It is difficult to carve out time in a course that covers Christianity from the past 2000 years to address material beyond the standard textbooks. But yet, I must because the visual and material culture, the worship practices, and the daily activities of women and men who have called themselves Christians or followers of Christ throughout history also comprise the story of the Christian heritage.
Over the past several weeks, I have been developing material for a historical and theological survey course called “The Christian Heritage.” In the multiple sections of this course taught at my university, and I imagine similarly at schools across the country, students are assigned a course reader. The reader we use is a collection of texts that have shaped the Christian faith from the first century to the 21st. It is a good collection, and I have no objection to using it. However, for the way I would like to teach the course, I will need to supplement the reader with other material. I have two interrelated concerns: the reliance on texts as a way of determining theological history and the absence of women in that history before the medieval period (and even then the number of women included is small).
As many of us know, most of the major figures attributed with shaping Christianity throughout the centuries have been male: The Church Fathers, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and all the Popes. We may hear of the contribution of women like Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, but overall, women’s presence in theological history is small. One explanation for this, is that we are receiving a tradition shaped largely by the writings of skilled language users who predominantly male in centuries where women’s education was devalued. (I do not mean to suggest, of course, that women have not been skilled in language – rather that they were not often educated in the way men were taught to communicate with other men in positions of power and privilege were given equal access to Christian circles in which theological writing was conducted.)
Therefore, an emphasis on texts to reveal the trajectory of Christian heritage will primarily overlook contributions of women. This is why in Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture, Margaret R. Miles provokes us to look beyond the words: “We must find the methods and the materials that reveal the story of contemporary and historical persons who have not been recognized as participants in historical and theological work because they were not skilled language users” (xii).
It is difficult to carve out time in a course that covers Christianity from the past 2000 years to address material beyond the standard textbooks. But yet, I must because the visual and material culture, the worship practices, and the daily activities of women and men who have called themselves Christians or followers of Christ throughout history also comprise the story of the Christian heritage. More women present in churches? In homes and other places where “great” minds were shaped? Are women featured in art with Christian themes? Did they participate in the formation of communities and the controversies within those communities that shaped the formation of early doctrine? Yes. It is also true that women were the victims of persecution by the church, as in the witch hunts, long before those we identify as feminist began their work to address the inequality of women to address the inequality of women and mistreatment. This, too, is part of the Christian heritage.
So my task has been one of recovery, as many feminists before me have done. (Immediately, I think of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work in In Memory of Her.) It is too soon to know how successful I will be in incorporating women’s contribution to the Christian faith. But it is my responsibility to try.
Update on my previous post: I received such a positive response from my previous post (July 11, 2013) on my difficulty as a feminist to visit new churches. I not only received encouraging comments and suggestions in this forum, but I also received numerous emails and responses through other social media channels. Additionally, I have had follow-up conversations with several people, including a woman I met at a church in the following weeks. Her response was empathetic and enthusiastic. I am delighted to report that my churchgoing experiences improved dramatically, and I am confident that I will find a church “home” soon. Thank you for your prayers, blessings, and positive thoughts.
Elise M. Edwards is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University, where she received a PhD in Religion with an emphasis in Theology, Ethics, and Culture. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Academy, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Hierarchy, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Patriarchy, Women in the Church, Women Mystics