Echoes of “A Woman’s Voice”

Dr. Gay Byron, Suendam Birinci, and Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer spoke as proponents of 'critical vision'

Johanna Bos, in her opening remarks for the recent interfaith conference “A Woman’s Voice,” referred to the objective of the conference as the fashioning of “utopian space.” She cited recent work by Elizabeth Castelli in characterizing utopian space as “an alternative space within which the future might be reimagined and renagotiated in light of a critical vision of the past and present.”1

This critical view of past and present emerged clearly in every plenary presentation. Dr. Gay Byron’s talk “Teaching Empires, Interpreting Texts, Redefining Authority” in particular focused on the presentation of the history of the ancient Axumite Empire, and the way its existence has been reflected through the eyes of its “others” in antiquity. Once the standard, classic sources begin to appear as sources from a particular standpoint, with their own symbolic agendas and systematic distortions, it becomes possible to consider the meanings of those symbolic agendas and systematic distortions, as well as to look for other sources. This is precisely the direction Gay Byron’s most recent work is taking, as she sifts the demanding texts of the Axumite, or Ethiopian, Empire. For those in her audience who don’t know ge`ez, however, just becoming aware that certain “authorized” sources of information about the topic of the Axumites require critical re-examination serves as a reminder that similar dynamics have been at work, and are still at work, in our more immediate contexts. It can remind us to reflect on the symbolic apparatus laid before us in newsprint and video pixels, as contemporary representatives of empire purvey their official views of the meaning of racial difference, class difference, religious difference, gender difference. Gay’s lecture reminds us to be suspicious of reports that are too easy to understand; perhaps the ease of understanding comes from the use of “information” as symbol to reinforce one particular picture of the world, rather than the use of words and images as information, to complicate, widen, and deepen our picture of the world.

The presentations by Suendam Birinci and Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer did, in fact, complicate, widen, and deepen our picture of the world. Suendam Birinci focused her attention on the authoritative status of the Qur’an in the religious tradition of Islam. The text, she pointed out, is understood by Muslims differently from the way the Biblical text is understood by most Jews and Christians. The text’s status as direct revelation from God, independent of human composition, transmission, and even understanding, underpins the authority of the text of the Qur’an in a way that differs from the authority of a Biblical text that is understood to be open to historical and literary criticism and to interpretation in light of its human authorship. Birinci emphasized the possibilities inherent in education with respect to the text of the Qur’an, pointing out that familiarity with and understanding of that text becomes the ultimate touchstone for legitimate communal authority in the context she outlined. This should constitute a place from which women can challenge illegitimate erasures of their God-given rights. Birinci sketches an alternative future — which incidentally might resemble a historical past that has been almost forgotten by most contemporary Muslims — which would include education made available to women equally with men, and respect for religious views granted according to merit.2

Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer depicted a present in the Jewish context that has become a time of intense focus on texts and tradition, in which women’s textual scholarship is being recognized and gaining authority (as in the publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, commentaries on the Torah portions by women rabbis) and women’s voices as interpreters and re-inventers of religious tradition are increasingly attended to and accepted as authoritative. She noted, however, that this new authoritative position comes historically on the heels of an earlier eclipse of a different organization of religious life in which women, in fact, enjoyed significant authority in the realm of women’s ritual and spiritual life. In evidence she cites the memoirs of Pauline Wengeroff, translated by Shulamit Magnus, as demonstrating the way official histories have obscured the trajectories of loss of cultural authority in the now-vanished traditional context. Interestingly, however, growth in women’s authority according to the pattern established by modern and masculine religious and scholarly authority is increasingly permitting a critical revival of traditional practices, and a re-inscription of traditional practices in the contemporary context in ways that retrieve and reshape the sources of women’s authority within the living tradition. One of the things suggested by this account is that critical consciousness, and assessment of the gains and losses that come with historical change, while difficult, are also essential. This critical consciousness and assessment require the perspectives made available by gender difference, along with those made available by other sources of difference, before they can count as knowledge about the paths towards liberation.

It is one thing to recognize that the goal of a conference of this type is to create “utopian space,” in the sense of alternative space that is open to critical reflection on and re-evaluation of what is “common knowledge.” It is another to make the effort to inscribe such “utopian space” more deeply into our routines. That effort, some will say, would really be “utopian” — in the sense of being unrealistic and impractical.

But one of the lessons of the recent conference “A Woman’s Voice” is, in fact, that this effort can be made. Pockets of critical space, for reimagination and renegotiation of alternative futures in light of critical visions of the past and present, can be fashioned. The conference room is only one of many possible spaces of this kind. The classroom, in which students and teachers pursue emancipatory practices, is potentially another. A living room, in which people gather for Bible study with a determination to hear what a living God is speaking into a contemporary context, could be such a space. The Women’s Center, we are reminded, is called to be this kind of space; this is precisely the objective of the Center’s programs of education, advocacy and celebration.

Indeed, the church itself is called to be this kind of space, a place in which people together can catch a glimpse of an alternative future of justice and peace, that does not simply replicate indefinitely the cold material inequalities and casual violences of our contemporary world. “A Woman’s Voice” had something to say — let those with ears to hear, hear.


“A Woman’s Voice” Resounds

Interfaith Conference A Woman's Voice Brochure

A Woman's Voice inspires!

What a weekend it’s been! The events of the Interfaith Conference “A Woman’s Voice,” which enveloped the Fifth Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture, proved even more richly enjoyable and memorable than we had anticipated. Lunch on Sunday, which we expected to be informal (yes, it was) and “nothing special” (it was not!) turned out to be a delightful swirl of reunions and first meetings, animated conversation and anticipation. The opening ritual, “Dancing on Common Ground,” which we expected to be animated and moving, was also serendipitously interactive and celebratory. Suendam Birinci’s first plenary session presentation, “Places of Authority for Women in the Muslim Context–Shared Perspectives” was eye-opening and thought-provoking. Dr. Gay L. Byron’s lecture “Teaching Empires, Interpreting Texts, Redefining Authority” opened up a glimpse of multiple worlds: the neglected world of the ancient Axumite Empire, the newly-dawning world of critical womanist literary studies, in which Dr. Byron is a pioneer and to which she is an inspiring contributor, and the world of engaged scholarship, a planet whose air is always bracing.

Monday brought further ritual challenges as we contemplated and enacted “Reaching Across the Boundaries–Accepting and Respecting Difference.” We heard from Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer on “Places of Authority for Women in the Jewish Context” with fascinated delight. We were able to see the many and complex ways that the histories and texts of the three religious traditions represented at this conference — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish — form patterns of distinctions and similarities that led us to new insights about our own religious traditions and commitments, as well as deeper understanding of our neighbors’. By midday on Monday, it was difficult to pull people out of the enthusiastic conversations that were forming in the morning’s workshops, to reconfigure and renew those conversations with a shifting cast of participants.

When we finally gathered around the table of the closing ritual, shared some bread and fruit, and heard Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer recited a poem* in blessing over the group that was able to delay their departures to places near and far that long, we knew that we had, indeed, been vouchsafed a sojourn in “holy space and time.” Like all such sojourns, this one has left us both elated and a little exhausted — in that good way that means gathering the lessons and renewing the energies spent for the next push at the work that remains.

[It would be wrong to say it was “a mountaintop experience” — that metaphor is overused, and in this case it would be imprecise. This conference might be better described as “a shoreline experience.” That is, it brought us together at a place where we could look out at a distant horizon together, and practice pointing out to one another what we see, based on our different, but related, skills and practices of discerning possible, hoped-for, and worked-for worlds. Like all such moments of standing, right around dawn perhaps, at a place where we can begin to catch sight of the wideness of the forces at work, in their multi-hued wildness and deep beauty, it was breathtaking, and rejuvenating.]

Many and deep thanks are due to all the people, in many roles and capacities, who made the occasion of hearing “A Woman’s Voice” the marvel it was. In particular, students and alums of Louisville Seminary brought a treasure-trove of gifts to the planning and presentation of this conference. These, along with the grace and good cheer with which they came, demonstrated that these remarkable women, along with their much appreciated male allies, have riches to contribute to the church and the world. We are blessed to be able to call them our friends.

Pictures from the lecture on Sunday night are online.

*“To Be of Use,” by Marge Piercy

Conference Appetizer

The Women’s Center just received a request from Suendam Birinci, one of the speakers for the upcoming Interfaith Conference “A Woman’s Voice,” September 12-13, to include this article (“A Secret History”, NYT, February 25, 2007) in the conference packets.

A quick glance convinces us that this unique conference is going to be full of surprise and delight — we hope to see many friends, long time and new, there.

Delay Thou Not!

Online registration for this unique conference is still open — but the caterers are drumming their fingers to know how many will be joining us for the opening lunch and the dinner reception preceding the lecture. We would LOVE to hear from everyone before next Wednesday!

[Click the link below for more information about the conference, and access to online registration.]

Interfaith Conference A Woman's Voice Brochure

Fifth Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Interfaith Conference 'A Woman's Voice' September 12 - 13, 2010

A Woman’s Voice to be Heard in September

SEPTEMBER 12/13, 2010



During this conference we will create holy space and time for women involved in teaching and leadership in religious communities of diverse faith traditions and denominations. We will learn about each other, discuss, compare and contrast, describe challenges and achievements. Above all we will create energy around interfaith learning and worship, reaching across boundaries to share knowledge, spirit and experience.

Presenters for the Conference will be:

Dr. Gay Byron – 2010 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer
Dr. Byron is the Baptist Missionary Training School Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. She has lectured and presented papers in a wide variety of contexts, and is the author of many articles and the book Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (London/New York: Routledge, 2002)
She will lecture on: “Teaching Empires, Interpreting Texts, Redefining Authority”

Dr. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer is Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and Professor of Religious Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Dr. Kreimer has extensive experience in interfaith dialogue and is the author of Parenting as a Spiritual Journey (Jewish Lights, 1998), besides many articles and chapters in books.
Presentation: “Places of Authority for Women in the Jewish Context.”

Suendam Birinci is a PhD candidate through Hartford Seminary’s joint doctoral program with the University of Exeter in England. Her area of study is comparative theologies and ethics with a focus on Christianity and Islam. She has taught graduate courses on different aspects of Islam and interfaith dialogue and has worked with various organizations in the US orchestrating and participating in dialogue projects. She is a Muslim. Upcoming publications include: Non-Violent and Engaged Islam co-authored with Ian Markham (Ashgate Press)
Presentation: “Places of Authority for Women in the Muslim Context.”

The three presenters will also offer workshops on Monday.

Reservations for the conference will begin shortly, online, by mail, or by contacting the Women’s Center (502-894-2285)

SAVE THE DATES: September 12 & 13


SEPTEMBER 12 AND 13, 2010

While in Rochester, I visited with our next Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer, Dr. Gay Byron, of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. We had a great conversation and envisage a marvelous time together in September. Dr. Byron will present the lecture on Sunday and the next day provide a workshop on her research on the early Christian Church in Ethiopia. This will be our fifth Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and all the events will take place within the context of the conference “A WOMAN’S VOICE – WOMEN SPEAKING WITH AUTHORITY IN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY” to be held on September 12 and 13 on our campus. Our two other speakers are: Dr. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and Suendam Birinci of Hartford Seminary. This promises to be a conference filled with energizing and spirit-filled occasions, so make your reservations early!

You can do so by going to the Women’s Center Facebook page, by contacting Johanna Bos ( or, the Women’s Center (, or Kate Davidson ( We will soon make it possible for you to register online via the LPTS website.