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.
- 1. Elizabeth Castelli, “The Ekklēsia of Women and/as Utopian Space: Locating the Work of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Feminist Utopian Thought,” in On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Wo/men in Biblical Worlds (New York: Continuum, 2004) 35-52, 45.