As we've been studying the interrelationship between Christian thought and culture this year at Regent, the most pressing question on my mind is: where are all the women? We started with the ancient Roman world, then moved on to study the Church Fathers, the changes the Christendom brought to the European West, and the effects of the Reformation. It's not that there haven't been any women, it's just that women's thoughts and observations aren't typically included in what academics like to summarize as "Systematic Theology."
Part of the cold, hard truth for me to confront as a feminist as I reflect back on this material is that in the ancient world a woman's daily life did not usually include an intellectual education, and even if it did, very few women wrote. But if we are historically honest, it was Christianity that began to break down the cultural barriers of the ancient world like gender roles. Many strong women have risen up in the history of Christianity: from Mary and Martha, to Lydia and Priscilla, from the desert mothers and early martyrs, to the women like St. Macrina who worked and taught alongside the Church Fathers, from the mystics of the Middle Ages like Julian of Norwich and St. Cathrine of Sienna, to the women of the early evangelical and pietist movements. Women are everywhere present in the history of Christianity.
But what about its thought? Systematic theology is too often thought of as a line of Western European men who refer to the (mostly) Western European men who came before them. I don't mean to diminish the work they have done, so many of them committed their whole lives to puzzling about what it means to be a Christian. But maybe it's not about tracing an absolute line of Christian doctrines through history, maybe it's about a few people in every generation puzzling it out again, using whatever resources they have (I heard a statistic this week that the average medieval scholastic had only 400 books to work from in his entire library, and didn't even read all of them in his lifetime. No wonder I feel overwhelmed in the library!).
The delightful thing for our generation is that we have a lot of resources that nobody had before. A girl sitting in a library in Vancouver, British Columbia can read books written 1700 years ago in Alexandria and Cappadocia. Conveniently translated into her language, even conveniently selected to reference the particular topic she is interested in, say, women in Ancient Greece and Rome, or women in Late Antiquity. She can begin to gather the women's texts that do exist and make sense out of them.
But all of this can be very distracting. If there are so many books, how do we tell which ones to prioritize, which ones are the "most important?" Are they merely the ones that most influenced Christians through the ages? What about the ones that have only recently been "rediscovered" or dug out of forgotten corners of very old libraries? Why were those considered unimportant for so many years and now considered of great importance? Should we reinterpret the tradition of "Christian Thought" to take a woman like Julian of Norwich seriously, or was she merely a woman trying to figure out her weird near-death experience? Did she herself ever expect for her text to be included and studied alongside men of the church like Aquinas or was she writing for a completely different devotional purpose? What is the ideal for theology--one of Augustine's sermons to new church members or a City of God? The Institutes of Christian Religion were a labor of love for Calvin, but have they also led some astray in their hunger to systematize "the answers?"
There are no easy answers to these questions. But to take a stab at the opening question: women were here in the Church all along, contributing to its life however culture would let them, and often seeking, in small ways, to make life better for their daughters. Because if it hadn't been for all those faithful women, I don't think we would have ever imagined a cultural moment where a girl like me could puzzle about these things as she plods toward a second master's degree.