Subversion By Submission: The Creativity of Women’s Theological Discourse

It’s not a surprising assertion to say that women have often been silenced and neglected in the realm of theological discourse. Even when you can hold up one or two examples, an even richer and broader heritage of women’s voices goes under-read, under-appreciated, and under-cited. (Not that this little essay will do anything to fix that problem. My apologies.) This could be part of larger social realities around the globe, but the fact that it happens in Christian theological study is a particular tragedy. Generally speaking, Christian belief accepts that men and women are equally image-bearers of God and equally human, yet this doesn’t always seem to lead to them sharing equally public roles in discussing faith, either in the academy or in the Church. Belief fails to affect practice.

Tertullian once instructed women that the pronouncement of Eve’s subjection to her husband “lives on even in our times and so it is necessary that the guilt should live on, also. You are the one who opened the door to the Devil, you are the one who first plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree, you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man.” All this just to tell them to dress modestly. Martin Luther also used this reasoning and the Pauline epistles as the basis for why women have no authority to expound on Scripture in public—an idea made largely meaningless by the fact that the words of women prophets like Deborah and Mary are preserved in Scripture itself, that most public of Christian spaces.

Throughout Christian history, women have largely not had the option to engage in theological discourse and scholarship—at least not in the usual ways that theologians and scholars take most seriously, like journals or textbooks. And yet we’ve also seen women who have somehow managed to break the silence and let their voice be heard, even if the audience is not always large or even if they live to see it. It’s true that Christian academia has grown more aware of the heritage of women’s voices in theology, a growth that’s happened right alongside the rest of the world’s growth in this area. The fact that women teach and study in their own right at Christian colleges is surely proof the Church has changed and is continuing to grow.

Women have proven extraordinarily capable of subverting traditional academic structures by engaging in more creative means of theological discourse, and in the process also make us reconsider what theology is. Theology might take the form of art, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen’s musical compositions and the manuscript illustrations for her writing done under her direction. It might take the form of memoir or spiritual autobiography; Agnes Beaumont in the 17th century thought it fitting to tell her story in print, defending herself from lewd accusations by testifying to her relationship with Christ. Theology might come through visions and spiritual experiences, and not only in recording them but also interpreting them for their readers as Julian of Norwich, St. Hildegard, and St. Catherine of Siena did; they imitated the Biblical prophets like Ezekiel or John of Patmos, and in so doing challenged the assumption that different kinds of discourse are reserved for different genders.

Not coincidentally, these same three women all subverted the traditional structure of the family as well, and their subversion was simple, elegant, and total: by denying marriage and family life, they developed new roles for themselves as anchorites or abbesses—again, spiritual roles that are open to both genders. St. Macrina the Younger did the same centuries before them. But in her case, instead of rejecting community, this choice gave rise to a new kind of community where both men and women lived in celibacy together, with Macrina as their leader and teacher. She lived her theology, a theology that offered a new definition of family: the community centred on Christ, seated around His supper table, the living house of God.

I’ve talked in terms of subversion and challenge, though strictly speaking these women weren’t exactly activists. By becoming nuns and ascetics and prophets, they stepped into predefined spiritual roles and submitted to what the Spirit asked of people in those roles. But in submitting to the Spirit, they really did subvert society’s expectations for them. They made the choice to move closer to God and renounced the idea that the world could keep them from Him—or keep them from joining the ever-widening conversation that is Christian theology.

In that conversation, I believe it’s vital that men take notice and listen to the emerging voices within the Church, and to the voices too long neglected. Because another way that women have overcome their many obstacles is through men being willing to listen and to teach against ideas and social norms that bar women from having a seat at the table. St. Basil the Great, for one—Macrina’s own brother—defended the spiritual equality of men and women: “The natures are alike of equal honour, the virtues are equal, the struggles are equal, the judgment alike.” The history of theological discourse seems to agree; the Spirit has constantly decided to include women even when the Church has not. It isn’t necessary to shut out women to preserve men’s ability to speak and lead. Indeed, if we do, then we will be shutting out some of the most powerfully creative voices that the Spirit has ever raised up.

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