Category Archives: Women

silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

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the human movement

For the first time, I dropped a class. After one session.

Still, I learned something.

I learned that you can be a respected editor, a decent writer, an in-demand speaker, and keep company with Impressive People–and still be the kind of person I wouldn’t want to be. In fact, it might even require a strand of arrogant narcissism to become such a success. I learned that what matters most to me is the character of an individual, not their list of successes and achievements.

In another class, while giving introductions, we were asked to share what we hope to do after graduating. After half a dozen men shared their career aspirations, I hesitated, then stated that after graduation I hope to be a gardener, and a writer, and a mother, and a good friend, and maybe spend some time attempting to articulate the ways that our bodies teach us about the Divine in ways that words do not.

I am ambitious in that I want to do good work, but I am not ambitious in a career-oriented, worldly, everybody-look-at-me sense. I don’t want to promote my blog. I don’t want to follow people hoping they follow me back. I don’t want to cultivate a persona. I want to live a full life and be a whole-hearted person, and our current society does not measure ambition nor success on such criteria.

There are times–more than I’d care to admit–that I worry I’m failing the feminist movement. And I probably am. And yet, perhaps I am furthering the human movement, the movement that does not place the burden on doing it all—whether it’s “gain all the money and power” or “do all the housework and childrearing” or “gain all the career goals AND be the perfect wife/mother”—but instead places equal emphasis on doing and being. That’s something, I believe, that would benefit women and men and culture and the world.

After writing this, I heard Arianna Huffington’s commencement address in which she states that our current definitions of success aren’t working for women, aren’t working for men, and aren’t working for polar bears. Listen to it here.

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review of “our mother st paul”

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa explores the metaphors of Paul’s oft-neglected maternal imagery and examines his letters within an apocalyptic context. In Part 1, maternal imagery is examined to show that Paul is “an authority who does not conform to standard norms of authority.” Part 2 explores the Pauline letters with questions of apocalyptic theology at the forefront.

Gaventa recognizes that maternal images are complex metaphorical movements that are too often dismissed. Paternal imagery is of one-time begetting and is not the same category as maternal imagery, which reflects an on-going nurturing relationship. As such, it describes the vocation of the apostolic office and is associated with apocalyptic contexts. As aids in explaining the maternal imagery, Gaventa utilizes the history of traditions; the sociocultural context in which the letters were written, especially gender construction within the Greco-Roman world; and ‘metaphor theory’, which Gaventa explains as the use of metaphor as “an invitation to intimacy” and to change our minds.

Specifically, Gaventa is interested in the cohesion of Paul’s use of familial and kinship metaphors, noting that “metaphors having to do with nurture are almost exclusively associated with mothers” and generative metaphors that “may structure large aspects of thought.” The imagery has implications for Paul’s understanding of both leadership and women’s roles.

The first four chapters address specific maternal images employed in Paul’s letters, beginning with that of apostles as infants and nurses (1 Thessalonians 2:7), a mixed metaphor Gaventa explains through the social context. With this image, Paul is struggling to identify two aspects of the apostolic role: childlike in that he does not seek benefit, and nurse-like in that he is responsible in tending his charges with care and affection. Such metaphors of family life establish believers as a family, which restructures society and reconceptualizes conventional roles. The apostolic task is not ordinary, and “one must employ categories that seem outrageous.”

Next, Gaventa addresses the image of Paul in labor with the Galatians in his womb and the object of labor being Christ (Galatians 4:19). The metaphor may seem confused, but Gaventa shows it to be intentional. Through examining the Greek, Gaventa understands the verse to be about the apostolic vocation’s association with the anguish of the coming apocalyptic era, and the goal of anguish is that Christ be formed within communities. Paul’s work as an apostle occurs within apocalyptic framework that looks toward the incorporation of the entire cosmos into Christ. This is not about the action of Paul to another individual, but the action of God toward humanity.

The third image examined is Paul as nurse supplying milk to ‘infant’ believers not ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The metaphor here reinforces familial language within the community of believers while also undermining culturally approved masculine roles. Whereas other commentators focus on paternal imagery later in the passage and even try to link this image with it, a nursing mother cannot be replaced with a father. She examines the Greco-Roman cultural understanding of sexuality—in which women were understood to be inverted males, femininity was a threat to masculinity, and strict norms for ‘real men’ were followed—to conclude that Paul “effectively concedes the culturally predisposed battle for his masculinity” and moves to the margins of acceptability. Gaventa compares Paul’s loss of status to his later images as a planter of someone else’s field, a servant of someone else’s builder, and also to “the crucified Jesus, who is no more a ‘real man’ by the world’s standards than is a nursing Paul.”

The final piece of maternal imagery addressed is of creation itself in labor (Romans 8:22). Gaventa argues that “all creation” includes humanity, even non-Jew and non-Christian. The labor of creation births nothing, but rather waits for God’s action. Meanwhile, creation continues to be sold into slavery, although the resurrection means that the powers, ultimately, will not prevail. What Paul affirms is the future redemption of creation despite the fact that “anti-God powers” of Sin and Death continue to separate humanity from God.

Chapter Five transitions from specific metaphors into the overall theology of Paul. Questions of permission and prohibition are not Paul’s priority of vocation. Gaventa focuses on Galatians in order to see what might be gleaned from a letter that is decidedly male in its issues, characters, and decision-making. When the question is no longer primarily about Paul’s understanding of women, the letter is liberated to speak to theological concerns that affect all humanity. The reader is free to hear the ways in which the gospel’s arrival obliterates law, systems that measure achievements, and identity constructions that separate rather than connect, such as culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender.

In Part Two, Gaventa places the maternal metaphors into the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s theology. Through examining, primarily, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, she reveals Paul’s theology to emphasize (a) the presence of the ongoing apocalypse that invades all realms of life and (b) the gospel that God revealed victory in the ongoing struggle between good and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Galatians 1 through 4, Paul focuses on the singularity of the gospel and on the relationship of believers to the gospel. He sees Galatians as seeking to please outsiders in the same way he had done previously, and instructs that they must not submit to the elements of the world. What rules the text is the conviction “there is only one gospel and that it puts an end to all prior commitments, conventions, and value systems. [Tradition, law, social barriers, and feast days] are alike insofar as they threaten to undermine the exclusive claim of the gospel.” Paul uses his own experience as an example of the gospel’s work and power, using his life to point to something beyond himself. Although the presenting problem of circumcision in Galatians 3 and 4 is a question concerning the law, Gaventa looks past the symptom to the central theological issue of the identity and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. “What the Galatians seek in the law is the certainty that they have a firm place in the church of God and that they know what God requires of them. It is precisely this certainty, and every other form of certainty, that Paul rejects with his claim about the exclusivity and singularity of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s Christology puts the crucifixion at the focus, through which humanity is freed not only from legal practices but from all identifications, whether within law or outside it. The new creation brought about by the crucifixion allows for no augmentation by the law nor any other power or loyalty.

The final chapters of Our Mother Saint Paul investigate Paul’s letter to the Romans to understand the cosmic battle between God and the anti-God powers as well as the community of believers. Gaventa examines the phrase “God handed them over” with the understanding that God surrendered humanity to the anti-God powers, specifically to uncleanness/impurity, dishonorable passions, and deformed mind. In Paul’s understanding, these are not human characteristics but powers; humans always live in the grasp of some power. Having already handed over humanity, the crucifixion is the point at which God hands over his own Son, which is not the victory of the powers but their unmasking and sure defeat.

Paul’s letter to the Romans emphasizes that the battle against evil is not simply a list of transgressions to condemn or avoid, it is God’s own enemy. Sin is not confined to behavior but is a power that entered the world, became an enslaving force, unleashed its partner Death, and corrupts even God’s law. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, he has handed over Jesus for its defeat. Baptism means the individual is dead to Sin, although capable of transgression (lowercase sin). On a cosmic level Sin is no longer the enslaving power; grace holds dominion. Ultimately, God will destroy evil on behalf of humanity.

Gaventa also considers Romans to see what it might suggest about community. She observes that Paul invokes a common memory of what has happened in the gospel with the hope that a shared interpretation will shape the future and unity of the community. The community’s behavior is characterized by an upbuilding of others within the community and reaching out to the outsider. Community boundaries are wide and yet distinguish a “line between those who are living and those who remain in the power of Death.” However, Paul does not stigmatize outsiders; he is caringly concerned for them.

Gaventa shows Romans to be a display of Paul’s theologizing. His theology is not a starting point but an end product that is fluid in light of changing events. God, for Paul, is ‘on the loose’ and uncontainable. The demands of such an all-encompassing God affect every area of human life and creation itself. Paul maintains that God is faithful, but faithfulness does not imply predictability. What may look like rejection to Israel is not unfaithfulness but is faithfulness to all creation, as God works to transform all. Paul’s fluid understanding allows room for a God who unexpectedly surpasses his promises.

Reviewers have much to praise in Gaventa’s work. McNeel writes that Gaventa shows maternal images to be “an essential part of Paul’s theologizing, both about apostolic ministry and about the cosmic battle going on between God and the anti-God forces of the universe.” The common critique is the fragmented argument of the work as a whole, especially between the two parts. Ascough relates that in early chapters the reader is left “wondering how the term ‘apocalyptic’ is being used.” The chapters on apocalyptic theology, McNeel notes, apparently “were not composed with maternal imagery in mind.”

While I agree that the book reads as two distinct works, her war-faring language is more problematic for me. Gaventa employs war imagery to describe conflict between powers. She states that “God wages war”, and that believers are God’s weapons. However, she also describes a God who “delivered up humanity”; the weapons (humanity) have been handed over. I protest: This God does not battle, he surrenders and dies on a cross. This God does not crush opponents, but becomes vulnerable to them. Feminists recognize the way language shapes cultural structures, and war-faring language is no exception. By employing primarily war imagery in theology and depicting a battle-ready God, Gaventa perpetuates philosophies of righteous war and systems of violence.

This review written for Feminist Hermeneutics with Jo-Ann Badley; all students were asked to write a review of this text.

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god/body map

SELF

I was raised to be a good soul trapped in an inconsequential body.

The soul was what mattered. It lived on forever, it was judged by a white guy up in the sky, it journeyed to some far-away paradise after death.

The body was merely an imprisonment. “This life is only to determine where you’ll spend eternity,” my father was fond of stating with certainty. After the decision was made, all that’s left is to wait for the body’s expiration date, and perhaps help move that date closer. Breakfast in my house was a giant class of diet Coke and a chocolate-iced doughnut.

“If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” another favorite phrase from my parents. I remember the first time I bit into a fresh pear, handed to me by a friend’s mother. I was overwhelmed with the sweetness, surprised by the juice and the contrast of soft flesh within tough skin. A few years later, when I tried to lose weight, I ate toast, thinking the bland taste meant it was good for me. All the things my body and taste buds craved—crisp broccoli, fresh berries, raw almonds—had been deemed ‘bad for me’ by my parents’ rule.

It was difficult to reach down to tie my shoes.

In college, my violin instructor banned dairy from my diet and demanded protein (a foreign word I had to research) at each meal. Post-college I began a weekly yoga practiced and, for what felt like the first time, felt my body.

As my body taught me about my self,

As my body changed and my self along with it,

As I changed and the body reflected the difference,

I had to rethink the way I understood my self.

Obviously, everything was so much more interconnected than I had been taught. When I began eating food designed by the Creator rather than the corporation, my relationship with the environment around me changed. As I began to taste food in its particularity instead of as a means to fullness, I also found each person to hold a particularity that had previously gone unnoticed. As my soul moved into my body, I stopped barricading myself so strongly within my intellect. I allowed myself to feel, even when feeling hurt. I stopped being a soul and a body. I became one person.

Which is not to deny my complexity. I don’t think of myself as nothing more than an accumulation of cells. I am a body, but when I slice open my arm there is no confusion that it’s my intelligence seeping out. When I confer within myself, there’s no confusion at hearing multiple voices. I am in relationship with myself. Understanding myself as an integrated unity opened up more freedom within me to be in such a relationship. There are no clearly-defined borders of mind, body, soul; there is only relationships, on-going, ever-building in complexity, differentiating, integrating, including, transcending.

Don’t be misled by my frame. I am a big self.

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THE DIVINE. DIV(I)N(THRE)E.

I’m wary of using the word ‘God’. No one means the same thing by it. It’s often used (and capitalized) as though it’s a name, proper noun. It’s not. It’s a description, just as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Divine,’ or ‘Be-ing’, is. That said, I will use the word, but please, just as I do not want you to put your preconceived stereotypes about ‘white’, ‘women’, or ‘Michigander’ onto me, I do not want you to think you know the essence of this God Being.

Everything is included in God. Everything is transcended, surpassed, gone beyond by God. There is nothing that is not God. Just as your body includes organs such as your lungs, heart, and brain, you are more than the accumulation of your organs. You include all of them, but you also transcend all of them. God includes everything, but also transcends, and from that beyond-place, God calls creation to be more than it is, calls humanity to be more than we are. Why do we cringe to think of the way scripture was used to justify slavery but continue to use it to justify domestic violence, gender inequality, ethnocentrism and exceptionalism?

In some way, a first-century Jewish man embodied everything it was to be human while also embodying everything it is to be God. I do not pretend to understand this. What I do know is that this man prayed, and God responded. Which can be confusing. God responding to God’s own self?

Oh, whispers a warm internal voice, you know what that’s like.

That’s different, another I responds. We aren’t God. 

Well then what do you do with imago Dei? Chimes in that snobby theological intellectual that won’t go away, no matter how much the rest of us shun him.

On some level, I’m aware I might be making God into my own image, but I’m not without tradition in doing so, and the company isn’t terrible.

Or maybe it really is the other way around, and my inner relationality reflects something of God’s inner workings. Not that it helps; I still can’t claim any solid understanding of God nor of the way my inner self works.

So I put words to it as best I can with a giant shrug. We could be wrong, the voices agree.

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SELF AND DIVINITY

The best image I have to begin describing any of this is not an image at all. It was something that was barely understood to exist until just a few centuries ago: air.

We tell ourselves that air is all around us, it’s the thing in which we live. What we forget is that there are times the air believes humans to be the thing around it, that we are the thing in which it exists. Which is to say: we inhale.

I had a pastor who once explained that the reason the tetragrammaton—the four-letter Hebrew name for God that we lamely translate as Lord—is unsayable is that it’s actually unpronounceable. “They’re breathing sounds,” he says. He talks about pneuma meaning both breath and spirit. Another friend, also a pastor, likes to say that the answer to the question “Where is God?” is only an inhale and exhale away.

Inside me, that affirming voice resonates warmly. Breath and spirit are connected. God is in all people, even when they aren’t aware of it. Each inhale, the spirit is being lent to us, and with each exhale we return it to the creation. With breath, God is in everyone. And the animals, they breathe. Plants, too, in their way. All the green plants, all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it—holds a piece of God.

At times, God feels far away; I try to get close. I recite from prayer books, I force myself out of bed to church, I taste the bread dipped in the cup. This is all a chasing after the wind, only to eventually discover the wind is held in my own lungs.

I must take care of the spirit that is lent to me with each inhale. To do otherwise, to waste this fragile life breath by breath, is to take the LORD’s name in vain 28,000 times a day.

I have questions about how breathing works. Is my diaphragm pulling air in, or does the air enter thus move my diaphragm? Put theologically, it’s a question of who is initiating: am I inviting God in, or is God entering into me? The answer, as it often seems to be in God matters, might be: Yes.

But I could be wrong.

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SELF AND EVERYTHING ELSE

If God is in others, I must be kind to them. I must see them in their particularity. They carry a piece of God, and I can only have eyes to see if I forget God and any other notions I have of what lies behind the face in front of me.

Animals are included in God, too. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I do have the sense that we are are to take care of them. Genesis agrees with me: ruling over the creatures is God’s first commandment to humanity. I also have the sense that raising them on food they weren’t meant to eat, in group sizes they don’t naturally live in, for the purpose of slaughter and consumption, all does not fall under the category of ‘taking care’.

The rest of the environment, as well. God includes and transcends all. Nothing is an accident; everything is beloved. I share air, breath, and therefore spirit with the tree that blocks my view of the harbor. The tree is inside me: I have no more health to despise it than I do to despise my own breath.

Which brings us back to where we started, as seems to happen when discussing relationships that inter-connect in the dizzying trail of a celtic knot. It’s hard to remember, but my lungs, too, contain breath, hold spirit. I have a hard time remembering this, but I must remember, I must remember: I carry images of the divine.

In ragged breaths,

In tearful sobs,

In shallow panting,

the name of God.

Intentional inhales,

lungs are broad,

Mindful exhales,

the name of God.

This was written for Theology I in Fall 2012. Students were asked to consider the way they understand themselves in relationship to God and others.

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feminists, christians, corinthians

In USAmerica today, everyone is talking about sex. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that throughout history everyone has been talking about sex, and USAmerica is in the midst of the present manifestation of an ancient issue. Today, sexual behavior for women is often presented as a choice between two extremes: purity or promiscuity; prude or liberated. However, neither stance is helpful for a fully human life: firm answers applied to everybody lacks compassion and imagination, as Paul can help Christians understand.

Sex-positive feminists believe sex to be natural and beneficial. Sex between consenting adults is encouraged as sexual desire is understood as a natural part of human experience that should not be denied or repressed. Indeed, desire cannot be repressed without negative consequences on the individual; sexual repression and anything that promotes repression are treated as the primary enemies. This view of sex is often criticized as being irreverent, but that is an oversimplification. Many sex-positive individuals have a high view of sex and use language of intimate connection.

The sex-positive way of life can be problematic for women. If sex becomes a high priority, then a woman’s value can become tied up in her sexual accomplishment or ability to find a partner. Also problematic is when attention shifts from equal abilities and equal rights into a desire to prove that women can behave as men in ways men have been criticized, such as deception with regards to the intention of the relationship beyond sex or libertine “Don Juan” behavior. One woman notes that “the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude boiled down to … ‘I’m more sex-positive than you.’” For women who adopt this competitive mentality and find it unfulfilling, “the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.” In a reactionary move against the lifestyle, such women sometimes jump to the opposite extreme: chastity and submission in the name of Christianity.

Presently, the Christian stance on sexuality emphasizes abstinence, chastity, or purity outside of marriage. The primary enemies here are promiscuity and premarital sex. Tim Stafford speaks for many when he asserts that “Christians can tell young people when it is right to have sex for the first time: on the day you marry.” Stafford characterizes sex outside marriage as “a compulsive need,” an abuse of self and others, and depersonalized “biological stimulation.” Without debating the truth of such statements, it is enough to say that such language does not match many individuals’ felt experience of sex. Many find an outsider labeling consensual sex enjoyed by both partners as ‘abuse’ to be offensive, as is the notion that sex is depersonalized based only on the evidence of not having a marriage certificate.

The emphasis on virginity is problematic for, as Julia Duin emphasizes, “we only give away our purity once.” What is told to widows, those who come to Christianity later in life, and—perhaps most distressingly—rape victims? The downside of the purity narrative is one of damaged goods, defeat, and despair. Also problematic are the solutions to denying desire recommended to celibate Christians, which carry tones of avoidance and repression that set up bad habits for marriage. Julia Duin suggests Christians “find something to care about more than sex,” exercise, and “figure out what stimulates wrong desires and avoid that.” The language of avoidance simultaneously makes sex more desirable—the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ of morality—and creates problematic expectations for sex in marriage after a lifetime of denying desire to be felt. “Wrong desires” aren’t instantly renamed “right” when a marriage license is signed.

Helpful in mediating such extremes in the conversation are Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Whatever the problem the Corinthians brought to Paul, they justify it by saying they have the right to do anything. What’s notable is that Paul doesn’t disagree. As a community who lives post-resurrection, they know that sin has no ultimate power, and thus all things are lawful. It is on this point that much of Christian language around sex fails to convince, for by focusing on sin, the good news of the forgiveness of sins is denied. There is no question of lawfulness: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Crucified, “all things are lawful.” It is on this same point that sex-positive feminists are correct: they have the right and the ability to do anything.

However, Paul adds some nuance to the argument by pointing out that not everything is beneficial and can become enslaving. He draws attention the large gap between what is permitted and what is best for living a life of wholeness. We are free to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we should; true freedom is the ability to go without whatever is craved. Again, many Christians have missed this nuance. The Driscolls dedicate an entire chapter of their recent book to addressing various sexual issues, answering if they are (a) lawful, (b) helpful, and (c) enslaving, as though the evaluation of three separate issues can lead to a clear answer of what is permissible.

But what Paul writes here is not a clear answer. He doesn’t respond to the Corinthians’ concern by explaining that it is unlawful, why it’s unhelpful, and how it’s enslaving. Instead, he opens up readers to a stance of evaluation and discernment. Creating a new law is not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to when it becomes a barrier to entering the church community. The difference between permissible and beneficial has been forgotten by many feminists as well, both sex-positive and anti-pornography. Paul reminds us all that what is beneficial for one person may be enslaving for another: a nightly glass of wine might mean heart health for one and an awakening of alcoholism for another. Paul’s response honors the fact that in the breadth of human experience, there are no tidy answers.

Paul’s openness to the complexity of human life highlights an underlying problem of both sides: they lead to either/or, black-or-white thinking. From the Christian side, a woman is either labeled pure or damaged; more crudely, virgin or whore. From the sexual liberation side, women are either free or oppressed, slut (used with a reclaimed positive sense) or prude. Neither lens allows for a wide variety of human experience. For example, where is there room for widows—are they ‘ruined’ for a second marriage? Or are they prude because they enjoyed sex only within the confines of marriage?

Another underlying problem with both sex-positive feminism and chastity-focused Christianity is that the focus on sex is unimaginative. Oftentimes, both sexual behavior and the debate around sex emerges as a symptom of much larger issues. For example, Duin states that “People are looking for something big enough to die for. Not finding that, they’ll settle for comfort and pleasure.” However, she herself becomes sidetracked into believing that the root problem is the sexual impulse when the real issue is boredom and safety. Rather than asking “How can we help Christians not have sex?” she would do better to be asking “How can we help others find and commit to something big enough to die for?”

Stafford is equally unimaginative. He emphasizes legal marriage even as he acknowledges that ancient Israel had no such customs because of the closeness of community. Rather than advocate involved community—a genuine problem for many in USAmerica today—he relies on the legal system to guarantee that a couple will fulfill obligations to one another post-sex, a solution that relies on a gentile system in order to discourage a gentile way of life. Why not advocate for improved, involved community, the real lack from which our culture is suffering?

There are no easy answers in the realm of human sexuality. Rather than becoming entrenched in arguments, may the conversation shift to an imaginative exploration of the root problems and discuss them compassionately with space made for one another’s experiences.

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JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

What sticks with me most about the latest Star Trek movie isn’t a sense of adventure or excitement, but of infuriated distraction. Among the first females we see on screen are the two in Kirk’s bed. Two is a good number of women, apparently, because it’s also the number of female characters who have any weight in the plot. We don’t see them speak to each other; not even about men. When they do speak, it’s largely out of emotion, often with tears, occasionally petty and at entirely inappropriate times (like on a stealth mission to a hostile planet). The female uniforms are irrationally sexy for the kind of work being done, and at one point Carol changes in front of the camera for no explicable reason at all. Female nudity is so gratuitous now that apparently there’s no need to even attempt to work it into the narrative.

I do what any angry consumer does today: I angry-tweeted. A lot. I was just going to do one, but once I got going…I couldn’t stop. Since my tweets forward to facebook, soon I was in a gender argument with a defensive male acquaintance. He eventually apologized, I said thank you, and then he had to post one more comment: “It’s still a great movie.”

And that’s when I realized that we were having fundamentally different conversations. For him, this was simply a side-issue to an otherwise great film, so far to the side, in fact, that it had little influence on the overall viewing. For me, it was so blatant and distracting that it interfered with every moment, disturbed the entire experience.

This is what we mean when we say that men—even feminist men—don’t see sexism the way we do.

star trek

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the office finale

For the bulk of nine years, fans of The Office have watched Jim.

Sure, we like the other characters too, we may even care about them. But Jim is the one who acts, the one who pines and pursues, the one  who pranks and plans. We wait for Pam to react, to respond, to reciprocate, but for the most part she’s a woman to whom things happen; more specifically, a woman to whom Jim happens. She’s the princess to be rescued—from Roy, from her own self-doubt about her artistic capacities, most recently from her doubt of Jim.

But in the finale, Pam finally accepts her agency. She even admits that she’s learned and moved slowly—four years to get to the man who worked five feet from her desk. By giving her the final recap of her time on film, she has the final say of the way the narrative can be read. It may not be heroic, but it is honest, and it is the story of many, if not most, women in our society. We are taught to be timid and small, and it takes much of our adult life to move into controlling our own lives, it takes us “so long to do so many important things.” We are happy when a man buys a house for us because we feel like someone cares for us and is in control, but that  falls so far short of having the kind of agency to make a decision for ourselves. And we see where that kind of “love” leads Jim and Pam—Jim continues to make the decisions, as Pam withers in her smallness.

In the final minutes of The Office, Pam re-narrates the series into a feminist one. She remembers her identity, and acts out of it in bold agency. Like so many woman, she is ambivalent, happy where she is while lamenting the time lost. And like so many woman, she hopes that her lessons will make it easier for those watching, for the next generation of women.

“It would just make my heart soar if someone out there saw this and she said to herself: Be strong. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Conquer your fears. Just go after what you want, and act fast, because life just isn’t that long.”

pam

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rape and the church

“The person offended is not excused from the responsibility to reconcile; yet neither is anyone else who knows about it.”

– John Howard Yoder

We were meant to talk about the ideas we encountered in John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics. Instead, we started talking about Yoder’s life. One student brought up that he has sexually abused women and, as far as it is known, has not apologized, has not made amends, has not done any of the reparation and community-reconciling actions that he advocates in his work. The professor who assigned the reading asked us if we thought it was right that we still read his work in light of what he has done. I spoke: yes, read it…but also discuss his misconduct and how it might be evident in his theologies.

Rather than discussing the influence his abuse of power has on his theology, though, I felt as though the discussion leaders kept the focus on absolving Yoder. First was a speech (given by a feminist man who is aware of the ways that men with power have hurt his formation) about how we can’t expect anyone to be perfect. Can we make space for failure?

Yes, I assert. People who never visibly fail are often proponents of prosperity gospels, and that is not good news at all. Fail! Fail again! Fail better! But admit, apologize, repent, repair. Yoder has not only refused to publicly apologize, but as only “vaguely acknowledged misconduct.”

The professor (a woman and feminist) began speaking of shame, and how painful it can be to have shame exposed—with emphasis on Yoder’s shame, how hard it would be for him to have his shame exposed.

Forget, for a moment, that part of the church’s job is to expose and heal shame. We’ll come back to that on another day. Let’s talk about a society in which a woman is raped and socially humiliated, and all the national news media want to highlight is her drunkenness and that the boys were promising students with promising football careers.

This is the same story.

Image from Bitch Media

Image from Bitch Media

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my sin

Sin is complicated. It would be so convenient if there were a list, encompassing every detail of life, of the permissible and the unacceptable. I could memorize the list, then be set for a happy and simple career.

But it’s not that way, or at least it shouldn’t be. For one man, sin might be pride, the over-valuation of his opinions and over-exertion of his agency. For his wife, sin might be humility, an under-exertion of agency, a lack of a defining sense of self.

Recently, I had a run of long days, so much so that I started my days exhausted and ended them in despair. In those moments before sleep, temptations are strong. I murmur to my husband, “I don’t have to work.”

“No, you don’t,” he agrees, knowing the pattern of this conversation.

“I could be a mom all the time.”

“You could.”

“I could have a garden, and put things in cans. I’d learn how to sew our pajamas. Our house would be so clean…” I allow myself to slip into this fantasy for a few escapist minutes. Yes, life could be so easy. I’d make my own schedule. Laundry would be folded while it was still warm from the dryer—or better yet, I’d take the time to hang wet laundry and let the sun dry it, folding it at dusk. Pinterest could supply me with a never-ending list of projects for my ideal home, activitiesfor my hypothetical children, and, if unfulfilled, I could fill my time making items to sell. The only struggles I’d experience would be the small self-inflicted ones: learning how to embroider a french knot. Yes, life would be serene.

But I don’t even manage to fall asleep before I feel the Spirit pushing me out of the fantasy. Don’t deny you identity! she screams. Don’t check out! I need your agency in your body!

This is sin, at its core: the attempt to be fulfilled by something less than what God desires for me. The life I described above might be a Spirit-willed outpouring of identity for another, but I know it’s not me. So I get up, I hear the Ghost, I sit at my desk and struggle through writing a few hundred words and reading a few thousand others. And I wait in my want to see what might become of my work, to see the unveiling of the person I was created to be.

My despair.

[What despair looks like for me.]

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finding the church’s mother: feminism and a pauline appalling a johannine

In describing the revival of Celtic spirituality within the modern Church, Tom Cashman uses the metaphor of a child with an absent parent. The child has been raised only by a father, the Catholic Church as originated in Rome, and is now “encountering the Mother we have not known.” His imagery is appropriate: the Celtic spirituality that we’ve been missing is indeed a mother, a female figure, for the Celts valued women both in society and the Church in ways that greatly differ from the mainstream tradition. The treatment of women in the Celtic Church greatly contrasts with that of the Church in America today, a difference that can be traced to the theological conflict between Pelagius and Augustine.

One of the clearest ways in which women are viewed differently in the historic Celtic and contemporary churches is the vastly different views and acceptance of women’s leadership roles. Today, many churches prohibit the ordination of women and even prohibit their leadership in lay positions over males of a certain age. In a 2009 study, 26% of churches exclude women in volunteer leadership positions; 13% do not allow women to teach a class of adult men. Even in churches that profess equal rights and have no rules barring women’s ordination, pastorship it is still a male-dominated field. Some pastors in my home church refer to the common phenomenon as “attractive white male syndrome”. They want to hire women, but even when they do, the women realize what a minority they are and leave, underwhelmed with the space allotted female voices or overwhelmed with the disrespect.

In both the Celtic community and the Celtic Church, on the other hand, women were treated as equals. Women were not restrained in the tasks they could perform, being allowed to follow God’s calling just as a man would. Many women even served as warriors, a privilege denied females in many societies. Cashman notes that they “went on missions, were educated and involved in academic and legal worlds.” Women were granted the same titles as their male counterparts, including the title of abbess of monastic communities and sainthood, such as Hilda and Ita. A woman’s value came not through her ability to act and think as a man does, but inherently as a woman. As Cashman states, the “feminine process of intuition was honored” in the right-brained culture of the Celts. The gifts were acknowledged as different from men’s, and were viewed as a necessary and vital voice within the church and for the world.

Today’s Church would be wise to learn from our Celtic ancestors in the area of women in leadership roles. Women may approach relationships and the world with a lens that is different from that of a man, but no less valuable (whether that lens is socially constructed or biologically inherent is irrelevant; it’s there). We bring a skill set of communication and connection for which men are less trained in today’s society. Arguably, such skills are an essential asset in the church because, as George Hunter notes, “most people experience the faith through relationships.” By keeping them out of leadership, women are getting the message that their skills and voice are worth less than a man’s, that their being is worth less than a man’s. In America, where less than five percent of churchgoers in 2009 attended a congregation led by a woman, where are women being empowered to do God’s work? We must uphold women within the Church so that they may effect the world within and without the Church, and uphold them as women, not merely as females encouraged to function as males. The starting point includes not only the ordination of women and encouragement of women to publicly lead, but also through including women in the church’s memory. We hear much of Peter, Paul, and Patrick, but rarely remember Ita, Ia, and Hilda. It is important for the church to remember the mothers who helped form our identity, and for young women to gain strength from such memory.

Why such a vast discrepancy concerning the treatment of women between these two churches? Much of the theology that placed women as lower beings than men goes back to the theological conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, reflecting the opposition of Roman and Celtic theologies.

Augustine believed that the soul was the most important aspect of a person; the body was secondary, merely something in which the soul is confined for this life, an abhorred prison. Far from helping others experience faith through relationships, faith was set-up primarily as a logic problem to be solved through confession and baptism.  The worldview that condemns bodies also condemned women, as they were the ones whose work was devoted to the daily tasks of bodily sustenance: food preparation, household chores, child birthing and rearing. Women’s lives were enmeshed with bodyliness, and therefore, by this theology, women’s souls are trapped in the lower realm of the senses as well.

The doctrine of original sin contributed to misogyny. Augustine believed that original sin was inherited at conception, because, as Newell summarizes, sex is “associated with lustful desire.” When desire is enough to damn an unbaptized soul, certainly the figures who provoke such lustful desire in a theologian are viewed with suspicion at best. In collapsing a simplified view of Augustine’s argument for original sin (a woman’s beauty leads to lustful desire, which leads to sex and conception, which leads to original sin), we could state that women are indirectly responsible for original sin.

Perhaps as a result of his suspicion of the female form’s power, Augustine believed teaching women to be entirely unacceptable. However, the way to salvation is entirely rooted in orthodoxy, the emphasis of importance on right beliefs. Women become trapped in their condemnation: their lives revolve around the nurturing and sustenance of bodies, and the education that could free their souls from consumption of the senses is denied them on the basis of their sex.

Augustine believed in predestination as the only correct doctrine. Cashman summarizes: “God, arbitrarily, through His grace has selected the elect (and therefore the condemned).” Augustine’s theology not only excludes, but ultimately condemns women. We still see this doctrine played out today in some of the largest churches in America. For example, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, states that his target demographic is young men: “I want to see young guys meet Jesus.” Women in such a church are discouraged from working outside their home, as they exist largely to manage household and child-rearing to help support their men. Denied the education and roles that could free them of the physical aspects of the world, they are confined to it, and thus condemned to eternal hell. Meanwhile, the men are both allowed to learn and have time to do so (since the home efforts are taken care of by their supportive women), and have a chance at salvation.

On the other hand there is Pelagius, who believed that the body is an important part of being human. His emphasis was on orthopraxy, the choosing of right actions as the most important aspect of Christian living. This understanding brings God into the senses, the tasks of daily living that nurture bodies, including the otherwise mundane aspects of life. The Celts saw “God in the ordinary and everyday instead of exclusively in the Church.” Women were not only included by such a theology, but became a central player within it. As managers of the home and those who raise children, it was women who introduced spirituality into the home and thus into many aspects of a child’s formation. Because they were “listening within all things for the life of God,” they found such life in all things. One example is the nightly prayer for the smooring of the fire. The fire was central to the home: it provided heat and was used in the preparation of food. This is the  quintessential place of tending to the needs of the body, the perfect symbol of sensual, embodied living. It was here that the woman of the house would recite the evening prayer as she smoored the fire. It is the woman who recognizes God’s presence and invokes Her protection in this place of embodiment.

It is little surprise, then, that Pelagius did not object to teaching women, and in fact regularly taught them himself. Newell quotes Pelagius as stating, “there is no creature on earth in whom God is absent,” and he clearly meant all creatures, not merely the male forms. Through Pelagius we see the Celtic faith’s support and encouragement of women: they are supported in the work of attending to nurturing the body, and are encouraged beyond such work into the realm of the mind, of understanding and education. Whereas Augustine doubly condemned women, Pelagius doubly desires their involvement with the God of All. Pelagius began to receive explicit criticism for this practice of teaching women, and also for his denial of original sin as sound doctrine.

The doctrine of original sin appalled Pelagius, who had a positive view of sex and sexuality. He was convinced that the newborn child carried the image of God, and that “creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of life is God-given.” Again, the Celtic theology within Pelagius leaves no room for misogyny. If women are viewed differently at all, it is with more respect, as they are the carriers, deliverers, and nurturers of the imago Dei within their children.

An example of Augustine’s influence on the Church; Pelagius has been marked a heretic for his assertion that people are good.

Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was also upsetting to Pelagius, who believed “the work of the Holy Spirit supports all who seek righteousness.” Although God, in Her omniscience, may know ahead of time what an individual will choose to do with his life and where he will end up in the afterlife, Pelagius did not hold that God would determine such fate for us in advance, as predestinarianism argues. Here again we see the open and inviting God of Pelagius, not only welcoming but actively working and supporting those who seek a life of righteousness.

“Pelagius understood that God loved mankind and acknowledged God’s continuing work of grace in every holy life.”

Rather than Augustine’s God who lords over humanity in judgment, Pelagius’ God is working for us and with us. Pelagius worked to set free or release the imago Dei that humans carry within, and “was concerned that Augustine’s emphasis on human depravity leads to a loss of confidence in what we most essentially are.”  His fears were well founded, for that is what we see in the Church today. Many congregations are driven by guilt, condemnation, and concerns over who’s in and who’s out. We often worship doctrine more than we worship the living God.

It is hard to say whether each theologian’s pre-existing cultural view of women influenced his theology, or if his theology influenced his view and treatment of women. What is clear is the heavy influence of Augustine on today’s Church and culture. Women are often treated with the same suspicion and exclusion as was originally set up by his theology. In many communities, the theology not only excludes but actively damages women, telling them they are inferior and sinful for the lust they provoke. The Church would be wise to turn toward our forgotten Mother, found in Celtic spirituality, and listen to her love and wisdom.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Celtic Spirituality with Tom Cashman, writing on what today’s church could learn from the Celtic church.

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