Sacraments and Symbols- Embodiment and Empathy

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.

The Bible as Literary Construct and Art

This post was originally a discussion paper for my Feminist Theology 2 class in my PhD work.

The Bible has long been called “The Word of God”. Often included in the discussion are descriptors such as as “infallible”, “divinely inspired”, “perfect” and “only”. But for Christian Feminists, accepting the Bible as the only word of God, or the infallible record of those divinely inspired causes pain and exclusion, and raises more questions.

The Bible has often been used to oppress women. Ranging from exclusion from church leadership to domestic abuse, certain selections are held up in defense of androcentric and even evil choices of the human patriarchy and tradition in the place of power. We have, in our churches, decided that the passages dealing with multiple wives and slavery are clearly no longer applicable in today’s society. However, these same churches struggle to deal relevantly with homosexuality, violence, and the role of women. The Church must stop assigning cultural acceptance or dismissal to only certain parts of the Bible. Either we interpret it all through the lens of what is freeing, loving and life-giving, or we do not. Either we state that all of the Bible is the product of the world that it reflects, which is not the world we live in, or we do not. Many modern Christians are trying to pick and choose the passages that defend their positions, as un-Christlike as they may be, while dismissing others on the basis of history. This double-standard of Biblical reading and interpretation cannot be allowed to continue in our churches.

Sandra Schneiders reminds us in her essay that language is a “human phenomenon” (38). And as such, the Bible is inherently human. She writes “Because the text is human language giving voice to human experience of God in Christ, as well as to the experience of the early community in all its weakness and sinfulness, the text, even though it is inspired….is as capable of error distortion, and even sinfulness as the church itself” (49). The modern Church’s and modern Christians’ inability to recognize the above leads to harmful teachings and beliefs on women in leadership (in the church and civic lives), the gender (or lack thereof) of God, and the inferiority of women. This continues into oppression of other groups, including homosexual men and women and minority races.

As a language construct, Word of God is a metaphor. Much of what happens in the Bible is a metaphor, or a parable. That is, words or stories spoken to impart meaning and message, rather than to be taken a literal truth. Many Evangelical Christians hold that the Bible is literally, rather than metaphorically, true. Schneiders writes “The idolatrous result of this literalization can be traced through church history in the patriarchalization of Christian faith” (39). She reminds us that “Obviously, God does not literally speak, but the metaphor word of God certainly intends meaning. Its referent, what it points to is the entire domain of reality that we call divine revelation that is, the self-disclosure of God as it is perceived and received by human beings” (39). Revelation requires interaction between God and people. It is again this human element that cannot be considered untainted or infallible.

All language must also be interpreted. We interpret, as I often tell my students in choreography, based on what we bring with us. The audience’s own past experiences and biases influence what they see and hear. Even what they ate or didn’t eat, and the events of the day, before coming into the theatre influence what they view and, ultimately, what they interpret. Every audience member sees a slightly different dance, a slightly different play. It is tied up in their own personal, embodied experiences. No playwright or choreographer can ever fully know how their work will be received, a point that Schneiders makes about Biblical texts (48).

Schneiders writes, “Essentially, interpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). It is this evanescence that I love about live art. No performance is ever the same. It is why actors and dancers can continue to “do the same thing” for 8 shows a week- it is never the same, because the energy shared between audience and performers is always different. In the same way, we encounter texts differently. We can reread the same passage at different points in our lives and discover different meanings, based on personal experiences and experiencing it with the people around us. Schneiders reminds us that this is important because “...it implies that a text does not have one right meaning…”  and that “...meaning is not ‘in’ the text, but occurs in the interaction between text and reader…” (47). Importantly, “the reader makes a genuine contribution to the meaning rather than being simply a passive consumer of prefabricated meaning” (48). It is this act of interpretation that gives hope to me as a Christian feminist. The meaning of the texts lie with us. We are responsible for researching, communicating and embodying meaning from the Scriptures that is inclusive, life-giving and freeing. We can accept the Bible as a human construct of communication with the Divine. In it we can see other human interpretations, and bring our own. And we can, ultimately, determine its meaning in our lives.

Schneiders, Sandra M. (1993) "The Bible and Feminism: Biblical Theology" in Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins.