February 16, 2010

The Feminist Imagination

I was on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral in England all of last week. A luminous and powerful place – the 11th-century undercroft is a truly extraordinary place to pray. One morning at breakfast, we met a lovely woman who was one of the first female deacons in the Church of England, ordained in 1948. Naturally, she had been subjected to all sorts of indignities and invective from male clergy and lay people (male and female) opposed to the ordination of women. A courageous and gentle foremother whose witness should have been heartening to me – but instead, I was saddened by two things. First, she said that the hardest thing about serving as a deacon was standing there as the worship liturgy unfolded, “knowing that my very presence was a symbol of disunity.” Second, she was anxious to assure us that she was “not a feminist” but simply had felt called to diaconal ministry. It was clear that these are her current views, not reportage about how she used to feel years ago.

The idea that systemic misogyny and androcentrism might be the actual sources of “disunity” in disputes over the ordination of women does not seem to occur to many people, even people who are in favor of progressive change and who fight local micro-battles with verve. And that “feminist” would be a noxious label to a woman who was a pioneer in breaking through a gender-related ecclesial barrier – I understand it (she’s rejecting the caricature of feminism that was current some decades ago among its detractors), but it deeply disheartens me. Now, I’m as mired in my own presuppositions and cultural constraints as the next person. But nevertheless, I am staggered by the wholesale deforming of women’s imaginations that has been perpetrated for millennia in androcentric cultures. What has been lost is incalculable.

I’m teaching a course this semester on the work of biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann. For years, Brueggemann has worked with the category of “imagination” as the spiritual faculty by means of which we experience transformation when we encounter the Word of God in Scripture or in preaching. The God whom Brueggemann sees in the Hebrew Scriptures is tumultuous, odd, and unruly. Regular encounters with this God can train our imaginations to become restless, unsettled from our habitual numbness and false assurances, open to radical new possibilities. Thinking of the ordination of that octogenarian Anglican deacon puts me in mind of this from Brueggemann’s The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Fortress, 1996, p. 86): “we are created and ordained for a deeper, more demanding restlessness. It is that other restlessness beyond virtue, so elusive and so urgent, that both satisfies us and places us in crisis.” I hope that all of us – whether 85 or 45 or 25, whether Episcopalian or Wiccan or atheist – can dare to enter that place of restlessness, and that we can bear the crisis of seeing with wide-open eyes the systems of oppression that have deformed our imaginations for so long.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School

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