When You’re a Feminist Theologian Like Me
I never really considered myself a feminist theologian. In fact, I never really considered myself a theologian at all—that is, until I read John Milbank’s jacket endorsement for The Submerged Reality when it was published six years ago:
“In The Submerged Reality, Michael Martin suggests why a radicalized orthodoxy in the future will need more to ‘walk on the wild side’ and appropriate what is best in the esoteric, occult, and even gnostic traditions. He intimates that the past failure to do this is linked to a one-sidedly masculine theology, downgrading the sacrality of life, immanence, fertility, and the ‘active receptivity’ of the feminine. The consequence of this has been the perverse liberal attempt to distill ‘order out of disorder,’ or the denial of real essences, relations, gender difference, and the objective existence of all things as beautiful. Finally, Martin argues that such a genuinely feminist theology would also be concerned with a space between the openly empirical observation of nature on the one hand, and the reflective exposition of divine historical revelation on the other. In this space, continuously new poetic realities are shaped and emerge under the guidance of holy inspiring wisdom.”
Most of the feminist theology I had read until that time had been of the “Airing of Grievances” variety or that which might have belonged to what the late Harold Bloom once called in literary studies “The Schools of Resentment.” I just can’t get into it. As readers of my books and this blog will no doubt know, I have never liked political agendas posing as philosophy or theology (let alone art and science), so I have for most of my career forged my own, admittedly idiosyncratic, path through the dull and thoughtless morass of postmodern culture. And most feminist theology is of such a political variety. As such, it doesn’t interest me.
Nevertheless, after John contributed his endorsement, I started to think that maybe he was onto something and that maybe I am doing a sort of feminist theology, though in a very Derridean way: I am doing feminist theology without feminist theology.
Some people like this, from what I can tell; and some people despise it. But I am no longer at a stage of life where this concerns me overmuch. I remember reading an interview with Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and other works. The interviewer asked Burgess what readership he had in mind while crafting his novels. The author replied (I’m paraphrasing): “I write for lapsed Catholics, who grew up in Manchester, and who are my age. That is, I write for myself.” This is pretty much my disposition.
Recently, I have experienced a little pushback about the latest installment of the journal I founded and edit, Jesus the Imagination. Our latest issue is themed “The Divine Feminine” and it includes a breathtaking essay by Rev. Alison Milbank, a mother, professor, and Anglican priest (though I think she would be okay with the term “priestess”) who also happens to be married to John Milbank. In addition, it includes, among other fine contributions, a critique of clericalism by Therese Schroeder-Sheker along with her luminous reminder of traditional Christian communities that were far more whole, and my interview with Methodist preacher and biblical scholar Margaret Barker on the position of the Divine Feminine in First Temple Judaism and beyond. I always expect pushback (Come on—the first sentence of The Submerged Reality is “Let us start a war.”) and I’m not afraid of controversy. So there.
Some are offended (as I interpret it) that I would include work by a woman priest in Jesus the Imagination, as if I were somehow endorsing a female priesthood. Good Lord. I am against the idea of women priests—if having women priests somehow includes the emasculation of the male priesthood and results in a hermaphroditic gender-neutral priesthood (which is why I prefer the term “priestess”). To appropriate Flannery O’Connor, “If that’s what a priesthood is, then to hell with it.”
What I love about Alison’s essay is that it speaks to the charisms of a feminine priesthood (which is what brought me to tears on first reading it) and doesn’t indulge in another dreadful take on the “We can do it!” meme so prevalent on the doors of feminist professors. (Feminist theologian that I am, I don’t have one). But I am all for a female priesthood that preserves the integrity of biblical gendered typology. The last thing we need is to eradicate the sacredness of gender (“Let us create man in our image...male and female created he them.”) and the thought of starting the holiest of prayers with “Our Parent, who art in heaven...” makes me nauseous.
If Sophiology has anything to contribute to this debate, it is that Sophiology encourages (“demands” is probably a better word) that, in the quest for a female priesthood, we preserve the integrity of the biblical gendered typology so endangered in our technocratric universe. Talk about timely and radical. Otherwise, it’s just another boring poster, another slogan on a coffee mug.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.