This post was originally a discussion paper in my Feminist Theology 2 class in my PhD coursework.
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stale,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?
Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
Brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it for him now.
The poem, written by Frances Croake Frank, that begins Susan Ross’s chapter, is a beautiful example of embodied theology intersecting with art. The refrain of Jesus’ words, “This is my body, this is my blood” put into a woman’s mouth, in specific situations where we know women were present in his life, create vibrant, breath-catching images (Ross, 185-6). The final stanza starkly contrasts the role of the women in Jesus’ life to the role of those who follow him today. This entire chapter has helped me hone my own vision for my work, and raises interesting questions in the meeting of art, body and theology.
A theology of embodiment is at the heart of Christianity, and of a feminist approach to it. Feminist theology holds women’s experiences critical to its formation, and these experiences cannot be separated from the body which has them. Ross names this as a “feminist approach to sacramental theology: the incarnation, the centrality of embodiment and all that it implies, women’s lived experience, gender roles and ‘real presence’’ (186). Sacramental theology is typically identified with the latter through the use of tangible symbols: bread and wine, water, oil, hands, etc. All of these symbols are received and processed by a physical body. Ross, based off the work of Schillebeeckx, beautifully calls them “places where human beings live out in a symbolic way the life of the gospel” (191). Christ is the ultimate form of God becoming real as he took on a human body, to live in community with us. Sacramental theology is an embodied theology, and therefore is a feminist theology.
Ross writes of the women in the Middle Ages, “But most found in the Eucharist a confirmation of the sacred significance of the body which, to some extent, ran counter to the denigration of women’s embodiment taught by the church” (189). The Eucharist is a reminder that, even as it is a symbol, the body is also a symbol of the holy, of the redeemed, of the creation and the Creator. The Eucharist is a reminder that everything God created was named “good”, and that includes our bodies. It is a reminder that without a body to show love, and without a body to take it in, the sacrifice of Christ would not have happened. Embodiment is key to the Christian faith. And yet, many Christians try to deny their bodies and physicality. They particularly try to deny the agency of the bodies of others- by legislation, by judgement, by manipulating scripture.
These moments of judgement and dismissal come from an ancient Greek dualism that still rules in the Western world, the body is less than the soul. And yet, nothing in Christian theology shows that to be true. Ross writes, “A Catholic feminist perspective bases its critique on these dualistic conceptions on a retrieval of the Incarnation, seeing God’s taking on the condition of humanity as God’s own self-expression” (195). She goes on to state that, “Sacramentality grows out of human embodiment and its connection to the natural world, not in contrast to it” (195). As a language of symbols and practices, sacraments must be given, experienced and interpreted through bodies. Therefore, a feminist theology of sacraments “...argues for a closer connection between nature and history, body and soul” (Ross, 195). In this way, a feminist theology of sacraments could defeat not just patriarchal relationships in the church, but also current practices of disparaging science and destroying the Earth that often occur there, under the guise of “Creationism” or “trusting God to take care of it”. If we see ourselves and equal to and connected to the other, it becomes much harder to hurt them.
In education, we call this seeing “empathy”. It is one of the great gifts of practicing theatre and dance. When you take on a role, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You gain a different perspective. And often, that practice changes you. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, considering the issue from a side that you are not on, or even considering an issue you didn’t even know was an issue makes that person who is different, that opinion you do not agree with, not quite so easy to dismiss. Ross likens this to a process Freud identified in young girls, called identification. She writes, “But women’s sense of ambiguity, reluctance to make separations, and tendency to identify with the other are closer to the heart of Christian sacramentality than the strict separations that have become pervasive in much sacramental theology and practice” (Ross, 199).
A feminist Sacramental theology is possible and sensible. In creating such a method, we value the experiences of the bodies that give and receive the sacraments. We value both genders, and all abilities, races and ages. An embodied theology sees all as created, all as good, all as equal. Ross writes, “A feminist theology of ordained ministry takes seriously human embodiment, in all its various forms, as the place where humans encounter God” (203). This is why we must have bodies, and this is why those bodies are holy. Which calls feminist theologians to broader fight than church practices: “The challenge of feminism to Christian theology is the expression of the full humanity of women and men, not only ‘in Christ,’ but in society ...” (Ross 198).
Ross, Susan A. (1993) "God’s Embodiment " in Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins.