Barth and Woman at Yale by Carol P. Christ


Carol P. Christ at Alverno College 1

Carol P. Christ at the Conference of Women Theologians, Alverno College, 1971

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.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Academics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Theology

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25 replies

  1. What an amazing paper, Carol. Razor-sharp and crystal clear. You are a brave, brilliant, beautiful strong, courageous pioneer, and you have inspired many thousands (including me, starting at age 15!) to think more clearly about the age-old assumptions at the root of much harm. Thank you for being who you are and for doing all that you have done. You are so precious to us all.

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  2. I think many of us have these experiences. I have to say that I experienced a very difficult time in the diciplines of both philosophy and Ancient Greek because I was challenging the standard model by putting feminist ideas at the centre of my writing. Thanks for writing about this.

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  3. who was that professor? why protect this man??!!!

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  4. While I do respect your mind and thoughts, above all I admire the ferocious tenacity the Goddess has blessed you with. Thank you for this post.

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  5. “She stood on the threshold and her head
    grazed the ceiling and she filled
    the doorway with divine light.”

    Those are the famous lines describing the goddess in the ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter, and they always come to mind when you speak of your height.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your work as a brilliant young woman and thank you for your vivid portrait of that time and place and your valiant presence and challenge to the powers that were.

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  7. Thank you for this beautiful article. Thanks for reminding us of the roots – both ancient and recent – of views we still battle today!

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  8. I really really hate male theologians, I wish they would just go away! Good for you for being so persistent. I’ve found my own way to battle men in my field, and I have never really had any other idea— I am essentially a lesbian at war with men. I wage war on them daily, I rejoice in their defeat. That’s what I’ve come to see about all of this, there is no redemption for them ever. But the success of women despite the male evil arrogant plug ugly self is staying the course, pirating the information to share with cackling cronies…. you are the victory Carol, they remain rotten forgotten pigs.

    And it was a hard thing to break through to the idea that if Barf as I call him got the man / woman thing wrong, he wouldn’t get the god / human thing right either. That is brilliant simplicity!

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    • Societies of Peace suggests that men and boys can be raised in a matriarchal society to be as loving and caring as the women who raised them in societies that respect women. This is what I teach on the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

      But yes societies of domination warp people.

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    • AE you are absolutely right that the point of my paper is that if Barth “got the man / woman thing wrong, he wouldn’t get the god / human thing right either.”

      In other words his views on women were not just an unfortunate abberation that can be iignored, but instead are integrally related to his views on the god – human relationship.

      And yes, I would argue that the god – human relationship should not be understood as one of “superodination” (initiative, precedence, authority) and subordination (obedience) either!!!

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      • That is all so familiar. I was in the sciences, and would (respectfully) parallel what you are saying in that it is not possible to hold to empirical science while denying women’s abilities.

        Good job Carol, thanks for posting this.

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  9. How great to read some of your early work – roots that blossomed into the fullness of your beauty. Ditto to Sarah Whitworth’s quote about your height. I’ll never forget our time together in the Grand Bizaaar in Istanbul and the subject of your height!!!

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  10. Thank you for your boldness and persistence. I was at Yale 2005-2008, and I wish I could say that much has changed. Oh, but so much is the same!

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  11. May I weigh in here! It’s because the men have not changed. If the men do not change, we can change all we want, but they still do not see, hear, or feel a difference in themselves that patriarchy needs to be completely deconstructed and a new paradigm created that is gender-free. We have our allies, but they are not many, nor the majority; however, gradually there is an increase, but it will take a long time just as patriarchy did to develop and dominate in the first place–sad as that is. So our tenacity must remain until a groundswell overtakes what it now and becomes what can be!!

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  12. Great piece Carol, and yes, how many of us have been dismissed by our male professors and ‘flicked’ aside because we are too smart for them and see through the false theological rhetoric of their own grab for authority that we happen to be pointing at through what we write! It’s our piece of the pie, too and they feel they are giving theirs up, not realizing that we’re just making the pie bigger with more pieces!!

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