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Logs in the River of Discourse

A feminist tried to fail me out of divinity school.

The last two weeks of divinity school turned out much differently than I expected. For my last semester I was required to take a course to fulfill a credit in the topic of gender and sexuality. There was only one course that fulfilled that requirement that would fit into my schedule with another required course, ethics. I spent my last semester as one of two men in a course exploring the intersections of theology and psychology for women. Out of character for VDS, the classroom was chaotic and stifled any opinion outside of the professor’s own progressive feminism. The course was a struggle for me to attend each week as the Church, great women of faith, and traditional Christian anthropology was drug through the mud. And yet, I persevered and dutifully attended each week and participated in discussions as I was able.

Each week we were to take journal notes on our thoughts as we read through the various readings assigned to us. These notes were to form the basis of our final paper. Needless to say, as an orthodox Anglican Christian, my notes and thoughts were fairly different from those of my peers. All semester I struggled to find an entrypoint into a shared thread of Good News in the readings, but could find none. This struggle, documented in my many scribbled column notes all semester was to form the basis of my final paper for the course.

I’ll pause here to say this, this paper was my final paper of a six-year march through divinity school. I was tired and ready to move on with my life. 1500 words of reflection on one of the worst courses I’ve ever taken was all that stood between me and freedom. After a long day at work and a rough start to bedtime with the chidlren, I sat down to write a C to B quality paper — with several bits I didn’t even really agree with — to get the job done. Progressive feminism in all its fundamentalism could not accept this offering.

Though I had followed the direction of the syllabus and had even taken the Christian route of seeking understanding and reconciliation instead of refuting a semester’s worth of bad theology, the progressive feminist decided I had earned no credit. I recieved a zero on the paper and would fail the course. With the assistance of our academic dean, I was able to negotiate a second attempt at the paper. The second revision — though my proposal for revision was detailed and approved beforehand — was given the lowest grade possible that could still round up to a C in Vanderbilt’s grading system.

I’ve met many progressives and feminists in my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I know this professor does not represent the many kind and open-minded people my path has crossed with. At the same time, I believe our true theologies are lived. This professor lived their theology. Though they are a specialist in pastoral care, their care aparently only extends to those with whom they agree.

Below I present my original essay and the revision. The professor’s comments are included inline between square brackets. I share this for any orthodox Christian considering Vanderbilt Divinity School. Try as you might to be open and kind, fundamentalist cannot tolerate your presence. You will get bitten at VDS. And, when you do, there will be no support for you. You must bend to the will of fundamentalism or fail upon your principals (and pay back your scholarship for that semester).

Do not attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. You will be required to compromise your principals on the alter of fundamentalism.

I thank God that I made it through VDS with only these two compromised essays under my name. I had it easy. Many others have been forced into much more difficult situations.


Original Essay (4. April 2019)

From humanity’s beginning, Satan’s powers of sin have been causing division in God’s good creation. Man and woman, created in the image and likeness of God, at the first taste of that forbidden fruit were divided from God and — apart from God — were divided from complete unity with each other. From the Garden, to Babel, the Exodus, the kingdoms, exile, empire, and diaspora God’s special creations divide themselves over and over again. Humans enslave. Humans subjugate. Humans hurt one another. Race, class, gender, sexuality, politics and any number of human characteristics or preferences have or can be used to divide.

The spectacular thing about sin is how apparent sin can be to those standing without particular systems and situations. Yet, at the same time, sin can be nearly imperceptible to those on the inside. Jesus once said, “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5 ᴇꜱᴠ). Womanist and feminist world-views bring a special perspective to the theological task of identifying sin and destroying the invisible idols that separate humans from God. From their particular intersection of existence and experience, womanist and feminist academics and theologians make visible the wooden idols birthed in sin.

Idols, however, even when made visible are not always recognized for what they are. A golden calf is easy to recognize while an idol like whiteness — because of its complexity — cannot be beholden in one glimpse. The complexity of human sin and the systems of sin humans build requires shared language and true discourse to unpack. If one does not understand the concepts of race and ethnicity and if one is not willing to openly listen and share in a true conversation the idol of whiteness, for example, cannot be revealed much less engaged.[I appreciate your observations thus far, but you’ve used nearly one-fifth of your allotted words (300 or so out of 1500) without any reference to specific class texts or ideas. The ideas that you have lay out sound like ideas that you brought with you to the class rather than a demonstration of fresh insights gained, except perhaps mention of the terms womanist and feminist.]

Engaging womanist and feminist world-views and theologies over the last several months have been difficult for me [glad you turned to the class here]. The difficulties have not been with the systems of sin and the depth of human depravity exposed by the many academics this semester. As a chaplain in the jail and amongst the homeless, sin has lost its shine. I have a robust theology of sin and an even greater understanding of the breadth of God’s grace and mercy. Sin, for me, is not the challenge.

All semester I struggled with what made the womanist and feminist presentation of sins so difficult for me to engage with. Throughout the struggle, as is often the case in my struggles, Mary’s words in the Magnificat and the words about her in the Angelus came to my mind. Though the Blessed Virgin is the platform from which my assault against sin and its systems of evil always begins, even her clear and powerful voice felt at odds in the context. Article after article, book after book, discussion after discussion I felt as if I were speaking an alien language. I understood the sins being discussed [but we weren’t always discussing “sins.” Why use this singular word for the complex realities we explored? The issues that we explored included “sin,” but we discussed much more than sin] but could not find an entry-point for my engagement with the theories and theologies around it. [Your “self-reflection” here doesn’t go deep enough. Your answer—no “entry point”—simply repeats what you’ve already said in a circular argument. You couldn’t enter in because you couldn’t enter in. It doesn’t explain, explore, question, debate, etc. the impediment, roadblock, resistance etc.]

Between the space of the last lecture and this reflection, a ray of revealing light has entered the scope of my understanding. Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine is my Rosetta Stone to the worlds of modern womanist and feminist theologies [Rather than look outside the class to Greene-McCreight, why not look at the class materials?]. My inability to engage fully with feminisms, as it turns out, was really a lack of shared language. Engagement and discourse could not happen for me, because, in the end, an alien language was being spoken.

Greene-McCreight begins her book describing a series of less than charitable public conversations between Alvin Kimel and Catherine LaCugna. In the argument it is clear that both theologians are arguing “past each other instead of engaging the other’s disagreements” (Greene-McCreight 5). Like my attempts to engage with womanist and feminist world-views and theologies [but you haven’t yet named any of the “worldviews and theologies” that arose in the class], LaCugna and Kimel — two smart theologians — were completely talking past each other. Greene-McCreight finds the disconnect in Kimel and LaCugna’s hermeneutic. Traditional Christian theology works from a hermeneutic of “narrative interpretation.” In this hermeneutic, the Biblical text interprets itself and the external world. The Bible is “one continuous narrative (Greene-McCreight 10). The world is brought inside the narrative and consumed by it (Greene-McCreight 12).

Womanist and feminist theologies, on the other hand, — in general, feminism isn’t a monolith — rely on the modern, liberal hermeneutics parented by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Ludwig Feuerbach (Greene-McCreight 29).[This is true for modern theological education as a whole. This argument would suggest that it’s impossible for you to enter any of the worlds and classes in the Divinity School. If this has occurred only in this class, then you need to explore why]. In this hermeneutic, historicity and meaning come into play as tools of criticism and creativity. The “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith” can be compared, contrasted, and worked with, for example, in a creative exercise of theology. A narrative interpretation of Scripture, however, “cannot embrace such a dichotomy” because it “understands the subject matter to be borne by the stories, the identity of Jesus present to the believer (Christ of faith) cannot be separated from his narratival depiction in the Gospels (Jesus of history)” (Greene-McCreight 13).

My view of the Bible as the narrative revelation of God to humanity, then, was my stumbling block to constructive discourse with womanist and feminist theories and theologies. My theological anthropology so tightly bound to a Divine creation and my inability to separate or isolate parts of the Biblical narrative from the reality of who God is in Jesus Christ hindered discourse. [As I note above, if this is the case, then this would impede all classwork, not just work in this course. If it didn’t, then why did it impede learning in this class? This question deserves further reflection.] As is so often want to happen, two bodies got so deeply engaged in their own work, that they neglected to reengage with the other. Like the drifting of spoken language, we have reached a theological point where der Gift has suddenly changed wine into poison [explain what you mean by these metaphors].

With Greene-McCreight, I feel feminist theologies are too important to our modern theological tasks to allow the lack of discourse to continue. Women carry the systemic sins of patriarchy and empire on their bodies. The logs in the eyes of mainstream culture block our vision to the realities of oppression and marginalization experienced by women each and every day. Into the dark silence of the inter-testament period, Mary brakes breaks in with her song of provocation. Using the language of the great Hebrew prophets she declares in Luke 1:46-55 that God names her blessed and that she would be his mother. Mary is the prophet of the new creation who translates what was into the language of what is to be and always has been.

Men and women are different. They have different experiences. Society and culture impact and form them differently. The systems of sin — power, empire, whiteness, patriarchy — impact men and women in significantly different ways. In today’s diverse world it is not enough to listen, one must also seek to understand. Words do not always mean what one thinks, and idols are not easily perceived. Our call is to live into the example of Mary, ready to translate and prophesy.

We do not strive to erase linguistic difference as we seek understanding. Difference is what shows the unity of God. If we are all the same, then there is no true unity. Together, in conversation and true discourse, we can learn each other’s languages for the purpose of engagement. Together, we can point out the logs in our sister and brothers’ eyes and move the hard work of reconciliation forward.

Bibliography

Greene-McCreight, Kathryn. Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: Narrative Analysis and Appraisal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[Michael,

Unfortunately, I cannot give you credit for this paper. As I note in my comments, you do not engage the ideas or texts of the class (beyond mention of “feminist and womanist world-views”). You do so only by mentioning your disengagement. Nor do you address any aspects of the assignment as defined on the syllabus, Brightspace, and email correspondence or meet standards listed in the general “Teaching Assumptions” (apart from “clarity of thesis and expression”). I see minimal self-reflection beyond your observation that you assume a different “language” or “hermeneutic of interpretation.” If the latter were fully operative or true, however, the impasse would affect all your classes, not just this one, since the school and education as a whole operates with modern or “Schleiermacher and Feuerbach” interpretations, language, and assumptions. If the world you assume didn’t prevent you from engaging in other classes, why did this class’s use of modern thought create such an impasse?

Failure to meet the requirements of the paper will not earn sufficient credits to pass the class. Currently you have 17 points for the book review, 17 for the case study, and 10 for class participation. Should you wish to petition for a second attempt on the final paper, I would only consider such a petition if it indicated willingness and ability to engage intellectually and personally with specific class materials, ideas, questions, and objectives as listed on the syllabus.

Points: 0]


Essay Revision (22. April 2019)

From humanity’s beginning, Satan’s powers of sin have caused division in God’s good creation. Man and woman, created in the image and likeness of God, at the first taste of that forbidden fruit were divided from God and — apart from God — were divided from complete unity with each other. From the Garden, to Babel, the Exodus, the kingdoms, exile, empire, and diaspora God’s special creations divide themselves over and over again. Humans enslave. Humans subjugate. Humans hurt one another. Race, class, gender, sexuality, politics and any number of human characteristics or preferences have or can be used to divide.

The spectacular thing about sin is how apparent sin can be to those standing without particular systems and situations. Yet, at the same time, sin can be nearly imperceptible to those on the inside. Jesus once said, “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5 ESV). Womanist and feminist theologians bring a special perspective to the theological task of identifying sin and destroying the invisible idols that separate humans from God. From their particular intersection of existence and experience, womanist and feminist academics and theologians make visible the wooden idols birthed in sin.

The selected scholars this semester built a painful mosaic of the distortions of God’s image the Fall has placed upon women [it’s not adequate or helpful to reduce the cause to “the Fall” since to do so collapses much of what we studied into one word that doesn’t do the complexities of the problems and their sources justice]. The sacred womanhood God created in Eve has been subjugated, marginalized, and thrown to the wayside by the powerful forces of sin at work in the fallen world [as above, to render the problem as “sin at work in the fallen world” seems like a way to avoid talking more deeply about the complex realities]. Masculinity and the unnatural subjugation of the feminine has in many times and places become a destructive, invisible idol. As is evident in the narrative of Israel, idols are not so easily destroyed.

Feminist and womanist scholars well know that it takes more than a hammer to destroy idols. The contribution they bring to our understanding of systems of sin is the scope of the problem and the seriousness of the work. Carolyn L. McCrary, especially, reinforces the importance of this work with her analysis of the experience of women in Africa and African-American women. In her two case studies, McCrary shows how systems of sin not only hurt their immediate victims but become an internalized narrative that has negative impacts for generations (McCrary 260-261). McCrary and other scholars name the sin and the systems that support it [rendering her argument as about “systems of sin” misses much of its nuance]. They highlight how critical this work is. This work is not simply about the single mother escaping abuse and seeking independence. This work is also about the great-granddaughter of a slave who was raped. The internalized idols of racism, sexism, and empire must be revealed as the false gods they are.

Idols, however, even when made visible are not always recognized for what they are. A golden calf is easy to recognize while an idol like whiteness — because of its complexity — cannot be beholden in one glimpse. The complexity of human sin and the systems of sin humans build requires shared language and true discourse to unpack [yes, you name here the complexity in the class readings that needs more unpacking—indeed, the complexity that I am looking for in your paper]. If one does not understand the concepts of race and ethnicity and if one is not willing to openly listen and share in a true conversation the idol of whiteness, for example, cannot be revealed much less engaged.

Engaging womanist and feminist theologies over the last several months have been difficult for me. The difficulties have not been with the systems of sin and the depth of human depravity exposed by the many academics this semester. As a chaplain in the jail and amongst the homeless, sin has lost its shine. I have a robust theology of sin and an even greater understanding of the breadth of God’s grace and mercy. Sin, for me, is not the challenge.

All semester I struggled with what made the womanist and feminist theological engagement with the sins that oppress and cause violence against women so difficult for me to enter conversation with. Article after article, book after book, discussion after discussion I felt as if I were speaking an alien language. I clearly saw the violence, oppression, and hurt hurdled against women by evil systems of sin. I agreed with the many authors that the Church had a clear response to the deformations and lies of God’s image peddled to women throughout time. When conversation turned theological, however, I felt as if things quickly shifted to a language I could not understand and could not easily engage with. The way I heard the theology presented made me feel as if disagreement meant bigotry and supporting injury to women [Not sure what you mean here? Was it hard to hear that some (not all) theologies, some (not all) church policies, and some interpretations of scripture (not all) do perpetuate “injury to women”?].

Between the space of the last lecture and this reflection, a ray of revealing light has entered the scope of my understanding. Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine is my Rosetta Stone to the worlds of modern womanist and feminist theologies. My difficulty in finding a shared point of discourse with feminisms, as it turns out, was really a lack of shared language. Engagement and discourse were difficult for me, because, in the end, a theological language was being spoken with very different assumptions than my own. Like a person from California struggling to understand someone from Ireland, I was stumbling with a dialect without realizing what was going on. What I heard and what was actually being said, were not the same thing.

The traditional Christian theology of my tradition works from a hermeneutic of “narrative interpretation.” In this hermeneutic, the Biblical text interprets itself and the external world. The Bible is “one continuous narrative (Greene-McCreight 10). The world is brought inside the narrative and consumed by it (Greene-McCreight 12). My theological dialect read our authors’ litany of horrible acts and systems against women in the Biblical narrative of the Fall, humanity’s total depravity, and our need for a Redeemer. My hermeneutic looked not for what was wrong with the Church or scripture, per se [however, the Church does not stand outside sin; sometimes, unfortunately, the Church has perpetuated sin despite its greatest intentions], but what was wrong with fallen humanity and how the revelation of Jesus Christ speaks in to that reality .

Understanding the deficit of my theological language, I can now more fully reflect on paths forward for future engagement with theologians and others deeply involved in uncovering the hidden logs of sin lurking in our culture and theologies and churches that oppress and hurt women. Joretta L. Marshall’s book Counseling Lesbian Partners, provides a model that could ease theological discourse between dialects. Though Marshall and I share very little in our theological and pastoral responses to the issues covered in her book, she has ensured we share a concrete problem and have named our dialects.

Marshall begins her book clearly locating her theological dialect and assumptions. She also starts each of the chapters in her book with a case study. In these case studies, Marshall pulls individual stories into the great cosmic narrative of God. Marshall’s chapters then, are not engaging theologically and pastorally with abstract sins in abstract situations, but with real women with pasts and the scars of the abuse the fallen world has placed upon their bodies. An approach like Marshall’s pulls the real issues facing women out of the abstract and in to into the concrete. Marshall’s approach also allows and an? escape from theological universals to conversations around a specific case. In the specifics disagreement is easier freed from the universal.

I feel observations of feminist theologies are too important to our modern theological tasks to allow the lack of discourse across the theological spectrum to continue. Studying the issues and observations brought to the table by women such as Marshall and McCrary have called me to my own responsibility to increase my fluency in theological dialects outside of my own. If I do not have a loving pastoral and theological response to the women of Marshall and other’s many case studies, what hope is there for my ministry in the modern world?

Anti-racist theologian Ekemini Uwan continually affirms that the sin of whiteness and sexism “is not a game” (Sistamatic Theology). She says, “My people are dying. Black churches are burning” (Sistamtic Theology). The sins of whiteness and oppression of women hurt everyone. Women carry the systemic sins of patriarchy and empire on their bodies. Men struggle in a world where the full voice of God’s beautiful creation — “male and female he created them” — is muted.

The logs in the eyes of mainstream culture block our vision to the realities of oppression and marginalization experienced by women each and every day; the dark shadow obscuring God’s good creation. Into the dark silence of the inter-testament period, Mary breaks in with her song of provocation. Using the language of the great Hebrew prophets she declares in Luke 1:46-55 that God names her blessed and that she would be his mother. Mary is the prophet of the new creation who translates what was into the language of what is to be and always has been.

Men and women are different. They have different experiences. Society and culture impact and form them differently. The systems of sin — power, empire, whiteness, patriarchy — impact men and women in significantly different ways. In today’s diverse world it is not enough to listen, one must also seek to understand. Words do not always mean what one thinks, and idols are not easily perceived. Our call is to live into the example of Mary, ready to translate and prophesy. We must speak the narrative of truth into the lives of women to end the internalized narratives of “negative values” McCrary speaks of (McCrary 260).

We do not strive to erase linguistic difference as we seek understanding. Difference is what shows the unity of God. If we are all the same, then there is no true unity. Together, in conversation and true discourse, we can learn each other’s languages for the purpose of engagement. Together, we can point out the logs in our sister and brothers’ eyes and move the hard work of reconciliation forward.

[Michael,

I can see that gender “reconciliation” has value for you and that you do hope to understand and address the suffering that women have experienced as a consequence of patriarchy, including the patriarchy perpetuated by theology and by the Church and scripture (although you do seem to hold “the Church and scripture” above sin and its perpetuation). In this re-write, you do at least acknowledge two of the thirty-some authors from the class syllabus. You mention their ideas only in a general way, without specificity or direct quotation, and you use the book by Marshall on which you did a review—a work that I would expect you to know more than the others. So, it still is hard to see how the class influenced your learning; your learning seems fairly circumscribed. Nonetheless, you gave the paper a second effort of sorts, modifying slightly your original draft to show a few places where some of the reading informed your learning in a minimal way.]

Bibliography

Greene-McCreight, Kathryn. Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: Narrative Analysis and Appraisal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marshall, Joretta L. Counseling Lesbian Partners. 1st ed. Counseling and Pastoral Theology. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

McCrary, Carolyn. “The Wholeness of Women.” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 25, no. 3 (1998): 258–94.

Uwan, Ekemini. “The Blood of Jesus is the Bridge; Not My Back.” Blog. Sistamatic Theology. Accessed April 22, 2019. [http://www.sistamatictheology.com/blog].