Absent Mother God of the West:
A Kali Lover's Journey into Christianity and Judaism
Neela Bhattacharya Saxena
Lexington Books, Pages: 208
978-1-4985-0805-6 • Hardback • December 2015
978-1-4985-0806-3 • eBook • December 2015
"St. Kali, Mary Devi, Cosmic Shekinah"
by Janice Poss
"Who or what killed the Mother God of the West? (48)" is Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena's central thesis question for this book as she adeptly guides us on an enriching, multi-faith experiential journey through Western Christianity and Judaism. Her lens is the great Indic traditions well-known from her upbringing in Bengal. This lens uncovers the lost Great Mother in Western, androcentric, patriarchal religiosity directly from her global travels to the physical locations where these female icons, statues, churches and temples reside. Along the way, she includes detailed conversations with her deeply-informed sources from religion, philosophy, psychology and theology. Developing from her life-long love of Kali in Hinduism, she helps us regain the lost Buddhist Tantra tradition in India that she calls 'Gynocentric' reintegration of the feminine principle. Through her guru, Baba, she weaves us through the complex history of the loss of the non-Vedic Tantra in India that eventually spread to Tibet through Padmasabhava and female Buddha Yeshe Tsogyal claiming a root 'Gynocentric, pregnant nothingness' missing from most monotheistic, male-privileged religions. From the Prajnaparamita Sutra being the Mother of All Buddhas, she begins unearthing Gynocentrism within divine relation. She succeeds in detailing, explaining, discovering and re-discovering this concept through her encounters with Greek Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena, Christian Virgin Mary, the Black Madonnas in Einsiedeln, Częstochowa and Chartres, Mary Magdalene and Shekinah -- resurrected in Jewish Kabbalah. Her Indian sensitivity brings a fresh focus to reforming a missing, sublimated, or clouded over womanly divine presence in Western religion. She mollifies the negative, dualistic separation surrounding divinity, sexuality and women, by reestablishing women's own divine right by un-clouding the Divine Feminine, unifying East and West in a global context. Saxena states:
"A profound inward truing of the self toward a deeper awareness of one's connectedness to all sentient and non-sentient
worlds is the gift of the Divine Feminine. Both immanent and transcendent, she epitomizes nonduality and sacred
materiality so that we can honor our earthy existence and our interior dimensions (xxx)."
This global realization comes out of what Swidler and Mojzes claim in The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue, 'that relationality is not relativism' and that 'our Western tradition of truth [has been] largely absolute, static, and monologic, [and]/or exclusive. It has become de-absolutized [all-embracing], dynamic and dialogic -- in a word relational (2000:47). This is the 'radically Gynocentric path to freedom' that Dr. Saxena talks about in "Gynocentric Thealogy of Tantric Hinduism: A Meditation on the Devi" in the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology. Her current book here continues and expands on that thinking.
If we, in the West, are ever to wholly understand Christianity and Judaism at all, then we must look at the traditions from India and Tibet because the Vedas, Hinduism and Buddhism pre-date both. Eastern wisdom informs Western wisdom by re-integrating, not separating out the feminine principle, from the male principle. It establishes the independence of women as divine beings in the human world independent of how Western religions have perpetrated what Frymer-Kensky speaks of as "misogyny and 'glorification of pederastic homophilia' as a result of the 'separation of the sexes and limitation of public life to males.'(205)"(28)
We experience Saxena's quest for 'women divine', women's diversity, women's resilience to exist and be present within matricidal attempts to cloud over her presence. She cites how deep rooted anti-goddess rhetoric exists in Revelation 17:2-3,4:
'The kings of the earth have had intercourse with her, and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her
harlotry. ... woman seated on a scarlet beast covered with blasphemous names … wearing purple and scarlet and adorned
with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her
She concludes by saying, "This scarlet and purple-clad female with the cup of obscenities will haunt Christians of every kind as she represents the horror of sexuality as sin or guilt. In one fell swoop, the profound mystery of sexuality is desecrated beyond repair. (52)" But she reiterates that the feminine principle/pregnant nothingness is ever-present and cannot be eliminated or desecrated, no matter how doctrinally ignored or degraded she is. Matricide is not the answer.
Along with other feminist theologians and philosophers, Saxena asks why over time the principles of compassion, nurturing, tenderness, and sensitivity toward self and others have been identified with weakness, obedient dependence and docility and not strength, independence and self-confidence. Are not these ingredients for a healthy amour-propre, the sane sense of one's own whole personhood?
In Judaism, the Shekinah retrieves immanence, "the rejection of 'power-over', [recognizing] instead that each of us is part of the creative being who is the universe herself. (114)."
In conclusion, she asks when will a theology of war become one of peace, from 'hyper-masculinized ideologies masking as religions where some form of 'war' is the only meaningful activity (139)?" She invokes Kali's 'frightening visage' to pay heed to changing dualistic polarities to non-dualisms which can help us to be less reactive, slowing our response of immediate violence to the other where kenosis can enter in.
From Vimala Thaker and Karen Armstrong, she insightfully sees the need for mind- body- spirit continuum. She corrects Frances Clooney's error from talking about the uneasy fit of goddess-speak inserted into male-dominated Western Christianity, Judaism and Islam, 'yet they all talk about God being without gender (142)' to then making a conscious choice to writing about goddesses within the context of existing supreme male deities in Indian theologies because they 'already' possessed complete, developed male theologies. She admonishes his hubristic male assumption as a misinterpretation. For her, Brahman is impersonal in Vedantic India as expressed by Tat.
Recently, watching, That's Entertainment, a nostalgic look at Hollywood Musicals featuring Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Debby Reynolds, Ava Gardner, Anne Miller, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow, I see the spirit of the Western Goddess is surely with us. We need only tap our ruby slippers to find her hiding in plain sight.
Janice L. Poss
Ph.D. Candidate Claremont Graduate University
Women's Studies in Religion
Pat Reif, IHM, Memorial Lecture coordinator
MA, Pastoral Theology, Loyola Marymount University
665 S. Indian Hill Blvd. #C
Claremont, CA 91711
Wisdom Commentary on Hebrews, Mary Ann Beavis and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, Editors.
Barbara E. Reid, OP, General Editor
By: Susan Willhauck, Atlantic School of Theology
The Liturgical Press’s Wisdom Commentary is long awaited and lives up to our eager anticipation. The goal of the series is twofold. It seeks to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book in the Bible and to accomplish what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza says feminist biblical interpretation must do—to prevent the harm done by the kyriocentric vision of the Bible, as well as continuing the function of the Sacred Scriptures to “inspire and authorize” our struggles against oppression.” This multi-authored fifty-fourth volume on the book of Hebrews, edited by Mary Ann Beavis and HaeRan Kim-Cragg, valiantly lives up to that task. Hebrews might not seem like promising material for feminist interpretation (as the book jacket puts it) because of its androcentric composition, problematic language and obsession with sacrifice, yet it is among the submerged traditions of Sophia, the female God-figure that lives in Scripture. Sophia is not a male construct of femininity, but a full manifestation of the divine image and is Shekinah, or a public voice, “rather than a feminized, private one” that stands for justice and well-being for all of creation. So the work of these scholars involved excavating the buried sophialogy of Hebrews and recovering its implications for theology. The authors of this volume, using the work of Silvia Schroer, note the connection to Jewish scripture, particularly the Wisdom of Solomon, perhaps reflecting the Hellenistic Judaism associated with Alexandria in the first centuries.
Barbara E. Reid, the series General Editor, provides an insightful overview of the history and methodologies of feminist biblical interpretation, which is a very useful summary for students. She notes how feminists understand that interpreting the Bible is an act of power and the need for various kinds of criticism which allows us to “read against the grain” when a text is detrimental to women. In this approach the text can be a site of conflict in which the interpreter analyzes competing narratives to “expose the fault lines and overturn and reconfigure binaries.” The authors’ introduction provides a succinct review of some of the scholarship on Hebrews, issues of date and authorship, audience, social location, structure of the book and recurring themes. Another valuable aspect is the collaboration of multiple feminist voices. For example, HyeRan Kim-Cragg contributes a pastoral approach in an Asian Canadian perspective that provides unique insight into imbalances of power, class and race and Justin Jaron Lewis is a Jewish Rabbi offering a crucial reading of Hebrews in light of Judaism. It is refreshing that the series welcomes multi-disciplinary contributions from religious education, liturgics, art and others, including the compelling First Nations poetry of Marie Annharte Baker. The work models how the wisdom of non-western cultures like that of Filipina sisters Maricel and Marilou Ibita, sheds light on the Bible. Yet there is no obligatory attempt to manufacture agreement.
Hebrews is treated as an “anonymous early Christian sermon” with the author/s referred to in the traditional way as “the homilist.” The commentary itself follows the text with exposition on theological themes, paraenesis or the exhortation on ethical matters, discussion of translation matters, interpretive essays, stories poetry and the art of Lucy D’Souza-Krone. It includes fascinating sidebars, shaded in gray, many setting a tone of appreciation of women in the early Jesus movement, for example “Daughters and Inheritance in Judaism” (p. 3); “The Veil in Postcolonial Perspective” (p. 126); “Jewish Lists of Heroic Women” (p. 136-37); “Martyrs and Martyrdom” (p. 156); “Excerpt from the Prison Diary of Perpetua” (p. 176) among many others.
The scholarship is impeccable and fair-minded. Particularly interesting is the discussion of who the anonymous author or authors of Hebrews might have been. It examines the hypothesis that it was a woman, perhaps Priscilla (first suggested by Adolf von Harnack and later revived by Ruth Hoppin). It suggests that Hebrews is proto-feminist (feminist voices from the past gone unrecognized, or “before their time”) with its use of “we” and inclusion of women in the roll call of heroes of faith. The authors entertain the possibility that the “Hebrews” themselves may have included a majority of women since women were and are attracted to new religious movements that seem to promise more gender egalitarianism. Yet, as is often the case, as the movement seeks for social acceptance it returns to more traditional gender roles as evidenced by the Hebrews being addressed in masculine terms (brothers). In a culture where women were often shamed and segregated, it is important to call attention to their full participation and public voice.
“Reading against the grain” is indeed an apt phrase which this volume helps us do with a text so implicated in colonialization and oppression. While Hebrews must be critically examined for apparent justification of child abuse and punishment (11:7 and 12: 11), there are also more positive references to the education and moral development of children (5:13; 11:23; 12:10). HyeRan Kim-Cragg draws the connection to classical paideia, the learning of endurance, discipline and resilience through the lens of feminist pedagogy.
A familiar theme that runs through Hebrews is that of faith (the pilgrimage of faith and need for persistence), and the diaspora (the faithful journey through a hostile land). The post-colonial reality in which cultural diaspora is a norm for many people today resonates with the centrality of this theme and gives it renewed meaning. Yet, as the commentary points out, the theme of persistence and endurance in hardship should not be used to sanction unjust practices and to romanticize suffering. This recalls another prominent theme, that of sacrifice. Feminist critique of atonement theology (that Jesus had to be sacrificed for our sins) abhors the notion of a harsh, violent and patriarchal God and decries the glorification of suffering and submissive obedience. The notion that human suffering is punishment from God is particularly repulsive and must be subjected to theological and pastoral interpretation. Feminists seek to dismantle the notion that God tests our faith through suffering. Instead Jesus’ suffering might be understood in terms of his “arduous labor of discernment that enables him to live out his prophetic mission to announce salvation/shalȏm.” Another way of understanding sacrifice, one author suggests, is that it was not necessarily for divine appeasement, but sacrificial rituals were about “approaching the sanctuary with the goal of encountering and communicating with God,” as well as purification and consecration. This is in keeping with the Latin sacrificio, which means “to make holy.” Rather than being salvific in itself, Jesus’ suffering enabled him to “sympathize in solidarity” with humanity. The call for true worship and to abandon the hierarchical institutionalized priesthood can be viewed as an argument against the sacrificial system. Rather than attempting to rehabilitate atonement theology, feminists usually focus on Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God. The commentary is very helpful in deconstructing sacrifice from feminist perspectives.
A case is also made that the book of Hebrews may not be read as an argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, but as an interpretation of the community’s salvation history in light of the Jewish scriptures. With a focus on the theme of covenant in Hebrews, one must avoid the dangerous idea that some claim to be the legitimate people of God while others must then be conquered or colonialized. The homilist’s contrast between old and new covenant and Moses and Christ could lead one to think of Hebrews as supersessionist. The authors contend that care must be taken to recognize that Christianity did not exist apart from Judaism at that time and the homilist worships the Jewish God and interprets Jewish scripture and shares its eschatological and messianic hopes. There was also a cultural sense of kinship and group orientation that should be taken into consideration. Any anti-Jewish interpretations of the book have been read back into it and must be repudiated.
Also interesting is the discussion of Rahab being named as a hero of faith and the comparison with Pocahontas. Don’t miss the interpretive essays, notably HyeRan Kim-Cragg on Women and Suffering in Korean Feminist Theology (pp. 131-134) and Marilou Ibita on Hospitality: A Two-Edged Sword? (pp. 189-201). In closing, this commentary will be beneficial to scholars, students of theology, preachers and church Bible study groups. It challenges harmful and imperialist interpretations of Hebrews that will open hearts and minds to new meaning and inclusivity.
 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Foreword” in Wisdom Commentary Hebrews (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2015), xiv.
 Authors’ Introduction, “Searching for Sophia,” in Wisdom Commentary Hebrews, xxxviii.
 Fiorenza, xv.
 Authors’ Introduction, xxxix. That submergence is evident in the fact that the female term Sophia is not used in Hebrews, but rather depicted as the grammatically neutered, “word,” xlii.
 Ibid., xli. See Silvia Schroer, “The Book of Wisdom” in Searching the Scriptures, Vol. 2: A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 28.
 Barbara E. Reid, OP, Editor’s Introduction to Wisdom Commentary, xxviii.
 See p. xlvii.
 See pages xliv, lix and lxxxviii.
 See pages lxv-lxvi.
 See page xlviii and 161-163.
 See page lxxiv.
 See pages lxxvii-lxxxi.
 See page 56.
 See page lxxix.
 See p. lxxx.
 See pp. 108-113.
 See p. lxiv.
 See pp. lxxxii and lxxxiv.
 See pp. 151-153.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology
by Carol P Christ and Judith Plaskow
Review by Rev Dr Patricia ‘Iolana
In Goddess and God in the World, two foremothers of feminist theology and thealogy offer their embodied experiences of the Divine from differing perspectives: Christ as a post-Christian Goddess Thealogian and Plaskow as a radical Jewish feminist theologian. And while this is a work of feminist theology/thealogy it is also a beautiful reflection on the power of Interfaith dialogue.
Christ and Plaskow write: "We began working on this book because—although we agree about many things—we disagree about the nature of Goddess and God. After working together for decades, we found it quite a shock to come face-to- face with a difference on such a major theological issue as the nature of divinity." (xiii)
Their dialogue is unique, as is its format. As a hybrid combination of ‘theological autobiography’ and ‘rigorous philosophical, theological, and ethical reflection,’ this book is what Christ and Plaskow call an ‘experiment in embodied theology that seeks to both demonstrate the connection of theology to experience and to show the complexity of the relationship between them.’ (xv)
While Christ and Plaskow wrote their own stories and chapters in Goddess and God in the World, they collaborated on chapter three ‘God in the History of Theology’ and chapter six ‘Feminist Theology at the Center.’
Their stories are enlightening and historic. Christ and Plaskow speak about how they both started out as theological scholars in a time when women were still unwelcome in divinity schools. Goddess and God in the World chronicles their individual and collective journeys based on mutual respect and love for one another. They speak strongly of supporting each other’s work, research, and ideas even though they may not agree on them. This is the beauty at the heart of this book—collaboration, love, support, and a mutually-respectful dialogue. This sentiment is reiterated in Christ’s chapter on Divine Power where she writes: ‘I doubt that either of us would be building theologies on personal experiences if our experiences had not been affirmed by others, particularly by other women, in communities.’ (195)
Christ and I have spoken on several occasions about the seeming lack of support within the early feminist community and continuing today. This lack of support for each other’s work has frustrated us both greatly. We have both witnessed the infighting, critical attacks, and exclusionary tactics used against fellow female scholars in theology and religious studies (although it’s certainly not limited to this academic field.) In Goddess and God in the World, Christ and Plaskow step out of this critical and harmful light to, instead, be the voice of support, encouragement, and love. Standing against the divisiveness that is often found in feminist theology, this book stands as a testament to mutually-respectful dialogue about the Divine from divergent perspectives.
Their autobiographical journey speaks of the roads not often taken and how their individual and collective experiences within their respective faith traditions are not ‘normative,’ but rather the exception to the rule. And while Christ has been encouraging women to share their stories for decades (a call began in 1979), Christ and Plaskow echo this sentiment again in Goddess and God in the World. In chapter six, Christ and Plaskow write: ‘we […] hope that what we share will resonate with the experiences of others in different situations inspiring them to think and write from their own embodied and embedded perspectives. (138)
There is common ground between Christ and Plaskow that serves as a guiding light for contemporary feminist religious scholars. Through their conversations, Christ and Plaskow discover that they both reject written traditions and construct their individual beliefs through ‘personal experiences and the insights of others.’ (194) These personal experiences are the heart of their embodied theologies, and stand as critical emerging locus theologicus (or place for theology/thealogy) that is vital to contemporary religious scholars. As increasingly more adherents of contemporary faith traditions seem to reject archaic and unchanging theologies in favour of personal experience, embodied theology and thealogy will continue to be a growing field in religious studies research and publication.
The critical, explorative, supportive, and embodied feminist ideas contained with Goddess and God in the World offer not only the story of how two foremothers of feminist theology came to stand in this time and place, but also exemplify how an interfaith dialogue can proceed with respect and love despite differences. It is a must-read not only for feminist scholars in religion but also for interfaith scholars as an exemplary interfaith dialogue. Write on, sisters. Write on.
Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church: Two views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church
by P Sprinkle, W Loader, MK DeFanza, et al.
Unique among most debates on homosexuality, this book presents a constructive dialogue between people who disagree on significant ethical and theological matters, and yet maintain a respectful and humanizing posture toward one another. Even as these scholars articulate pointed arguments for their position with academic rigor and depth, they do so cordially, clearly, and compassionately, without demeaning the other.
One of two affirming views comes from Megan K. DeFranza, who received her PhD from Marquette University, Wisconsin, and is the author of the recently published, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015).
Wisdom's Feast: An Invitation to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures
by Barbara E. Reid
An invitation to the feast of wisdom (Prov. 9), drawing on women's wisdom to offer fresh interpretations of biblical texts to promote equal dignity and value for women and men alike.
This is My Body: Hearing the Theology of Transgender Christians
by Christina Beardsley.
Much has been said and written about trans people by theologians and Church leaders, while little has been heard from trans Christians themselves. As a step towards redressing the balance, This Is My Body offers a grounded reflection on people's experience of gender dissonance that involves negotiating the boundaries between one's identity and religious faith, as well as a review of the most up-to-date theological, cultural and scientific literature.
The book has been compiled and edited by Christina Beardsley, a priest and hospital chaplain, writer and activist for trans inclusion in the Church, and Michelle O'Brien, who has been involved in advocacy, research, lecturing and writing about intersex and trans issues. It includes contributions from many people associated with the Sibyls, the UK-based confidential spirituality group for transgender people and their allies.
Religion, Gender and Citizenship: Women of Faith, Gender Equality and Feminism by Line Nyhagen and Beatrice Halsaa
Through interviews with Christian and Muslim women in Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom, this book explores intersections between religion, citizenship, gender and feminism. How do religious women think about citizenship, and how do they practice citizenship in everyday life? How important is faith in their lives, and how is religion bound up with other identities such as gender and nationality? What are their views on 'gender equality', women's movements and feminism? The answers offered by this book are complex.
Religion can be viewed as both a resource and a barrier to women's participation. The interviewed women talk about citizenship in terms of participation, belonging, love, care, tolerance and respect. Some seek gender equality within their religious communities, while others accept different roles and spaces for women. 'Natural' differences between women and men and their equal value are emphasized more than equal rights. Women's movements are viewed as having made positive contributions to women's status, but interviewees are also critical of claims related to abortion and divorce, and of feminism's allegedly selfish, unwomanly, anti-men and power-seeking stance. In the interviews, Christian privilege is largely invisible and silenced, while Muslim disadvantage is both visible and articulated. Line Nyhagen and Beatrice Halsaa unpack and make sense of these findings, discussing potential implications for the relationship between religion, gender and feminism.
Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community By Mary Beth Fraser Connolly
New York, NY: Fordham University Press, February 2014 (372 pages, ISBN: 9780823254736, $65.00)
Women of Integrity: Independent Obedience
Religious women in the Catholic Church have enduringly been its backbone often without recognition. Needed work was miraculously just ‘done’. Done with no supremacy, wresting of authority, egotistic posturing of how, who or why; just accomplished. Things functioned. Love of God and Christ were the higher motivations for working the ministries of education, care of the sick, poor, disenfranchised and single women. Sisters religious have done this for centuries.
Until recently, the histories of their enormous accomplishments have been known only to them. However, many orders are now reflecting back and making them public. Women of Faith by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly is one such story. In Midwestern America, the Sisters of Mercy (RSM), following the charism of the Irish visionary, Catherine McAuley, settled in Chicago, Iowa and Wisconsin began educating it’s growing Catholic population, nursing its sick, ministering to and housing single women, and helping fill church pews with parishioners many who emigrated from Europe and needed their minds, bodies and souls nourished by God’s endless love.
The history follows these women religious, as they are referred to today -- the word, ‘nun’ having fallen out of popular use, simply as an evolution of what it means to be a vowed person in the Catholic Church, especially since the changes by the Second Vatican Council, (1963-65), from their founding in Ireland in 1847 to 2014.
The author divides her book into three parts: first, the historical background of how the RSMs came to be and came to America to serve the Irish communities, standing as a solid front of Catholicism, opposed to spreading Protestantism, and guided by the Rule of Mother Catherine McAuley, their foundress. Her Rule included a deep commitment to the poor and being ‘in the world’, not ‘of it’.
The second part relates how they spread this message through education, hospitals, and regional expansion, several internal reorganizations, first, which restricted them, then gradually, educating themselves and, finally, how with the changes of Vatican II, through embracing Gaudium and Spes, and Lumen Gentium, brought greater freedom, and subsidiarity in governance to their lives in order to better fulfill their callings, but caused an upheaval resulting in the mass exodus of sisters through the turbulent 60’s and 70’s. Mary Beth explains in depth this time of renewal, but omits that it was a reaction against the last minute Vatican Council’s decision to retain the celibacy rule for clergy and religious. Disappointed, many left to marry.
Mary Beth’s book must be read in homage to these women. I would have liked to have seen more actual documents in the book; more actual voices included; she tells a thorough and accurate story, theologically and secularly, of how the RSMs created and recreated themselves in the eyes of God and always kept Catherine McAuley’s vision in their purview.
From 1956-59, first to fourth grade, I was formed by the RSMs at St. Ethelreda Parish School on Chicago’s South Side. I remember hearing them swishing down the school halls, pre-Vatican II, in their long habits, starched white guimpes and long heavy rosary beads pulling them along as they swung in rhythm imbued with the Spirit. They gave me a life-long love of learning. My first grade teacher was kind, filled with love for us. They selflessly gave us something irreplaceable. As my journey has gone from pew to Ph.D. candidate in religion and theology, the Mercys’ influence came before my Ignatian formation, a taste of the total integration of the person. I am humbled to be indirectly a part of their legacy. Mary Beth, thank you for telling us their story so more can know of their legacy of being both Martha and Mary.
Claremont Graduate University, Women’s Studies in Religion
AAR Women’s Caucus Committee
665 S. Indian Hill Bd. #C
Claremont, CA 91711
The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology
Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015 (224 pp, ISBN 978-1-4514-8467-0, $39.00)
While many theologians have believed that vulnerability is a result of sin, Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo turns this on its head in The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology. She does so by identifying vulnerability as a root state requiring a response which either increases the vulnerability of others in exchange for the privilege of some, or uses that very vulnerability to increase abundance for all through compassion. She contends that feminist, liberation and political theologies often overlook the existential elements and deeper spiritual issues which underlie the prevailing consciousness of domination. Her robust theological anthropology addresses this gap in the literature; the first section of the book is spent analyzing the complexity of vulnerability as embodied, relational reality which is violated, as she puts it, through choosing the coping mechanisms of anxiety, egotism and violence. All persons are vulnerable, she states, but some are made more or less vulnerable through privilege or lack thereof, something she calls the “violence of privilege.” Gandolfo states that the ability to disproportionally protect ourselves from vulnerability, known as privilege, creates more harm than necessary because it involves a mismanagement of communal resources which could be better spent.
Throughout the book, Gandolfo argues for a recognition that vulnerability is a universal condition that goes beyond gender, even as she grounds her more universal argument in the particularity of feminist insight of the body’s knowledge, particularly that of mother knowledge. In addition to her well-sourced theological anthropological argument in the first section, the strength of her book is its ability to focus tangibly on vulnerability. She does so through memoirs and personal connections to marginalized mothers from around the world, while also making universal claims and suggesting concrete points of action.
Drawing on her Catholic heritage, in Part Two Gandolfo identifies sources of resilience and resistance in the form of the Trinitarian incarnation, a love which is full of compassion and yet is invulnerable. This divine invulnerability, which Gandolfo acknowledges unsettles many feminists, can be a place of strength for those looking for a co-sufferer. Divine invulnerability protects our identity as imago dei from ever being truly destroyed. In Part Three, she argues that we can engage in practices of “suckling God”, of doing what we can on the human side of things to bring awareness of God into our memory, contemplation, and acts of solidarity. In the end, she writes that her book does not provide a solution to the problem of vulnerability, but rather it offers a way of turning toward redemption in which we can hold the particularity of maternal passion in tandem with, and in fact build upon it toward, agapic love.
Anyone interested in a theological anthropology grounded in the best of feminist epistemology, such as pastoral, practical and constructive theologians, will find this book useful. While Gandolfo’s Catholicism comes through in her reliance on divine love, she intentionally includes the stories, lives and theories of the nonspiritual to cast a wide net.
Laine Walters Young
Religion, Psychology and Culture Program
Personal contact info:
Eminent Buddhist Women Edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2014 267 pages, ISBN: 978-1-4384-5130-5, $29.95
Buddhism teaches non-gendered values of loving-kindness, compassion, liberation, and
spiritual attainment, yet there has been unapologetic male dominance in Buddhist history for
more than two thousand years. Eminent Buddhist Women gives historical precedent and
gravitas to those who claim that there were (and are) eminent Buddhist women who have
significantly contributed to how Buddhism is known and practiced across Asia and in the West.
Because only men have historically been honored with the honorary title of Eminent, this book
expands the definition to include, “influential, important, notable, and superior” women who
were not given positions of authority, but are still worthy of the title.
To celebrate the diversity of voices, traditions, and issues facing Buddhist women worldwide,
the book contains twenty short chapters and is organized by region: South Asian, Southeast
Asian, Tibetan, and the West. Many of the chapters began as papers presented at the 2010
Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Sakyadhita has been working for the reclamation and revaluation of the role of Buddhist
women in multiple texts and traditions since 1987.
An important contribution of the book is that it connects the recovery of Buddhist women’s
histories with current efforts to rescind restrictions placed on Buddhist women. As Tsomo
states, “There is nothing in the Buddhist scriptures to prevent such a revolution and much to
support it.” Some of the chapters directly refute the claim that Buddhism views women as
spiritually inferior to men. In “My Sister’s Future Buddhahood,” medieval Pali texts are analyzed
that describe a female princess who gives white mustard oil to a begging monk and is predicted
to become the future Buddha Gotama.
Other chapters challenge assumptions that historical Buddhist women accepted the restrictions
placed upon women’s spiritual development, education, and leadership. “Two Generations of
Eminent Nepalese Nuns” profiles Buddhist nuns who, against all odds, received education,
created monasteries, and had many devoted disciples in the legendary homeland of the
Buddha. Tsomo herself reminds us that the Buddha’s aunt led the first march for women’s
rights in recorded history when she and five hundred noble women marched barefoot for the
right to have a women’s sangha. When the Buddha acquiesced but only if the women accepted
additional restrictions that reflected cultural norms, Tsomo points out that his aunt tried to
change the most egregious requirement that nuns subordinate to monks as evidence of her
awareness and determination to address gender injustice.
This edited collection is important for the reclamation of lost histories of Buddhist women as
well as for its feminist commentary to recast and reinterpret known histories and texts. It
concludes with an essay by eminent Buddhist scholar Rita Gross. With its short chapters and
vivid retellings, Eminent Buddhist Women is an appropriate text for undergraduate and
graduate courses in Buddhism as well as classes examining women, gender, and religion. This
scholarly work also inspires, supports, and instructs those seeking greater gender equity in
Buddhism today as it documents the successful strategies employed by Buddhist women and
their religious communities to achieve Buddhist knowledge, agency and opportunity within
their Buddhist traditions and cultures.
Dr. Elizabeth Ursic
Professor of Religious Studies, Mesa Community College
Co-Chair AAR/SBL Women’s Caucus
Embracing the Other: Transformative Spirit of Love by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm Eerdsman, 173 pages, $ 25, ISBN 978-0-8028-7299-9
In Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s new book, “Embracing the Other,” Korean feminist theologian Kim cogently argues that religious, racial, gender, and social prejudices can be overcome by the power of the Spirit. She achieves this by presenting a theology of the Spirit that enables humans to receive others unconditionally and not become perpetrators or victims of oppression and injustices. For Kim, Shalom, a wholeness and wellness within oneself and in relation to others, can be achieved by the Spirit.
“Embracing the Other” is hardly groundbreaking in its revelations and claims. The claim on the power of the Spirit in breaking barriers of social, gender, and racial disparity and in enabling humans to love others unconditionally is not uncommon. But what makes “Embracing the Other” eye-opening and original is the author’s emphasis on the power of the Spirit and Divine Eros, intermingled with the Korean understanding of spirit, love, and affection. I enjoyed her explanations of the concepts of Jeong and Han, the former speaks of powerful bonds and connectedness of people while the latter speaks of unjust sufferings, both concepts deepens ones theological understanding of God’s commandment to love one another and to care for the foreigner in one’s midst. I applaud Grace Ji-Sun Kim for advocating for these women to be given opportunities to speak for themselves, to self-report instead of simply speaking on their behalf (119).
Subsequently, Kim’s presentation on the sad plight of Asian American immigrant women as perpetual foreigners is heartbreaking. These women are covertly subordinated and marginalized (38, 52) in American society, no matter how many generations they have lived in North America. They are also dominated and marginalized by their own men in their homes. Further on, Asian American women have no sense of fully belonging and being accepted by their host and native culture. Worst, their sufferings and pains are most often unheard or put aside/silenced. Thus, Kim, being an Asian American woman herself, gives voice to them not as an outsider, but one who is so intimate with their pains and sufferings.
Explicitly, Kim proposes that Asian American women be seen not as foreigners, but as a hybrid. She argues that everyone here in North America is a hybrid-- and thus Asian American women should not be merely cast aside because of their “Asian look”, but be received just as white European immigrant women have been embraced. Implicitly, Kim suggests that at least society must value foreigners and avoid marginalizing and dominating anyone. One must treat others as what every human wants to be received—embracing the other with unconditional acceptance, devoid of any kind of judgment.
Overall, Grace Ji-Sun Kim explored many relevant issues embracing Asian American women and I enjoyed her book for Kim speaks with refreshing forthrightness about matters of injustices, oppression, and racism.
Reviewed by Alicia Panganiban
Princeton Theological Seminary
Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship by Elizabeth Ursic. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2014. 247 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4384-5285-2
What power would be required to eradicate sexism from Christianity? For decades feminists have argued that ritual language that conceptualize God as male, such as “Lord” or “Father,” perpetuates the subordination of women. Yet the work of reimagining liturgical language for gender justice has had limited success. Elizabeth Ursic’s new book, Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship, uses feminist liturgical reform as a lens to explore and analyze power dynamics related to gender. In this study, Elizabeth Ursic presents four Christian communities in established denominations where ordained or vowed leadership lift up female images of God as part of a central worship service. Thus, she offers new understandings of opportunities to control public expression, imagery, and ritual. As she writes: “… ritual making is a highly political and contested act” (20). Ursic argues that it is one thing to use female names for the divine in private devotion; it is quite another to use them in a primary congregational worship service. Ursic invites expansive conversations about ways to balance male terminology for the divine with language presenting God-as-She in church worship services.
Ursic documents a movement that is often ignored or actively suppressed. She introduces readers to four different communities whose stories illustrate the complex nature of this struggle. Readers learn about a group of Roman Catholic sisters, Daughters of Wisdom, in Connecticut whose religious life is part of a three hundred year old tradition including honoring Wisdom Sophia. Additionally, Ursic explores the United Methodist controversy in Pennsylvania centered around Susan Cady and Hal Taussig who were both charged with heresy during the 1980’s because of their robust Sophia theology and worship. Then Ursic tells the story of a similar controversy in the Church of Scotland sparked when Anne Hepburn offered a prayer at a 1982 General Assembly addressed to “God our Mother.” The fourth case presents Pastor Stacy Boorn (ELCA) and her ministry in a parish “herchurch” in San Francisco known for their “Faith and Feminism” conferences. Ursic demonstrates the deeply entrenched protection of patriarchy in Christian churches through reactions detailed in these cases. At the same time, these stories are evidence of the courageous acts of resistance that may become more prevalent in the future.
The popularity of feminist theology and spirituality is increasing. Ursic documents a growing desire for more specifically female imagery in Christian worship. Yet, even after decades of attempts to further gender equity by reimaging the Spirit, it is rare to find congregations who include female images of God in their central worship services. Through carefully constructed scholarship, Ursic raises serious questions for persons interested in ethics, liturgical reform, and church leadership. Religious studies and seminary faculty would benefit from this timely and important study, but pastors and church leaders should take heed as well. Anyone interested in advancing gender equity in the world or integrity in faith communities will find tools for dismantling male privilege in Ursic’s book.
Kathleen D. McCallie Ph.D.
Phillips Theological Seminary