"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Where are all the women?

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.


  1. Sorry this post was so long! I'm still trying to learn how to really make a blog post work. What works for you?

  2. Laura,

    For what it's worth, this works for me. There are a handful of blog post types: laundry lists of links or like and dislikes, daily minutiae, rants on a topic, etc. Any of those are fine with me as long as I care about the person writing them. In this case, I do.

    Clearly, women have been given a short shrift in everything - there is hardly an institution or activity in human history where women are overrepresented except possibly birthing. And the history of Christianity is no exception, barring the radical equality that is implied in some of the New Testament and practiced by certain groups of Christians (primarily in the 20th/21st centuries.)

    An aside: I think it's funny that you call yourself a feminist. When/how did this start?


  3. Thanks for your affirmations about my blog style. Glad to know you weren't put off.

    Unfortunately in modern birthing, women's wellbeing is still underrepresented. I mean women still bear the children and labor in delivery but... Forceps, created by a man and marketed to doctors trying to put midwives out of business. You'd be surprised how many states do not allow midwives to administrate homebirths, not because of safety, but because of medical industry lobby groups.

    Re: your aside, the marxists got to me at college. And my mom thought it was safe sending me to a Christian college. ;) But more seriously, I don't really mean leftist, bra-burning feminism, I mean a more wholistic, life-affirming humanism directed toward women.

  4. I hear you, Laura. (And the post is not too long.) I'm not in seminary reading church history, but I think about this quite a bit. Of course I know the material reasons why women's voices aren't really counted among the primary theological discussions in the history of Christianity (issues of social norms and access, just as you said). But sometimes I feel like a speaker in the Psalms or Isaiah, crying out, "How long, O Lord?"

    One thing I'm learning in this independent study on women writers in English and Christianity is that many more women wrote on religion/theology/the Bible than we realize. The problem is these texts are often doubly suppressed: first by societies that don't look so fondly on women writing, and then by more recent socieities that don't look so fondly on religious writing. I see such a need for women scholars to admit both profound faith and a deep concern to restore these texts to their rightful place in the history of Christian thought.

    But I agree with you: it's an overwhelming task.

  5. You know, after reading Cindy's comment about women's double supression, I was reading in my old undergrad English Thesis that I wrote about the same thing four years ago (quoting Letty Russell's intro to "Feminist Interpretation of the Bible"). Do you think we ever learn anything new, or is it all a matter of remembering and reorganizing the basic stuff? ;)

    Let's get reorganizing and put women back in the conversation where they belong!

  6. Laura, my professor keeps encouraging me to start working towards compiling an anthology -- weren't you thinking about that a while back?