A conversation with...
What is the Called to Holiness series?
The idea for a series came out of a presentation I gave several years ago at a FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) convention—that’s a philanthropic group that supports Catholic activities. It was in a meeting on women in the church, and I was on a panel about the importance and the need for women’s spirituality. And, so, with the help of Noel Appel, the director of foundation relations at Fairfield University where I teach, we worked up a proposal to make suggestions about funding some kind of project for Catholic women’s spirituality. This series is what resulted from that conversation.
Is there a specific segment of women you’re targeting in this series?
We have books for all stages of an adult woman’s life. We’ll have a volume on young adult women. We have a volume on mid-life. We have a volume on grief and end-of-life concerns. The primary audience is Catholic women, but the authors are deeply committed to ecumenism, and the hope is that all Christian women will benefit from this series. We’re hoping that it will appeal broadly beyond just Roman Catholic women—and any men who are interested.
What goals do you have for this series?
The series aims to be of service to women who want to develop their spiritual lives in terms of learning more about the tradition, learning more about Scripture, learning from reflecting theologically on their lives. By coming together either in groups or reading these volumes alone, we want to support people’s desires for greater holiness.
In your book, Making Sense of God: A Woman’s Perspective, you say that now is the time for ordinary women to do theology. What makes now the time for this?
It’s not just now. During the whole twentieth century, women were developing their voices. We are now in what some scholars call the Third Wave of feminism, of women’s awareness—the first being in the nineteenth century and the second in the twentieth century. Younger women are now engaged in what may be called the Fourth Wave. The rate of change seems to be speeding up.
Particularly in the United States, two factors are important: affluence—women have money and time—and the high level of education among Catholic laity. Both of these developments equip people and make it possible (in a way that in some developing countries it’s not possible) for women to pursue the spiritual and theological aspects of their lives in a more direct and intentional way.
How can laywomen break the stereotype that theology is only the work of clergymen and scholars?
By reading books like this one and deciding that it’s their job—I hope. It takes time, but I think feminism has helped enormously to give women a new consciousness about their theological role. That’s the argument of my book: that theology can, should and must be done by laypeople, women included.
You talk a lot about sacramental consciousness (seeing God in everything). What are some daily implications of viewing the world in such a way?
Well, it changes your life. Instead of just doing what you’re doing—going to work, cooking dinner, cutting the grass, going to a soccer game, listening to music—everything is placed in the context of God. The meaning of your life isn’t limited to the human plane; it relates to God. It’s possible, if you choose to look at it that way, that you can live and relate the whole world to God, even suffering and failure. I think I used the language of a lens; it’s a lens through which you look at the world that includes God.
How has identifying God primarily as male hurt the tradition?
Our language about God should reflect the broadest possible spectrum of human experience. It is also the case that the way we talk about God functions; it affects our lives in concrete ways for good or for ill. Because we understand God as the totality of reality, we’re not doing a very good job of naming God when female language about God is absent. It is an impoverishment. We also don’t want to limit our language about God to the personal. God is also called rock, wind, beauty. Finally, in a profound way, God is nameless. We need many names for God knowing that no name for God is adequate.
Asceticism is a taboo word these days, but in your book you say you don’t think it has to be. What do you think people hear when they hear the word asceticism?
I think we’ve had too narrow an understanding. There is nothing wrong with giving up candy for Lent, but this might be a limited way of making a sacrifice for God as an adult. The term asceticism may not be widely recognized, but the meaning behind it is familiar to all. Life brings suffering and challenge at all stages, and we are invited to let go and lay ourselves down for others. In addition, we live in a consumer culture in which we have money to satisfy our desires for material things. Asceticism is a corrective to our penchant to acquire things and be greedy. It invites us to ask questions about our consumer ways.
In your book, you talk a lot about spirituality and theology, so how do you define those two, and how do they complement each other?
Spirituality suggests a lived, existential, daily, behavioral activity: how you live out your faith commitments. Theology is a more organized, ordered reflection on that experience in light of the tradition and the Bible. And they’re connected with each other. Standing alone, each one falls short. The danger of spirituality without theology is that it can become unmoored from the tradition. On the other hand, theology without spirituality can become dry, academic and boring because it gets disconnected from the struggles of ordinary people. Spirituality and theology need each other. They mutually enhance and mutually correct each other.
How can women go about enacting change within a tradition that has oppressed them in many ways for centuries without altering the tradition itself?
I don’t know what you mean by altering, but if you refer to the marginalization of women, then indeed the goal is to change it. Change happens one day at a time, one place at a time, one opportunity at a time. This series would be one part of such change. The history of the church is complex. There have been many opportunities in the church for women to obtain dignity and rights. And, then, on the other side, there’s a lot of misogyny and oppression, and they’re both there in quite large doses.
I think it’s amazing that the memories of Jesus in the New Testament escaped sexism to the extent that they did. But by the early second century the cultural context of patriarchy reasserts itself. This pattern is not limited to Christianity. Many charismatic founders seem to have escaped to some extent these cultural limits. Their advocacy for the downtrodden made religion attractive to the oppressed and, at any time in history, we can return to these roots for inspiration to keep up the struggle in our own time.
Thursday, August, 28, 2008