Friday, April 30, 2010

Feminism Today: Some Necessary Clarifications

This week, I've been finishing up a research paper for school about the so-called "Quiverfull" movement in conservative American evangelicalism. For most Quiverfull adherents, feminism is a great evil, if not the great evil of contemporary Western society. This is not without good reason. There is much about feminism, especially in its First and Second Wave forms, that is threatening or even outright antithetical to some of Christianity's most basic beliefs.

This is why it can be so hazardous for a woman (or a man, for that matter) within evangelicalism to self-identify as a "feminist"--there is simply so much baggage that comes along with the label. Although I have explained elsewhere that I do, in fact, embrace the term feminism and some of my reasons for doing so, from the beginning I have accepted it with many qualifications (one important qualification is explained here). Unfortunately, the nature of the Internet and my busy schedule is such that I cannot always express these qualifications or do so adequately.

In reading over a good portion of the Quiverfull literature, I found what I believe to be some unfortunate misunderstandings about feminism in its complex contemporary form. This realization was most acute for me when I found myself reading a Quiverfull writer and agreeing with her critique of feminism, even as I am myself a feminist! I thought to myself: "Why is it that I'm a feminist and she is firmly patriarchal and we actually agree about this issue?" The answer, I think, is that some in the Quiverfull movement--and many within evangelicalism, at large--have some misunderstandings about feminism that I would like to try a hand at clearing up.

Before I begin, though, its important to recognize that there is not one system of thought or way of life that can be labeled "feminism." Actually, it is far more accurate to speak of feminisms, because there is a vast spectrum of perspectives associated with the larger, more general feminist movement to promote the well-being of women worldwide. There are Catholic, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian feminists. There are Jewish feminists and Muslim feminists, black feminists and Latina feminists. There are Marxist feminists, atheist feminists, and, yes, even evangelical feminists. And, all of these different versions of feminism have their own unique perspective and emphases. This is not to say there aren't some unifying elements. I have detailed five major ones here. But, this variety of feminisms should make us realize the extent to which there are differences of opinion--even very strong ones--within the movement at large. (Just as there are major differences of opinion within the broad spectrum of Christian traditions.)

Now, without any further ado, here is my attempt at six clarifications about contemporary feminism. In most cases, these statements and explanations apply to feminism as it is in an explicitly Christian form, but I will indicate those places where secular and Christian feminists concur. Also, these clarifications apply mainly to American feminists, since I am too unfamiliar with other forms of feminism to speak adequately to their views on these matters.

1. Many feminists believe men and women are essentially different and think that's a very good thing. In feminist theology today, it is actually somewhat passe to hold the opinion that women and men are essentially the same except for biology, as though reproductive parts are the only things that distinguish us from each other. Instead, many feminist theologians now hold to some combination of essentialism and constructivism.

In this perspective, generally speaking, it is believed that there are aspects of men and women that are essential (read: created that way by God) to their natures as men and women (besides just biology), as well as aspects of men and women that are constructed by society and culture. So, for example, women in general may be affirmed to be naturally more inclined to be nurturing due to their biological capacity to bear and nurse children. But, they're not necessarily naturally more fond of dolls than trucks, because that is something that may very well be a socially constructed preference.

Many of the feminists who hold to this view would affirm that men and women are complementary in their natures, together bearing God's image. There are even some feminists who would go so far as to suggest that the complementary nature of men and women means that it is not necessarily a problem to see men and women as properly suited for different roles in family, church, and society (although, you are still not going to see any of these women affirm anything close to patriarchy and/or "complementarianism"). One example of a Christian feminist theologian who affirms a version of this perspective is Roman Catholic theologian, Mary Aquin O'Neill.

2. Some feminists are decidedly pro-life. I know this one is hard to believe, because for so long feminism has been closely associated with abortion rights. But, a large number of feminists in recent decades have come out against abortion for a variety of reasons, both feminist ones and reasons of faith. They even have their own organization, Feminists for Life, that I would encourage you to take a look at. I have written my own defense of the pro-life position from a Christian feminist perspective here. Other pro-life feminists include Roman Catholic moral theologian, Jana Bennett, and Methodist pastor and ethicist, Amy Laura Hall.

3. Some feminists are against the use of contraception. This is another tough one, I know, because feminism has long been associated with birth control, especially the Pill, and "sexual freedom" (whatever that really means). But, there are a growing number of feminists who are examining the moral, ethical, and social ramifications of artificial birth control and finding that they do not line up with feminist convictions. Instead, many would advocate that natural family planning (NFP) methods are more affirming of the reproductive capacity of women's bodies, more empowering for women generally, and more equalizing in the marriage relationship (since NFP requires both husband and wife to be involved). Also, feminists with these views would say that children should be welcomed as a gift, not looked upon as a "mistake" or hindrance to a woman's life. And, as an added bonus, NFP methods do not pose any potential environmental harm because it does not utilize artificial hormones, which inevitably make their way into our water supply. For more about this perspective, you can take a look at this online article.

4. Some feminists are against sexual promiscuity and even defend a traditional Christian view that sexual expression is intended for the marriage relationship. Many feminists, particularly Christian feminists, have concluded that the "sexual freedom" women gained through the Pill and the 1960s resulted in very little real freedom for women. In fact, it really resulted in more freedom for men--freedom to sex without consequences and freedom from their children--the many, many children who have been born out of wedlock since the sexual revolution.

Many feminists have surveyed the social and economic landscape over the past fifty years and realized that "sexual freedom" for women has, by and large, led to rising teen pregnancy, very high abortion rates, an exploding number of single moms, and the "feminization" of poverty (meaning, the majority of those living in poverty in America are women with their dependent children). So, many of these feminists now advocate for "sexual freedom" as freedom to wise decision-making about sexuality. And, among Christian feminists, this usually means affirming that sexual expression is best suited for the marriage relationship, not only because it is in keeping with the Christian moral tradition, but also because it is really better for women and children in the long run.

5. Some feminists are very much pro-motherhood and pro-homemaking. I know there is a strong sense among non-feminists that feminists, in general, despise family, motherhood, and homemaking (especially homemaking). Although this may have been true in the past, the truth is that there are a growing number of feminists, secular and Christian and otherwise, who are decidedly for family, mothering, and homemaking. In fact, feminists have produced some of the best scholarly literature on these topics in recent years, including histories and sociological studies of homemaking worldwide. They may re-conceive these concepts and practices in ways that differ from non-feminists. For example, they're not going to advocate that God has ordained in creation that a woman's "place" is in the home. But there is no doubt that many feminists today have embraced motherhood and family as an inherent good. See some good books on the topic of homemaking, nurturing, and "women's work" here, here, and here.

6. Some feminists are stay-at-home moms. Yes, believe it or not, some feminists have chosen to be mothers at home. They do so for a variety of reasons and in a variety of situations, but there are plenty of women who reject patriarchy and divinely ordained gender roles, but have chosen the life of a homemaker (and are blessed to be able to swing it financially). You can read blog posts by a couple of such feminist moms-at-home here and here.

And, just as a side note, it may surprise some of my readers to learn that even though I'm a self-described Christian feminist and even though I'm pursuing a Ph.D. in theology, I have not ruled out the possibility that when I'm all done and I have "Dr." in front of my name, I may just decide to remain at home with my children to be their primary caregiver (and maybe even teacher) for several years. Who knows? And, were I to do so, I would not cease to be a believer in the basic equality of the sexes before God, as well as the Spirit's gifting and calling of all types of people to all types of service, regardless of their gender.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Passion of the Loving Soul: Another Poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg

I'd like to introduce my readers to a longer poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg's mystical book The Flowing Light of the Godhead. First, though, I need to offer some theological "framing" to help us understand it.

One of the strange things about Mechthild's mysticism is that even as she uses romantic and erotic language to speak of her intimacy with God, she also embraces experiences of pain, suffering, and even estrangement from God as part and parcel of that intimacy. For Mechthild, in the mystical relationship between the Godhead and the soul, the pain and suffering that comes through bodiliness is a vital intermediary between the earthly and the divine. That is to say, Mechthild understands that fallen humanity is brought into intimate union with God through the mediating work of pain and suffering.

Some might suggest this exaltation of suffering is nothing more than veiled female masochism. But, I would say that this is seriously oversimplified. In my opinion, the reason for Mechthild's mystical perspective on pain is to be found in the centrality of the Passion of Christ for her theology, in which the crucifixion of the Son of God is the means by which the Godhead is reconciled with the world. In the framework of the Incarnation, pain is, literally, the crux of the matter--the center of God’s identification with humankind. And so, the soul in love with God eventually comes to embrace suffering and estrangement as a welcomed form of intimacy with God, for it was Christ’s own experience of both that brought about redemption.

One scholar of medieval mysticism, Barbara Newman, applies this to Mechthild’s mysticism in the following way: "Since a lover can take no joy except in her Beloved, the supreme sacrifice [to be made as an expression of love for the Beloved] must lie in the willed choice of absence over presence...God’s very absence, once bitterly lamented, now becomes a sign of union with the abandoned Christ...For Mechthild, the abjectly loving soul no longer seeks her Beloved because she is identified with him, imitating Christ’s passion so perfectly that she becomes herself a womanChrist."

Now, I know the "womanChrist" language might seem bizarre to some of my readers. But, I would like you to read the following poem and think about it a bit more. I think what you'll see is that Mechthild envisions the soul's identification with Christ in such an intimate fashion that she experiences the pains of his sufferings and, eventually, the joys of his triumphs in a tangible way. This may seem odd for us, because we're not used to speaking of women, especially women's bodies, as being identified with Christ this explicitly. But, for me, this puts Paul's conception of being crucified with Christ in a whole new light--one that is especially meaningful for women disciples of Jesus who read Mechthild of Magdeburg today. I'd love to read your thoughts, if you have any.

(Note: The poem is exceptionally long, so I have taken the liberty of abbreviating it for us. Also, notice how often she references the language of Christ's Passion week narratives from the New Testament Gospels. I think this is tremendously creative, even if a little strange for many of us.)

The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Book III, Chapter 10
The loving soul betrays her true love in sighing for God.
She is sold in holy grief for his love.
She is sought with the host of many tears for her dear Lord,
Whom she likes so well.
She is captured in the first experience
When God kisses her in sweet union.
She is assailed with many a holy thought
That she not waver when she mortifies her flesh.
She is bound by the power of the Holy Spirit,
And her bliss is indeed manifold.
She is slapped with the great powerlessness
Of not being able to enjoy without interruption eternal light.
She is brought to judgment trembling with shame
Because God so often avoids her
Because of the stains of her sins.
She responds to all things in a holy manner
And cannot bear to treat anyone shamefully.
She is beaten at her trial
When the devils try her spiritually...

She is stripped of all things
When God clothes her with the silk of fair love.
She is delightfully crowned with manifold faithfulness
When she desire that God no longer reward her for all her woes,
Except to promote in the highest God's honor.
She is ridiculed in holy simplicity
When she is completely dissolved into God
That she forgets all earthly wisdom.
One kneels before her in great shame
When in delicate humility she puts herself under the feet of all creatures...

She carries her cross on a sweet path
When she truly surrenders herself to God in all sufferings.
Her head is struck with a reed
When one compares her great holiness to a fool.
With the hammer of the chase of love she is nailed so fast to the cross
That all creatures are not able to call her back again.
She suffers terrible thirst on the cross of love as well...

Her body is killed in living love
When her spirit is raised aloft above all human senses...

She hangs on the cross of sublime love,
High in the air of the Holy Spirit,
Facing the eternal sun of the living Godhead,
So that she becomes completely dry and bare of all earthly things.
Then in a holy ending she is taken from the cross
And speaks: "Father, receive my spirit; now everything is perfect."
She is interred in a sealed grave of deep humility,
When becomes ever aware of being the most unworthy of all creatures.
She also rises joyfully on an Easter Day
After she has enjoyed a lament of love
With her Lover on the narrow bridal bed.
Then she consoles her disciples and Mary early in the morning
When she receives from God true assurance
That God has blotted out all her sins...

She also ascends into heaven
When God takes from her all earthly things in holy transformation.
She is received in a white cloud of holy protection
When she ascends in love and joyfully comes back again, free of all trouble.
Then the angels return and console the men of Galilee
When we call to mind God's chosen friends and their holy example.

This passion is suffered by every soul that in holy moderation of all her activity is truly permeated by genuine love of God.

(The above photo is of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Lorenzo Bernini, located in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Mommies Who Don't Work Outside the Home: A Confession

Can I confess something to you? You intimidate me. A lot. I know that sounds crazy, but its true. When we talk, I'm usually feeling insecure and uncertain about me, my life, and my mothering. Let me explain.

I am a "working mom" (I put that in quotes, fully aware that the label doesn't work because all moms work their tails off). Although I'm not in a typical "job," per se, I am enrolled full-time in a doctoral program that requires me to be away from home five days a week, for anywhere from two to eight hours a day. The great thing about being in an academic environment is that there's a lot more flexibility when it comes to my hours, but at the end of the day, I have responsibilities to fulfill (if I want to pass and pick up my stipend check, anyway).

Thankfully, my husband has a job that allows him a lot of flexibility too. He could get another part-time job to supplement our income and give us more "creature comforts," but instead, he takes care of our son when I'm at school. This means that Ronnie is William's primary caregiver most mornings and afternoons. This is a really wonderful thing! I'm grateful that they have such a close relationship, as a result of their time together. And, I'm thrilled that William's dad, rather than someone outside our family, gets to be so involved.

Yet, often, I wonder. And these "wonderings" happen about every couple of weeks. That's where the insecurity and intimidation comes in. I wonder if I'm making the right choice. I wonder if its all going to be worth it. I wonder if I'm scarring my kid (soon to be "kids") for life. I love what I do. I love reading, studying, writing, and teaching. On the days when I am the most clear-headed and at peace with God, I know this is what God made me to do. When I am teaching or writing, I can feel God's pleasure. But... And, that's the kicker. The "but"...

I look at you, my non-working mommy friends and acquaintances, and I'm jealous of you. Really, I am. I long for an even semi-clean house (I can hear you laughing at this, even now), or to experience some point in time where there's not laundry piled up, or, even more importantly, to know what its like to walk William to the park and not be thinking about my next paper, presentation, reading assignment, whatever. Often, I see you with your kiddos and I wish I were living a less complicated life. That's not to say being a full-time mom at home isn't complicated in its own right. I know it is! But, it would be much less complicated than mothering and studying at the same time.

And so, on my really down days, the days when William is whiny and needy, and I have to leave him with Ronnie because I simply must write, I cry and feel terribly sorry for myself. This is silly, I know. I'm blessed beyond measure to be able to do what I do and get paid to do it! But, on those down days, I struggle to see the point. I feel like all the books and papers and teaching isn't worth it, after all. And, I doubt.

Even as I write this, though, the insecurity is coming back. You see, my fellow moms, I'm afraid of what you're going to say in response to this confession. I fear, especially from my fellow Christian mommies, that you're going to use my struggles as fodder to try to convince me that I'm not doing the right thing by being in school. Its happened to me a lot, actually.

In fact, I don't share these feelings with stay-at-home moms anymore because so many have responded with something like this: "Well, maybe this is God's way of telling you that you're making the wrong choice." And, the really tough responses are those that sound something like this: "Well, Emily, I think your struggle is just proof that it is God's intention for women to stay home with their kids. You should stop fighting that and accept God's best for you."

I respect my fellow Christian moms who think this way. But, at the end of the day, I'm convinced that this isn't the case for all women. In fact, I think its realistically unworkable for most women the world over. (But, that's another blog for another time.) And, maybe more importantly, when I'm in my "right mind," I'm convinced that its not the case for me. At least, not right now.

Yes, I struggle to keep up with my husband, my son, and my "domestic" life (for lack of a better term), and to keep up with my academic studies, too. But, I'm truly afraid to be honest about it, because I'm afraid that you'll discourage me, without meaning to. Often, I feel like I have to pretend to be super-woman, undaunted by stress and unfazed by a tough work schedule. Because if I show weakness, if I cry, if I say I miss my kid when I'm in class, you will think that means I'm wrong and should quit. And, if I'm really honest with you, I'm afraid that if you tell me that enough times, I might just do it--and I know that's a mistake.

So, all this is to say, when it comes to mothering and studying, I'm new at this whole thing and I still feel quite fragile. Some of you may find this silly and I guess that's OK. But, I wanted to be honest. I wanted my fellow moms who don't work outside the home to know how I really feel--what's really going on inside my head and heart. Thanks for listening.

And now I have to ask, even though it kills my pride, and even though I feel silly and stupid and weak doing so: Please be gentle with me. Please don't use my struggle against me. Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Poem from Mechthild of Magdeburg

The following poem was written by a medieval woman mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1208-c. 1282). I am in the middle of a research paper on her book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead for my historical theology seminar. I hope to post something more substantive in the future about her and her mystical theology. For now, its helpful to know that Mechthild (pronounced Meck-tild) was a German woman from a noble background who was a member of a lay community of women called beguines, who lived together to pursue the holy life outside of formal ecclesiastical structures (like convents).

Her book was in the vernacular German of her day, but translated into Latin by Dominican priests soon after her death. Apparently, despite Mechthild's status as a laywoman, The Flowing Light of the Godhead was revered as sacred theology for some time. Scholars have only recently re-discovered her text and begun to do extensive research on her life and work.

Mechthild's mystical writings are strange to most contemporary readers because she uses blatantly romantic and erotic language to describe her relationship to God (the following poem is very, very mild--I plan to share more interesting pieces later). She draws on the language of courtly love from her day to describe the soul as the bride and lover of the Godhead. Readers will recognize in her work the language of the Song of Solomon, as well, which was interpreted almost universally in Mechthild's day as an allegorical poem depicting God's love for the Church.

I would be interested to hear your reflections, if you have any, on the way this dialogue depicts the soul and God as lovers.

The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Book V, Chapters 17 & 18


Greetings to you, living God.
You are mine before all things.
I am endlessly glad
That I can speak to you without guile.
When my enemies pursue me,
I flee to your arms
Where I can complain about my suffering
While you incline yourself to me.
You well know how you can pluck
The strings of my soul.
Ah, begin at once
That you may be ever blessed.
I am a low-born bride;
And yet you are my lawful husband.
I shall ever rejoice about this.
Remember how well you can caress
The pure soul on your lap
And do it, Lord, to me now,
Even though I am not worthy of you.
Ah, Lord, draw me up to you.
Then I shall be pure and radiant.
If you abandon me to myself,
I shall remain dark and sluggish.

Thus does God answer:

I respond to your greeting with such a heavenly flood:
Were I to give myself to you in all my power,
You would not preserve your human life.
You well know I must hold back my might
And hide my splendor
To let you remain in earthly misery
Until all my sweetness rises up
To the heights of eternal glory,
And my strings shall play sweetly for you
In tune with the true value of your patient love.
Still, before I begin,
I want to tune my heavenly strings in your soul,
So that you might persevere even longer.
For well-born brides and noble knights
Must undergo a long and intensive preparation at great cost.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Michael Spencer (1956-2010)

We said goodbye yesterday to an obedient disciple of Jesus, deep Christian thinker, faithful teacher, and prolific blogger. I never knew Michael Spencer, but his writing has meant a lot to me over the years. We pray with and for his family and friends as they journey through this tragic loss.