I recently located a copy of an essay on Karl Barth and women that I wrote as a graduate student at Yale University in the Alverno College archives. Rereading it decades later, I am a-mazed at the brilliance and tenacity of my younger self. Had I been a male graduate student, I imagine that I would have been encouraged to publish this paper. Instead, though distributed by Alverno College after the Conference of Women Theologians, it was never published. I am correcting that oversight here. Read A Question for Investigation (Barth and Women)-Carol P. Christ (1971) and view the original typescript Barth’s Theology and the Man-Woman Relationship by Carol P. Christ (1970). Please note that the essay does not restrict itself to Barth’s view of women, but rather uses Barth’s view of women to raise questions about his theology and theological method.
The following excerpt from the manuscript of my new book Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology (with Judith Plaskow, forthcoming from Fortress Press in 2016) describes the context in which the essay was written.
During the time I was at Yale, my skirts were short, as was the fashion of the day, and I rode around on a red Vespa motor scooter. Most of the faculty and student wives dressed and acted in ways that would not call attention to themselves or their sexuality. I was also over six feet tall. When I walked into a room, I was consciously and unconsciously perceived as a threat to a world which these men had simply assumed was theirs. Their response was to categorize me as a sexual being (I was once introduced as “our department bunny”) and to erase my mind. I was to discover that the male graduate students were making bets in the dining hall about “where she will sit today.” One of my friends frequently fell down and feigned to worship me when I passed him in the hallways. I had never received so much attention from men before and it was flattering.
At the same time, I was told by these men that of course “no one expected me to finish my degree” and that even if I did, “all of the jobs should go to men who have families to support.” The generic male, as in “when a man finishes his PhD,” was the common language of both faculty and students. If I protested, I was reminded that I probably would not finish my degree anyway. I dated two of the other students in my first year, fell in love with one of them, and lost my virginity to the other. They both dumped me. I was being told in every way possible that I could not be a woman and a theologian. There was such a disconnect between the way I was perceived and the way I perceived myself that I came close to suffering a mental breakdown.
I found a clue to what was going on in a most unexpected place. While reading the assigned passages from medieval theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, I decided to see what the great man had to say about women. I discovered that he agreed with the great philosopher Aristotle that women were defective males and that our defect was a lesser rational capacity. With respect to each other, woman was body, and man was mind. Thus, the revered theologian opined, man was to rule over woman as a man’s mind rules over his body. I was both angry and excited to discover that theology itself was the key to understanding what I was experiencing. If the men with whom I was studying accepted the view that, in relation to me, they were mind and I was body, then everything fell into place.
When I tried to explain to the men who were ignoring my mind why they were doing it, they erased me again. “No one thinks that way anymore,” they replied. With that simple statement, they killed three birds with one stone. They excused the history of male dominance in theology; they refused to look at their current attitudes; and they made me feel stupid.
When I discovered that Karl Barth [whose word was next to God’s in those days] had said a version of the same thing in the twentieth century, I was told, “No one reads that part of his work because it isn’t important.” Two years later, I wrote a class paper in which I argued that Barth’s view of the man-woman relationship was important. Barth used the same model of hierarchical domination combined with love—sometimes described as love patriarchalism—to explain the “man-woman” and the “God-man” relationship. The relation of man and woman is one of love, but man is to have “initiative, precedence, and authority.” In relation to each other, man will be “A” and woman will be “B.” Barth used exactly the same words to describe the relation of God to man.
I argued that if we criticized Barth’s understanding of the man-woman relationship, we ought to think about criticizing his understanding of the God-human relationship as well. My paper demonstrated beyond a doubt that I could think systematically. The professor . . . glanced at my paper and flicked it aside.
Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming in 2016 from Fortress Press, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol speaking at the Conference of Women Theologians from the Alverno College archives.
Thanks to Sarah Shutkin for providing copies of documents from the Alverno College Library Archives.