When I was in seminary I was “invited” by one of my theology professors to partake in a tutorial. The purpose of this tutorial was to teach me how to write as an academic. I was not the only student given this opportunity – several other, older, women students were also invited to tutorials. I agreed and was assigned to work with a kind, brilliant, slightly younger male student. He taught me the essential components of academic writing comprised primarily of never using the word “I” and always writing in a formal, technical manner that made no reference to personal experience. After a few sessions I grasped the gist of this genre of writing and proceeded with my seminary career, earning mostly A’s and a few B’s. Nonetheless, writing in that formal academic style has never been my forte. I am a person grounded in the experiential. I process life through my feelings, my body, my instincts, and my learned knowledge. I need to engage all my sensibilities to assess life and faith. First and foremost I experience God’s presence in my being and thus I cannot articulate faith, religion, God, or Jesus exclusively through an academic, intellectual, head oriented, lens. I must speak of God through my experiences. I have wrestled with the idea that this must mean that I am not very intelligent nor learned. I have reconciled that, regardless, this is how I approach faith, church, religion, God, Jesus, and life. I have been engaged in theological dialogue my entire life but it is always grounded in and through my being.
I have also been engaged in environmental concerns for much of my life. My mother taught me to be attentive to simple things – don’t litter, recycle everything possible, and make every effort to minimize the pollution I contribute to the world. In my own way I have worked at these and taught my children similarly. I have grown in my awareness of environmental concerns such as economic justice and issues around how coffee, tea, and chocolate are grown, harvested, roasted, and sold. I use Fair Trade products as much as I can afford and have access too. I preach and teach on our need to learn about how we Americans impact the rest of the world. Our (often) lack of awareness of how what we wear, eat, and drink, impacts others for worse through factories that engage in overworked and underpaid laborers, some of whom are mere children.
Thus I have been pleased to read the writings of Dorothee Soelle as posted by Jane Redmont for her summer course, Soelle Summer. We are reading collections of Soelle’s writing published in two books, “Essential Writings” edited by Dianne Oliver and “Against the Wind.” In addition Jane offers supplemental reading on a blog designed for this course. Here is one comment Jane posted for the readings assigned for July 17/18:
“Ecofeminism is, as the name indicates, a meeting of feminism and ecology, and is the name for both a theoretical analysis and a (very loosely knit) social movement. Its premise is that the (mis)treatment of women and our (mis)treatment of the environment are related and that the solutions to this situation also involve both ecological action (and analysis) and feminist action (and analysis) and that these need to be integrated with each other. It is worldwide movement (though again, very loosely knit and with a lot of internal variety –so Soelle’s ecofeminist perspective is just one tiny corner of the ecofeminist phenomenon) and in some cases has a connection to religion, broadly speaking. “
Although I have been actively engaged in feminist thinking and theology and environmental justice, and know the word ecofeminist, I have not embraced that term as one that describes me. But now I think that perhaps I should.
Here are some quotes from Soelle on the question of language for God from her essay Living Language – pages 193-196 in Essential Writings:
“…. If we speak subjectively instead of trying to objectivize, we speak differently. If we do not silence the “I” and its experiences, if we do not learn to avoid the “I” word in a scholarly paper, we learn to express ourselves differently and at the same time to do a different kind of theology. …The suppression of the feminine part of the soul – that is, the more subordination of everything that smells like woman – has done more damage to theologian’s language than anything in the secular world. It is not what comes from the outside that is dangerous, or what is realistic or enlightened or otherwise tends to make God superfluous, but rather the destruction that men have brought on themselves by cutting women out (of theological perspectives) and cutting out the woman in themselves. This mutilation of men plays a substantial role in the world of theology.
What took place was a process of purification and at the same time of impoverishment, when an emphatic, comprehensive, conscious, and integrative language was gradually and increasingly silenced. What a difference between theological books and the gospel! What a terrible discrepancy in their very different language!…So called scientific theology is normally an unconscious speech – that is it is unaware of emotion, insensible to human experience, expressing a kind of ghostly neutralism without interests and without invitation, with no desire to be effectual.
(and in my words I summarize: If we speak only what is in our heads, intellectual, and not also of what is in our hearts, emotional and lived experience, then our language remains flat….)
Feminist theology in its methodology calls on other abilities besides abstraction and synopsis. Its interest is not in creating new dogmas but in narration, in telling. Narrative theology is a methodic expression of this new consciousness, namely that we understand certain things more clearly, in more dimensions, more really; we get them under our skin when we tell them instead of reducing them, so to speak, to concepts.”
I am quite taken by the idea that how I approach writing, faith, religion, and God, is grounded in a methodology that I can use to further shape and inform what I write and say. I appreciate that others, Soelle included, are giving voice to the importance of speaking from lived experience, rather than only validating the academic, scientific language that, in my mind, diminishes the reality of a living God. I don’t think that writing from personal experience (narrative theology) is solely a female trait, but clearly it is not the academic standard. Academic, scientific language is soaked in patriarchal tradition, which by nature of its tradition is devoid of the feminine voice.
As a woman who has birthed babies into the world, who is daughter, sister, mother, wife, friend, and priest, I engage the world through my body, my experiences. As a young child I somehow “Knew” God through my interior life, through prayer. No doubt my prayers were often the naive bedtime prayers of young child. But they were also prayers that “knew” with certainty that God was right there beside me. It was this knowledge that led me away from a Church that held too narrow a view of God, one that pushed out and denied what I “knew” of God inside my being. It was this same knowledge that led me back to Christianity and to Church, but in a new way.
It was finding a Christian home and church that encouraged me to think, question, and experience God in all the dimensions of my life, that has kept me in Christianity. It has been in living through the challenges of life and processing these challenges through the lens of Christianity that further developed my faith in an expansive God that has empowered me to know God in mutuality. This stands in sharp contrast to the teachings of Christianity that convey a narrow, small, judgmental God who, with pen in hand tracks every infraction of every human being.
I have come to know more deeply what it really means to love God, love self, and love others. And I am challenged every day to do this expansively and compassionately. Some people are not easily loved. Having spent eleven days in Salt Lake City, the place of my birth, I am reminded again of the culture that first formed me. I was keenly aware of the pervasive nature of narrow dogmas of God and how a dominant culture can impact the entire environment. Commercials on television for example, for a local college, which had only white men describing their experiences of attending it, and the benefits their lives had accrued as a result. No women, no people of color. I was keenly aware that even those who reject that kind of dominant culture may not have a language to articulate their dismay in its narrowness. They lack language to describe their own doubt and are denied opportunities to express experiences of God/self/others that do not fit neatly into the paradigm presented of who God is. Just take a walk through the visitor’s center at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City where a long mural conveys the story of faith according to the teachings of the Mormon Church. Lacking language and the opportunity to know a more expansive expression of God, faith is dismissed, invalidated, and people are left voiceless, unable to articulate what they are really experiencing in life.
Being voiceless and de-voiced by the world around me is one of my experiences of life. Listening deeply, paying attention, taking notice, and learning to use my voice have been life-long objectives and challenges. Learning to do all of this as a woman of faith and a leader in the Church has increased the challenge. I’m grateful for women like Soelle, and others, who have paved the way for me, and others like me, who yearn to express ourselves and claim our real, lived, experience of God, of faith, of life.