I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a woman in theology, especially since I recently heard about the death of one of my favorite undergraduate theology professors, Fr. James Walsh, S.J. It occurred to me that many of the major influences on my theology career have been men (and especially priests, since another major influence from my undergraduate years was Fr. Thomas King, S.J. who died right before I began my PhD program; on Fr. King, see also Andrew Staron’s reflection over at Daily Theology). I also look at the demographics of my current department–both faculty and graduate students–and see a lack of women studying theology.1 I had quite a few female professors as an undergraduate French major, but none as an undergraduate theology major. Now, this was not because there were no women in the theology department at Georgetown; I just never had an opportunity to take any classes with them, in part because I took two from Fr. King and two from Fr. Walsh.
In some ways, it’s amazing that I entered a career in theology, since I had so few female role models. In fact, it was not until I reached my doctoral program that I took any classes from female theology professors who were not also nuns!
So, I’ve been asking myself: How did I end up in theology? Where did my interest in studying theology come from? This question resonates especially since my favorite theology professors, and the ones who were most formative on my theology career, were all men.
Fr. Walsh was one of these formative influences on my theology career and indirectly led me to my current dissertation on Angélique Arnauld, a seventeenth-century Jansenist nun. Now, those who know Fr. Walsh and his work know that he was a professor of the Hebrew Scriptures. I took both the Introduction to Biblical Literature course with him and the Hebrew Scriptures Seminar that was required for all theology majors following the Christian theology track. So you may be wondering how my undergraduate Bible courses led me to a seventeenth-century Jansenist nun.
Now, there are two things that I remember the most about Fr. Walsh’s courses. First is that in Intro to Bib Lit he wanted to “dole the course out to us like Pez,” by which he meant that he gave us little bits of historical context for the biblical texts as we went through the semester.2 This was epitomized by his stick-figure timelines that he continuously added to as we went through the semester. This was an extremely useful tactic for teaching the Bible and I would probably do something similar if in the future I teach any introductory courses on the Bible. Second was his emphasis on language and word choice in studying the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures Seminar he didn’t require any specific translation, but allowed us all to bring in different ones that we had so we could compare. He, of course, had the Hebrew so we could talk about word choice in translating the Bible and how the choice of word affects the meaning we give to the text.3
How did either of these things lead to Jansenism? Ultimately, it was through Blaise Pascal. The semester after taking Fr. Walsh’s Hebrew Scriptures Seminar, I went to study in Strasbourg and took a course in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French literature. The course was three hours every week: one hour of lecture and then two hours of “discussion section” in which we read Pascal’s Pensées.4 Many people are familiar with the Pensées, but for those who aren’t, they are the notes that Pascal wrote while putting together an apology for Christianity. He died before completing the apology, but the community at Port-Royal published his incomplete notes. So the Pensées are divided up into “fragments,” the most famous of which is the one that includes the wager. What is so interesting about the Pensées is that the order in which you read the fragments can influence the meaning that you take from the text.
What I did in studying the Pensées, however, was to apply Fr. Walsh’s emphasis on language to the French text. I analyzed the fragments of the Pensées in terms of word choice to draw meaning out of them through a close study of his language. This allowed me to really delve deeply into the Pensées and their meaning and I fell in love with the text. I still look at it like a puzzle: since we only have the notes and not the final product to study, we can take the fragments and try to decipher the meaning behind his words.
Now, to make a long story short–one that I will perhaps leave for a future post–while doing my Master’s program I was introduced to Jansenism through Pascal’s Pensées which led, through a variety of twists and turns, to my studying Angélique Arnauld as a female théologienne of the Jansenist movement.
But if it wasn’t for Fr. Walsh’s seminar, I might never have followed down this path.5 I’m not sure that he knew how formative of an influence he was on me and my career and I wish that I could better express some of the emotions that I feel at his passing. I am reassured by the thought that he must know now.
Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.
- I know that my experience in theology has been somewhat unique because there are plenty of women studying theology; I just haven’t had much opportunity to interact with them. ↩
- The direct quote was “I’m going to dole the course out like Pez,” which I thought was a hilarious analogy and I wrote it down directly in my notes. ↩
- I have a fond memory of a day that he rushed into our classroom and told us to discuss whichever book of the Bible we were working on at that time because he had to make photocopies. Instead of this, we began talking about the course and then some of the male students–who will remain nameless (you know who you are)–drew his timeline and wrote some random Hebrew words on the board. We eventually got around to talking about the Bible by the time he rushed back in and immediately began talking without looking at the board. He finally turned around to write something on the board, saw what we had done, paused, and said, “You were making fun of me!” We assured him that we had also discussed the Bible eventually. ↩
- The title of this post comes from the Pensées. ↩
- There is actually even more to this story that I could examine in relation to the idea of providence, in that I wasn’t supposed to take the Hebrew Scriptures Seminar when I did. I registered for the course late because I opted to change my study abroad plans from a full year to only a semester after 9/11. It is kind of overwhelming to think that this one choice I made–to return to campus in September 2001 instead of going to France–affected my entire career trajectory. ↩