So I was happy to hear that she had shared [2009 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer] Kelly Brown Douglas’s book What’s Faith Got to Do With It? with one of the small groups in her congregation. The women had found it challenging, but also exhilarating, and liberating. To which our alumna added, “It just shows that there’s a hunger for theology out there” — in the congregations, in the world of lay people outside the seminaries.
From what I have seen in my own congregation, I’m willing to agree with this assessment. Just last week I listened to another member describe the discussion the Sr. High class had had about theories of atonement, avidly questioning and probing “satisfaction,” “demonstration,” “Christus victor,” and “non-violent atonement.” (Kelly Brown-Douglas would, I hope, be glad to hear the fourth alternative was on the agenda. I know I was.) The weekly groups that gather for Bible study and reflection routinely bring in outside theological reading, and profound questions. This line of thinking reminds me of another conversation reported to me by a professor, in which her conversation partner said “Why do you keep all the good stuff locked away in the seminary? Why don’t we get to hear any of that?”
Upon reflection, it seems the Women’s Center may have been as guilty of keeping theology sequestered as anyone else. Theological reflection is part of what goes on in the Women’s Center, informs what the Women’s Center undertakes, and infuses the Women’s Center’s mission. The purpose of working “for the equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and the building of community locally, nationally and globally” is deeply informed by a vision of God, the Holy One of Israel and of the Risen Savior Jesus Christ, as the One who made humanity in God’s image male and female, who demands justice and compassion in our dealings with one another, and who calls people into communion with Godself through community with one another. But how many people — even people who are familiar with the Women’s Center and support the work it does — could say that?
We may have been more reticent about saying that kind of thing out loud than we need to be. That reticence certainly does not stem from a shortage of material. One thing people learn in seminary — at least, at this seminary — is that theology is a hidden dimension of everything we encounter in life. Part of seminary training involves learning to make the connections between Biblical categories and concepts, theological vision and insights, and the situations that surround us in our world, or worlds. The fact that people have to be trained to do this indicates that making those connections is not automatic. But the fact that people can be trained to do this indicates that the connections are there to be made. And the fact that we do train people to do this affirms that making these connections, and making them explicit, is worthwhile.
So, as our student reminded us on Thursday, there is a wealth of potential connection-making to be done around the things the Women’s Center does. She would have liked to see even more theological conversation around things like the production of The Vagina Monologues, addressing the need for the production (in the context of life in bodies made by God that are capable of giving and receiving pleasure, and that are so much the vehicle of the life of the spirit that we cannot imagine a spiritual experience or insight that occurs separate from our bodies), and the challenges to our ethical imagination and our daily practice that work raises. And, on reflection, the same could probably be said for most of the elements of the Women’s Center’s program, from the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture to our participation in the annual Louisville AIDS Walk to our recurrent emphasis on violence against women — and the need for our communities to recognize it, acknowledge it, challenge it, repent of the all-too-familiar and -comfortable arrangements and attitudes that nurture it, and end it — to our participation in the Transgender Day of Remembrance and our celebratory gatherings like Tuesday’s breakfast. We could keep talking for a long time.
Maybe that is part of the problem. Maybe our reticence, to the extent we have been reticent, stems from a fear that not everyone is hungry for theology, especially for theology that intentionally incorporates commitments to taking women and their experiences and insights completely seriously as a source of questions and an index of adequacy. Other words for that might be “feminist” or “womanist” or “mujerista” theology. Maybe we have worried that getting a whiff of theological conversation, far from drawing people to the feast, will instead send many scurrying for the exits. From what I have seen in my own congregation, that response happens, too. There seem to be places, times, audiences, for these theological conversations and engagements. But that highlights the point that there are places, times, and audiences for these theological conversations. Those places and times ache to be filled, not left empty, and those audiences all too often wait eagerly for a curtain that rises too infrequently.
The blog of the Women’s Center seems like it could be one such place. In recognition, then, of that ongoing hunger, and of that waiting audience, we will work at dishing up more God talk along with the standard fare of announcements and discussion of what we are planning and doing. If our hungrier readers have a taste for something in particular, I hope they will let us know!