Part Two: Bodies Matter (as do the ways they are configured in and through power relations)
Baker argues that theological studies need not be a “masculine form” and that one of the ways it can instead function within/as “the redeemed form of Mary,” is through a focus on “receptivity”—which he identifies, at least in part, as close readings of texts and engagement with Biblical, historical, and literary material—as opposed to “mostly creative construction in the realms of logic and metaphysics.”
While I have a number of theoretical and theological concerns with the association between receptivity and femininity, which I’ll address in the next, and final, post on this topic, on some level, I can get behind, or at least understand, this. Different strands and iterations of feminist theory and politics have named masculine modes and forms of discourse as problematic and have called for the embodiment of alternate, feminine forms—most notably, the “French feminists:” Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous, Clement… One might also look to some of the U.S. “second-wave” feminists: Carol Gilligan, Catherine Mackinnon, Andrea Dworkin…
What Baker’s analysis lacks in this regard, however, is an attention to the discursive and material realities that engender these dynamics—something that is central to the work of the aforementioned “sexual difference” and “second wave” feminists. Baker calls for a greater focus on “receptivity” without contending with, or even acknowledging, the ways in which bodies and/in power function.
It has been interesting to see some of the feedback to my first post—perhaps most illuminating, though not at all surprising to me—have been messages and comments I’ve received from women who have said they’ve attempted to be in conversation with theology studio folks but have found it to be a boy’s club. The fact that there were so few women in that theology studio conversation is indicative of something. As Mandy (the Duke student who asked “the question,” as she put it), said in response to this conversation in the Theology Studio facebook group (and now on the TS blog): “In Tony’s original post, he asked, ‘Is it us? Or is it something deeper and systemic within the field of academic theology?’ The answer most certainly is ‘yes and yes.’”
Well said, Mandy. Yes and yes. Full stop. Mandy goes on in a bit of a different direction, speaking to her own concerns about theology and the global south, but I want to linger here, because a) it seems to be an important place to linger, and b)it seems like everyone wants to quickly move past this point. Baker seems to evade really thoroughly engaging with these questions, instead, suggesting that the former results in wallowing in liberal guilt, and the latter results in some sort of free pass, then hastily turning the conversation to what Christianly gendered theology might look like.
Whereas Baker turns to the sources we engage in as a way to move towards “a more Christianly gendered theology,” I think Kait Dugan, in her comment on part one, hit the nail on the head, when she wrote:
Even more than the white male-dominated atmosphere of the TS, there doesn’t seem to be an extensive engagement with questions that I care to ask. Many male academics take for granted their place of power, their gender, their race and how they simply don’t have to be aware of asking these questions because of their place of privilege (to be clear: as a white woman, I realize I am also *far from exempt* in these criticisms as well). It would be refreshing to see more of these white male academics, including those among the TS, engage in questions of race, power, class, and gender in ways that make them vulnerable and open to critique.
The matter goes deeper than what kind of sources we engage with—though that is assuredly part of it. What Baker and others do not seem to pick up on—or, at least, as far as I have seen thus far—is that the kind of questions we ask, as well as the questions we do not ask, matter. A LOT.
To put it bluntly, why the hell are we not paying more attention to context? To power? Yeah, I know, there are problems with liberation theology, and there are even problems with poststructuralism, but for heaven’s sake, did/do these developments and theories and theologies not teach us anything? And come on, there are also problems with orthodox and postliberal theologies. A lot of them. Sure, we acknowledge these problems too, and seek to move forward and to continue to do theological work, but it is more than just a little interesting that we seem to ignore the flaws and limitations of postliberalism a bit more, or, rather, that we pay so much attention and give so much weight to the critiques of liberation theology, etc… what does this observation say about theological discourse and gender—not to mention race, sexuality, class, etc… ?
I think that Mandy gets it mostly right when she notes that theological discourse is engaged very little with “everyday Christians,” and that, “if we engaged with those ‘other’ than us in terms of academic and cultural background, we would learn habits of listening and receptivity that we could carry back into those academic settings.” I say mostly right because, again returning to Kait’s insight, it seems so important to examine how we engage with those ‘other’ than us.[i] Here, I think Dave is on to something (though he is admittedly a bit harsher about it then I want to be) when he comments that
If this was a discussion over “the future of systematic theology,” then it looks like the future of systematic theology is to learn how “the church” (this phrase happened in like every other sentence) can continue to be a paternalistic benevolent Father figure to poor minorities. Seriously, there was like a 30 minute period where everyone in the room was trying to one up each other with their awesome ministry stories in exotic poor communities. Someone even told a story about how he was ministering to a poor African American community somewhere and he had to “simplify” his language in order to be effective.
Which is to say, I think Mandy is right on with emphasizing listening. But was that what was happening? Or was the emphasis of the conversation not about listening to and engaging with, but about speaking to and for—was it about attending to power and to bodies, or to piety?
What does it mean to speak with theological imagination from within crises of life and death rather then in scholastic universes and out of the disposition of scholastic reason in the mode of the religious, the disposition whose condition of possibility turns from such painfully real worlds (377)?
Another way of perhaps saying this, in light of this whole conversation around gender and the theology studio/theological academy is, perhaps we need to ask more “from” questions, and less “for” questions—maybe we need to spend more time interrogating how our discourse operates socially, and what sort of theo-logic undergirds and engenders the problematic gender inequity in the (theological) academy. One could even potentially, if one is truly a fan of the whole receptivity thing, frame this as a way of truly attending to receptivity, through exploring the ways in which our discourses are or are not receptive not just to the other, but of the other.
I prefer to think about it through the frame James Cone offers in God of the Oppressed when he so eloquently assert thattheologians must ask “what is the connection between dominant material relations and the ruling theological ideas in a given society” (39)? At the very least, I think these are questions that are imperative to theological studies—to its past, present, and future—but that do not seem to be being addressed, and certainly not emphasized. Beyond that, I am also concerned with how identity—especially how gendered identity—functions for Baker, and how assumptions he makes both indicate and reify white, masculine, heterosexual power. But this is a topic I’ll explore in my next post…
[i] Also, while I acknowledge, and to some degree share, Mandy’s concern about the gap between “educated elite disagreements,” and “everyday Christians,” I think it is a bit more complicated. I agree that there is not enough work being done on drawing connections between theory and practice (and am in a fellowship program that seeks to minimize this discrepancy), I also think that theory, for theory’s sake, is immensely important, and that we have to be careful to not instrumentalize the work we do. We never know the ways that theory will reflect/engage/shape practice, and to critique theory that is not overtly practical is, I think, a mistake in that it both minimizes and limits imaginative possibilities. One of my professors at Duke, Robyn Wiegman, often speaks of the “radical incommensurability of scale” that occurs between feminist theory and praxis, and pointed to how these dynamics are extraordinarily complex and can actually function to engender, as opposed to restrict, political change. See, for instance, Robyn Wiegman, “Dear Ian,” Duke Journal of Law & Policy, vol 11:93, 2004, pp. 93-120, as well as Object Lessons (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).