The Choreography of Feminist Theology

Kathryn Reklis

Raised as a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which repudiates polygamy, Barb had followed her monogamous husband out of the Mormon orthodoxy she knew and into a renegade fundamentalist Mormonism, plunging her into a plural marriage that now encompasses four spouses (three wives and a husband).

Central both to LDS theology and to the break- away revivalist teachings the Henrickson family adhere to is the doctrine of the Melchizedek priest- hood, which is conferred on all males, granting them the spiritual authority to issue priesthood blessings of healing, comfort, counsel, and strength to their children and wives and through this power to usher them into the celestial kingdom upon death. Barb is now causing a stir because she begins to believe and openly suggest that this priesthood belongs to all believers, including women, including herself.

A Debate Continues

As a feminist theologian engaged with popular culture, I think there is something thrilling about this kind of meaningful spiritual wrestling happening on television. As a younger theologian who came of age in the early 2000s, during the third and fourth waves of feminist thought, I have to admit there is also something disorienting about it. Within the protected space of academic theology, the question of whether women are equal spiritual leaders is a settled debate; presented as fresh and new in 2011, the topic can seem, well, very outdated. Look around a classroom at Yale or any of its peer seminaries and half the seats are probably filled with women. Visit a mainline Protestant church and you will see the same in the pews. Chances are at least one female clergy will lead you in worship.

Nevertheless, Barb’s fictionalized experience, her turbulent emerging spiritual claims for herself, is not a period piece from the distant past, nor is it limited to small breakaway churches. Many of the fastest growing forms of Christianity in the world – Mormonism, Pentecostalism, Roman Catholicism – deny ordination to women and teach theology that subjugates women to men, spiritually and socially.

Barb’s journey is a vivid reminder that feminist theology always begins in the lived experiences of women. It began when Mary Daly, some fifty years ago, sat enraptured at the Second Vatican Council, brimming with hope that her church might indeed change, only to despair when she looked around the room and realized she was the only woman present and would never be allowed to speak. It began when theologian Valerie Saiving realized that all the terms she encountered about “man’s universal predicament” in sin really were about “men” and did not begin to touch on the experience of real women. And it began when women got together and began to talk about their experiences in church, in the home, in the classroom. As a full-blown intellectual, activist, liberationist pursuit, feminist theology does not just begin in these experiences and epiphanies, but must always remain anchored in them, asking itself if it indeed has anything to say to the continued oppression and suffering of women and if it provides resources and succor to women and men struggling for planetary and human flourishing.

Challenging the notion of disembodied reason reigning from an ivory tower, feminist theory and theology staked a claim in a type of intellectual pursuit that was not superior to everyday experience or even abstracted from it, but that took embodied experience as the source for theological reflection and the amelioration of that experience as its end. As a kind of theological discourse, this anchor in experience does not mean that feminist theology does not take on the big metaphysical or intellectual questions. Indeed, trying to make sense of women’s experience leads us to the depths of metaphysical speculation and the farthest reaches of theorizing about the structures of human civilization.

Peeling Back Layers

That journey looks something like this: like Barb on Big Love you start with experience – often with one woman’s experience, in a particular time and place. What confronts you most strongly as you pull back the layers of oppression and inequality is how normalized they are. How every aspect of your life – from assumptions about how to raise your children, to the products you are encouraged to buy, to the language that is used all around you, to the way people interact with you on a bus – sup- ports and reinforces a universe where you are less equal than men, or if you have brown skin or live in a certain part of town, are less equal even than other women. The damaging injustices that come with that inequality do not seem unjust to most people in this universe. It’s just the way things are. So you keep peeling back the layers, trying to figure out what cloaks these assumptions in the garment of inevitability, naturalism, and reality.

Barb, for example, tries to believe that her new stirrings are just a matter of personal conviction: she has a spiritual testimony to her own priest- hood status, and she does not understand why this should be so challenging to her husband, her sister-wives, her entire religion. As she perseveres, however, it becomes clear to her that her seemingly simple acknowledgement of a spiritual experience, framed by a religion that places great emphasis on personal testimony, in fact challenges the deepest assumptions about the gendered pattern of human life, and most profoundly, the identity of God as Heavenly Father.

Big Love will probably not end with Barb enrolling in a Ph.D. program in theology, but her dive beneath the surface of her experience into the structures that make that surface seem necessary and natural is the same move that grounds all feminist theory. In theology this dive must go even deeper, to the very way we think, talk, and experience God. As Grace Jantzen, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and others have argued, if feminist theory wants to understand the deepest structures that ground women’s inequality in society, it must concern itself with theology as well – with that primary ground of Western philosophy and theory, the divine/world relationship. This is the argument feminist theology presses upon the larger academy: that knowledge must be grounded in hu- man experience, but understanding that experience means being willing to investigate and challenge the foundational assumptions of our thought, even the very language and images we use for God. Which is to say that feminist theology must always concern itself with both the deepest reaches of metaphysics and the farthest reaches of theory in order to concern itself always with the embodied existence of real women.

Glimmering Threads

As someone who has followed the glimmering thread of feminist theology into these deepest and farthest reaches, I can attest to the difficulty of seeing my way back to the everyday experience that set me forth in the first place. Harder still is holding both serious intellectual pursuit and liberationist relevance in tension when the real-life experience of women driving the project is not just infused with very real spiritual inequalities, but material suffering and oppression of an even greater magnitude. Bearing a female-identified body in this world greatly increases the chance that you will die from war, poverty, disease, childbirth, or unclean drinking water, as well as suffer the violence and degradation of rape, abuse, and forced maternity. If your body is also yellow, brown, or black the systematization of sexism and sexually motivated violence will be compounded by the violence and oppressions of racism and classism.

What, then, to make of this dual reality as a feminist theologian? On the one hand, feminist theology has gained acceptance in the academy. Within the relative intellectual freedom found there, we can write, argue, and advocate for radically inclusive ontologies, new metaphysics, or the overthrow of both in a post-structuralist non-dualist deconstruction. On the other hand, what good are all these abstract theological systems or theoretical flights of fancy if they have no bearing on women’s real lives? As an academic pursuit, has feminist theology become a hedonistic pleasure for a few well-educated white North American women?

The Slow Work of Ideas

If there is a defense to be made for feminist theology, that defense must always be haunted by the threat of its own irrelevance. This is true for all academic disciplines, and perhaps more true now than ever. We live in an age of information overload where the slow work of ideas to bring change and challenge injustices seems less plausible than perhaps it did even fifty years ago. When political revolutions can be fomented by 140-character tweets, and news is disseminated in sound bytes twenty-four hours a day, an intellectual exchange published in books over several decades will inevitably seem disconnected from the world of real politics. To believe in the value of the liberal arts or the pursuit of higher education at all is to insist that certain kinds of knowledge cannot be had through a quick Google search or a Wiki link.

Because it insists that all academic or theoretical knowledge must be connected to embodied experience, feminist theology feels a more exacting burden to prove the slow power of ideas to effect change. It faces the nearly impossible task of insisting both that ideas only matter so far as they have something to say to real human beings and that fundamental change in the structures of oppression cannot take place without the careful intellectual and theoretical work needed to understand and challenge them.

The Verve of Theology

This tension, however, is also what gives feminist theology its verve – the buzzing energy that keeps it alive and propels it forward. It also helps explain why at its best feminist theology eschews “totalizing” narratives. Any move to draw comprehensive philosophical conclusions will be warily viewed as the projection of one person’s particular experience to cover all human experience, inevitably excluding any experience that does not fit the mold – for instance, the way white educated man’s experience was projected to account for all humankind and in the process privilege his own. Even the basic assumption that theology must be rooted in experience is challenged by feminist theologians who ask what is “experience” and how is it constructed!

This unrelenting questioning can be exhausting. I have conversations with students (almost always young white students) who want to know why we can’t move beyond race, or class, or religious difference, to some unified theory of everything. I know that for many of them what they are expressing is a desire for unity, solidarity, and common ground in the midst of indefatigable capitalism that encourages each of us to create our own unique identities through the proliferating commodities we can buy with the click of a mouse. But, as I try to explain, there is also a kind of laziness in this desire. Totalizing narratives are in fact easier to create than the kind of real understanding and solidarity that emerge out of the slow and steady work of encountering differences.

The desire also assumes that no real unity can exist amid real differences. Feminist theology – and her sister theologies, Womanist, mujerista, Asian feminist, and others – insists the opposite: unity is the product of relationships, which require us to meet each other in the places where we live, in honesty, in brokenness, and in trust. This work is never finished, because human relationships are never done, but are renewed in every encounter. Feminist theology, then, is like a dance. A dancer’s body conveys beauty in tension – extending in two directions at once, taut lines joined by graceful co- ordination. Feminist theology’s beauty consists in the body extended in tension – between theory and practice, unity and difference.

Leaning Forward

I’ve been watching the final season of Big Love on Sunday nights while also preparing to participate in a course on Monday nights at Union Theological Seminary that explores the frontiers of feminist and Womanist theologies. Co-taught by Serene Jones, Jeannine Hill-Fletcher, and Eboni Marshall, the course invites feminist, Womanist, and mujerista theologians from the greater Northeast to speak about the growing edges of their work. The top- ics under discussion beautifully demonstrate that new choreography is propelling the dance of femi- nist theology forward with as much energy as ever. From its roots in the criticism of gendered language in scripture and liturgy and its early advocacy of the full spiritual equality of women, feminist theology today is wrestling with a new set of questions and challenges.

This list includes the need for deeper interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism, the challenges of transsexual and transgendered experience to feminist essentialism, the role of technology in re-wiring human experience, the devastating global conditions of women’s reproductive and maternal health – as well as doubts raised about the relevance of feminist theology as an academic discipline in the face of religious and political violence and unprecedented economic disparity, both of which disproportionately affect women and their children.

The Company of Women

Each week the conversations ignite an intellectual energy that is palpable. Far from languishing as a marginal academic discipline, feminist theology and her sister theologies demonstrate, in the hands of this company of women, a depth and rigor that make clear their relevance to the biggest questions of the human condition. Even more strongly, the set- ting of these conversations stretches the taut sinew between theory and practice. In the audience are students from Union, Fordham University, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, and General Theological Seminary, as well as close to eighty public participants, almost all women, many of them clergy, chaplains, or lay leaders. In this pedagogical moment, ideas are accountable to real-life experience. How does a theory of religious difference play out in a PTA meeting where Jewish, Hindu, and Christian moth- ers have to decide on a school lunch plan? How can a Presbyterian pastor in an aging congregation minister to the needs of two transgendered young women who keep popping into services? What does it mean, theologically, for 90 percent of the people in the room to rely on Facebook and Twitter for their sense of engagement in global politics?

Bringing all these questions into play is the choreography that keeps the dance of feminist theology moving with grace, energy, and power.

As I listen to these Monday night conversations, I often hope there is a Barb in the room. Then I realize the real measure of feminist theology’s health is not whether the Barbs of the world find their way to academic theology, but whether feminist theology finds its way to Barb. Which means the dance must go on, never surrendering the tension that gives it form. 

Kathryn Reklis ’04 M.A.R. is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Yale and the Director of Theological Initiatives at Union Theological Seminary. In addition to her academic writing, she is co-author of a blog on popular culture, where she writes about the feminist theological implications of Big Love and other great TV ( ).