Perhaps one of the most striking features of the list of the sixty most influential evangelical theologians that was recently posted here (which I took from Gerald Hiestand, over at the Center for Pastor Theologians) was the virtual absence of women from the list. In the sixty names on the list, only one woman was mentioned: Nancey Murphy. In the follow-up discussion, forty-four further names were mentioned and only two women were among them: Morna Hooker and Marva Dawn. If the list had been ranked according to the level of influence, I doubt that any of these figures would appear in the top fifty.
Obviously this collection of names is far from scientific (and the cases for the inclusion of several figures have, rightly I believe, been called into question). Nonetheless, the list does a pretty good job of accomplishing its original purpose: that of presenting a general impression of what the contemporary world of evangelical theology looks like. One of the questions that this general impression leaves us with is: where are the women?
The absence of women from this list rightly raises questions. The purpose of this post is not to answer them, but to sharpen some of these questions, raise counter-questions, and to invite a conversation around the subject. I hope that some of my readers will continue this discussion in the comments. My participation will probably be limited, but I am interested to see what others have to say.
Woman as Theologians in Evangelicalism
At the outset it should be recognized that the opportunities for women to become active voices in evangelical theology are quite limited compared to those of men. Unlike her male counterpart, an evangelical woman who studies theology is much less likely to have openings for pastoral leadership or theological teaching within the church. She is also likely to experience a number of limitations upon her involvement within an evangelical academic context. As a result, devoting the time and money that advanced theological education requires will be much more of a risk for her.
The fact that theology is such a male field and will tend to gravitate to male patterns of discourse and behaviour will itself be a disincentive. She will be unlikely to have many female peers and will have to cope with a context within which her presence may be considered to be an unwelcome intrusion by many, with all of the wearying ‘micro-aggressions’ that that can produce.
She will probably not have the same opportunities to network or the same teaching openings as her male peers. When she attends the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society she will probably find that over 95% of the presenters are men (this is probably a conservative estimate) and that she is often presumed to be the wife of one of the presenters, rather than a theologian in her own right. Her influence within the politics of the church may be constrained on account of her inability to hold certain forms of office reserved for men. She will probably also experience some sort of pressure to address herself to women’s interests in particular, especially feminism, in a way that might lead to the marginalization of her concerns within the broader guild. Even when she does not focus upon such issues, but addresses theological questions that bear no immediate relation to the fact that she is a woman, she will find that many assume that she must be narrowly concerned with theology conditioned upon her gender.
If she does make it into academia, she will find that world is not well designed for a woman. It will make it difficult for her to marry and have children. Unless she has a supportive spouse who is prepared to put her career before his own, she may find it hard to progress in the academic world. Even if her husband takes a more egalitarian approach to their careers, the fact that husbands are usually older than their wives, probably more advanced in their careers, and the fact that academic theology doesn’t pay especially well, will tend to mean that his career takes priority and limits her chances to progress in hers, for practical reasons alone.
The problems also extend back, before the beginning of any formal theological education. Contexts of theological discourse may be heavily gendered and even rendered inaccessible to her. While the men’s group in her church discusses some theological book, the women’s group may devote itself to a less theological and heavily gendered discourse about women’s roles. When men prefer to enjoy theological sparring within the context of a more typically masculine dynamic of interaction, she may find it difficult to break into the conversation and that its vigorous and charged dynamics tend to shift as she enters. To enter the theological conversation, she may have to distance herself from female peers and seek to find some way into heavily male contexts.
When she goes online, she will probably find that contexts of general theological discourse are overwhelmingly male and, even if they attempt to be welcoming and inclusive, not a place where she can easily feel at home. When she looks around for role models, she will probably be hard-pressed to find many female theologians in a guild that is predominantly male, especially at the top. People are much less likely to encourage her to go into theology, as it is not seen as something that women do.
Putting all of this together—along with several factors not already mentioned—it will be an exceedingly difficult uphill struggle for any evangelical woman who wants to be a theologian. While often characterized as injustices and impositions of the patriarchy, I would suggest that most of the difficulties that women will face in this area have to do with the deep ruts driven by conventions, expectations, habits, and presumptions over time. These ruts guide women away from theology and, when they do succeed in entering into it, obstruct or limit their progress.
Rather than presuming some dark conspiracy to hold women out (when it is often the case that many within the world are actively trying to get more women involved), it is probably more accurate to recognize that the world of theology has been generally constructed by men, designed around them, that they have been trained towards it, and that little thought or provision has been made for preparing women for it, accommodating them within it, or furnishing them with roles that they can be prepared for through it. The way that the world of evangelical theology and the institutions that surround it generally operate, their current composition, the habits and expectations of theological education in churches, and the male-dominated character of theological discourse are features of a situation that was not designed to keep women out, but which frequently has that effect.
Rather than rushing to apportion blame or accusations of misogyny (both of which are warranted in some instances), I believe that it is best to begin by appreciating that, even in the absence of animosity or antagonism towards women, a situation can be created in which it is difficult for them to feel welcome or included. A world designed by and around men and chiefly populated by men will be fertile soil for the formation of a ‘boy’s club’ environment.
Once all of this has been recognized and processed, I think that we have good reason not to be so surprised at the lack of women on the list.
Comparisons with Other Contexts
In assessing the gender imbalance of evangelical theology, perhaps it might be worth comparing it to other related contexts. These contexts have a number of similar obstacles to women’s progress, although not quite to the same extent as evangelicalism.
For instance, an apt comparison might be with the representation of women at the top of the field of theology more generally, not just evangelical theology. While I suspect that more women would be on a list of the top 100 theologians of the past fifty years than would be on a list of the top 100 evangelical theologians of the past fifty years, I doubt that the overall balance would be that markedly changed. There are obviously some incredibly brilliant female theologians working today (I am presently reading books by Sarah Coakley and Catherine Pickstock, for instance, both of whom are top notch theological minds), but the field is still male-dominated. Furthermore, the number of famous female theologians who are famous for contributions to the field beyond the area of feminist theology is much more limited.
Another apt comparison might be with philosophy. Both theological and philosophical discourse can tend to adopt similar rhetorical and disputational forms. There are many other overlaps between the interests and culture of the two disciplines. I suspect that, if you compiled a list of the most influential philosophers of the last fifty years, much the same pattern would emerge. It is interesting to notice that both theology and philosophy have about the same male to female ratio at the PhD level, both being around 70% male. Like many other disciplines, once you break down theology into sub-disciplines the imbalance is often even starker. As I mentioned earlier, women can often be channelled into feminist theology, which often strikes me as, if not a ghetto, more peripheral to the wider field.
Problems with Inclusion
The successful entrance of women into such a world will typically lead to a call for some significant readjustments in order to accommodate them, some of which will seem quite demanding for those within. Certain of these changes will likely face resistance. As theology has historically been overwhelmingly male, it has come to develop a strongly male atmosphere and culture, one which still pervades in the present. Once again, this isn’t designed to be exclusionary but is typically a way of enjoying togetherness. However, it is very difficult for any woman to break into.
As a challenge to this atmosphere and its dynamics may genuinely make the prevailing forms of community and interaction within many theological groups difficult to sustain, the inclusion of women may not always be welcome. People may rightly appreciate and fear that the changes being called for may come at a heavy cost. Some of these changes may irreparably alter the form of evangelical theological community and discourse, sometimes in ways that may not be for the better.
I do not believe that this concern should lightly be dismissed. Many of us have recognized the sorts of changes that have occurred in other contexts and fields as they have sought to be more inclusionary. We have seen the development of a preoccupation with identity politics in many circles, a preoccupation which tends to ghettoize fields of enquiry, foster hermeneutics of suspicion, and normalize ad hominems directed at critics. We have also seen the concern for inclusion and validation increasingly standing in the way of the sort of forceful but civil disputation and discourse that used to be more characteristic of academia. We have seen the way that punches must be pulled as sensitive subjectivities become widespread in fields. We have seen the way that offence-taking closes conversations down. We have also seen the hyper-politicization of discourse, where concern to get the politics of discourse begins to eclipse the quest for truth.
None of this is a new problem, of course. The place of women in public oral disputation has been regarded as a problem for millennia. While we could lightly dismiss such concerns as misogynistic, the fact remains that we are still uncomfortable with subjecting women to the sort of confrontational and agonistic discourse that has historically been characteristic of much of academia and of men’s interactions more generally. Just as many of us dislike the idea of women on the frontline, feeling an instinctive urge to protect and not to subject women to such conflict, so the urge to protect women and not to fight them tends to affect the way that academic discourse is engaged in. The resultant change in the form of academic discourse can make it much less effective at its primary end.
This should lead us to pose some counter-questions. To what extent should the absence of women in the field of theology be considered a problem? Is equal gender presence in every field of human activity really such a good thing? To what extent should the discipline adapt to accommodate women and to what extent should women be encouraged to accommodate themselves to the discipline in something fairly similar to its current form?
The Need for Representation
‘Representation’ is a word that is frequently introduced into such conversations. We are told that women are not ‘represented’ within theology. What I would like to see is a little closer discussion of what exactly representation means or entails. Despite the fact that the issue is so frequently raised, it is seldom unpacked or explored. Considering how many assumptions exist about the concept of representation in our culture and how powerful the influence of these assumptions can be, I would like to see a little more work done in unpacking them.
Perhaps the first question that must be asked concerns the extent to which the representation of women and minorities is relevant to the ostensive tasks of the discipline of theology. I think that most would agree that some degree of representation (whatever we understand this term to mean) is important here. What is less clear is how significant it is.
I have had extended conversations with some who seem to believe that the theological understanding of the Anglophone church is overwhelmingly conditioned by its whiteness and maleness and that all of our understanding is distorted as a result. I find such a position quite unpersuasive, as it seems vastly to overstate the degree to which one’s understanding of the realities under discussion in theology are conditioned by one’s gendered, racial, or economic vantage point (a vantage point within the life of the Church does, however, condition a lot). Exactly how my maleness leads me to misunderstand, say, the Eucharistic theology of Luke, the operation of the Levitical system, or the historical development of Trinitarian orthodoxy is far from clearly apparent to me.
Is the purpose of representation directly related to our achievement of the ostensive end of the discipline of theology? Is the discipline of theology as it currently stands in some sense invalidated by the absence of women? Do we need lots more women primarily because it means that we will understand God and his truth so much better? Alternatively, is it directed towards the more general end of making the discipline of theology something that the broader constituency of the church can more immediately identify with and to encourage a situation in which a wider pool of theological talent can be drawn upon?
Sharpening this point, to what extent does the discipline of theology need representation and could broader representation even be a liability? In order to perform its primary task, does it need people to identify with the race and gender of its primary practitioners? If we are speaking about representation in the sense needed for identification, is there a danger that a quest for such representation will distract theology from its primary object and draw it into a potentially narcissistic preoccupation with its own subjective vantage points?
A male preference for theology seems to be fairly consistent with the male preference for related subjects such as philosophy. Other disciplines exhibit significant gender imbalances, often in the other direction. As already suggested, one of the factors may be the mode of theological and philosophical discourse, which can be more combative and disputational, bad ideas being rooted out fairly aggressively. If the composition of the discipline of theology markedly changed, is there the potential that it would become less effective, as its very mode of discourse might start to shift?
Could this preoccupation with ‘representation’ also be a theological liability as the catholicity of Christian theology is compromised or abandoned? Instead of doing theology for the Church, we risk starting to do theology for our own identity grouping instead, corroding the unity of the faith. In place of theology for a whole community, community is fragmented into identities, between which no theological voice can truly mediate, but each must speak for themselves alone.
What is Representation?
What exactly is ‘representation’? This question isn’t asked enough. Is representation a matter of effective advocacy for viewpoints? If this is the case, then it should be noticed that the most effective advocate is often not someone who belongs to the group that is being advocated for at all. A trained lawyer would be a better representative of my position than I would be in a courtroom situation, for instance. Our political and legal system are built upon concepts of representation within which the need for subjective identification with our representatives is not traditionally given such an emphasis.
In this sense, ‘representation’ doesn’t demand that the group being represented need be an immediate party to the conversation. The more popular understanding of representation, by contrast, seems to proceed on the assumption that it entails the direct presence of the represented party within the conversation itself. However, this is more commonly assumed than argued for. To what extent do we need to identify in a more immediate and personal sense with our leaders in order for them to represent us?
Even in the more popular sense, what exactly counts as representation? For instance, do we need equal numbers of women to men in politics for it to be ‘representative’? Is this position not at risk of suggesting that gender is a category that takes precedence over all others and is absolutely integral to the interests that are being represented in our politics? A politician is far more than just their gender, but represents a vast array of different concerns and interests, most of which have no direct relationship to their gender, many of which belong to identities that are not their own, and some of which even belong to the other gender.
When it comes to representation, identification can even prove a liability. For instance, to what extent is a female politician typical of women more generally? When we presume that it is shared identity that qualifies us for representation, we can forget the gulf that can exist between us and other people who apparently share our identity. I am often made acutely aware of the fact that I am not a typical Christian nor am I a typical man in many respects (and that there isn’t even such a thing as a typical Christian or a typical man in most cases). Consequently, I must learn to sensitize myself to others, recognize their needs, and appreciate their sense of identity in order to represent them and to advocate for their concerns. My possession of a Y chromosome doesn’t automatically qualify me to speak for my sex. When we recognize our difference with other people and our need to listen to them and understand them in order to advocate for them we are often at an advantage when compared to people who presume right be virtue of shared gender.
In the field of theology, most of the questions that are explored are explored in a manner representative of more general Christian concern (or perhaps the concern of a particular denomination or tradition), not concern that is explicitly male or female. In fact, one could even make a case that, with the extensive work of feminist theologians and others, specifically female concerns may be far more widely and explicitly represented in many theological contexts and conversations than specifically male ones.
Like politicians who don’t just represent one gender, it seems to me that the calling of the theologian is to do theology for the whole church, while recognizing that there are particular localized concerns within that body. It is not my calling to do theology for white Englishmen, but to do theology within and for the catholicity of the Church. Much as the Jewish Apostle Paul could advocate for specifically Gentile concerns, there is no reason why the localized concerns of parties within the larger body of the Church can’t be represented and advocated for by some other party.
Representation at the Table
How much representation is enough? Is it sufficient that perspectives of women that might be relevant to a given theological issue be mentioned in a broader conversation, even if they are mentioned by a man? How many women need to be immediately present in order for the viewpoints of women that might be relevant to the theological conversations in hand be heard? If a group of theologians are aware of and alert to the concerns of women, is it necessary that women be among them? Is the fact that there is only one woman on the list of most influential evangelical theologians sufficient proof that the concerns of women are not being represented in the field? Besides, do the top figures in every field always reflect its broader composition? Is there really a straightforward way that we could ensure the presence of women or of minorities among the geniuses at the top of a discipline, even if we wanted to?
Besides, is it even desirable to have a representative of every ‘subjectivity’ present at the table? Theological discourse is an elite conversation. It is a conversation for privileged persons and, in many respects, it presupposes the privilege of its participants. Being a theologian presupposes immense academic privilege, a privilege that only a tiny fraction of the Church’s members enjoy. Given the measure of this privilege, it can be hard for others to identify with your subjectivity, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t represent and advocate for them. Recognizing our privilege should give us a deeper sense of our responsibility.
In order successfully to have a challenging and combative conversation, one must also have a certain sense of one’s own security, in order not to take it personally. Such a secure identity is, for the most part, a preserve of the privileged. This isn’t just academic privilege, but is also social privilege. A thick skin is not so easy to come by when you feel that you are under threat.
A corollary of the points previously made is that the lack of academic and social privilege can be a liability for the integrity of theological discourse. When people lack the training to think at the highest level, the theological conversation is held back. Likewise, when people lack the capacity to sustain forceful disputation, theological discourse is also limited as a result, positions being protected from challenge on account of the heightened sensitivities of their advocates.
We recognize the importance of privileged advocates in the realm of law: I believe that we should also recognize it in the realm of theology.
I would suggest that the sort of representation that we need may be less a matter of including equal numbers of all groups at the table of theological conversation. Rather it may be an issue of maintaining a ‘conversation between conversations’, ensuring that the discourse of theology is always attentive to and sensitive to the needs and concerns of those within the Church, whoever they may be. Like the politician, the theologian has a duty to get to know his constituency and its members. He needs to appreciate the gulf that can exist between him and some on whose behalf he speaks. The mere sharing of some feature of identity with some marginalized group can blind us to the scale of our privilege. Recognizing the gulf, he must then listen and be attentive to those on the other side. It is such attention and conversation that will make him effective in the conversation of academic theology itself.
This process of hearing and of advocacy doesn’t mean that everything that a disadvantaged or vulnerable group holds must be affirmed or validated. One of the purposes of such advocacy is to subject such positions to the sort of rigorous challenge by which they must be tested, without thereby directly attacking the vulnerable persons in whose name they are advanced. When sensitive subjectivities are directly present at the table, such necessary discourse tends to break down.
All of this, I believe, pushes us to recognize that the role of the theologian as an advocate requires him to have deep roots within the Church. Being a part of a church where you are regularly exposed to and sensitized to the concerns of women, minorities, the poor, and other nationalities can accomplish much of the necessary exposure to other viewpoints and checking of our own. This is the theologian’s ‘constituency’ and detachment from it is a great liability. The theologian is principally called to operate on behalf of this constituency as a whole, rather than merely an identity grouping within it.
What might the Greater Representation and/or Presence of Women in Theology Change?
I have suggested a distinction between representation and direct identification. I have suggested that women can properly be represented within theology without being equally present within it as theologians. What could the greater representation of women’s concerns within theology change? Here are a few suggestions:
1. If theologians started to speak on behalf of and to represent the concerns of women more, women might identify more with the realm of theological discourse, appreciating it more fully as something that is done in their name as members of the Church. This could lead to greater theological interest among women.
2. Certain blindspots in our theological visions might be exposed as we became more attentive to other viewpoints within the Church.
3. New areas of theological interest and enquiry might be opened up.
4. The weight of theological interest and enquiry might be shifted in some areas. A greater sensitivity to certain aspects of theology might arise (for instance, the theological importance of the body).
5. A greater realization of the degree to which our theological vision is contingent upon our identities might be encouraged.
If, in addition to the greater representation of their concerns in theology, women were also more present and active within the theological conversation itself, most of these effects would be heightened and a number of further things might follow:
6. There would be more role models for young women who might otherwise not get involved in theology or continue in it.
7. More female and female-friendly contexts of theological discourse would arise or be developed.
8. There might be an increased preoccupation within the discipline of theology with its own constituent subjectivities.
9. Some changes to the mode of theological discourse might occur.
Many of these things strike me as positive or even extremely positive. However, there are definitely areas of concern here, concerns that I have laid out in more detail above.
At this point I am going to throw it open to you. How do you think that evangelical theology—and theology more generally—could be more welcoming to women? If your daughter showed an aptitude for or interest in theology, how do you believe that you or your church could encourage her in her earliest theological interest and development? In what specific ways would you like to see the evangelical theological and church world change to accommodate her?
What are some of the ways that evangelical theology and the Church more generally could benefit from a greater involvement of women? Do you believe that there are any legitimate concerns that can be raised about the potential changes that might result from a greater inclusion of women? If so, what do you believe that they are? If not, how could the concerns that others raise be answered?
How ought we to understand the representative task of Christian theology? How best can we ensure that the concerns of all parties within the Church are represented, while securing the integrity of the theological endeavour?
I probably won’t be commenting much (if at all), but I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.