On the Culture of Fear in Theology: More on Gender and Theology

As the discussion about Theology and Gender continues to play out over multiple blogs, Facebook, and emails, I have noticed something that I find deeply troubling and I believe to be specific to the field of theology as such. To summarize how I have seen the discussion play out so far: Tony Baker puts forward an essentially unchanged, unsophisticated version of nuptial theology in response to a question about gender, the Theology Studio’s meeting regarding “the future of systematic theology”, and his own work. This is then responded to by a number of women, foremost amongst those are Brandy’s from last week. Their responses are across the board described as charitable and a model of grace, while any criticisms of their positions from TS insiders are pushed on to men who are putting forth essentially the same criticisms as Brandy. There is something deeply creepy to me about how the women are being treated in this conversation, sometimes a token woman will be held up as an example of someone who shares their views, or a woman who has acted with supreme patience (a patience I don’t have or have to have… but more on that below) is complimented for her ladylike behavior but her criticisms are ignored.

In private discussions, in the flesh and online, I have heard from a number of women that they are really frustrated by being treated this way — pat on the head and ignored — but they don’t feel safe in expressing that frustration for fear of being labelled “uncharitable”, code, I assume, amongst Christian theologians for acting “bitchy”. They are scared to get on the bad side of not just senior faculty, but scared of junior faculty. Scared of publishers. Scared of what it might mean if it gets back to their home institutions that they are being “bitchy”. Now, none of this is necessarily specific to the latest example of theologians famously missing the point (and I think we will continue to see the Theology Studio proclaim itself as the biggest tent in Theology Town, while allowing for a cultural policing of insiders and outsider). It’s a problem that runs deep in the discipline, one I don’t see, for example in other fields I work in like Continental philosophy. Of course, there is entrenched sexism there, but because there isn’t this emphasis on “Christian behaviour” the men have to be a bit more sneaky in how they police the women and how they find ways to ignore them. But in theology there is this real fear.

I know it because women have also told me that they were scared to post here at AUFS (a problem that we are trying to address in changes that are forthcoming). I want to be clear, our comment policy and our harshness has always had at its base a fundamental recognition of equality. The kind of patronizing of women that we’ve seen very clearly over the last few weeks may come across “nicer” but is far more insidious. Our comment policy was created as a preferential option against dominant voices. Of course, though, while this was our intent, in practice we didn’t do enough to address this culture of fear and so many of our female readers remained scared of us playing out the same aggression they are weary of in mainstream theology.

How does one address this culture of fear? Well, I hope in the future the changes we are making here means, at least as regards the issues at AUFS, women will not need to worry about offending us, knowing they can speak frankly and even call us out. But what can we do about the wider culture in theology? The discussion so far has focused on listening, and I think that is wise, but how do you make those in power, who control book series, journals, and the like, how do you make them listen? How do you make it such that the women who want to express frustration can? Perhaps AUFS should host a discussion on this at the next AAR, with a mixed-gender panel but chaired by one of our female authors here. Because, one thing is clear to me, if I have been able to be honest with my anger and still land a good job, still publish in strong journals and good presses, anyone else should be able to as well.

8 thoughts on “On the Culture of Fear in Theology: More on Gender and Theology

  1. In the past I have been inclined to judge blogging and face book conversations concerning theology as mostly a masculine wank fest; partly, as you suggest, because of my anxiety about exclusion (which is true not only online but in most ‘theological’ communities). But this latest discussion on gender has really pissed me off. Creepiness seems like a perfect description. Actually the reading of certain women’s blogs and face book posts seems to mirror the kind of reading most theologians have of publications that explicitly deal with issues of gender, race, and class. I sit in theological conferences and rarely hear non white woman or men quoted, we are not referenced in publications, we are not spoken of, until someone is challenged -for instance on gender -and then suddenly a white dude once read Gender Trouble and viola, their theological account implicitly resolved gender issues all along. It’s the same old game with a few new gendered catch phrases (that is, I am expected to master all the famous white men thinkers before I can say something about gender, but anyone who watched the colour purple feels suitably prepared to speak and not listen). If you want to press the issue, the debate falls into the creepy appeals and tokenism you described, or worse, it is demanded you debate on their terms and their orthodoxy or they will not engage at all.

  2. Anthony, when you make reference to the “culture of fear in theology”… it reminds me that theology has long been riddled with various cultures of fear (its historical ties with inquisitions, excommunications, etc…) Theology is, I guess I’m saying, kind of a scary thing to do, for various reasons. But you’re not really speaking about that broader issue, here. It seems to me that you’re referring to a more specific problem. It seems like you’re referring to the gender trouble with (and cultures of fear in) theology blogging? Or communities that are organized somewhat informally outside/inside an academic setting and have a loose kind of structure that’s facilitated mostly through the internet. Is that fair to say?

    If so, I simply want to note that there are certainly “safe” spaces on the blogosphere where women can talk about theology without fear of dismissal or marginalization (Feminism and Religion, etc…) The “culture of fear” that you’re referring to, in other words, is dispelled and dispersed in certain pockets of academia, as well as certain pockets of academic blogging. But part of the problem you’re gesturing toward is that this isn’t the case everywhere. Where is it not the case? Certain forums with ostensibly “elite” philosophical or theoretical concerns, to be a bit crude? A certain “mainstream”?

  3. Yes, that is fair to say, though my issue is that, while there are safe spaces to speak, there isn’t safe spaces to speak to the wider “loose communities”. It gets ghettoized in a way that I find problematic. And what seems specific to theology is precisely that any attempt to be speak is always shot down on the basis of faith commitments, it just seems more insidious to me. But perhaps I am being over simplistic. But people have expressed fear that saying things on blogs would lead to them not being able to be published. That seems extreme and specific to women, considering all the things I’ve said on blogs and my own career humming along pretty well.

  4. As in: it’s possible that, for some people, a book contract might be the end result of their irreverent mouthing-off while others might be at risk of editorial anathemization. And that, perhaps, when it comes to public discourse in theological ideas, the rough distinction between one group and the other might be a gendered one?

  5. I mean… I can’t really know that for sure. I’ve neither ventured to express myself using snark or irreverence, nor do I have any book deals. So I’ll say, tenuously, maybe?

    Perhaps there have been moments where this wasn’t the case (specific moments, perhaps some of them attached to specific series/agendas at specific presses). Certainly it didn’t seem to be the case for Mary Daly. Irreverence was kind of her game. Although I have to wonder how her career would have been different if she’d started out blogging, rather than entering the scene via print publication. I think that’s actually a really interesting question: what would Mary Daly’s career have looked like if she’d started out as a blogger, promoting her ideas virtually? OK, that’s an anachronistic question. But, still… just speculating, I don’t doubt she would have had a wide readership. Perhaps not a book deal with one of the few presses that actually publishes theologically inclined books.

    Snark is actually really commonplace in the so-called “lady blogs”. It’s kind of the default tone for a lot of feminist blogging. I haven’t, yet, run across a woman who blogs about religion or theology (let alone one who has a book deal) who espouses the kind of tone you get from Jezebel, for example.

  6. All very interesting . . . I think there are non-essential, say, stochastically significant, gender differences in relation to ego, that might even be illuminated by Lacan (dare I say, Levi Bryant’s readings). I said recently, to a trusted male friend, that I don’t respect men (in general) because of their ego defenses, and chronic disrespect toward women (most men, and lots of academics of every gender, don’t even know they’re being disrespectful because they’re too damned narcissistic to recognize admirable qualities in others), are just degrees of tragi-comedy . . . or maybe comedia . . . because kind of grotesque. So when one guy complains about some other guy, I think (and often I say) hmmm . . . like the way you (ambiguous plural, come on . . . ) treat women. (Yeah it sucks.) But iterating the disrespect just passes on the pain. Certainly it’s an ego defense . . . but different because secondary (I do think categorically so). Btw, I don’t think bullying is defensible in any sphere.

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