Monday, September 29, 2008

Practicing Liberation

Rebecca Chopp is also a feminist practical theologian, but liberation theology is more central in her work. Her early work, The Praxis of Suffering, focuses on developing a methodology for practical theology grounded in Latin American liberation theology and German political theology. As such, suffering becomes a primary referent along with gender in her work. Chopp has been accused of being more political than pastoral in her practical theology. Certainly she appears more political than Elaine Graham. Graham’s work, while emphasizing human flourishing, is clearly grounded in the pastoral work of the congregation. Chopp, in emphasizing justice and liberation, has moved beyond the confines of the local church into the wider society. Her practical theology has clear goals for changing structures in the here and now and creating liberating practices.
If, as most feminists argue, the personal is political, might one also argue that the pastoral is political? It seems that the political edge to Chopp’s work grows out of a pastoral concern for the flourishing of all people that cannot be limited to the local congregation. If one is to attend to issues of race and class in their practical theology, it seems essential to move beyond the local congregation. It is clear from sociological studies of evangelical churches such as Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith that our churches have become racially divided and our emphasis on local communities has only served to further the race and class divides in our society. One’s practical and pastoral theology must have a political edge if it is to address these issues. Chopp’s ecclesiology focuses on the development of communities of emancipatory proclamation. Perhaps she is simply reclaiming the prophetic aspects of ministry that are so often lacking in our churches today.
As part of their commitment to the located and interested aspects of knowledge, both Chopp and Graham have a non-foundational approach to truth. All truth is seen as socially constructed. As such, Christianity becomes a socially constructed reality. In their practical theology, socio-analytic tools and theology are given equal weight. They use a hermeneutic of suspicion when approaching scripture and tradition. God seems to be reduced to a human construction rather than an active, living being. Is there a way to reclaim the role of God in practical theology without losing a commitment to feminism and liberation? It seems that a confessional approach moves in the right direction. Before addressing the confessional approach, though, one must ask where Chopp and Graham get their commitments to feminism and liberation. It seems that these commitments are foundational to their work, but from what foundation do they draw on? What in their methodology challenges others to make these same referents central in their work? Is it possible that the gospel can provide such a foundation?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Makes a Woman?

Since the beginning of my Ph.D. program, I have been struggling to integrate my faith commitments with my commitments to feminist and liberation theologies. I have been drawn to confessional approaches to practical theology because they seem to see God as an active part of congregational life. I have been drawn to feminist theologies for their emphasis on gender and an analysis of patriarchy. I have been drawn to liberation theologies for their attention to race and class and their structural analysis that moves beyond the local congregation. The next few blogs will give you a bit of insight into how I am trying to pull of these together.
Feminist approaches to practical theology see gender as the central sight of socio-analytic and theological reflection. Their main purpose is generally to seek the flourishing of all humanity through the dismantling of patriarchy. For feminists in practical theology, all knowledge is located and interested. Analyzing power dynamics is essential. Practices become the main sight of reflection and are seen both as reflective and constitutive of beliefs and identity.
Elaine Graham has published a significant work on the meaning of gender in theology and congregational practices entitled Making the Difference. In this work she seeks to move beyond gender as an essential category (as fixed and never changing) or as socially constructed (how we are formed by society). Rather, she emphasizes gender as a performed reality. As such, it is in performance, in practices, that gender is constructed and maintained. For Graham, bodies are sites of discourse, sites of injustice, and vantage points from which to view reality. Gender is not something socially constructed outside the body and then mapped onto passive beings. Rather, gender is something both received and constructed by the individual. Graham emphasizes the intersection of structural influences as well as individual agency and sees material practices as mediators of these two acts. Our gender is both formed by forces outside ourselves and by the choices we make in living out our gender.
Graham’s emphasis on gender as performed reality becomes a central aspect of her pastoral theology in Transforming Practice. As with many feminist theologians, Graham’s pastoral theology shifts away from the actions of the ordained clergy to that of the congregation as a whole. (Feminist want to emphasize the work of the laity since the hierarchical structures of the church have often marginalized women) Graham’s pastoral theology seeks to create pastoral communities, communities that empower the flourishing of all humanity. In order to create such a community, Graham focuses on the creation of practical wisdom grounded in the practices of the church. The practices of the church constitute and maintain such wisdom. Her emphasis is on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.
Graham’s work draws on both liberation theology and feminist theology, but gender is clearly the central category of her analysis. She attempts to attend to differences among women in her focus on gender as a performed reality, but in order to embrace such differences, Graham moves to a theoretical level. In doing so, she often loses sight of the material realities of women, in particular women of color. She tends to refer to a generic “women’s experience” as a source and norm for her work. In granting primacy to gender as the primary category of oppression and patriarchy as the primary oppressive discourse, she often fails to recognize the racially constructed nature of both gender and patriarchy. While the potential to address such differences is present in her work, by not referring to particular realities she leaves race and class analysis invisible in her methodology.
All this is to say that what it is to be a woman is often different in different cultures… whether different races, different ethnicities, or different classes. There are different expectations of women’s roles, different understandings of beauty, strength, motherhood, etc. Feminists have a difficult time knowing how to fight for women’s equality when there are so many different women to fight for! It becomes easier to assume that we are all the same… and that everyone is just like me… that to try and deal with all the differences among us. I want to try and make sure that the research that I do and the theologies I construct attend to and acknowledge the differences.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Identity as Ambiguous

As mentioned in my first blog about feminist research, there has been a shift in some feminist methodology from standpoint epistemologies to discourse theory. Epistemology is simply the study of how we know what we know, what is truth, what is real. Standpoint epistemologies believe that each person from their various standpoints has different access to the truth and will probably experience a different truth. Often scholars will privilege one particular standpoint as more true than others, particularly arguing that those who are oppressed or on the margins of society understand reality better than the privileged. Discourse theory believes that all of us have identities that are shaped by a myriad of criss-crossing discourses or streams of influence. These include aspects of our race, class, and gender but also include the big ideas in our societies that shape our understandings of ourselves.

Discourse theory is particularly highlighted in Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work Changing the Subject. While I love this book, I would not recommend it to anyone who is not interested in a very abstract discussion about knowledge and identity. It is long and dense. Fulkerson critiques feminism for failing to develop theories that adequately attend to issues of power. She seeks to radicalize and deepen our understanding of the construction of gender in order to embrace difference. Fulkerson shifts from a privileging of women’s experience to women’s experience as more ambiguous and constructed. She begins from the location of women and their experiences. In order to uncover the discourses at work in the construction of women’s identity, she focuses on the material reality of their lives. She looks for those practices that are sites of utterance, locations in which communication takes place. In her study of women in the PCUSA, she considers bible reading. Among Pentecostal women she focuses on oral histories. In the world of feminist academia she focuses on books and literature. She sees each of these places as the dominant forms of communication within those cultures.
Within such practices, she looks for the various discourses that cross one another, the differential referents of meaning. In particular, she looks for those places where women’s construction of identity and meaning seem to differ from those of the dominant discourse. These are the places where women are graf(ph)ting new meanings and creating new identities. They are the sites of resistance and liberation. They are not, though, unambiguously liberating. Fulkerson seeks to analyze the unspoken rules operative within the community that shape how they negotiate the differences in discourses. She analyzes the power dynamics inherent in the process including the choices women make, the pleasure they gain, the pain they avoid, the ways they are complicit in their own oppression, and the ways they seek liberation.

This focus on the ambiguous nature of women’s experience is central to understanding women and pastoral identity. Too often the choices women make, the compromises in order to survive and thrive in a patriarchal culture are seen as a justification for women not being capable of or desiring to become pastors. It is important to highlight how the pain inherent in becoming a pastor, as well as the pleasure, is different for men and women because of the different ways discourses regarding gender and pastoral office intersect. Women's choices regarding the raising of children, their career choices, whether they will pursue further education, how they will lead, and how they present themselves are just that... choices. The choices often involve compromises and/or sacrifices based on the conflicting expectations of the culture around them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Empowering Research

On Saturday, I posted some of my reflections on Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a scholar whose work focuses on black women’s experiences. Elaine Lawless also focuses on women’s experience in her work. Her book Handmaidens of the Lord focuses on the life narratives of white Pentecostal women preachers mostly in the rural south. She, too, has had to draw on more informal resources since a majority of these women serve in small parishes with little written history. As a folklorist, her focus is on the narrative aspects of women’s call stories and sermons. In particular, she suggests that women’s life stories are constructed narratives that serve to present a particular identity to the listener. Rather than a linear life story, the narratives are made up of a series of vignettes focused on this particular identity. Her approach is similar to that of Carolyn Heilbrun in Writing a Women’s Life. (I highly recommend Heilbrun’s book! It contains some great reflections on how we tell our own life stories, in particular stories of call and how they are shaped by our own expectations of what it is to be a woman)

In a later work Holy Women, Wholly Women, Lawless develops a more intentionally feminist approach to her interviews with women clergy. In this work she focuses on a group of mainly Protestant ordained clergy and develops a methodology that she calls reciprocal ethnography. Again, Lawless begins with interviews soliciting the call narratives of women clergy and follows up with additional interviews and sermons. Lawless’ reciprocal ethnography then adds an additional step. In this particular study she began meeting with the clergy women regularly, joining in an existing support group they had formed. Lawless observed the group as part of her study, but she also began a process of dialogue and discussion with the women. Those interviewed were allowed to read the transcripts and comment or correct them. As Lawless observed themes, she would bring them to the group educating them about the context of those themes and asking for their feedback. Their feedback would serve at times to correct Lawless’ observations and at other times to present a distinct voice from her own.

Lawless’ purpose in adding such a layer to her interviews was to move research into a dialogue between researcher and subject. Feminist methodology is interested in doing away with the hierarchies inherent in research and moving into a partnership model. Lawless’ method attempts to bring in the subject’s voices as an equal partner with her own. This requires a high level of self-reflection on her own preconceived notions and her own social location. It also requires her to distinguish in her writing between her voice and that of her subjects. I value this approach to research, but I also know that it is impossible to fully do away with the power dynamics inherent in the process. Lawless’ methodology includes an over reading of interviews to search for the things that are not said and the themes that are unconsciously present. In this way she exerts her power as the researcher to read into the narratives her own paradigms. While she is reflective about it, it is impossible to fully remove yourself from such work and to keep from imposing paradigms of your own onto the subjects. In the end, Lawless retains her own voice as that of the final expert. Her education and research give her expertise and in that sense power over her subjects.

Esther Madriz, in an article on qualitative research, further elaborates on the use of focus (small) groups in feminist research. She highlights, along with Lawless, how focus groups emphasize the multivocal nature of truth. Feminist research often seeks understanding grounded in multiple perspectives rather than one absolute truth. Focus groups also allow one to observe the relationships between individuals, to gain access to the language and symbols of their culture. They allow one to grant priority to individuals as relational beings, central to feminist thought.

Madriz also highlights the shifts in power dynamics that occur when a researcher is in a room with multiple subjects. She highlights the fact that focus groups may be particularly helpful when entering certain cultures or when the researcher is from a more dominant culture than the subject. For some women, in particular, the group may be necessary to help them find their voice and make their ideas and feelings heard. Madriz recognizes that many focus groups serve as consciousness raising groups for the subjects. She sees this as a significant aspect of feminist research. Feminists recognize that research is not neutral, but has the power to change the subjects. Rather than seek an impossible neutrality, some feminists embrace this aspect and seek to use it for the empowerment and flourishing of their subjects. When I finally do begin my research in local congregations, I can only hope it will have such an effect!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

If It Wasn't for the Women...

So, I have been neglecting my blog in recent months… And to be honest, I am not quite ready to do a lot of new writing. Sixteen hours of exams was quite enough. Instead, I thought I would post some excerpts from my exams. I realize for some of you this will be very boring! But for those interested, it will give you a little insight into what has been swirling in my head for the last few months. And if you have any questions… comment away. I’ll try and respond.

My first exam area was congregational research as practical theology and the first question looked at various feminist approaches to qualitative research. Here is the first researcher I considered… Cheryl Townsend Gilkes.

Mary Jo Neitz has an article in The Handbook for the Sociology of Religion that presents an overview of feminist methods of research. She begins her article by articulating the struggle many feminists have had in integrating their feminist commitments with their sociology. It is only in the last few decades that feminist approaches to sociology have gained significance. Early feminists began asking why women seemed to be excluded or invisible in sociological research. The next generation took the “add women and stir” approach simply recreating existing studies with women subjects. More recently, feminist sociology has shifted to begin asking questions that arise from women’s experience. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a prime example of methodology that begins from women’s experience.
By beginning from women’s experience, feminists have shifted the location of scholarship from formal institutions and structures to the material realities of women who are often on the margins of such structures. This emphasis on material realties has led to an emphasis on practices rather than theories and ideas. To be more exact, knowledge and ideas are seen to be embedded in practices. Knowledge is seen as located and interested. Analyzing the power dynamics that shape the construction of knowledge becomes central to feminist research. More recent feminist theology has sought to radicalize and deepen this notion of the construction of knowledge by moving beyond women’s experience as a standpoint from which to understand truth to women’s experience as a performed reality constructed out of discourses. Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work will highlight these shifts from standpoint epistemologies to discourse theory.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ major work If it Wasn’t for the Women… focuses on the significance of women in the black community. Her work begins from the experiences of women, specifically black women. As such, the location of her research shifts from family and the formal structures of the church to the intersection of family, church, and community. Gilkes argues that most sociological research has rendered black women’s experience as invisible or deviant by focusing on white women’s experiences and patriarchal norms. They have failed to recognized the racial aspects of the construction of gender and have taken white women’s experiences as normative. For white women, family has been seen as the major site of oppression and their role within the family has been seen as marginalized or compartmentalized from their role in society. For black women, family and work have always been integrated placing them in a different relationship to black men and to white patriarchal norms. In addition, while black men have often exerted communal leadership through the church, patriarchal norms have kept women out of such positions. Black women have instead exerted their leadership within the community itself reflecting an integration of the sacred and the secular in their lives.
In shifting her focus to the experiences of women, Gilkes has made two moves methodologically. First, she has broadened her resources beyond formal written documents. While her work is very historical in nature, she has added women’s voices by referring to oral histories, sermons and testimonies, and literature. Her work reveals that within black culture, women are seen as central and foundational, especially to the church. Their histories are not as obscured as in the white culture. The black community has not been able to deny the leadership of black women who have often founded churches or served as leaders in the abolitionist movement. She did find that written histories often reflected more patriarchal norms while oral histories reflected women as more active and powerful agents. The second move made by Gilkes has been to focus on a more grounded theory approach. Rather than adopting existing paradigms from black history, sociology, or feminist scholarship, she has sought to create new paradigms based on black women’s experience. In particular she has sought to rewrite the understanding of the family in black history.
The next post will focus on Elaine Lawless… a researcher who also considers research from women’s experience but also develops a methodology for understanding how women narrate their own lives.