“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.

  1. 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). 
  2. For more on Jansenism, see my post about the possibility of modern-day Jansenism
  3. See Daniella Kostroun, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 92). 
  4. 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. 
  5. Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universel (The Hague, 1690), s.v. “Quenouille.” 
  6. 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. 
  7. 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. 

12 thoughts

  1. Hmmm. I haven’t done much soul searching about using that term to describe myself, I suspect the opposition to such a label would likely be based less on that I am a woman but that I am a lowly teacher (though the two intersect, to be sure). I’m not going to overthink it. Great piece.

  2. “What helped you think of yourself as a theologian? What hindered that self-perception? What currently supports or undermines that self-perception?” Fabulous questions.

    I tend to be more comfortable thinking of myself as a consumer of theology; reading other people’s work in search of right, bright and shiny ideas about God. I didn’t think of myself as creating and responding to my environment, so much as looking for boundary lines in which to place myself.

    Chung Hyun Kyung, with her challenge that theology is primarily about changing the world rather than just understanding it, caused a shift in me. As I began to consider how God relates to my present context more than just finding “right”, orthodox lines to draw around myself, I began to think of myself as a theologian. It’s difficult to do so, because, as you noted, so many of the role models are male. And consequentially, I feel like a bit of an impostor. It feels like putting on shoes that are too big for me.

  3. Thanks for this, Elissa. I love how you use Daly here. Her point on naming is still so important. I think part of why I still sometimes use the (somewhat out of date) term “moral theologian” to describe myself is that I want people to think, “So this is what a moral theologian looks like.” It’s good to remember that many women before us were doing theology, just in a different way.

  4. The great medieval women theologians are generally dismissed merely as mystics–partly because their required self-deprecating rhetoric is still convincing idiots today despite their sophisticated use of scripture, early church and early medieval writers, etc. I have spent much of my career vindicating their theological expertise, as has the great Barbara Newman (a scholar of English language and literature but profoundly versed in religion as well) in God and the Goddesses as well as her intro to the Paulist Press translation of Scivias where she pointed out that had Hildegard been male it would have been classed as one of the most important early summas. I have spent much of my career defending their expertise as well as my own and narrowly lost a job to a man from my program junior, to the best of my knowledge, in publishing, presenting, and teaching experience because “he does, ya know, regular medieval theology, and we already have a spirituality person!” A lovely contrasting experience was when I was Beth Johnson’s candidate for a sadly cancelled search because she got that I could do the full range of medieval theology–Notre Dame made me learn the guys and I taught myself the gals–while the guys just did the guys!

    1. You make an excellent point, Laura. The pushing of women’s writings into the categories of mysticism and spirituality instead of theology has been common and serves to diminish their importance.

  5. Comment 1: I’d love to read the post on method you reference in footnote 6! Comment 2: I’m a doctoral candidate in spirituality and wonder at the comments on theology vs. spirituality (above). Talking of women being “pushed into mysticism and spirituality” instead of achieving status as “theologians” seems to be subscribing to the male-dominated, male-defined categories objected to in the post itself. Right? There’s nothing diminutive about spirituality or mysticism; it’s inconsistent of us to think of it as “diminishing” anybody’s “importance” – whether men do or not.

    1. Rachel, you raise an interesting point about spirituality/mysticism vs. theology. I think the issue, for me at least, is that we’re working with the way these categories have developed. In theory, spirituality and mystical theology are just as important as regular/systematic theology. However, I think in practice, they tend to be “diminished” because they are seen as not as rigorous as theology itself. For example, in mystical theology, one might argue that the authority for the theology comes from God, not from the mystic. Thus it is less the “ability” of the mystical theologian that gives worth to their work, but rather the connection with the divine. Similarly, spirituality is connected to praxis and experience, and in that way could be seen as less rigorous than rational/academic theology.

      1. Elissa, thank you for your reply. I’m grateful for your explanation of how you see these areas split and I agree with you about how theoretical and practical approaches to them differ. I still believe that buying into how these categories have developed is damaging and that it’s worth our while to challenge them. Even the notion of “rigorousness” as a label by which to establish value seems questionable; in what way is analysis of praxis and experience, involved in spirituality studies, less rigorous than systematic theology?

      2. I definitely see the point that you’re making. In some ways, I feel like I’m trying to navigate between doing something new with the writings of these early modern nuns and dialoguing with prior scholarship. As I’m thinking about it in response to your comment, this does fit as well with Mary Daly’s critique of method. The requirement that we fit our dissertations into certain academic standards can serve, in some ways, to limit creativity in the same way that thinking of theology as just systematic theological treatises limits our understanding of what religious texts can have value and has served in the past to not see women’s writings as works of theology.

  6. In her book, But SHE Says, Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza speaks to your questions, Elissa: “What helps you think of yourself as a theologian? What hindered that self-perception? What currently supports or undermines that self-perception? We just read Chapter 6 (pp. 168-194) of her book for the first time today and found it as relevant in its answers to your questions, Elissa, as it was back in 1992 when she wrote it.

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