Part Two: Bodies Matter (A Response to Tony Baker’s “Gender and the Studio”)

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?

I think J. Kameron Carter is on to something in Race: A Theological Account, when he asks

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).

31 thoughts on “Part Two: Bodies Matter (A Response to Tony Baker’s “Gender and the Studio”)

  1. Ok, so, a potential example: Baker posted a link on the TS page to Reno’s ranking of theology Ph.D. programs. In the comments of his post, and from what various TSer’s, for lack of better words, posted on their own respective pages, there is no attention given to what is not included in Reno’s criteria—diversity, attention to social concerns, etc… (Nate Kerr’s “this again?” being the only possible exception…). Shouldn’t “thinking with the Church” mean concern for these types of matters? Moreover, how in the world is he defining intellectual rigor? Yes, Reno is right, you shall know these places by their fruits—as a Duke Div grad, while there are a lot of wonderful things about Duke, and I am very grateful for the education I received there, I often felt very, very ostracized by a large contingency of the community because of my gender and my interests related to feminist theology. Moreover, while Wheaton and TEDS don’t really get a nod like they have in years past, the TS comments debate this, and also add Fuller to the list. Again, there are a lot of great things about Wheaton and Fuller—I don’t really know anything about TEDS, so I can’t really speak to that—and I know some great students and faculty there… but what about the fact that both Wheaton and Fuller can, and have, kicked out students who are in same-sex relationships. Sure, people believe different things on this front, the church is divided on this “issue,” etc…etc… but such overt homophobia/heterosexism should, perhaps, at least be acknowledged/be a part of the conversation…

  2. I like your footnote point about theory vs. practice. I’m reminded of a quote I read (perhaps without authorization, so I won’t attribute it) from a professor at a school that was revamping its core to better fit the liberal arts ideal, but (in this person’s account) resisted any kind of conversation about what the liberal arts ideal even was: “So you’re telling me that we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, but we can nonetheless make all kinds of practical decisions?”

  3. Also, re: my first comment- since I wrote that, I’ve noticed there has been some pushback to Reno’s list on the TS group by folks like Nate, Ry, Rod, etc… and I just want to acknowledge that…

  4. Yes! The questions we ask matter, and the questions we don’t ask matter.
    Drawing a connection between your post here and Mandy’s – before we can listen well to anyone else, we need to examine ourselves. (First remove the log from your own eye…) And interrogating our power over another (or our desire to have power over another) is one good place to begin. Or perhaps the best place to begin is with the questions that make us most uncomfortable – the ones that we try to fend off with “this again?”
    Being Christianly engaged with ourselves and the world is an uncomfortable process – but it can be a dangerous process if some of us acknowledge and explore the depths of our own sinfulness and others of us do not (especially if we are not engaging with our sinfulness in our ways of relating to the person before us!)
    At some points, I have found myself needing to disengage for a time from one or another person who was letting me carry the burden of sinfulness for the both of us. Shook the dust off my feet, as it were, and moved on to the next village. Which scripture I allude to in order to point out that Jesus allows this! None of us is obliged to stick around for abuse masquerading as Christian community, no matter what obligation the abuser (pastor, professor, colleague, “friend”) tries to persuade us we have. And I know I am not the only one to have experienced this sort of thing first hand.
    Which isn’t to say that I have never been guilty of being blind to my own power – of letting another carry the burden of sin for the both of us. Rather, I am saying that I am deeply suspicious of any person who would count themselves among the righteously enlightened without reference to the ways that they continue to “benefit” from the structures of sin.

  5. Just another comment on the theory/practice tip… I think it’s good to chide academics for embracing theories/theologies that are entirely disconnected from the, let’s say, material conditions of those who conduct their lives entirely outside of academia. But to suggest that this, then, means that academic debates are pointless fluff is just compromised false humility. As “disconnected” as academics may be… most of us do still teach. And teaching (if we really care about the work we’re doing) demands that we – at the very least – understand the terms of the debates that inevitably give patterns of thought new shapes and forms.

  6. Brandy, do you think you’d have found Baker’s reverence for receptivity unproblematic if he’d contextualized it (i.e.; identified receptivity as a resource for his particular white, heterosexual, male context?)

  7. Yes—I had not previously heard of the Theology Studio, but the discussion of FT’s program rankings turned me off immediately. It was very interesting to contrast that discussion with the thread about the same topic on my own page.

  8. Beatrice– maybe… Ok, probably not unproblematic, though likely *less* problematic. I would still be a bit wary–the coupling of receptivity with the feminine concerns me, as I tend to really buy into a Butlerian/”strong constructivist” account of gender… but, that being said, I think the move towards contextualization of receptivity might make such an account align a bit more with a sexual difference feminist theoretical frame, which I have problems with, but in a very different sort of way, if that makes sense…

  9. And while I strongly believe theologians have a responsibility to make ourselves responsible to the broader ecclesial community, this call also always needs further examination. I’ve been in multiple situations where concern for “the people in the pews” has been used to shut down critique of sexism, racism, or heterosexism in theology, on the grounds that “the people in the pews” need to be uplifted and catechized on the “fundamentals” before such confusing and divisive matters can enter in (NOT saying this is what Mandy was doing—this is itself a symptom of a disconnect between the academy and the rest of the church: the assumption that some in the academy know best what “regular people” need, or that “regular people” aren’t affected by issues of power and oppression).

  10. Even well-intentioned people will sometimes make this move — although then it’s usually masked as prudential advice (“I’m with you 1000%, but you’ll never get a church if you’re straightforward about that…”).

  11. Thanks for the post, Brandy, and for the follow-up comments. The relationship between theory and practice, and between everyday Christians and academic theology, is certainly complex. The Ethnography and Ecclesiology session at AAR highlighted that, and I”m interested to follow up on those links, Brandy, for Robyn Wiegman. I think what I’m striving for is at minimum a kind of “accountability” to everyday Christians… and then we can talk about how the theology and practices of everyday Christians informs, challenges, shapes our theory and theology. And vice versa. But I see very little even of that kind of accountability. As I said, this is something I’m still processing. I appreciate Sarah’s comment connecting listening well to understanding our own participation in and benefit from sinful structures and power relationships. That’s exactly why we need Brandy’s posts! Part of my point in emphasizing the value of the “personal” is that I think those in power are shaken out of their stupor more effectively by engaging with real people being effected by those structures than they are by reading academic theory about those structures. Not to say that excuses them (US!) for not listening to the theory…. but that real encounter matters. I’m in the middle of Judith Butler’s “Giving an account of oneself” right now and chewing on the implications of that for theology and for these conversations.

  12. Isn’t the thing that most needs addressing nearly always the thing you’ll be crucified for being straightforward about? In any system–church or academy (and I say this in the midst of circumspection while trying to get a church–“Your mission statement disgusts and enrages me” being the line in my head that I hope to remember not to utter). Not to sidetrack from sex to race, but heard Mark Noll point this out recently, and found it interesting as an example–in the pre- civil war debate about US slavery, you got either simplistic biblicist defenses of slavery or rather broad appeals to equality based on appeal to the spirit of scripture. Virtually no one in the US on either side even bothered to point out that, hey, slavery in the Bible isn’t constructed around a racial binary, and maybe that’s an important thing to look at. So yeah, not really dumbfounded that an upper middle class sausage fest would repeatedly and spectacularly fail to recognize itself as such, taking its current mode of existence as entirely natural. Repeatedly stating this fact seems to result only in more hilarious/infuriating missing of the point. My guess is that even carefully cultivated habits of receptivity would end up used to mask the most egregious problems.

  13. The point that you and Kait Dugan make about the importance of the questions we ask also, I think, goes a long way towards explaining Baker’s confusion about the improving gender equity in fields like biblical studies and history. Questions about context, social location, and power are completely mainstream in those fields. They’re not treated as less than serious, or as—at best—prolegomena to real intellectual work. (Baker also mentions the improving situation in ethics, which is my field, but I don’t see it improving as quickly as it is in biblical studies or history. It’s easier to ask about power in ethics than in systematics, maybe, but still harder overall in theology than in the other humanities.)

    Great posts. Thanks for writing these.

  14. Why does “concern for people in the pews” always seem to turn into a buzzphrase that really just implies that theology is for making Christians feel like what they are already doing is the most revolutionary thing possible? It’s always seemed to me that taking the material conditions that appear in churches seriously ends up requiring something akin to the liberation theology move to side actively with the people “good Christians” tend to clobber. To do otherwise seems exactly like a *denial* of the people in the pews.

    On the subject of “the list,” I think it’s really interesting that so many of the criteria for Reno’s list are not only *not* about a concern for things like social conditions, gender, race, poverty, etc, but they all seem (including the way “rigor” is being thrown around) to be based on whether students are being taught to reproduce a specific scholarly orthodoxy, rather than whether students are being taught to, you know, think.

  15. The comments about this going at the Facebook page for this are amazing. I wish I could post there, but I was told that I was only allowed to join the “Studio” to respond to some lies (to speak plainly, for the people in the pews) Milbank and Cunningham had made about the Nottingham Two there. This made Baker nervous and I so I promised I would leave the group as soon as I commented. But the level of pedantic rhetoric coming from many of the white men there is unbelievable, especially because they are being asked to reflect on that very issue! It really speaks to a level of self-satisfaction amongst theologians that I find troubling.

    I’ve been teaching Blackamerican Islam in my Intro to Religion classes, since we are reading Malcolm X, and I actually was shaking with nervousness the other day. This is the first university I have taught at with a significant blackamerican population (a term I’m lifting from a few sources, including the interesting Sherman A. Jackson, who I think maybe has a gender and homo problem, but who is interesting on poverty and Islam) and I just didn’t want to fuck up this material. I have no idea how to not fuck it up, though, except to tell them that I was worried about fucking it up. The whole class seemed to respond to that and it was one of the more honest experiences I’ve had in the classroom ever. I’ve tried this with feminism before, but there is such a resistance to it, even among the female students, that I often feel like I’m just trying to get them to see why anyone would call themselves feminist.

  16. Yeah, I’ve been told by students that I don’t “look like” a feminist. As much as I question this logic in front of the class, I still think that the process of reconciling that perceived discrepancy has the effect – for some of my students – of making them feel more friendly about feminism. I feel weird about that. Almost like I’m some sort of gross billboard for feminism (“you, too, can wear lipgloss and be a feminist!”) Which isn’t really the kind of pedagogy I’m aiming for. Have you guys tried introducing your students to the conversation about feminism by reading about men & feminism?

  17. Early in my intro to women’s studies course I had students read a little Michael Kimmel, and also a book by Sheila Tarrant called “Men & Feminism”. I thought it was relatively helpful to get students talking about whether men could be feminists and, if so, what this would mean.

  18. That certainly would displace the conversation from radical lesbian separatists, the elimination of men, khaki shorts, etc. I have very limited control over reading lists at this point, but I’ll keep it in mind as a strategy.

  19. As I wrote on Twitter over the holiday — one of my favorite tweets, incidentally — “While I’ve never met a feminist who hated both Man and ALL men, I’ve met plenty of misogynists who idealized Women but in practice hated them all.”

  20. Beatrice- I hadn’t heard of either of those authors… thanks for pointing them out! … Also, more broadly, I think feminist theory/theology/practice is precisely where the conversation with the TS stuff needs to go–why “Christianly gendered” instead of “(Christian) feminist?”

  21. Thank you for this post and the last, Brandy.

    I’m always hesitant about joining in these discussions because I’m worried my views might be derailing the main conversation, but since this one has spread pretty broadly, I’ll chime in. The narrowness that keeps me out of the theology club is only half gender based, but also religion based: because my native mode of theological expression is Jewish, even the more philosophically inclined or secular-tending theological spaces (like, say, AUFS) which still take Christian theological language as the base upon which the conversation is built become difficult to participate in. I can follow the conversation–my entire theological training was in historically Christian institutions, and I’m perfectly able to find my way through Thomas (I prefer Scotus, to be honest) or the Fathers–but questions about the meaning of Christ or the Church or Mary as a model of anything are just not where my mind is at. Often I find the discussion that springs from them illuminating in a broad sense, and certainly I’m more engaged with the methods of contemporary Christian theology than those of Jewish studies (talk about a sausage-fest!), so I read, but rarely feel like my voice has any place.

    I raise this point not because I think it is a flaw for Church-based theology to be concerned with the Church, but to point out that gender (and class, and race) are not the only places where contemporary theology, especially the bits which make explicit moves away from Church-based contexts, has difficulty recognising and addressing difference. And I wish I had a constructive solution for how to address that.

  22. Man, I wish I had known these conversations on this blog were happening sooner! I’ve been trying to process my post-AAR experience. I’m a queer black systematic theologian who ends up in sessions where white dudes want to talk about ontology and stuff, and also in sessions that are more explicitly feminist, queer , or POC, and feel really dissatisfied/disconnected with both.

    Anyways, just wanted to say, I think this series of post on gender and theology names a lot of my frustrations. Thank you for this.

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