“One of the false gods of theologians, philosophers, and other academics is called Method.”
-Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father
As I work through the revisions on my dissertation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of naming and the role of language in shaping our understanding of reality. In part this comes from currently being in the process of rereading Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father and thinking about her arguments concerning naming and language in relation to what I am doing in my dissertation.
The question of naming and language has also been on my mind since the new translation of the mass was promulgated in 2011. This is something I push my students on as well when we talk about the Nicene Creed. What is the significance of saying that Christ came down from heaven “for us men and for our salvation”? Most of my students tend to react by saying, first, that they had never considered before that the use of gender-exclusive language in this might be problematic and, second, that of course in this case “man” is being used in the generic sense to mean humankind.1 Most people don’t consider the importance of language as we recite the Creed every week; we just recite it all by rote as we did the week before and the week before that.
Being an academic theologian and blogger has given me the space and freedom, however, to reflect on such things more than the average Christian probably does (and I hope that in challenging my students I have gotten them to consider the meaning of their words a bit too), but my interest in the use of words and naming comes, in part, from the question that I address in my research of what it means to be a theologian. My research questions the use of the term “theologian” (or rather, théologienne) as applied to women in seventeenth-century France, and specifically as applied to the Port-Royal nuns. The debate over Jansenism and Port-Royal ended up focusing on the question of the nun’s knowledge of theology, specifically whether or not they understood the content of the Augustinus and, thus, had the ability to condemn Cornelius Jansen’s work.2 The nuns were being asked to sign a formulary that said that they agreed with the condemnation of five propositions about grace and that these five condemned propositions appeared in Jansen’s Augustinus. The nuns’ defenders argued in part that the nuns did not have this ability to judge whether or not the propositions appeared in the text because they did not concern themselves with questions of theology and, not knowing Latin, had not read the text itself. For example, Antoine Arnauld asked in 1655:3
What pretext can they have for spreading their persecution against virtuous nuns, who understand nothing in all these matters of theology, who have never read the least line about all these contested questions, and who make a particular vow to avoid all kinds of contention, in order to occupy themselves solely with the faithful observation of the Gospel and of their Rule?
In contrast, the opponents of the nuns used the idea of them as théologiennes as a way to argue that they had the ability to sign the formulary condemning Jansen. But additionally, they argued derisively that their theological knowledge meant that they were messing with things that were beyond their competence as women. For example, in the 1660 Relation du pays de Jansenie, an anti-Jansenist text written in the form of a travel diary, the author mocked the “Janseniens” for teaching women and argues that they “are so zealous to their way, for the propagation of their faith, that they not only delegate men to establish it where it has not yet been received, but even female missionaries who bravely explain their theology. That is to say, that in Jansenie there are professors of both sexes, and that the doctrine there had fallen into the hands of women [en quenoüille].”4 The term used here, en quenoüille, had become figuratively used in genealogy to refer to following the feminine line of the family and, by extension “to a woman who wants to meddle in the affairs of the husband, things that she does not understand.”5
In this sense, my work resonates with Mary Daly’s critique that “women have had the power of naming stolen from us. We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God” (Daly 1985, 8). In part because of the view of women in that time period and in part due to the controversy over Jansenism at Port-Royal, the nuns had the power of naming stolen from them. They were derisively mocked as théologiennes without anyone stopping to consider that their writings held great theological content and they very much were théologiennes, in a positive sense, of course.6
Interestingly enough, dictionary definitions from the seventeenth century tend to include a reference to the term théologienne (female) in their definition of a théologien (male), but the implication is always that such a mythical creature as a female theologian does not actually exist. The definitions switch from the present tense to the conditional when referring to the idea of a female theologian. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the male academics writing these dictionaries in the seventeenth century did not consider the existence of a female theologian as a possibility.
So why does all this matter? I pose the question to the female readers of our blog: What helped you think of yourself as a theologian? What hindered that self-perception? What currently supports or undermines that self-perception? Reflecting on my own experience, as I’ve done before, I think I’ve been hesitant to self-identify as a theologian for a long time. Why? Because the majority of my role models for academic theology have not only been men, but priests?7 So this question of what makes a theologian in the seventeenth century isn’t just an academic question for me, but also a personal one. In a sense, because of my formation in theology, the power to name myself has been—maybe not stolen, but—withheld from me in part because I couldn’t identify myself with the life experiences of those who taught me how to be a theologian.
- To which Mary Daly, of course, would reply: “‘Intellectually’ everyone ‘knows’ that ‘man’ is a generic term. However, in view of the fact that we live in a world in which full humanity is attributed only to males, and in view of the significant fact that ‘man’ also means male, the term does not come through as truly generic.” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985), 9). ↩
- For more on Jansenism, see my post about the possibility of modern-day Jansenism. ↩
- See Daniella Kostroun, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 92). ↩
- Louis Fontaines [Zacharie de Lisieux], Relation du pays de Jansenie (Rouen, 1693), 22. Louis Fontaine was the pseudonym for Zacharie de Lisieux (1596–1661), a Capuchin who is known for his satirical works against the Jansenists. ↩
- Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universel (The Hague, 1690), s.v. “Quenouille.” ↩
- In making this argument, I have had some difficulties in coming up with a specific methodology that I am using to argue for the Port-Royal nuns’ theological abilities, hence the quote that I use to begin this post. But the importance of having a specific, “named” method for the dissertation could be a whole post of its own, so I don’t want to get into it too much here since my focus is on naming. ↩
- I have had the opportunity to be mentored by some excellent female theologians, like Julie Hanlon Rubio here at SLU, so I don’t want to imply that I’m discounting the possibility of women being theologians. I merely wish to raise some questions about the broader effect of the smaller number of female role models in theology. ↩