I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about academic conferences. In part, I was inspired by Kristen’s post last month about the usefulness of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting. But I’ve also seen a lot of recent social media posts from friends and colleagues at the meetings that occurred alongside the American Historical Association’s meeting, namely the ACHA (American Catholic Historical Association) and the ASCH (American Society of Church History). Part of the difficulty with being a historical theologian is that my research fits into multiple different disciplinary boundaries and—given limited travel budgets—I must make a choice about which events to attend. Regular meetings that I attend include the AAR (religious studies and theology), ACHA/ASCH (history), and the CTSA (Catholic Theological Society of America—so theology). I’ve also attended more specialized conferences in the past—every three years I try to attend the Conference on the History of Women Religious and I’ve also attended the Society for French Historical Studies meeting in the past. Given all these divergent commitments and the reality that I can only really afford one conference each year, Kristen’s post which raised the question about the relationship between the AAR’s Annual Meeting and the regional meetings made me think a lot about these divergent commitments and where my scholarly home would best be.
For now, I am attending the AAR as I have commitments as co-chair of the Religion in Europe unit. But the conference itself has always been a bit of a hit or miss for me. At the 2018 meeting in Denver, I found myself uninterested in many of the sessions, and mostly just attended the sessions that I was personally involved in through my unit. This past year in San Diego, I was overwhelmed by the choices of sessions that I wanted to attend. One of the things that I really appreciated about the sessions that I chose to attend was the prevalence of women’s voices, but I was equally disturbed to hear about the shutting down of women’s voices occurring at the conference.
For an example of the positive—the prevalence of women’s voices—, I attended a session hosted by the Roman Catholic Studies unit on “Catholicism, Clericalism, and Sexual Abuse.” What struck me about this session was that—in contrast to the academic stereotype of “manels”—this session had a majority of female participants. I especially liked Mary Kate Holman’s paper that proposed the French worker-priest movement of the early twentieth century as a model for dismantling clericalism and Annie Selak’s paper that used trauma theory to analyze the woundedness of the church.
The following morning, I was torn between two sessions—a book panel on Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity by Kathleen Gallagher Elkins and an exploratory session on Mary Daly. I opted for the Mary Daly session and I’m glad that I did. Exploratory sessions at the AAR are intended to demonstrate interest for the establishment of new AAR units. Some might question the need for a unit at the AAR on Mary Daly—especially those who don’t like her theology—, but I found that the organizers made their case for this unit well. The point of having a unit to engage with a single thinker occurs because that thinker is significant enough in the field to have influenced many scholars to engage with them. Most AAR units are thematic, but there are quite a few that are dedicated to a single figure and their influence. These include Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Luther, Ricoeur, Schleiermacher, MLK, and Tillich. Looking at that list, I hope everyone can identify the common thread beyond their theological significance—it’s all men. Although there have been many significant female theologians, not even one is represented by its own unit at the AAR.
I recently read Emily Erwin Culpepper’s “Philosophia: Feminist Methodology for Constructing a Female Train of Thought” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3, no. 2 (1987): 7–16), which offers a proposal for putting women’s voices first in order “to explore the wisdom formulated by women, which has so often in history been distorted, denied, erased, suppressed, ridiculed, and cast into second place” (p. 7). She outlines six choices for attending to women’s voices in her proposal: (1) a focus on the positive, not just the critique of patriarchy; (2) a methodological option to include only women’s voices as a way to highlight women’s intellectual tradition; (3) an attention to absent sources and oral tradition; (4) a method that questions disciplinary boundaries; (5) a recognition that this type of scholarship is not “objective,” but done with an interest in women’s liberation; and (6) a use of new forms of expression, including personal narrative.
This brings me back to Mary Daly. The exploratory session on Mary Daly aimed, in the tradition of philosophia, to highlight one significant woman’s voice in the field of theology. For the field of feminist theology, Mary Daly as a major influence seems a no brainer. The scholars who presented in the exploratory session all engaged with her work in different ways, showing as well that such engagement does not always have to be positive. The creation of a unit on a single figure does not necessarily mean an endorsement of that figure’s work in its entirety, but the significance of being able to engage with, use, and critique the writing of that figure. I would question anyone who doubts Mary Daly’s influence for feminist theology. I mean, I’m currently rereading Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her for a future blog post and she engages with Mary Daly’s work even though Mary Daly is neither a biblical nor a historical scholar.
This gets at the deeper problem, not just with academic societies but with the academic field as a whole—the absence of and dismissal of women. As Mary Hunt pointed out in her presentation for the Mary Daly session, real women are entirely absent from the theology of the Catholic Church. As I’ve commented to others in the past, when the Catholic Church talks about women, they really mean the abstract Platonic ideal of woman represented by the Virgin Mary, one that is completely unattainable by real women. Real women, in fact, get dismissed. Similarly, as Culpepper explains in arguing for the methodological option to use only women’s voices, “Women suffer terribly from the belief that we must understand ourselves and the world through men’s history, including the history of ideas. If we confine ourselves to establishing the validity and credibility of our scholarship by appealing—however briefly—to fathers of thought, academia limits us to reactive beginnings and inhibits us from reaching our own new ground” (p. 9). Although in the Catholic tradition—and as a historical theologian—I find her proposal a bit daunting to put into place, this idea of establishing a women’s tradition without reference to the male categories of thought does hold some appeal, especially when these categories are used precisely to dismiss women’s voices.
Although I did not personally witness either of these events, I heard about two instances in which the scholarship of a woman was dismissed by older, male scholars at the AAR. I find this profoundly disappointing because I always want to think that scholars of religion might find inspiration from their work to do better. One was something I saw via Twitter (the author has since deleted the Tweet, so I will let her remain anonymous) where the female scholar was dismissed because she “is not a theologian.” The question of what makes someone a theologian is central to my historical research because today “theologian” is very much connected to academic training—as it has been basically since the formation of universities. This puts me in a strange place because I want to argue that it is not the academic credentials that make someone a theologian—as women were often excluded from those credentials in the history of the church—but I am also someone who does have those academic credentials and want those to count for something. I’ve written in the past about my difficulty in calling myself a theologian given the lack of female theological role models I’ve had over my career, so this overall question is still relevant to me today. However, the dismissal of scholarly work because people don’t have those specific credentials is troubling and does not seem very in line with the Catholic tradition (::ahem:: Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle ::ahem::). And the issue, of course, is that it is often female scholars whose work is dismissed because they are a not considered by the male establishment as sufficiently being theologians.
This brings me back to the issue of the many academic societies that I am involved in as a historical theologian. Part of my academic training was in both historical and theological methodologies (see my History, Theology, and the Task of the Historical Theologian for another of my reflections on the discipline), and I regularly use the work of historians and literary scholars in my research. Culpepper argues in a similar vein that feminist scholarship requires the crossing of disciplinary boundaries (p. 13–14). Ultimately—without yet drawing a conclusion on the question of what makes someone a theologian—, I argue that it is better for our theology that we listen to and engage with the work of others, whether they have the formal credentials as a “theologian” or not. In that way, as an already interdisciplinary society—encompassing both theology and religious studies—the AAR is a good place for this type of work.
Image by Gita Meh, www.gitameh.com.