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It is never neutral

(photo katolskvision.se)
05 February 2022

When I first encountered her name, I did not know then that it belonged to a sacred living legend of 20th century feminist exegesis. At the time, I was looking for books on biblical exegesis and early church history, and the Library Network catalog algorithm suggested In memoria di lei. Una ricostruzione femminista delle origini [In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins]. The book was just a few years older than me (I was born in ‘94, she was born in ‘83, but the Italian translation is from 1990 for Claudiana), but alas, nowhere to be found except in the library. In the book, the author traces the presence of women in the early Christian communities among the silences of Scripture and tradition. I ordered the book, and a few days later I followed the first sentence of the preface with my finger; “A book is never the work of one author alone, even if it is his or her responsibility alone. This is especially true of a feminist theological work like this one”. I could see in black and white the collective theology expressed by certain women theologians, the anti-individualism that I had loved in them and still hope to be able to replicate. Then, there is the second thing I remember about the book, and that it carried a ‘Warning’ on the introductory pages. It says, and here I am  paraphrasing, dear readers, the first part of the book is difficult, it enters into the details of a critical method and can be discouraging for those who are not specialists in the subject; if you are unfamiliar with theology, the author herself advises you to begin with parts II and III. Therefore, this work was available in variations, as modular as Lego. It was the first time that someone invited me to ask what kind of reader I was and, based on the answer, authorized me to mix and match the pieces. For the purists of academia, for whom scientific rigor means doing everything “A to Z” without deviation, it would be an incitement to disorder. Even though I was a theology student, and I would have been able to read the first part, I started at the later chapters.

In memory of her

Therefore, it is good to recount Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s story backwards, and to move obliquely through her acute reflection as a “Catholic theologian who knew how to read the signs of the times”, as Elizabeth Green defines her and who has written a profile of her, published by Morcelliana. Today, she is 83 years old and for the last thirty years has held the New Testament chair in one of the most famous American universities, at the Harvard University Divinity School in Massachusetts. The most significant dates of her career occurred specifically in the eighties. This was the period when the first university courses in “women’s history” and “feminist theology” were offered, and of the first public roles held or influenced by women. Geraldine Ferraro was a candidate for vice-president in the United States, and on the other side of the ocean, in Italy, Nilde Iotti, became the president of the Chamber of Deputies. Something was moving, on many fronts and at many latitudes. In 1987, Schüssler Fiorenza was elected to the annual position of president of the Society of Biblical Literature, a prestigious association for the critical investigation of the Bible, which in the one hundred and seven years of its history had had an uninterrupted male leadership.

In two years, from 1983 to 1985, Schüssler Fiorenza achieved widespread visibility with the publication of In Memory of Her; entered the Steering Committee of the international theology journal Concilium as editor of the new section on feminist theology; and founded with the Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow the Journal of Feminist Studies of Religion. Today, it is the oldest interdisciplinary and interreligious feminist academic journal in religious studies. Her presence -which is so recognized and recognizable-, in an academic world that was and is (as she still denounces) overwhelmingly male, contradicted the presumed neutrality of research. This woman made it clear that there was a difference if the professor was a man or a woman in a university context, because socio-cultural circumstances made the object of study available in different ways. Universities and academic associations were also – aren’t they still? - Entangled in a patriarchal system in which women played – continue to play? - To rules set by others, and yesterday -as it is today-, the only antidote to a naive study is to recognize one’s own conditioning, one’s own partiality. The provocation of the actuality of this reading is not to be passed over lightly. For example, in theology, it would be a matter of verifying the form of a hierarchical church - Schüssler Fiorenza would say kyriarchal-, to highlight the multiple power mechanisms that are woven within it, and influences academia. What space can women occupy as scholars and Disciples of Christ if, as she argues, the church has progressively “become increasingly patriarchal” by leaving them on the margins of its official history, or if the masculinity of Jesus ends up coinciding with the idolatry of masculinity as such?

Bilingualism and politics

That was in 1983. When her masterpiece was printed, Schüssler Fiorenza was 45 years old. She had been living in the United States for fifteen years with her husband, likewise a theologian. Before then she had lived and studied in Germany. Bilingualism is perhaps the most relevant biographical fact to summarize her thought, and symbol of her feminist practice. Bilingual is in fact a large part of her experience of the world as a native German speaker naturalized American, and as a Catholic theologian who before Harvard had the opportunity to teach in an evangelical faculty, as well as a woman within a patriarchal system.

All women are like bilinguals, as “resident foreigners”, and learn a sort of “art of translation”, which is not their exclusive inheritance, but common to all “non-persons” who struggle to find adequate citizenship in religion and society, each more or less according to their own singular experience. The experience of a white woman is very different from that of a woman of colour, and it is not the same thing to be a Catholic as it is a Muslim, a laborer or a rich woman. Identity is a complex interweaving of different vectors of power, which include the social background, economic wellbeing, nationality, sexuality, skills, and religion. Thus, Schüssler Fiorenza adopted an intersectional approach, that is, receptive to the varied experiences of women, urging them too to the same self-awareness of partiality that she demanded of men. This includes knowing how to situate themselves, to try to “interrupt and at the same time contextualize the universalizing tendencies of their own arguments”, to recognize their own privileges, to notice those who are invisible. These assumptions lead inevitably to inscribe feminist theology within the framework of liberation theology, which is a theology that takes the margins as its starting point and social justice as its horizon. Schüssler Fiorenza has often pointed out that academic research, whether it was theological or not, always has political implications, because the way a person studies, the authors which are critiqued, the contents emphasized or ignored, inevitably promote or oppose a form of the world (and the Church), whether it is discriminatory or just. Therefore, there is a practical problem that theology should ask itself: how can it avoid relegating itself to the academic and religious enclosure, and how to situate theological study in favor of social change?

It is powerful for theology today to question how it argues its neutrality, and how not to underestimate the political implications of study. These are both feminist questions, which are too easily discounted in the aura of suspicion that still surrounds gender theology as if its intent was to take something away. The marginalization of women in academia and the church is perpetuated on this prejudice. Instead, women’s theology -including that of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza-, offers what it has elaborated: if not solutions, at least a method of non-solitary work that admits reciprocal dependencies of thought as a richness and not as a defeat of originality, and that aims at constructive rather than conclusive and self-referential results.

Feminism, Stella Morra argues in her reading of In Memory of Her (her commentary for GBPress is forthcoming) lies in the perspective of “inclusion, the attempt to avoid polarization” and take on “the complexity of reality”. To ask the questions of some/all together, that should be the priority. Schüssler Fiorenza asked some interesting ones with which to commence.

by Alice Bianchi
PhD in Fundamental Theology and Coordination of Italian Women Theologians

83 years old, American, born in a small town in what is now Romania. A theologian, she is a pioneer in biblical interpretation and feminist theology. She holds a degree in Pastoral Theology and specializes in the study of the New Testament. A professor at Harvard Divinity School, and she was the first woman to be elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature. Her book, In Memory of Her - A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins is considered a milestone. In this article a young theologian, who was not yet born when the book was published in 1983, has written about her.