From Mary Daly to the Emerging Church – An Unlikely Dissertation Trajectory by Xochitl Alvizo


Alvizo headshot smallIt was 2004 during the first semester in one of my classes for the master’s program when my TA presented a lecture on feminist critiques of atonement and introduced me to the writings of Mary Daly. It was my first introduction to feminism as theory and theology, and my first introduction to Mary Daly the writer.

Mary Daly was the first woman to preach at the Harvard Memorial Chapel in its three-hundred and thirty-six year history, back in 1974. On that occasion and in cahoots with some of her graduate students of the time, Mary Daly took the opportunity to invite people to give physical expression to their exodus from sexist religion by walking out of the church with her that day. Thinking that she would be leading the way out the door, she was surprised to find that people were very much ahead of her. She walked out of that church, out of sexist religion, as one among many who were ready to take their “own place in the sun.” This exodus, the act of leaving behind the silence and alienation from one’s own voice and from one’s own be-ing that is perpetuated by the prevailing patriarchal structures of church, is a choice I commit to make every day as I stay on the boundary of Christianity and church.

Mary Daly’s work led the way for me to be able to live differently on the Boundary of these institutions. Because of her work, I am compelled to account for the ways in which my energies and participation in church, and my academic studies related to it, serve either as a resource for its continued patriarchalism or as a resource for the disruption and dismantling of its patriarchal habits and patterns embedded within.

The Boundary is a New Time/Space – that place created when we are willing to Live and Spin beyond, above, through, and around the Deprived Space of patriarchy. Committed to no fixed center, Boundary Living is always ready and open to spark new connections and interconnections in order to collectively spin and weave new possibilities, new realities – to be new creations.

This is what I bring with me to the work I do in feminist ecclesiology. For my dissertation, I conducted a feminist analysis of the emerging church movement – a movement on the margins, the boundaries, of institutional Christianity. Literature on the Emerging Church makes claims that the movement represents a more organic, more relational, and more inclusive form of church. It is a movement, of deconstructing church and reimagining it, envisioning it anew.

The popular image of the emerging church, however, is that it is made up of a few high profile white men who give themselves credit for work that has long been engaged in by feminist theologians. People often ask me why it is that I focused my research on the emerging church. But in my mind, I say, Why wouldn’t I? à I’m invested in what its participants are trying to accomplish, and I’d like to see them succeed at it. I want their churches to be more of a living organism than a fixed institution, responsive to those within and around them; 2) to be relational in structure – to eschew hierarchical organization and creatively explore new forms of leadership that facilitate power-sharing; and 3) I want them to be inclusive of questioning and critique, so much so that their churches are changed by it – willing to die and be born anew. I also want for them not to fall into the age-old pattern of erasing women’s work from history – so I bring the work of radical feminist philosophers and feminist theologians with me to research with the Emerging Church.

When one is not bound to a fixed center, when one doesn’t have to have everything they do connect back to and be authorized by a single point of authority, when instead one does one’s spinning and working with a community of people, what one realizes is that there are an infinite number of possibilities and points of connection available to us as a resource, available for our creative, collective becoming. So why not feminist theology and Emerging Churches?

In the history of feminist theology, we’ve seen that the strongest critiques raised to the church most often come from those within it. From my perspective, the Emerging Church movement holds the potential of disrupting and dismantling the patriarchal imagination that prevails within Christianity and calling it to new life.

After the Harvard Exodus, Mary was asked if the walkout meant “leaving the church for good.” She responded, “Well, the Exodus symbol can have many meanings. It is for each woman who walked out to decide what her actions mean to her. For some it may mean having no more to do with institutional religion. For others, it may mean working within institutional structures to eradicate oppression, refusing to submit passively to an exploitative situation. In my sermon I did not use the expression “leave the church” attributed to me by the press. Whatever had been authentic “in the church” seemed to be very much present, alive, and well among us when we exited from the gloom of Memorial Church to claim our place in the sun.”

To me Mary Daly’s work serves as my touchstone – as that place that I return to again and again in order to be reminded what courage looks like. What it looks like to speak to and raise charges against oppressive institutions. To remember that it’s possible, and to be reminded that it is necessary, to speak truth to power and to live beyond, above, through, around the Deprived Space of patriarchy and work to dismantle the fixed center that would claim to be the authority of all that’s possible and allowable.

Mary Daly took her course but also knew that her friends had to take their own – and she encouraged, challenged, and supported her friends all the way – even when she disagreed with them. Knowing that my work is different from hers, I am reminded that we all have our different work to do. At the end of the day, even if I didn’t ‘exodus’ the church as Mary did, I am grateful for the way she did her work, because it compels me to step up my game in how I do mine; which sometimes takes me to unlikely places.

Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard 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; it makes a difference for good or for ill.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, Christianity, Emerging, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Mary Daly, Women's Power, Women's Voices

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15 replies

  1. Thank you, Xochitl, for this wonderful post. Your last paragraph about Mary reminded me of previous posts and how important it is to not copy the “I or this, is superior to you or that”. Too often the people fighting for fairness and rights adopt the same disfunctional system that robbed them.

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  2. On my bookshelves, I have two Bibles, the Aramaic Bible translated by George Lamsa and the Authorized (King James) Version. To the right of the Bibles are a “world bible,” The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Bible for Students of Literature and Art by G.B. Harrison, and the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary. On the left side is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths and several other books about mythology. And on the shelf directly below the Bibles–five books by Mary Daly. I think my favorite of Daly’s books is her Wickedary.

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  3. Love encountering you in the moveable boundary places where truth and beauty emerge. Thank you!

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  4. “Boundary Living” – what a wonderful phrase and concept this is! It is so true that it is most often when we purposefully live and work on the “boundaries” that we have the mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom to see farther and see more clearly what needs to be done and how it can be done. I also love the non-linear and weblike connectedness of your boundary worldview. When we think of the world we live and work in not as a line progressing from here to there, but rather as an ever-growing circle of thought and perception fueled by those to whom we are connected, then the boundary is where progress is made – we keep moving the boundary farther and farther from the “fixed center” into a better future. Thank you for giving us the joy of thinking in new ways! I hope you will eventually publish your dissertation so we all can read it.

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  5. Love this post, Xochitl. Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), my friend, mentor, and Islamic Studies scholar saw himself on the margins of his own tradition, Islam, believing that it is the people on the margins of a religious tradition who ultimately “grow” meaningful social change through creative ways of seeing, perceiving, and understanding their own tradition. The periphery, he discovered, can be a harsh and lonely space even though he would not have “played his cards” any other way–a “playing of the cards” that eventually led to his exile from his home country, Egypt. Integrity is a beautiful thing to behold, though. Loved seeing it play out in Mary Daly’s life as well–even though I beheld it at a distance.

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  6. I just loved this! “In the history of feminist theology, we’ve seen that the strongest critiques raised to the church most often come from those within it. From my perspective, the Emerging Church movement holds the potential of disrupting and dismantling the patriarchal imagination that prevails within Christianity and calling it to new life.”

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  7. Wow what timing. I just met with a couple of lesbians newly in love, who recently discovered Mary Daly. They went to horrifying fundamentalist churches, and interestingly enough, were also alarmed at the disappearance of radical lesbian feminist space everywhere, and the constant reactionary attacks on radical feminism. Mary Daly is speaking to a whole new generation of young women, and it is fascinating to experience these conversations with them!

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  8. Thanks for writing this, Xochitl. With respect and solidarity.

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  9. Beautiful article, Xochitl, and I can so relate. I believe the circles, the spinning, the birth and death are the feminine influence that Christianity needs. I find myself spinning towards and away often. I am encouraged by so many of the ‘new’ Christian churches out there, and I like to imagine Jesus sitting back being tickled as well … whenever ‘love’ wins over ‘fear’.

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  10. I like your image of the Emerging Church, Xochitl:

    (1) “I want…churches to be more of a living organism than a fixed institution, responsive to those within and around them;

    2) to be relational in structure – to eschew hierarchical organization and creatively explore new forms of leadership that facilitate power-sharing; and

    3) I want them to be inclusive of questioning and critique, so much so that their churches are changed by it – willing to die and be born anew.

    I also want for them not to fall into the age-old pattern of erasing women’s work from history – so I bring the work of radical feminist philosophers and feminist theologians with me to research with the Emerging Church.” Xochitl Alvizo

    That is likewise our vision for raising the Second Vatican Council to a new Rite in the Catholic Church alongside the 20+ other Easter Rites in union with Rome…Rites with different perspectives on theology, governance, and liturgy.

    PDF graphic slides for “Vatican II: Exploring the Way from Council to NEW Rite”
    https://ritebeyondrome.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/exploring-the-way-4vatican2rite-pdf.pdf (Stretch and give it 1 minute to load.)

    Thank you for your fine work. I would like to include the excerpt of your work above on our website, if that would be acceptable to you.

    Website: https://RiteBeyondRome.wordpress.com

    Thank you for your fine work and for your celebration of Mary Daly and her work!

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  2. Vision for Church as a Living Organism | Rite Beyond Rome

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