In Part I of this series, I reflected on the methodological comparison between the portrayal of women in the musical Hamilton and my own research on the Port-Royal nuns. Part II examines the methodological inspiration I receive from feminist biblical scholars, especially Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.
“Why does the premise that women as well as men have contributed to and shaped culture, society, and religion seem so unlikely and extreme?”Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xviii
As a feminist historical theologian, much of my methodological inspiration comes from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, especially her In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Tenth Anniversary Ed., Crossroad, 1994) which has an extensive discussion of feminist historical-theological methodology in the context of recovering women’s history from the Bible and other early Christian texts. Although her primary area in this is biblical scholarship, her work relies on some of the same premises that can inspire other types of feminist historical and theological work.
Before getting into this, I do want to clarify a bit what I mean by feminist historical theology because the different approaches within the discipline of theology are not always clearly distinguished. I think this is especially true for historical theology, which is sometimes combined and sometimes distinguished from church history. In my perspective these are two different approaches to the material, which is apparent in the names. Church history is primarily a form of history—the study of the history of the church. Historical theology is interdisciplinary, but primarily a form of theology—a theology which takes a historical approach to the texts.
I found that chapter 2 of Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 1998) is useful for thinking through the feminist approach to historical theology because she discusses the combination of the retrieval of women’s voices in history with feminist theological reflection (Johnson, p. 26). I would describe feminist historical theology as approaching historical sources with a feminist and theological mindset. A feminist mindset means is that when looking at sources, you are reading them through the lens of what they say for women’s liberation. A theological mindset means that you are reading sources both for what they tell us about God and the human relationship to God and for their relevance to the church of today. The issue, of course, remains in how to look at the sources because both the record and history of interpretation of women’s theological traditions (in Johnson’s focus: of women’s images of holiness) are distorted by a patriarchal point of view (Johnson, p. 27–28). Emphasizing the theological part of the project, Johnson argues that this deprives women of a sense of holiness in their own lives, which is why it is so important to recover these women as models (Johnson, p. 29). Or, as I argued in my 2016 dissertation on Angélique Arnauld, we need to recover the models of these women as theologians, not just spiritual writers.
Returning to what I said in the beginning of this post, I have found the methodology of feminist biblical interpretation, specifically Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her as a good model for how to read texts using a feminist historical-theological methodology. Part of the importance of doing feminist theology from a historical-theological perspective is exemplified by Johnson’s assertion that “historical knowledge enables one to realize that what exists today is not necessarily there by nature or immutable decree, but began and developed in particular circumstances and for reasons of benefit to at least a few people. The freedom exists then to take a hand in reshaping the trajectory of the institution or idea according to new, changing conditions” (Johnson, p. 93). Schüssler Fiorenza’s approach similarly emphasizes reclaiming women’s history in the Bible and the early church as a source of power (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xlix-l). This is not just about reinserting women into the history of the church, although that is a part of it. It is also about claiming the history of Christianity for women and empowering women to fight against patriarchal structures. For example, in chapter 1 of her text, she reviews different methods of feminist biblical interpretation, showing where each of the methods previously used is missing something. What ultimately needs to be included in interpreting the Bible from a feminist perspective, according to her, is the following components: (1) feminist concerns, (2) a critique of the patriarchal structure of interpretation, (3) a critique of the patriarchal structure of the text itself, and (4) a historical-critical approach to the text. What she calls for in relation to the biblical text also can be expanded to the whole of Christian history.
Schussler Fiorenza’s methodology emphasizes the recovery of women from within the biblical text. We must note, for example, that “regardless of how androcentric texts may erase women from historiography, they do not prove the actual absence of women from the center of patriarchal history and biblical revelation” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 29). This argument strikes me for multiple reasons. First, it echoes the comment that Elaine Pagels made in her autobiography on women being minimized in the New Testament and other early Christian texts, that “none of my male colleagues had noticed this, and I hadn’t either, until I had been asked to confront the question” (Pagels, Why Religion? A Personal Story (HarperCollins, 2018), p. 42). Second, this also echoes my pet peeve about feminist historical scholarship—namely, that feminist scholars are always asked to prove that women knew, did, or wrote things in history, when we really should be asking those who make such requests the same question: How can you prove that women did not do those things? I have found in conversations that feminist historians share my frustration at having to defend women in history as being able to read and write and generally do anything, when, really, even the need to defend that is rooted in misogynistic assumptions about women’s abilities.
My own research focuses on the theological output of women and my dissertation focused on the foundational question of whether we could name someone—particularly women—from earlier historical periods as theologians when they did not have the academic theological credentials that would normally indicate one as such. Since my era of specialization is the early modern era when there is an established university system, the question becomes a bit more complicated because of their lack of academic credentials. But by the time I got to the end of my dissertation I felt kind of “over” this foundational question. I started to really feel that it was unfair for me to have to answer this question, as it seemed that men’s writings were readily accepted as theological without having to mount such a defense. As Schüssler Fiorenza wrote, “Rather than demand that feminist or labor historians prove that women or workers actively participated in a certain historical period, this feminist rule insists that one needs to make a case that they did not” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xx). So, in the case of my research, it shouldn’t need to be my responsibility to prove that women were writing theology, especially when we have texts written by them. Rather, if any scholar thinks that these women’s writings should not be counted among works of theology, it is their responsibility to argue that. (I could add here a comment about the artificial divide between theology and spirituality, but that might take me too far off topic.)
What needs to happen today is that feminist historical theologians must reframe their mindset to read texts for women’s liberation. As Schüssler Fiorenza explains:
In Memory of Her begins with the fundamental premise that women in the past have not just been marginalized and victimized; they also have been historical agents who have produced, shaped, and sustained social life in general and early Christian socio-religious relations in particular. Hence, the book’s theoretical frame of meaning does not accept as its point of departure the ‘commonsense’ notion that women have been and still are peripheral and insignificant in history and social life. Instead, the book’s frame of reconstruction seeks to make women both more visible within and central to its historical narrative.Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xvi
Thus, she proposes to begin from the premise that women have been historical agents and that we can recover women’s history in spite of the fact that the historical record has been shaped by the historical winners—in this case, men (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xvii, xlv). Because of this, in reading for women’s contributions, we need to be careful with how we use the texts we are using; “texts must be interrogated not only as to what they say about women but also how they construct what they say or do not say” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xx). She provides an excellent example of this in her introduction: that the name of Judas, the betrayer, has been recorded by the biblical tradition, but the name of the faithful disciple—a woman—who anoints Jesus’ head as would have been expected for the Messiah, has not (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xliii–xliv). Just knowing the stories of women in the history of Christianity helps us to rewrite the history of the oppression of women by the Christian tradition (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xlv).
So, premise one for a feminist historical theology is to approach the historical record with the assumption that women are historical agents and had ideas of their own. The second premise for a feminist historical theology is to read the texts with the recognition that they were written in a patriarchal-androcentric culture. So there needs to be a critical approach to these texts, one that rejects the misogynistic elements in the text while also recovering the liberative aspects of the text for women. Schüssler Fiorenza notes that the process of forming the biblical canon occurred during a period of fights over women’s leadership (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 53–54) and the patriarchalization of the early church (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 52). She notes, for example, the polemics that equated women’s leadership with heresy and the example of Jerome attributing both sin and heresy to women (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 55). This trope of the heretical woman is something that appears in my period of history as well, in the polemics against the Port-Royal nuns—some of these reiterate the same litany of heretics found in Jerome’s writing. Methodologically, she calls for the need of a hermeneutic of suspicion when reading these texts (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 56). This means that we need to read androcentric texts “as ideological articulations of men expressing, as well as maintaining, patriarchal historical conditions” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 60). So, a third premise for a feminist historical theology—which is in some sense a specification of the previous one—is the application of this hermeneutic of suspicion to texts written by men about women.
Schüssler Fiorenza addresses how male writings about women were often not descriptive, but prescriptive. That is, they did not describe what was going on, but what the men thought should be going on. And, importantly, she notes that insights from women’s history show us that such writings increase in response to movements for women’s emancipation (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 84–85). Again, the interdisciplinary approach of a feminist historical theology serves us well here. By studying these texts in their historical contexts, we can recognize the separation between what really occurred and what the texts demand. So, it is a matter of reading these sources and recognizing their androcentric bias in way that will allow us to reconstruct women’s participation and see the theological tradition as the product of both men and women.
Of course, we do also have texts written by women as part of the Christian tradition. Schüssler Fiorenza discusses the possibility of female authorship of the biblical text in particular, saying, “The suggestion of female authorship, however, has great imaginative-theological value because it opens up the possibility of attributing apostolic writings to women and of claiming theological authority for women” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 61). In her discussion of this, I see two points that are significant for the feminist historical theologian. First, she notes that all early Christian writings share an androcentric cultural mindset regardless of whether the author was a man or a woman. This is true for much of the history of the church and so a fourth premise for a feminist historical theology—which is also a specification of the third—is to keep in mind that perspective in our interpretations of women’s writings. It is important to recognize that the culture of patriarchy can seep into all of us, especially in earlier periods of history. Thus, we must remember that “women have also internalized the structural sin of sexism and therefore can act against their own spiritual interests and leaders” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 350). I’m thinking especially here of the rhetoric of humility used by so many religious women and their claims of their reluctance to write, doing so only under obedience to their confessor. This is also why some scholars distinguish between feminists—as part of a specific modern movement—and women from earlier periods of history who are considered “proto-feminists.” Second, the importance she sees in the suggestion of female authorship in the early church is tied to the broader claims for women’s theological authority. This is precisely why we need to continue to reclaim the texts of women throughout the history of the church as theologians. The way we view women in the historical tradition affects how we view women today. The history of women and theology needs to be integrated into the broader history of theology as a whole (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 70).
For her approach to the Bible in particular, Schüssler Fiorenza makes a point about reading the “silences” of the text. She asserts that “we must find ways to break the silence of the text” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 41) and read these silences as evidence. At issue here is the androcentric bias in both the selection and preservation of the biblical texts. Namely, some assume that women did not have a major role in the early church because of their absence in the biblical texts. But, neither the authors nor the redactors of the biblical text can be separated from their fundamentally patriarchal context. As she notes, “Many of the traditions and information about the activity of women in early Christianity are probably irretrievable because the androcentric selection or redaction process saw these as either unimportant or as threatening” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 49). Now, this doesn’t mean that we invent or ignore evidence, but ultimately, we need to form “an imaginative reconstruction” of women’s history based on the texts (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 41). Of course, this does not apply only to the biblical text, but rather to the whole of human history. Thus, a fifth premise for a feminist historical theology is to be open to and use a feminist historical imagination in the reconstruction of the “silences” of history. Of course, one of these silences comes from which women have their stories told, and which do not. Both Schüssler Fiorenza and Johnson emphasize that the records we have are only the “tip of an iceberg” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 168) because we only have the records and writings of elite women in many historical contexts.
The very structure of Schüssler Fiorenza’s text provides a model for feminist historical theologians to follow. She basically starts by outlining her methodology of feminist biblical scholarship, then she applies that method to biblical and other early church texts, then in the epilogue discusses the religious and theological implications of that work. The feminist historical theologian should apply that structure to periods beyond the Bible and the early church (as in, the patristic era is not the only one that needs to be studied historically). You should begin by looking at women in the tradition of the church, understanding them and their ideas—and the writings about them—in historical context. Because of the ways in which history has been recorded, this sometimes will involve a bit of historical imagination to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Then, based on this historical research, draw the necessary theological conclusions, making specific proposals about what today’s church can (and must!) learn from these women. As Schüssler Fiorenza asserts in her epilogue, “A Christian feminist spirituality claims these communities of women and their history as our heritage and history and seeks to transform them into the ekklēsia of women by claiming our own spiritual powers and gifts, by deciding our own welfare, by standing accountable for our decisions, in short, by rejecting the patriarchal structures of laywomen and nun-women, of laywomen and clergywomen, which deeply divide us along patriarchal lines” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 346–7).
One of the points that Schüssler Fiorenza makes is that feminist historiography—like feminist theology—has an agenda. As a feminist historical theologian, “texts must be evaluated historically in terms of their own time and culture and assessed theologically in terms of a feminist scale of values” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. 60). The difference between this approach and what others might claim as “pure theology or positivist historiography is precisely in being honest about that agenda” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xxiv–xxv). So, yes, as a feminist historical theologian I do have an agenda and that agenda involves the promotion of women’s theological voices and, in doing so, to allow women to contribute more to the development of the Catholic theological tradition. Historians and theologians might claim objectivity in looking at texts from the past, but ultimately everyone comes at the texts from their own social location (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xxvi). This is in part the importance of historical theology itself—namely, that the historical theologian aims to understand theological ideas first from within their own historical contexts, thus understanding the social location of the theologian in the first place.
It is Schüssler Fiorenza’s emphasis on the historical-critical approach to the biblical text which is in part why her work is of such help for thinking about feminist historical theology. Understanding texts as part of a patriarchal culture and recognizing the presuppositions that scholars bring to the texts is important. We cannot accept the lie of historical objectivity. The idea that women were not historical actors—or that women in earlier eras of history were not theologians—is a presupposition that is being brough to the text. As she says, “Historians who pretend to record nothing but pure facts while refusing to acknowledge their own presuppositions and theoretical perspectives succeed only in concealing from themselves the ideologies upon which their historiography is based” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xlvii). As in: prove to me that women in the past were not theologians, given that we have women who are theologians today.
Schüssler Fiorenza calls for a method of rereading sources in a new way and in the same way that she does this for the Bible, we need to continue to do this for other eras of Christian history, which is precisely the role of the feminist historical theologian. As a Catholic theologian, I want to apply the same importance that she places on reading the Bible in a way to empower women in their struggle for liberation on the whole of tradition. As I noted above, we need to reread our sources, that is, the writings of women, explicitly as works of theology, not just forms of spirituality. At the end of her preface, Schüssler Fiorenza makes an important point, namely, “Ten years later, young women still need to hear the basic message undergirding its historical reconstruction: ‘Believe in and respect yourself, stand up for your dignity and rights, and always remember the struggle’” (Schüssler Fiorenza, p. xxxv). It is still, today, important to raise up women’s voices in the history of theology to show the next generations what the possibilities are.