Change takes time. If society takes years to change, religious institutions seem to take decades, maybe centuries. That ubiquitous intersection of religion and feminism seems neck high in mud and muck. Some religious institutions claim divine inspiration for keeping their chins down, jaws clenched and footings strongly moored in damaging sexist ideologies. This is wrong. But I’m tired. I feel as if the feminist movement is draining too much out of me for not enough change.
Perhaps an example will clarify. This Tuesday I taught the first session of a six-week long summer course entitled, “Theology through Women’s Eyes.” An odd title that could mean many things, right? It does not even imply a feminist approach to religion and the college’s course description did not either. I learned from my department’s chair that the last professor to have taught the class shied away from the course having any specific reference to feminism as she was a practicing Catholic theologian and she worried about the effects of that association for her professional career at Catholic universities.
Are you kidding? We are stuck there? Still? I personally know a great number of Catholics in academia and outside of it who wear their feminism proudly like Margaret Farley, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Rosemary Radford Ruether to name just a few. Obviously, not everyone does. Yet, when religious institutions threaten to and actually excommunicate those who dissent from their teachings, I can see genuine issues with being an “out,” so to speak, feminist. At the same time, I’ve always thought that the minute someone censures me I’m finally doing something right. I’m being heard by my intended audience. Thank G-d, right? Those are the people who need to listen anyway. That is my measure of success.
Tuesday evening, I asked the class if they’d have difficulties referring to G-d as She. A good number admitted they would. Many acknowledged that G-d as He was how they were raised to think of and relate to G-d even if fundamentally they believed G-d to be genderless or larger than gendered categories. Some of them had nothing to say. No opinion. At all. I’m stunned that we continue to have the same conversations at the intersection of feminism and religion we did roughly ten years ago while I was in the middle of my Ph.D, had just started teaching, when the majority of my current students were 8 to 12 years-old. Have we hit a brick wall and are just talking to each other? Feminist to feminist? Nodding our heads, occasionally disagreeing, but not, significantly, reaching those who really need to hear us? Please tell me it’s not so.
After the silence, I took the class through an exercise to consider what some of the issues with only imagining G-d in male and masculine terms might be. (Did I fail to mention that my “Theology through Women’s Eyes” is unapologetically and fiercely feminist?) From issues of power and authority to women’s moral autonomy and decision-making ability, we saw how imagining G-d as male-only greatly affects women’s lives. Religious institutions that adhere closely to male-only imagery fight in the public sphere for control over women’s sexuality, deny women’s access to leadership roles and condemn and excommunicate those who would disagree with them. Those same institutions turn deaf when we confront their sexist ways often trying to silence our efforts to speak truth to power. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, encountering the same kind of religious education, observing colleagues afraid to associate themselves with the movement for fear of reprisal and revisiting the same concerns in the classroom year after year. Are we having the desired effect?
Last week, I traveled up to Prince Edward Island, the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books inspiring millions of people. I think I only ever read one of her books. Yet, on the island, I learned so much about her life and writings and visited the places she and her fictional Anne walked.
On a sign by what once was her childhood home, a plaque read: “It has always seemed to me…that, amid all of the commonplace of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never quite draw it aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting world beyond – only a glimpse, but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.” I found Montgomery’s words to be true. There is an awe-inspiring beauty there. In fact, I felt a renewing energy in the breathtaking landscape of red sand, purple, pink and white lupins, strong winds and beautiful blue seas. As I waded in the chilly Atlantic waters, I watched the jellyfish swim by. I found solace on those Green Gable Shores. I reconnected with myself, with the natural world and the rhythms of life all by learning about her. Long dead, she took me to another world and I found in her a kindred spirit, as her Anne often says. My own inspiration reawoke on her island and through her writings I felt better.
This got me thinking about my exhaustion with feminist principles and religious ideology. Montgomery’s writings were about more than the breath-taking beauty of one place. The above mentioned quote is a metaphor for the world I strive to create. I can see a veil between this and a better world, the ideal world, a beautiful feminist world. It’s not that far away. There are times, places and events that allow me to catch a glimpse of this ideal world. It’s like the mystical veil the Zohar mentions
between us and G-d. It is there I live, in the anticipation of that collective time when the veil is gone. Here, I’m grounded, my strength renewed. Another world is possible. It’s not even that far away.
Thank you Prince Edward Island for a chance to relax and Lucy Maud Montgomery for inspiring me to continue to work to remove the veil between this world and a much better one.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).