
Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”
Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.
Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.
The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.
But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.
This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”
Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95
Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95
Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95
Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95
Tags: Hal Taussig, Sophia, Susan Cole, Wisdom's Feast
On Saturday (April 9) my colleagues Hal Taussig and Susan Cole and I joined with a group of friends to celebrate the publication of the thirtieth anniversary edition of our book, Wisdom’s Feast. In the midst of an April snow and sleet storm (!) it was a rather modest event, more like a family reunion that a commercial book promotion.
One of the subjects we discussed at some length at the gathering was the hostile responses to the book especially by some United Methodist clergy and congregation members back in the 1990s. The discussion reminded me of an article I wrote back in 2000. I am pasting it below to let you in on some of what we talked about at the book celebration.
Interestingly enough, the preface to the new edition picks up certain parts of the argument we made in 1996, that one of the causes for the attacks on Sophia, and on Susan and Hal for writing about her, was because of the ordination and mandatory placement of women clergy in UMC congregations. The Catholic bishops didn’t attack me for the book, we speculated, and didn’t attack Elizabeth Johnson for her 1992 work on Sophia, because the Catholic Church didn’t have women priests. But beginning in 2002, an international movement, Roman Catholic WomenPriests did begin ordaining Catholic women, even if it couldn’t place them in parishes, and Johnson’s theology was fiercely criticized by the US Catholic bishops in 2011. We just didn’t wait long enough!
Sophia in Struggle and Celebration
SIXTEEN years ago, two colleagues and I set out on something of an adventure. Susan Cole and Hal Taussig, United Methodist pastors in Philadelphia, had been using liturgy, devotions, Bible study, and Christen education activities to introduce Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to their congregation. Now they wanted to enlarge Sophia’s circle by writing a book about her.
Since I had recently co-authored a volume on a related topic, Christian feminist worship, Hal and Sue invited me to join their effort. I was happy enough to come on board, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t grasp what the big deal was at the time. As a Roman Catholic, [ was familiar with Wisdom as a figure of the divine about whom we sang each year in the “O Antiphons” leading up to Christmas: “O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from the beginning to the end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly. Come forth and teach us the way of prudence.” Perhaps even more, for all that I was by then theologically sophisticated enough not to admit it, I had grown up in a tradition in which the Virgin Mary came very close to God in power and importance. Divine and near-divine female figures didn’t strike me as remarkable.
Our first book, Sophia, the Future of Feminist Spirituality, (1986), is an accessible introduction to Sophia in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the post-biblical era, and in her social-historical context. In this material we display the extensive intertextuaI relations between Sophia/Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in the Christian scriptures. The title “Sophia-Jesus,” later to be used to such effect by Elizabeth A. Johnson and others, comes into focus here. Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, a paperback edition adding many group activities, Bible studies, meditations, liturgies, and sermons to the original discursive introduction, followed in 1989. At the same time, in twos and threes, Hal, Susan, and I led Sophia courses, retreats, liturgies, and workshops in various locations through-out the country.
In all of these contexts we stressed Sophia as a pivotal figure in the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities then emerging. Sophia, we argued, is indispensable for those attempting to experience, express, and effect the radical connectedness of all creation and the radical equality of all human beings. This designation of Sophia as a connective figure of enormous promise within emerging U.S. Christian spiritualities was one of the most significant insights our work made available.
In the months and years that followed, however, it became apparent that though many did welcome Sophia, others by no means experienced her as a facilitator of connectedness. In a second edition o f Wisdom’s Feast that appeared in 1996, we note with some satisfaction the advances in Sophia scholarship and spirituality in the decade since our initial publication. But we also address the bitter Sophia-related strife that emerged within several Christian denominations during that period.
The event that received the widest notice in this regard was the 1993 Re-imagining Conference, the international theological colloquium organized in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women. During this colloquium, participants invoked Sophia repeatedly as they “re-imagined” their Christian faith. Subsequently, conservative groups in the United Methodist and United Presbyterian churches spearheaded retaliatory moves, some of them successful, against women on the national staffs of both denominations because of their involvement with a conference in which heretical goddess worship had allegedly taken place.
Even before the Minneapolis gathering, my United Methodist friends, Hal and Susan, but Susan most intensely, had come under attack for their theological and pastoral work on Sophia. In 1989, the lay leader of the United Methodist congregation of which Susan was pastor accused her and our books of heresy, ultimately bringing charges against her to the United Methodist conference of which they were both members, and later against the bishop who had dismissed these charges against Susan. It seems likely that this Pennsylvania conflict helped to fuel the outcry against the Minneapolis conference. Within the United Methodist Church, the conflict continued until 1995 when the U. M. Council of Bishops issued a report affirming the importance of Wisdom theology but disapproving the worship of Sophia as a goddess.
In assessing these developments, Hal, Susan, and I found several distinctions significant. First, although my colleagues, both United Methodists, came under serious attack for their work on Sophia, I, a Roman Catholic, suffered no retaliation of any kind. Second, though accusations were leveled at both Hal and Susan, the attacks on Susan were far more virulent than those on Hal. The strong Catholic tradition of honoring the Virgin alluded to earlier may account for some of the “neglect” I suffered.
We concluded, however, that the conflict over Sophia was primarily a reaction to the increasing influence of ordained women within United Methodism. Not only had Susan been appointed pastor of a prominent U. M. congregation during the “heresy” process, the first woman bishop in the history of the diocese had been appointed not long before. And while United Presbyterians as well as United Methodists had reacted to the Sophia movement, we believe that United Methodist polity contributed to the intensity of the United Methodist reaction.
While many Protestant denominations now ordain women, the congregational polity that a number of them practice means that individual congregations still control whether or not they hire women pastors. United Methodists ordain women, and their bishops decide which clergy will be placed in which congregations. This means that United Methodist clergywomen actually receive appointments, a situation over which United Methodist lay people have little control, even if they are opposed to it. The attacks functioned, then, as a protest – with Sophia being the symbol o f the unwelcome power of women.
It seems to me now that if my colleagues and I made a mistake in this process, it was in underestimating how difficult it is to bring about the “connectedness” that we so joyfully discerned in the figure of Sophia. The baby- boomer generation, of which all three o f us are members, has been criticized more than once for having been unrealistic about what it takes to bring about change. Hal, Susan, and I assumed that because Sophia is an unambiguous part of the biblical tradition, she would be welcomed as a bridge between more traditional ecclesial practices and the feminist, liberation, and ecological spiritualities o f the late 20th century. This proved not always to be the case.
Yet the need for bridge figures is, if anything, even greater than it was 15 years ago. In response to such unambiguous need, Sophia-Jesus continues to cry out, as she has since ancient times, “Come and eat my bread, drink the wine I have prepared…for the one who finds me finds life” (Prov 9:5; 8:35).
(This article appeared originally in The Living Pulpit 9:3 (July-September 2000).
I was, in a certain sense, pleased when the historic liberal American magazine, The Nation, included a sidebar in its March 20-April 4 issue reminding readers that before Muslims or Latinos had been targeted by US anti-immigrant sentiment, Irish Catholics were.The title of the sidebar was”The Papist Invasion.”To illustrate their point, the Nation editors reference a drawing by the virulently anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast that appeared in Harper’s in 1875. In it, Nast portrays Catholic bishops as crocodiles coming up out of a body of water to eat public school children, one of whom is clutching a Bible.
As I said, I was in a certain sense pleased that The Nation would remind members of the public who are themselves in some cases Catholics (or even Irish Catholics) that their Catholic forebears had been treated much the way politicians today propose to treat immigrants. But I was also amused because The Nation itself had published a series of virulently anti-Catholic articles in the late 1940s written by one of its associate editors, Paul Blanshard. Several years later those articles became the bestselling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. And in The New Anti-Catholicism my colleague Philip Jenkins cheerfully disabuses us of any notion that a connection between Blanshard and Nast is far-fetched: “While Blanshard does not conjure up crocodilian Catholic bishops,” Jenkins writes, “the image is certainly implied.”
Now let me be clear here: I am myself sometimes quite critical of the way the institutional Roman Catholic Church uses its power. For example, I adamantly oppose the US bishops’ manipulation of “religious freedom” to deprive American women of the right to access contraceptives, especially since contraceptives are one of the most effective ways to reduce the number of abortions.
But attacking a particular religious group is complicated–pas si simple, as the French say. For example, one of the things that Blanshard attacked the Catholic Church for was its opposition to eugenics, and to the sterilization of the “unfit.” Myself, I’m kind of proud of the bishops on that one. And I imagine a lot of its current readers don’t immediately associate The Nation with the eugenics movement. Interestingly, none of Blanshard’s articles appear in the collection of the best articles from each decade that The Nation issued last year to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Then, even as I was thinking all this through, I came upon something that I found truly amazing. In the same issue of The Nation where the Nast sidebar appears, three pages after it, in fact, an article about gentrification in Los Angeles begins with a non-pejorative paragraph about Francis of Assisi, followed by one about how Franciscan friars (as well as Spanish conquistadors) founded LA, the city of Our Lady of the Angels. And to my even greater astonishment, the article ends with a quotation from Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and a wish that Los Angeles will someday “earn its name as a place where ruins are repaired and sins are redeemed.”
Maybe The Nation really has renounced its anti-Catholicism, I thought. Paul Blanshard must be turning over in his grave.
But maybe he doesn’t need to. In the latest issue of The Nation, in an article about Obama and foreign policy, Eric Alterman argues that the foreign policy establishment intones the word credibility to justify the endless deployment of military force “the way some Catholics recite the rosary.”
I don’t know why, but I find it hard to imagine Alterman writing, “the way the Muslims are constantly saying ‘Salaam Alaykum‘” or even “the way Buddhist monks are repeatedly praying with their prayer beads.”
But maybe I should just count my blessings and be grateful Alterman limited his comparison to “some” Catholics.
Tags: Climate Change, St. John's Passion, the crucifixion, the woman at the well, Thirst
The following is a sermon I preached ten years or so ago as part of a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Oakland, California. It suggests that the death of Christ calls us to much more than repentance for personal sin–that it calls us to repent for the thirst we are allowing to afflict people, especially women and children, all around the world.
After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29
Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.
Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. Scientists tell us that his dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”
But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?
Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.
But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well.
I begin by noting the similarities between these two stories. Here, too, Jesus is thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.
What Christians generally remember about this story is that in this conversation, the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his great knowledge.
But there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about women obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband in order to raise up children in his memory. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely is in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged the postures of the women required to do it.
But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus enters into conversation with her. He doesn’t just talk to her; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.
But what does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.
Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”
But I have a feeling that these people who are so taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like the great majority of us Americans, who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the three billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 40,000 children who die each day from diseases caused by contaminated water.
Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we feel in our own bodies how Jesus must have felt when he got nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestowed on his newly created church was the water that flowed out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.
All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?
Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine but the fresh and living water he so desires.
Tags: Elizabeth A. Johnson, Hal Taussig, Sophia, Susan Cole, Wisdom's Feast
Despite the grandeur of that title, I’m going to start with a story.
Back in the early 1980s, two friends and I, Hal Taussig and Susan Cady (now Cole) conducted a number of programs on Sophia, the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Several of the programs were at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. One was for the annual meeting of Church Women United, I believe. Hal and Susan were (and still are) United Methodist ministers and had introduced Sophia spirituality and ritual in a church they were co-pastoring in West Philadelphia, and Hal, a biblical studies scholar, had been doing research on her.
Anyhow, according to the chapter on Hal and Susan’s Sophia work in Elizabeth Ursic’s 2014 book Women, Ritual and Power, in 1984 I was the respondent to a workshop on Sophia that Susan and Hal gave at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia. Afterwards, I suggested that Susan and Hal consider writing a book on Sophia.
In the end, the three of us wrote it together. In 1986, Harper and Row published Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality. In 1989, a second edition appeared, including Sophia the Future… and 143 additional pages of bible study , ritual and worship materials, sermons, hymns and songs, under the new title, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. Eight years later, Sheed and Ward reissued that second edition, with a new preface.
And now, I am somewhat stupefied to announce, Apocryphile Press, in Berkeley, California, has issued what I have taken to calling the thirtieth anniversary edition of Wisdom’s Feast. (The new edition was literally published in 2015, and the book that was published in 1986 was actually Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, but “thirtieth anniversary edition” has a nicer ring to it than “twenty-ninth anniversary edition of the book that comprises the first section of Wisdom’s Feast,” don’t you think?)
Several things make Wisdom’s Feast and particularly Sophia: The Future…noteworthy. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza had already written about Sophia with considerable enthusiasm in 1983. But Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality and Wisdom’s Feast were both published well before She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson’s systematic theological treatment of God as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother Sophia (1992). Since then, Sophia has played a significant role in Christian theology, spirituality and politics; even evangelical women are increasingly taken with her. As we wrote in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast, “Although we obviously thought at (the time of the publication of the first edition of this book) that Sophia was important, as we reflect on all that has happened, we can only conclude that we were on to something.”
What also happened, in addition to the growth of Sophia spirituality and ritual in churches and women’s groups across the US and Europe, was a significant political conflict over the legitimacy of Sophia in the Christian tradition. This included nasty attempts to have Hal and especially Susan censored for their work, something we discuss at length in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast (that preface is included in this new edition as well). Indeed, as we argue in the preface to this 2016 edition, it seems likely that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God can be traced back, impart at least, to the Sophia arguments Johnson made in She Who Is.
If anyone had told me, back in 1986, when I was in my first year of seminary and supporting myself as a free-lance grant writer, that a thirtieth anniversary edition of this book would be coming out in 2016, I suspect I would have laughed out loud. Today I’m just smiling.
If you’d like to take a look, or even get a copy, Wisdom’s Feast is available on Amazon, here.
And if you’d like to join us at our book celebration on Saturday, April 9, at 2 PM, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia we’d love to have you. (An appropriate location, since that’s the church where Susan and Hal and I did the program back in 1984 that got this book launched!)
And still She rises.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic Sisters, Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, Mary Dunn, motherhood
The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.
For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.
Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.
Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.
Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.
In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.
But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.
Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).
In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son
Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.
At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.
This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.
Tags: Catholic sexual teaching, Jamie Manson, Laudato Si, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Ross Douthat
As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?
The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.
At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”
Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.
The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.
But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.
To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.
But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.
Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.
In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.
What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)
Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”
Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.
But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.
This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.
This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
By now, you’ve probably heard about young women not supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. An article in the New York Times today explores the issue, explaining that in New Hampshire, Clinton won by 11 points among older women, but lost by 59 points among “millennial voters” (though it’s not clear if the author means millennial women voters). HC lost them by quite a lot, in any case. The article also reports on the attitudes toward Clinton of younger women at Penn State, one of whom says she couldn’t even “tell you what a feminist is.”
The young woman may be an idiot. Or she may be reflecting the fact that what feminism is has never been all that simple. I became involved in Christian feminism in the early 1970s at Grailville, the farm and program center of the Grail, an international Catholic lay women’s movement. Along with Church Women United,the Grail had co-sponsored one of the first programs in feminist theology, “Women Exploring Theology” in 1972. The pioneering feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, has written that it was at that week-long program that it first occurred to her that theology was not just something created by men.
I had begun spending summers working at Grailville while I was teaching the fourth grade in the early 1970s, and during the summer of 1974, Eleanor Walker, one of the leaders of the Grail, sent for me and asked me to put together an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I had been taking care of the chickens at the time, and Eleanor said something to the effect that I didn’t seem to be very good at it, that the prayer book might be a better use of my talents. The Grailville community used the prayer book, including my inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, for a number of years thereafter. As a result of the prayer book, I met several theologians with whom I later co-authored three professionally-published books on feminist theology, spirituality and worship.
The truth is, I wasn’t all that interested in feminism when I started working on the prayer book. I had joined the Grail because it seemed to me to be an astonishing embodiment of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially the renewal of the liturgy. Grail liturgy, music, and arts more broadly were more beautiful than anything I had experienced previously. I was hooked.
Furthermore, my own working-class background and tendency to analyze as well as sing complicated my feminism from the beginning. After I joined the Grailville staff in 1975, a Catholic nun, Sister of Loretto Ann Patrick Ware, was leading some kind of program at Grailville–I forget what, a program just for Grail members, I think. At a meal during the program when Ann Pat and I were sitting together, she responded to something I said with “You know, you’re not a real feminist.”
She was right, if, by real feminist she meant one accepting the clear, “women are this, men are that” binary that Mary Daly and a number of other second wave feminists seemed to advocate. (One of the most helpful things I ever read about the early Catholic feminist tendency to binarize was an article by Beverly Harrison about how Mary Daly’s feminism was basically a reversal of the the hierarchical neo-Thomism she had learned getting her first Ph.D. at St.Mary’s.) One of the events I remember most clearly during my years at Grailville was Katie G. Canon going nearly berserk over the black maid of one of the (white) workshop leaders of Seminary Quarter at Grailville when we were having a meeting at the workshop leader’s home. Eventually, Seminary Quarter moved to Atlanta, at least in part because Loveland, the town where Grailville was located, was too (that is to say, almost entirely) white.
Another experience that illustrates how I am not a real feminist (of a certain sort) occurred after I moved back to New York City from Ohio. I was attending the first meeting of a women’s liturgy group in an apartment in one of the high rises across Broadway just north of Union Theological Seminary. We were explaining why we had come. An extremely well-dressed woman in the group said she was there because “men write history and women don’t.” I said, “You clearly never met my working-class father. He hardly wrote sentences.”
The facilitator of the group replied “Don’t contradict her. She’s sharing her experience.” I pictured the previous speaker on the moon, looking down and counting (experiencing?) all the men and women who were writing history at the time. I was ecstatic when, in 1994, Mary McClintock Fulkerson published her brilliant feminist theological study “Changing the Subject,” in which she argues compellingly that “women’s experience” is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
My reference to my father in that encounter up near Union Seminary in 1983 or ’84 was not coincidental; I grew up in a working class household, and my father was for some years the president of a union local. When I decided to get a seminary degree, I opted not to go to the Ivy League Union, in part because it was way too expensive, but also because the students in the courses I audited there seemed privileged beyond belief, although feminst theology was an important part of Union history and curriculum. Instead I attended a Black/Latinx/Korean night school, New York Theological Seminary, where we all ate the bagged lunches we brought with us while the professors lectured. And my class consciousness was only intensified by the Hebrew Bible courses I took there with the great Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald.
Subsequently, when I was the president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 2000s, I met with the leaders of several national Black Catholic women’s organizations about working with us, they told me in no uncertain terms (alas) that they had more important issues to contend with. And when RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen said, in an address at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, that the exclusion of Catholic women from ordination is just like apartheid, I nearly had a heart attack. Except for the hundreds of thousands of Black people killed and imprisoned in South Africa, I thought. Whatever feminism is, it’s “pas si simple,” as the French say. It’s complicated.
This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination, I plan to support her ferociously. All of the Republican candidates would be catastrophic if elected, especially the current front-runners. I am trying to decide when the right moment might be to shift my support to HC to prevent such a catastrophe. But up till now, I have been supporting Bernie, and I am deeply grateful to him for raising issues that a good number of second wave white feminists didn’t pay enough (or any) attention to. Can he get elected president? We’ll see. But at least one older U.S. feminst hasn’t transferred to the HC camp yet.
On Monday, my esteemed partner, Keith Russell and I, began teaching a course on the church and environmental justice at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan. (Frequently, when I say I teach at NYTS, people respond, “Oh, Union. That’s a great place.” Just so you know, Union is an Ivy League, ferociously expensive, liberal Protestant seminary. NYTS is the Black/Latinx/Asian night school a few blocks away).
One of the things I love about NYTS (where I myself did an M.Div. in the 1980s) is that the students are almost all real people, coming in to their 6 PM classes from jobs as teachers, MTA workers, or pastors of storefront churches. And they are often really excited about and grateful for the things they learn.
Monday and Tuesday night I taught about environmental racism and the history of the environmental justice movement, as well as the ways in which people of color and the poor comprise the “ground zero” of climate change. During the rest of the course Keith will be working with the students on how to preach and teach about environmental justice in the congregations in which they now minister or will soon.
The students were amazed by what they learned in the first two sessions, explaining at the end of Tuesday’s class that they had always thought that racial justice and civil rights were one thing, and that environmentalism was something else entirely. Among the statistics that they were unaware of is that Black children in the United States are twice as likely as white children to have asthma, and that the single greatest threat to the health of all American children is lead poisoning.
Which brings us to the recent scandal in Flint Michigan. I suppose you know the details. In spring of 2014, the city, in order to save money, switched from the supply of Lake Huron water it had long purchased from Detroit and started drawing water from the Flint River, treating it locally. Residents immediately began complaining about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water; by the summer, three water boil advisories had been declared. City officials repeatedly claimed that the water was fine.
In February of 2015 a water advisory commission was formed to address concerns. In September, a group of doctors at a Flint hospital called for a return to the Detroit water source after finding high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. The state then stepped in, and in October the legislature approved $6 million dollars to help switch the water supply back to its earlier source and deal with the damaged pipes. Yesterday, President Obama declared the water contamination in Flint a Federal emergency.
The main problem, according to the New York Times, is that the water from the Flint River was corrosive, due to inadequate treatment by the city, and caused lead to leach from old pipes in homes and schools. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems, while the mental and psychical development of children under six is especially at risk.
What many news sources fail to mention in their coverage of this story (though Hillary Clinton did mention it in last night’s debate), is that Flint is a majority Black city. Fifty-seven percent of the population is Black, with another three percent plus Latinx. What we all should remember, especially on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, is that there is a very big overlap between racial injustice and the environmental crisis.