On what I owe to whom…

I suppose it slightly perverse that I include a brief essay by the very same title as the introductory chapter to Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom.  Hauerwas has been the source of much grief in my life: a brilliant theologian whose negotiation of traditional Catholic texts in concert with Anabaptist commitments has stirred the hearts and minds of many a theological thug.  I’ve been on the receiving end of much abuse in the name of Hauerwas.  I’ve met Stanley on numerous occasions, and I always walk away amused and reminded of the adage that for some old dogs, the bark is indeed worse than its bite.  Stanley is one such benign hound: he blusters around throwing f-bombs and curses in the name of orthodox theology, and practices a basic tenet of intimidation via hyperbole.  It’s amazing to watch someone verbally dismantle otherwise intelligent people in the shadows of exaggerated tales and extreme (or radical) strawmen (ala his take on liberalism and modernity–mighty arguments were such highly caricatured beasts actually to exist).  But it is the disciples Hauerwas engenders who tend to do the actual dirty work.

It is to one of the Hauerwasian thugs that I owe my amateur theologian status: that is, my decision to not go pro.  I entered graduate school feeling set adrift: my choice of seminaries and field of PhD work was less than celebrated amongst my colleagues who’d preferred I stick with more traditional, orthodox, Western and yes, male theologies.  This particular professor, however, paid lip service to to caring about the ends of liberation and feminist theologies (the preferential option for the poor, the elimination of racism and sexism and classism), but consistently found fault with the means by which these theologies found expression.  Indeed, in his mind he was a better feminist than any of the female theologians; a better liberationist than any third world author; better at dismantling race than any African-American out there.  He spent his time looking for the loop-holes in their logic, rather than working collaboratively to bring about justice and liberation and peace or alleviate any of the problems these theologies attempted to address.  (In a word: it is classical liberalism and modernity which allowed for the gathering of data to expose many of the issues of injustice for which liberation and feminist theologies seek remedy.  By ruling out the method of inquiry up front, these Hauerwasian thugs undermine any description of injustice not accounted for within a premodern framework–thus neatly ignoring the inconvenience of taking poverty, classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously.)

My particular Hauerwasian thug, Steve Long, was my dissertation advisor: that is, until he failed to show up for my comprehensive exams.  I’d been his teaching assistant for four years and knew his lectures inside and out.  I could sit in the back of the class and mouth them word for word when he delivered them.  But his own anxiety about being on a committee of three women (one a liberationist from Argentina, one a psychotherapist, and one a feminist-ethicist) in his mind excused his own bad behavior: he showed up for the last twenty minutes of my two hour orals and afterwards, told me that he just couldn’t make himself come–that he felt his “penis made him conspicuous in a room full of women.”  Because my own advisor failed to show, there had been deliberations as to whether or not my exams were valid.  My future was in jeopardy.  Ah... the joys of theological thuggery...In the end, the committee determined that the exam was valid (it was no fault of mine he lacked moral courage).  I was naturally quite shaken by the whole series of events, and when the orals were completed, this professor cornered me in the basement stacks at the library and begged my forgiveness.  “I won’t let you go until you forgive me” he said while blocking my exit.  It was a bit like Jacob wrestling with an angel–except this time, it was me walking away wounded and limping.

At any rate, I found a new dissertation advisor.  I wrote bits and pieces of the dissertation and finally realized: I’ve played with the big boys. I know I can keep up with them–even best them when necessary. I’ve nothing to prove.  And if this is what being a theologian is about–intellectual parlor games, stunts, and one-upmanship, I no longer want to play.  I’ve found a more graceful, peaceable life as a theologically informed layperson–working hard within and for my local congregation, teaching and writing and reading all the while.


It is to the Nazarene Theological Seminary that I owe my radical feminism.  The lack of female role models at the seminary (well… that’s not quite accurate… they did offer us the president’s secretary as a model) left me longing for fellowship with women–something I sought out and developed in both healthy and unhealthy ways.  The dichotomy between Wesley’s teaching that experience some how mattered, yet never translated to women’s experience as some how mattering fostered my shift into feminism as well.  But my conversion to feminism can hardly be attributed to rational assent to theological proposition (or any proposition for that matter, theological or otherwise).  It was more akin to epiphany than decision: within feminism I could account for all the flailing around I’d been doing. I knew I was intelligent.  I knew I was right about things. But I also found myself in a constant reactive mode to the certainties I was being taught, and the authority by which the ‘tradition’ was handed down. I flailed because I had no theoretical framework to make sense of it all.  Feminism allowed me to trust my own experience, to seek alternative forms of knowledge, to stand my ground when necessary, and to speak my truth.

I’d discovered feminism upon reading Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-talk.  The hermeneutic she pronounced was stunning: in short “that which does not speak a word of Good News to women cannot be considered to be of the Divine.”  (As I heard Rosemary explain on many occasion, women here are the ‘least of these’ to use scriptural language.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we took Matt 18:6 seriously?) So much of what I’d been taught up until this reading had been good news for everyone but me.  I had been constantly reminded to take up my cross, that the politics of Jesus included martyrdom, and that I was to ‘die to self’.  Here, Ruether reminded the reader that the good news offered by Jesus was always good news to those who were disenfranchised and poor: not solely the good news of the privileged.  Jesus brought good news to those who needed it most–those living on the edge of propriety and acceptability. Amazing!  Who knew?  My assumption had always been that I didn’t matter in the equation.  Church had taught me that self-sacrifice was my highest calling (whoever will lose their life will save it).  Rather, Ruther articulated a Gospel which meant I could not only act on behalf of others, but that I could act on behalf of myself–and do so with integrity.

For instance, one day I approached the school administration about the possibility of having a tampon dispenser installed in the women’s bathroom.  The machine that was present dispensed large thick pads, complete with safety pins and belts.  It was time to bring the seminary’s women’s health issues into the 20th century.  No one seemed interested in such an expense, deeming it unnecessary given the very small proportion of the student population who would benefit from the expenditure, and in light of the fact that, in their minds, there was viable solution to ‘that problem’ already in place.  When pushed, I was actually told “My wife used these: they should be sufficient.”  Let the flailing begin: “Fine.  If you’d like me to report back to the women of this seminary that you are comfortable keeping them in diapers, I’ll do that.”  The tampon dispenser was installed within days.

One such incident sealed the deal for me: three of us seminarians had gone camping for the weekend.  We rode bikes and slept in a tent.  We debated theology, sunned ourselves, and cooked around the campfire.  We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning telling stories and laughing.  It was a delightful, meaningful weekend.  When I arrived back on campus, I was called into the office of the Professor of Spiritual Formation.  He sternly expressed disappointment in the ‘poor decision’ I’d made by going camping with two young men.  I gapped in disbelief.  He talked about the importance of appearances, and how questionable the whole situation looked, even though he was certain I’d conducted myself like a “lady”.  My temper rose and I fought to control it.  I asked whether or not he would be calling the guys in and talking to them.  He seemed puzzled, and finally said that wasn’t the point.  That it was my responsiblity to ‘guard your heart’ (quoting Proverbs 4:23).  Holiness demanded it.

I wrestled with the condemnation he was pronouncing upon me.  I began to flail.  Livid, I demanded to know “What, pray tell, do you think Eric and Brian and I were doing together… all three of us… in that tent that has you this concerned.”  He shrugged and refused to answer.  “No.  Really.  I want to hear you verbalize out loud what it is you are accusing me of… the THREE of us of.  Say it.”  He refused.  I got up and walked out.  I received no further censure.  And a feminst was born.


It is to Paul Bassett (church historian) and Al Truesdale (ethicist) that I owe my lack of ordination or, perhaps more accurately, my lack of interest in ordination.  One day during Seminary, Paul Bassett invited me to sit with him in his office.  He’d just reviewed a paper I’d written, and he began his remarks by saying “I covet your mind.”  I remember taking great pleasure at the compliment.  A bit later in the conversation he said, “Donna, don’t ever let the church domesticate you.”  Again, I took this as a compliment, although with a hint of caution: does he think I’m undomesticated and unruly?  A feral seminary student?  I was confused.  Then, after lengthy discussion in which I’d managed to aggravate him, he warned “Donna… how long do you think we’ll keep a dog in the house who refuses to be house trained?”   I was stunned. It was Al Truesdale who put Paul’s remarks into context for me.  He cautioned me against pursuing an ordination tract, warning that for some, ordination was an asset–a demonstration of credibility, and a promise by the denomination to stand behind you.  But for me, he warned, it could easily prove to be nothing but a liability.  “You have things to say, Donna.  You don’t need ordination to be used as leverage against you.  If you are ordained, they can take it away.  But if you aren’t–you are free.  You can say what needs to be said.”  I choose freedom.


(more coming…)


One thought on “On what I owe to whom…

  1. Aretha Franklin sings well an old gospel. The chorus: “How I got over, how I got over. You know my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Thank you for taking the time to look back and offer us this reflection that beautifully chronicles why you, my friend, are such a gift to the church and academy. You know how to make – as the youth say – “your haters, your motivators.” Wish I had more witty and wonderfully candid friends like you! Peace. Pamela


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: