Transforming the Church from Within or Without? by Xochitl Alvizo


“Power belongs to those who stay to write the report!” stated Jeanne Audrey Powers during her presentation at the Religion and the Feminist Movement conference at Harvard Divinity School back in 2002. Though the statement sounds a little funny, it does raise a good question about how one participates in creating change. Where does the power for change and transformation lie? Is it in the writing of reports; is it from within institutions; from without? This question seems to be of particular relevance to those of us who have feminist visions and commitments and also remain involved in Christian churches – churches of a tradition with deeply embedded patriarchal habits and practices.

Recently, this concern was raised in a class for which I am a TA. We were talking about the fact that some feminist theologians develop feminist systematic theologies; by definition a cohesive theological system done from a feminist perspective. In part, the motivation is to reclaim the systematic way of doing theology and have it stand alongside other widely recognized theologies – but do so in a feminist way. Additionally, the traditional systematic format gives it validity and may serve to temper the prevailing habit of teaching feminist theologies as so-called ‘contextual’ theologies (as if other theologies are not also contextual, but that’s a topic for another post). A critique of this development, of course, is that by writing systematic theologies feminists are simply reinforcing patriarchal forms and patterns of academentia instead of expanding and creating new ones.

As we discussed this in class, a student commented that she could imagine that Mary Daly would critique this form and would instead encourage feminists to develop new ones. Another student suggested that a counter to Mary Daly is that as someone who left the institution (of the Christian church) and stopped working to ameliorate the harm that the churches’ embedded patriarchy has in our world. That she was so far removed from the church that she did not participate in creating change at all. The point being that at least the systematic feminist theologians work to transform the church from the inside and protest patriarchy from within…

After the women’s liberation movement of the late 60s and early 70s, many feminists left the ‘traditions of the father’, Mary Daly among them. Some of them found these religious traditions to be irredeemably patriarchal or simply just not life-giving enough to be worth staying in. However, as we discussed all this in class, what we quickly realized was that so many of these feminists who left are nonetheless having a direct and powerful impact on the church even while being outside of it. They may not be direct participants within, but their work has a transformative effect on those of us who stay. Mary Daly, for example, was a radical feminist philosopher who envisioned a revolution that would inspire all women, and sisterly men, to leave patriarchal religions behind. For her, Ultimate/Intimate Reality, God as Verb, gave her the Courage to Leave. But for me, I am inspired to be within. She led an exodus out of the church and I stay on the boundary of it participating to create New Time/Space within it. I am able to do what I do within because of what she did without.

Mary Daly’s brilliance, writing, and Originally Sinful Acts are available to me, to all of us for whom Be-ing means staying. Mary Daly has a direct impact on how I participate in Christianity and the church. I have often said that without her I would not be Christian-identified at all (of course, not something she always approved of, but she was supportive of me no less). Be-ing feminist in the church is how I am fully alive, and as I am impacted by Mary Daly’s work, the church is impacted by her through my participation in it. So, as removed as Mary Daly may have been from the church, her impact is still very real and present and contributes to its transformation and change.

Where, then, does the power for change and transformation lie? In writing a systematic theology? Yes! In walking out of the church? Yes! In teaching? Yes! In raising little feminists? Yes! In staying in? Yes! In staying long enough to write the report? Yes! As long as each of these are ways in which we respectively come alive with the Divine, then these all have the power to contribute toward change. In all the different ways in which each of us individually and collectively connect with Ultimate/Intimate Reality and leap into our own be-coming, we have power to create change. It is not productive to give into the dichotomizing and fragmenting ways of patriarchy that seek to pit us one against another (an old trick to fall for). I find it more productive to cheer each other on as we each do our respective work of liberation even when it looks different from our own. There is so much to be done!

So let’s go, let’s do our work, and Sin Big!

There are online videos of many of the presentations from the  Religion and the Feminist Movement conference. I recommend the whole series, it’s a wonderful resource on the feminist theology and its development.

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Mary Daly, Relationality, Resistance, Social Justice, Women in the Church

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20 replies

  1. Great post and true!

    Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father was a systematic work of feminist philosophy, if systematic means coherent and consistent. Not only that: she addressed the major themes of systematic theology, including the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the nature of nature or the world. I do not think she would ever have been against systematic thinking, though she was against confining women’s thinking to doctrines or in any other way stopping us from continuing to make trouble for the Unholy Trinity of patriarchy, war, and genocide.

    As for the bonds among feminists across the divide between those who reform or transform traditional religions and those who left them, I think the institutional church and its fear of feminist or other heterodoxies or heresies is contributing to keeping us apart

    Referring to a recent discussions on FAR, I suggest that one reason some women don’t want to identify as feminist theologians is because they are afraid they will be lumped together with Mary Daly and others who left the church–and this could jeopardize their employment.

    I also know from conversations that some women are afraid of themselves. They fear that if they push feminist issues too far, they just might decide to leave the church along with Daly. So for them easier course is not to identify in any way with Daly and her ilk, or not to identify with feminism at all.

    Sigghhh…

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    • Sigghhh…yes, Carol!

      What if we all moved in the direction of a new non-Roman Western Catholic Rite, with no intention of separating ourselves from Rome? A new rite which includes same theology, canon, sacraments and other rituals transvalued to our times and culture, yet sans the patriarchal structure based on Roman notions of God and order. What do you think?

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  2. Beautiful post, Xochitl! (BTW I love the word academentia!) I am someone who grew up literally in the church as a minister’s daughter. I left the church but not my love for its mystical core and those who abide there and embody it–and who challenge the oppressive theologies and forms that cut people off from that heart. We all breathe in and breathe out. It makes sense to me that some of us are inside and some outside the church and other institutions (like academentia! ;-) ), and that all of us are necessary to life and change. Thank you, sister!

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  3. The best critique is by those who have recently left. Therefore, IMO, a good way to move forward is for those within to make themselves and their congregations open to critique from those who have left.

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  4. When I left the patriarchal church I wrote about in my last blog here, I turned to Unitarian Universalism and found a good home there for several years. But when I moved to California and went to a UU Fellowship in Anaheim, I found that fellowship to be so intellectual, it was arid. I was lucky: I turned again and there was the Goddess! I started with the class titled at the time Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, taught by two members of Long Beach WomanSpirit, an organization that also staged public rituals eight times a year. Now that is feminist thealogy in action!

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  5. When I left the church, I fell in love with the Chinese Tao Te Ching — I walk it, think it, court it, and it is so humble, compared to what I had been through with other texts — thinking about that now brings tears of joy. There are some translations by women also that are fabulous, including the great sci-fi author, Ursula K. Le Guin, also brilliant Kari Hohne and Ellen M. Chen (with commentary), among some very fine versions by men and other women authors.

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  6. Enjoyed your post, Xochitl Have you or others thought about women theologians and others leading the Church in the formation of a non-Roman Western Catholic Rite? As you know, the tradition of other Catholic Rites is not something new and perhaps quite appropriate today where we need both unity and diversity. Doctrine and the rituals which celebrate the RCC definitely need transvaluation. It could be another way of staying in the Catholic Church, yet diversifying understanding and interpretation of doctrines held in common with Rome, no?

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  7. Lovely article and I love the term “be-ing” and I use the term frequently myself. But by referring to “The Church” as an ongoing term, one must suppose “it” is the Catholic Church? Leaving out all the Protestant Churches (as well as those non-Christian traditions) that one might have deserted as well. I would caution, using this as a ongoing term might reinforce the old paradigm that “The Church” is the only true “one” and greater and than others. This is a tricky process in itself, and challenging to others experience, especially when put in writing. After all, Martin Luther broke from many notions we approve of in contemporary spirituality; certainly one of the leading ways for many women today to question orthodoxies.

    Having said this, for those of us in California seeking sacred feminine ritual, Rosemond, is ordained by “The Church” and trained by Gnostic Nuns, who offers the Magdalene rites as well as many others (now including sacred feminine perspectives) in Northern California. HerChurch, led by Lutheran women pastors, offers “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” in the Bay Area & the Vallejo Lutheran Church offers a Sophia service once a month. There are several women Rabbi’s who offer women rites and liturgy in temples throughout the Los Angeles area and the Methodists seem to be quite active as well. What I like about these rites, is that they honor the “whole aspect” of the feminine divine with ancient traditions. Many contemporary programs such as the “Uni-churches” and Agape (& spin offs) offer Mother/Father shared space but still frame liturgy in the “he” language and perspective. Many of us refer to this as “Patriarchy in a Skirt”. In addition, we also benefit from Goddess Temples and programs sprinkled all over the Western States. To name a few, There is a Goddess Temple in Oregon, Isis Oasis in N. CA, Daughters of the Goddess in N. CA, Luisah Teish & Ma Shiat have Orisha Temples, there is the Temple of Sekmet, Temple of the Nubian Moon – an Isis Temple in Long Beach, the Goddess Temple of Orange County, the Goddess Temple of Pasadena, the WItches of San Diego, a temple in Ojai and Amalya’s Goddess Studio – not to forget Marsha Lange’s, Meloney Hudson’s, Laura Ammazone’s, & Chandra Alexander’s work in teaching the Hindu path/Tantric/Matrika’s, etc. and Colleen Perry, among many others, women’s circles. AND, there is no shortage of Women’s Spiritual Academia, including CIIS, Sophia U, Cherry Tree and Long Beach State and Mystery Schools such as Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso’s and my own Magdalene Mystery School (being reframed as I write this) – I apologize for all the other’s not mentioned here. AND, so many worldwide conferences, festivals, and periodicals, it’s impossible to attend or read them all. So, Mary Daly. Sojourner Truth, Z Budapest, to the second wave of researchers such as Max Dashu, Lucia Birnbaum and Helen Hwang and to all the foremothers that have passed and those that still continue the work, Luisah Teish, Leilani, Carol Christ, Miriam Robbins Dexter, Joan Marler, VIcki Noble, Mara Keller, Judy Grahn, Deborah Grenn, Julie Chumash, Susan Carter and everyone overseas – BRAVO! Jayne DeMente, MA WSE from CIIS

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  8. Dear Xochitl

    Thank you for another helpful post. I was recently at a conference of the Society for the Study of Theology in Durham (England) and saw a painful conversation between women of different persuasions. It made me sad that we are expected either all to agree totally or to oppose one another – I was very heartened by your refusal to pin down the ‘place’ from which transformation comes and to welcome contributions toward liberation from all who offer them.

    One (of course limited) image that I found (nonetheless) useful is that some women tend to be more centrifugal – spinning away from the given doctrine and tradition and some women tend to be more centripetal – working with the given doctrine and tradition. While some of us identify with both urges there seems some value in being able to picture the differences of focus and work.

    As someone who sometimes wonders how much longer she will be able to remain active within my local church I am inspired that you are working and finding places to contribute hope-fully within your context. (And I share your appreciation of Mary Daly and all she provokes)

    Thank you

    Margaret

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  9. Has anyone read Michael Morwood’s books? FROM SAND TO SOLID GROUND and IT”S TIME. He asks the questions we need to ponder in order to stay in the Church and/or to leave it for those so inclined.

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  10. LOVE this valuing of those who stay and those who leave! I’ve been doing my own sludging through the middle-ground of staying/leaving with my senior thesis research this year.

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  11. Cathy Winter and Betsy Rose wrote a song that speaks to your post, Xochitl. The chorus goes:

    “Don’t shut my sister out,
    Trust her choices,
    Her woman’s wisdom and her will to grow.
    Don’t shut my sister out,
    Trust her vision,
    Her intuition of her own way to grow.”

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  12. Really compelling post, thank you.
    I think about this a lot, i.e. stay in the established format or pioneer something different. I keep yo-yo-ing back and forth, hoping the establishment will change (or even listen!), bitterly disappointed when they refuse to do so. I can’t seem to find the right answer, although I suspect there are many answers with different degrees of “fit’, so in the end, it’s my choice, and that is all that any of us are left with at the end of the day.

    But your post has me thinking a lot about sects and schisms. What are the conditions that ferment schisms? What are the features of institutions that adapt to change? Can a formalized institution absorb radical change, or do the forces of conservatism prevent this?

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  13. Thanks so much for this post. This question of staying or going and what is most effective is something that has been on my mind daily, as my own denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has been mired in what feels to me like a very disappointing (and not only that, but oftentimes violent) discussion about whether or not to be inclusive to non-cis-gendered people. But I keep remembering that I currently – in my job – am in a position of power and have a responsibility. And if I leave, it’s not clear to me who would be put in place or what would be lost in a push for less oppressive structures. There’s value in both staying and leaving, and sometimes knowing whether to stay or go is anything but clear cut. Thanks for naming these realities.

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  14. There is freedom in Jesus Christ. That is what allows be stay and fight the battle for change.

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  15. Reblogged this on Dawn Morais and commented:
    Every day brings news of institutional vapidities and stupidities and rigidities and cruelties–and beauties of service inspired by faith that make me question whether I stay or leave. Thank you for this Xochitl Alvizo.

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    • I suppose one should look at why we stay and what the gain or lose in leaving? Do we stay because of the investment of time, education, experience of faith; because of family dynamics or a lineage of tradition or ethnicity; because of the threat of “hell” after death? I left because I did not find “my self” reflected in the tradition and doctrine made me feel “awful” about being a woman. It helped that I discovered that “hell” was created by the story of “Daunte’s Inferno” sometime around the 1400’s AD/CE. But, it was 37 years before I found a place to put all my knowledge, faith and experience and enjoy the mystery in ritual again; all this, I found in women’s spirituality. I believed what I missed most was communion, but now, I have it back and know that communion was first a women’s tradition. It was a long and often lonely journey but here I am, in a tradition that “reflects myself”. Yay! But, I often hope that our community will become more accessible to families, instead of mostly women, so that I can enjoy it with my grandchildren. It is difficult to abide false notions continuing to be taught to them but we do share some incredible and stimulating conversations regarding spirituality! My grandson often opens a conversation with “Nana, what does the goddess say about….”

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  16. I love this! I love how it frees up a spectrum of ways of being within.

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