Women, Theology, and Representation

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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37 Responses to Women, Theology, and Representation

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    A few points:
    1. The expectation that the man’s career will be primary cuts both ways. I know some female creative writing types, and a lack of career expectations frees them to do, shall we say, less remunerative work.
    1a. This reminds me of Roy Baumeister’s argument that women produced fewer musical compositions than men (even impoverished black men) over the past 200 years, despite considerable investment in (priviliged) musical education for women. Do women just not have an interest in theology?
    2. Women actually don’t seem to have trouble producing books in general, and not just fluff, but often, say, literary work of a very high order.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      1. My point here is that full involvement in the academic guild can be a demanding career path, one that could not easily be undertaken if one’s career weren’t given priority within the marriage. As you say, this does cut both ways, and women can be freed to do less remunerative work or to enjoy a greater degree of leisure and freedom to pursue other interests (at least when there are not primary child-minders). However, while this might allow them to enjoy the leisure to study and explore theology and areas of Christian ministry, it is unlikely to give them the possibility to progress far in the guild.

      1a. What interest that women have in theology relative to men is very difficult to ascertain in a situation where women’s interest is not encouraged or provided for in the same way as men’s. I also think that it is important to distinguish between two sets of concerns: a) the interest and involvement of women in theology more generally; b) how to make theology a welcoming and supportive place for those women who are interested, even if they only ever are a very small minority. While we can speculate about the first of these two issues, the second is a far more immediate and pressing practical concern.

      I am not sure whether or not Baumeister makes the connection—it has been a while since I read him on the subject—but I think that a crucial issue here is one that goes beyond ability and also beyond motivation, while not being unrelated to it (Baumeister focuses on motivation, if memory serves). I would argue that the difference is not principally located in men or women as individuals, but in the more typical dynamics of male and female groups, dynamics that we can often be trapped within, even when we might prefer the dynamic of another group.

      It seems to me that improvisation, much like certain forms of theological discourse, is a practice that tends to be encouraged in certain forms of groups and less so in others. Also, as we are formed by the sort of groups to which we belong, these behaviours can be encouraged or discouraged in us. My suspicion is that improvisation would be encouraged in groups that place more of an emphasis upon standing out rather than fitting in or conforming (even if spectacularly) to expectations, groups which reward and privilege members who are independent achievers and break new ground, groups that foster more ritually combative or playfully sparring interactions, groups where risk-taking is celebrated, groups that like to push members to play to their strengths, groups where highly visible inequalities of achievement and hierarchies are not avoided, groups where frequent personal affirmation of all members is not required, groups that tend to be more task- or idea-oriented and where personal relations are more mediated by the shared endeavour or discussion, rather than independent of and threatened by it, etc. I would suggest that these group traits are generally more common among male groups and, consequently, the corresponding behaviours also.

      Similar group traits seem to be characteristic of the most stimulating contexts of theological discourse that I have been a part of. The theological conversation often serves as a mode of interpersonal bonding. I wonder whether this is a predominantly male preference to bond in such a manner—through shared struggle or shared focus on some external activity or subject, rather than more immediately. However, whether it is science fiction, sport, music, politics, theology, art, comic books, science, cars, or computers, men often seem to show a preference for bonding through shared interests or obsessions and like to be pushed and to push others to their limits in interactions.

      In the most stimulating contexts of theological interaction I have encountered, people are forceful, but civil. There is a lot of sparring and you need quick wits and a thick skin. Your weaknesses will often be exposed, so you need to sharpen your thinking and your arguments. However, through it you discover each other’s strengths and can develop a deep and lasting respect for others (I suspect that if some people were aware of the history of our interactions, they might be surprised that we continue to enjoy sparring with and bouncing ideas off each other, as we have had a number of intense and very lengthy disagreements in the past!). In such contexts, people are pushed to their limits and a few will break. However, most are strengthened as they are tested in such a manner.

      I may be wrong, but my guess would be that women’s groups don’t generally have this sort of dynamic, nor do they enjoy rougher, more competitive, more confrontational, more combative, or disjunctive interactions (interactions that create winners or losers or which produce social imbalances) as much. As a result, theological discussion is not so easily practiced within them, even when women within the groups may be passionately interested in theology.

      The same thing is true when a woman joins a group of men. In such situations, I often feel an urge to start pulling my punches, to throw in more affirmations to soften any potential blow, and even to protect her from the attacks of others, unless of course I know that the woman in question is fine with the type of discourse that was occurring before she joined. I can imagine that this is incredibly frustrating for many women, who want the more vigorous and charged form of interaction—I would certainly be frustrated if I were in their shoes. However, as the social repercussions of hurting a woman are very different from those of hurting a man, I dare not take the risk. I have been in a number of situations where a woman hasn’t been able to take it and have learned that guys can’t really afford to take risks here.

      It seems to me that this dynamic is one reason why guys can often prefer discourse with other guys and why women may even need to become like ‘honorary males’ in order to participate. This is obviously a problem, but I am not sure how it is resolved. On the one hand, abandoning the dynamic would take the edge out of many conversations, the very thing that sharpens our thinking (and the dynamic that attracts many of us to the conversations in the first place). On the other, retaining the dynamic can make women’s participation complicated. Neither seems like a real solution to me.

      2. Definitely. The issue is certainly not lack of ability.

      • Andrew W says:

        If this is you “not commenting much”, please continue to do so. It’s very interesting. 😉

      • Lol! Commenting was a little too much of a temptation. 🙂

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        it is unlikely to give them the possibility to progress far in the guild.

        Is it necessary, though, to be part of the guild? It might be harder to get a first book published without an academic position, but, if you put out important work, in most cases it will find an audience eventually. It seems to me highly likely that the time to think, read and write is more important in the long run.

        My point about women putting out books isn’t simply that women have the ability, but that they also have the time to think and write. They are also pretty clearly able to get published.

        The most interesting of independent scholars I know is Ellen Dissanayake.

      • It is possible to succeed outside of the guild and independent scholars can produce some superb work. However, being outside of the guild puts you at a very significant disadvantage and would probably severely curtail the scope and scale of your influence.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        It might be easier on women who did outside scholarship if there were a critical mass of female independent scholars.

      • Or a critical mass of independent scholars period.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        There is such an ecosystem in poetry and fiction, created just by women.

      • Victoria P says:

        Might I make just a few comments from experience?
        1a. During my BA (foreign languages and literature) at Warwick University, I do not ever recall being treated differently on account of me being a woman when we had lively debate and discussion on points of philosophy, neither by my professors nor by my peers (almost all of whom were not Christians). We were all there to think and learn to defend our points with greater integrity and clarity – cutting critique played a natural part in that and I relished it. The same went for my involvement in apologetics in the Christian Union and for the systematic theology classes my church held for students. I also come from a home that talks (and debates) politics and theology, so maybe I have grown up with this kind of environment too.
        While a student, I can recall my arguments being critiqued, at times torn down, other times affirmed, occasionally ridiculed and often expanded upon. In all of these situations, the groups were mixed sex. In church and the CU, my background in philosophy, theology and languages actually placed me in better stead when it came to dismantling an opposing argument than some of my male peers, because I had practiced a skill set they hadn’t and also read theological and philosophical authors they hadn’t – some were engineers or mathematicians. But I had even better debate with men who had a similar skill set and understanding of theology (or higher) because we could go deeper in and challenge ourselves more.
        I only came across the issues described in your article in the last few years, the first time being in a part-time theology course in Germany (I moved here) where I was the only female learning New Testament Greek. Since the men were already meeting for Bible study and training with our main tutor, it was decided they would also use that time to practice their Greek. I was not invited, though I could have done with the practice in a group. I was also viewed with a great deal of suspicion by a number of my younger male peers, who went out of their way not to engage with me. As things progressed, it also became clear that they were receiving opportunities to practice teaching and had the scope/time to think through ideas with our tutor that were simply not available to me because there were no opportunities for women to do so. I was encouraged (verbally at least) to continue studying by my tutor, however I was not practically offered the inclusion and support I required to really encourage me to continue. I did quit in the end, partly due to work commitments, but also because I was deeply discouraged – I had a mind and heart to think more about and apply high theological concepts but saw the endeavour (at least at that time) as too lonely and rather aimless.
        Things have changed for me since, and I hope to study again soon, though at quite a large cost to myself. My point is simply this: In a mixed sex university and UK-church environment, the debate and thrashing out of arguments was no less incisive or clarifying. The same went for the group theology classes in Germany in which I was the only woman. The similarity in both situations was that the tutors both taught and demanded theological rigour. They created the space and opportunity for it. What made the crucial difference was that I was treated as an outsider to the pack in other social and practical ways in Germany. Whereas at university and in my church in the UK there was a level playing ground, the theology school was notably bent towards the needs of the men. This in itself created a boy’s club culture which, rather than improving theological rigour, played into some of the social tendencies of men.
        It is true that some women are not able to take the kind of thrashing out of ideas that men are able to. But actually, not all men are able to either. I have met formidable female thinkers in Germany who are raring to get stuck into some hard theology and engage with the arguments. The trouble is not that they can’t “take it”; they’re not expected to be that way as women and they are just not given a chance. I wish I could put more of my experience down to differences between German and British culture, but as the school was being run mainly by an Australian theologian and attended by other English speakers as well, I doubt it was.

        As to theological conversation being a mode of interpersonal bonding: That’s not predominantly male in my experience, I think it depends greatly on the circles you are in.
        And on “men often seem to show a preference for bonding through shared interests or obsessions and like to be pushed and to push others to their limits in interactions”: As a more obsessive thinker and curious poser of questions, I don’t really feel any different to this in how I form lasting friendships. Only the difference for me lately has been that some male peers are intimidated by this, so it is their behaviour toward me that changes, not mine.

  2. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    While it doesn’t address the concern, I’m curious how many Balthasar-Adrienne von Speyr like pairs show up on the list with only the male half named.

    One could also ask where the people who correspond to, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, or Elizabeth of the Trinity, who aren’t exactly theologians, but aren’t exactly not theologians either are on the list.

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  4. “…who aren’t exactly theologians, but aren’t exactly not theologians either…” This is an important consideration; how are we defining “theologian”? An academic? a professor? A writer? A pastor? A person who makes his/her living by theology?

    Really appreciate you opening up this conversation, Alastair. (And on an anectdotal note, you’re spot on about how academically inclined women are lost in the church–in the past, I’ve found myself almost apologizing for entering theological discussions happening among men in local church context. I’m talking about simple discussions that are happening in vestibule or SS class, not organized study groups.)

    • Thanks for the comment, Hannah.

      The loose working definition of ‘theologian’ that I have been working with in this conversation is a person who does theology that participates in and influences the theological conversation of the guild. This would rule out popularizers, most writers, and almost all pastors.

      While we might focus upon the difficulties that women can find entering contexts of formal theological discourse, I think that the struggle that women face entering contexts of informal theological discourse is far more concerning.

      When I think back upon my theological formation, for instance, I can see that it began long before any formal academic training. From an early age, I was exposed to theological conversation as a serious activity that men bonded over, I started informal Bible studies with a couple of young guys in my church in my teens, I used to read through and discuss theology volumes with others, we had extensive face-to-face interactions with cult groups, I was participating in several online forums, I started blogging, I used to have practice preaching evenings with other guys.

      By the time that I did start formal theological training, I was already fairly familiar with the field and had a huge head start on most of my peers, especially the women, who hadn’t had the same opportunities (reading this article recently, it occurred to many that many of the same points could apply to theology). As an undergraduate I would scout out postgrads and interrogate them about their theses, forming friendships in the process. I would bond with other guys through talking theology into the early hours.

      While there were women in a number of these groups and activities, the activities themselves were male-dominated and generally operated according to male models of interaction. The core group also tended to be male, which meant that, while the guys remained together, the women would often be separated from the group to do things with other women. As guys we also often played football together, which was another level of bonding that the women couldn’t directly participate in.

      Most of the great theological minds I know personally started in their teens, have theology as their hobby and passion, and bond with others through theology. It is the informal contexts that made this possible, not so much the formal ones. Even when in formal education, much of the education and networking occurs in informal contexts: in late night conversations, study sessions, sports, blogging, forums, email discussion lists, etc. and many of these things are incredibly gendered. Without access to these contexts, it will be hard to compete with those within them. A woman seeking to be a part will probably feel isolated from her female peers—who will be having other conversations and activities without her—and never fully a member of the male group.

      It seems to me that addressing this problem might be the most pressing issue of all.

      • Marissa says:

        Why not have like-minded females group together and form their own theological society? (I use the term loosely, not like an actual sorority, but its own wide-ranging organization.). With the popularity of the internet, women can connect with those other rare, abstract thinkers of their sex. The inclusion of women into mostly male-only spaces tends to end in lowered standards and emasculated discourse, from software courses and college campuses in general to firefighting and the military. Why can’t women do “separate not equal” like the way most Olympic sports are set up? Women don’t compete against men because they are different. Women’s brains and souls are clearly different from men’s, if you take neuroscience and the Bible at face value. In the case of female theologians in male spaces, it seems to come dangerously close to violating Paul’s prohibition on women speaking in church. If the woman is married, it seems to be a subversion of the husband’s headship and his command to wash his wife–the weaker vessel–in the Word.

        I don’t understand the rush to inclusion and diversity for its own sake but I don’t mind anyone clarifying their position.

      • Thanks for the comment, Marissa.

        A few thoughts in response.

        First, while I agree that men and women are different, I think that we are far more alike than we are different and that the major differences lie elsewhere, on a different level. God created woman, not so much as the opposite sex to man, but as the neighbouring sex. I also think that there is a danger of overstating the differences between men and women’s brains, not only because the neuroscientific evidence in this area is disputed, but also because two brains, even if wired differently, may still be perfectly capable of doing the same task in much the same way. It is also important to recognize that there is a lot of variation among both men and women and plenty of overlap between them.

        Second, I believe that men and women have a lot to learn from each other and that, although male and female-only groups have their place, some of the most exciting things happen when there is interaction between the sexes. I agree that there may be problems with the dynamics in such mixed groups, which cannot always sustain the same sort of discourse that exists in male-dominated groups. That said, while their inclusion may be trickier, there are plenty of women who are capable of operating perfectly well within or adapting themselves to a more typically male form of discourse and plenty of men who can go in the other direction.

        Also, while the sort of discourse that comes more naturally to a male group has its place, it is hardly the only form that theological discourse should take. What I would encourage is overlapping conversations in conversation. I think that we would all lose out if gifted women were prevented from participating in theological discourse alongside men.

        Third, I believe that men and women both tend to have blindspots which will cause problems if they carry out their conversations in isolation from each other. Interacting with the other sex can strengthen and broaden our grip on reality and God’s truth. The comparison of the practice of theology with sport can be misleading, I believe. Theology ought to be a unified activity of the church. While there are distinct conversations within it, I believe that we are all contributing to a larger Conversation. This is why I am concerned that we don’t have a situation where men and women are segregated from each other, even though distinctions may exist and some conversations be weighted this way or that.

        In my experience, contexts where the sexes are highly segregated can often bring out the worst in each sex, which is why I would like to encourage plenty of interaction between the sexes alongside single sex contexts. While there is a danger of lowered standards and emasculated discourse when integration is handled poorly, it can also have the positive effect of civilizing and reducing the aggression of certain male conversations and thickening the skins of some women who might otherwise be far too sensitive.

        For instance, as I have already mentioned in another comment, my observation is that male and female conversations online tend towards different sets of concerns. I suggested that female conversations tend to be far more alert to the subjective, relational, communal, and contextual dimensions of issues. While such conversations, if left to themselves, are at risk of failing to see the larger issues of truth and right that are at play, male conversations can often face different dangers. Male conversations can risk becoming so abstract and logic-oriented, detached from, and insensitive to the way that ideas play themselves out in people’s lives that great cruelties can be done in the name of truth.

        While I often have sharp differences with the beliefs of those within them, I have learnt a lot from listening to women’s conversations around a number of issues such as the Church’s teaching on the subject of sex. Even technically true teaching can be taught in a way that has a poisonous effect on people’s lives. While I don’t want to sacrifice the truth in the name of sensitivity, I am increasingly alert (though still not alert enough) to the need to give careful thought to the ways that subjectivities are shaped or distorted and how things that are technically true can, if not expressed in a manner that is considerate of this fact, instil toxic messages. As I become more aware of my blindspots, I recognize that I have much to learn from women, their conversations, and their experiences. For instance, nowadays I run a considerable amount of what I write past my girlfriend before I ever consider pressing ‘publish’. She can pick up on many things that I miss. She can also more than hold her own in any male conversation (she is doing her PhD in a male dominated subject in Cambridge, a university with a pronounced male dynamic to many of its interactions) and these conversations would not be emasculated by her inclusion, as she is quite tough enough able to play by the same rules. Not every woman can do this, of course, but those who can are invaluable.

        There is a good reason why the wife is presented as the chief counsellor of her husband at various points in Scripture and why Wisdom is presented as a woman.

        Fourth, I think that the prohibition on women speaking comes in two contexts. 1. Women are not permitted to participate in the public and authoritative cross-examination and judging of the prophets (1 Corinthians 14), a sort of interaction that is more confrontational and which would be more complex if it was thrown open to men and women in the same way; 2. Women are not permitted to teach or usurp (pastoral) authority over men within the formal covenant service of the Church (1 Timothy 2). Much of Christian teaching occurs outside of these contexts, though. Within these various other contexts, men have much to learn from women and we would be foolish not to allow them to teach us in various ways. This teaching is not the same thing as the formal and institutional authoritative teaching of the Church that is at issue in 1 Timothy 2.

        There is no reason why someone cannot be the ‘head’ and still be taught by others. Kings are taught and advised by wise counsellors, counsellors who usually know a great deal more than the one they are teaching. I have no formal authority in the Church, but people with pastoral authority can learn from me. A woman theologian doesn’t usurp the authoritative teaching position of the pastor by teaching them the way of God more fully, nor does the wife usurp the headship of her husband by advising him with her superior knowledge and wisdom in various areas. If husbands and pastors have sense they will listen to such advisers and use their authority in a way that ‘submits’ to being led by the gifts that God has given to other members of the body.

      • Marissa says:

        Thank you for the thoughtful and intelligent response, Alastair. That’s good stuff to chew on for a while.

      • I appreciate your recognizing the significance of the “informal” dimension of this conversation. The local church is where most of us first engage in “theology” and therefore has tremendous ability to shape how view theological discourse. If a women is taught (subtly or not so) that theology is a “man’s world,” she is unlikely to develop her own theological instincts. And even less likely to pursue formal theological training.

        Also, as an aside, a friend told me recently that she believes that the abundance of women’s para-church organizations (like conferences, online studies, even blogging) can be traced to the failure of local churches to have robust women’s ministries. We will hire a a man with an MDiv degree to head up a youth ministry that has 20 teenagers; but we rarely think to hire a trained woman to lead women’s discipleship groups. So discipleship gets outsourced–women can’t find it in the church and so gifted women end up teaching outside of the church and amass followers.

      • Interesting point about the parachurch, Hannah. That is worth reflecting upon.

        One of the things that I have suggested here before is that the biblical pattern is one with women ministers in every church. Unfortunately, the entire framing of ministry in Protestantism is off (I discussed this in terms of priestly and prophetic ministry in a recent post). ‘The minister’ is the preacher—one man—and his ministry is seen primarily as an act of public speaking.

        Sight is lost of the primacy of priestly and pastoral ministry and the fact that Scripture tends to give women a lot more of an established role here. While we regard pastoral work as gender neutral, Scripture recognizes the importance of women exercising pastoral leadership over other women, under the (male) pastoral leadership within Church more generally. In other words, every church should have women exercising some sort of recognized pastoral role. Sadly, this role has largely been abandoned.

        People read passages like 1 Timothy 2 and presume that it must rule out women from a pastoral role. What they fail to attend to is that it forbids women to teach or usurp authority over a man while nothing is said against women exercising pastoral leadership over women. Elder women are given a role corresponding to that which the pastor exercises with respect to the men in places such as Titus 2:3-4 and Titus himself leaves that task to them. These figures would be like Miriam was among the children of Israel—a leader of the congregation alongside Moses and Aaron (cf. Micah 6:4), who had particular responsibility for teaching and leading the women.

  5. Kim Shay says:

    I echo Hannah’s question. Do you pre-suppose that the woman who likes theology wants to make a living with it? I certainly have no aspirations, but I want to study it more. I’ve sat in numerous social situations where the women are all talking about decorating and the men are talking about theology. I am bored with the former, but excluded by the latter.

    • Thanks for the question, Kim.

      As this conversation was prompted by a list of the most influential academic evangelical theologians of the past fifty years, this has provided the background for my discussion of the practice of theology here. However, as I mentioned in response to Hannah’s question, there are a whole raft of problems on a broader level, as women cannot easily access informal contexts of theological discourse. Without access to such informal contexts they are less likely to enter the formal contexts and less likely to be able to excel within them.

      These problems don’t just disadvantage women who aspire to be trained theologians, but also disadvantage every woman who takes an interest in the subject. Obviously such a situation is one that we should be aware of and concerned about. How to address it is not always so clear. If you have any thoughts on that front, I would be interested to hear your perspective.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Might this be mitigated by the internet though. I certainly know that many of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I’ve been involved with have been mediated by the internet, rather than in person, and I suspect men would be more comfortable being confrontational with a woman online than in person. Yet, women on the whole don’t exactly seem keen to enter these discussions online either.

      • I find this to be the case. I feel like gender is less of an issue when I’m engaging online than it is in person–there is a certain distance that allows us to focus on the topic instead of the social conventions that accompany a mixed group. (At least, I don’t feel the need to apologize for discussing certain topics online whereas in person, I still question whether men are actually hearing me or simply being polite.)

      • Yes, the Internet can make a huge difference. The blog, for instance, can be a democratizing medium. I was surprised to discover that a number of professors were reading my blog even while I was an undergraduate. Conversations are generally more open online, resources are more accessible, and the means by which to publicize oneself and one’s opinions are widely available. It enables greater interaction between conversations that would previously have been separated.

        It also enables people that would previously have been isolated from each other to network, explore common identities, and develop movements. I think that this has been especially important for many women in the Church.

        I still think that the same dynamics of conversation largely apply, though, and sometimes these dynamics can be exacerbated. Merely observe the different conversational dynamics in the comments across a range of different blogs, forums, and Twitter interactions and I think that the same pattern would emerge. For instance, this description of the ‘ladyblog’ is definitely reminiscent of a number of contexts in the Christian blogosphere.

        People also tend to be drawn into the conversations of their immediate peers and in many ways the Internet can heighten some of the mechanisms of peer pressure. Sometimes the Internet can be akin to a massive playground, with all of the petty and reactive politics that we would associate with that. It also can make it harder to escape from your social peers. Isolation may detach you from others, but it also has the benefit of keeping you away from their dynamics. On the Internet it can be increasingly hard to keep contexts detached. In the social web (a reality that is a particularly powerful factor amongst women, I believe), we increasingly think and process things as groups, rather than as more reflective individuals (older forms of blogging ‘aerate’ conversations in a way that Facebook and Twitter don’t).

        As women’s more immediate social groups will tend to be composed of women, I imagine that it would be very hard for them to detach themselves from the sorts of conversations that are occurring among women online and from the dynamics that characterize them and to participate in predominantly male conversations. If your immediate friendship group cannot sustain the sort of dynamics involved, you may find yourself unable to participate. For instance, a woman who blogs, knowing that most of her friends who follow her are women, will always have that in the back of her mind when she thinks about the subjects upon which she will blog and how she will speak about them. Even if you can sustain the dynamic of conversation, you increasingly have to wonder whether your friendship groups can do so too, or whether they will be put off by it.

        While I would very much love to see more women involved in broader theological conversations—and this is happening in some quarters—my general observation (and I could be wrong here) is that, for the most part, this isn’t taking place. In my experience, when writing upon theological issues, women’s blogs tend to focus upon issues specifically related to women and their identities, feminism, sex and sexualities, more immediately contextual questions, and personal piety. The concerns seem to be those associated with subjectivities and identities, relationships, and immediate contexts. These are all incredibly important issues. However, with a few notable exceptions, I see very little reflection upon broader theoretical, philosophical, hermeneutical, and exegetical questions that constitute the bulk of the discipline of theology, while these are readily found on men’s blogs. On the exceptional occasions where these subjects are tackled, they tend to be framed by or refracted through the categories of interest mentioned above. The same thing is reflected in the Christian publishing industry: scores of books written for a predominantly female audience (all the books written for or against or beyond different forms of Christian womanhood along with a rising amount of Christian romantic fiction), while men are more likely to be directed towards general theological works.

        Where are the women blogging about the theology of the book of Leviticus, about the doctrine of the Church in the theology of Karl Barth, about the early church practice of baptism, about the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of the cross, about a Christian philosophy of gift? There are a few, but very few. One of the questions I have here is whether this is a problem of people not finding such more general theological subjects compelling for their own sake, only focusing upon them as they impact upon immediate contexts and relationships as ‘live debates’ (so, for instance, discussions about a historical Adam).

        As I suggested in one of my other comments, men bonding through shared obsessions, or having their identity radically caught up with obsessions with non-personal things, ideas, or activities may be a fairly widespread phenomenon, one that isn’t found to the same degree among women. I suspect that this might be one of the reasons why Wikipedia is overwhelmingly written by men (and the women who do participate are not typical, with well over a quarter of them being non-heterosexual). Some of the greatest driving forces of informal theological discourse are a passion for information and ideas for their own sake and a desire to bond with others through sharing and discussing them. I suspect, for instance, that the urge that drove me to memorize books of cricket statistics in my childhood, or learn every 2-5 letter word in the Scrabble dictionary, is not unrelated to my urge to read books on Pauline theology into the early hours of the morning. I may be wrong, but I suspect that such character tendencies are less commonly found among women.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        BTW I don’t mean to denigrate the importance of in-person networks.

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  7. Hannah J. says:

    Alastair, this was certainly an interesting read, especially since you are coming from the male perspective and try to take on a woman’s perspective in the first part of your post. As a woman myself (and American, which may or may not be important to point out), who studied theology in an Evangelical institution, I actually found myself extremely affirmed and encouraged by my professors (male and female). Actually, four male professors stick in my mind: one for telling me he thought I should be a pastor, and three for pulling me aside specifically to encourage me to continue in my theological studies because they saw a lot of promise. Unfortunately, outside academia and in the realm of the church, this has not been the case. I remember one male pastor who had a PhD in theology spending the night at our house and speaking directly (and only) to my husband about theology, while I was standing right there (despite the fact that I had a degree in the subject and my husband did not).

    I use these illustrations because when I read the list of 60 theologians, I thought about it in quite a different way than you. I think the list is indicative of the respondents (mostly male) and the wider audience who LEGITIMATES the voice of particular theologians. There are capable, excellent female evangelical scholars (and minority scholars as well), but we have to think about what gives a person influence. The things you pointed out are true, but beyond that, are people willing to legitimate these women evangelical scholars so that they have influence? In my own theology, I have been quite influenced by people not on that list, but perhaps the wider audience hasn’t. I think a lot has to do with what people choose to read and make a legitimate part of their own thinking (which has been influenced by all the things you mentioned…structural problems have created an environment where people don’t think they have to take women seriously, consciously or unconsciously, etc).

    I’d also like to say that many evangelical churches I know of don’t allow women pastors or elders, so perhaps that is a disincentive for women to study theology. Of course, we let women professors teach men who will be pastors, but that’s beside the point.

    And lastly, I think we could define representative, at least in the case of gender, as about 50-50, since that would reflect the population as a whole. Representation is important, because of what you pointed out: #2 especially, about blindspots. We just can’t escape our context, and yes, my context as a woman will be different than yours. While listening is helpful and necessary, I don’t think it goes quite far enough. While this may not have huge implications for the development of Trinitarian Orthodoxy, it does have implications when we think about, “Who is God for us today?” But that, of course, depends on what you think constitutes the task of theology.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      There are capable, excellent female evangelical scholars (and minority scholars as well), but we have to think about what gives a person influence.

      While there may be social factors that keep women (and minorities) from producing work in the first place, I am much more skeptical that people ignore significant work by women once it is out there in published form. Most people, even conservative Christians, are aware of top notch work in religious writing (and fiction and poetry and philosophy*) from women, so without hard evidence that people are ignoring books by women I’m extremely skeptical that they would instinctively ignore good published work just because it was by a woman. (Are conservative pastors who encourage people to read Flannery O’Connor [I’ve known a couple] really going to balk at recommending a good female theologian?)

      Besides, as you note from your own circumstances, even if a female theologian was not embraced by the church in a wider sense, they would probably stand a very good chance of becoming a theologian’s theologian, as it were. Theology professors are on the lookout for theology from talented females. Besides, long term influence tends to come out of a web of citiations and quotations. That can be a slow process, and it may take a bit longer if you don’t have certain advantages, but it generally does a good job of finding out the best work in the medium to longer term.

      *Teresa of Avila, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Anscombe leap to mind.

    • Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment, Hannah.

      The point that you raise about the legitimation of voices is definitely worth reflecting upon. I would be interested to know whether there are any names of female evangelical theologians that you think ought to be added to a list of the top 100 evangelical theologians of the past fifty years.

      I think that the concept of ‘legitimation’ needs to be unpacked a bit. Most theologians write for a fairly specialized audience, so is it theologians that are refusing to read female scholars? This really doesn’t fit with my personal experience of academia, but perhaps things are different in the US. I think that The Man Who Was raises some important points here. To refuse to read a top-notch female scholar would be foolishness for a serious academic: you would be depriving yourself.

      Regarding representation, I wonder how you would respond to some of the issues that I raise above. Also, when speaking about ‘representation’ (using your definition), should we advocate for equal representation in fields such as the social sciences, in education, or in physics? How exactly would we secure such representation, especially as men and women seem to be motivated to pursue rather different subjects? Should women be held back from pursuing education and men pushed into it and the reverse be done for theology? Is there any possibility that theology is by its nature a field that will hold more interest for men than for women? If it were, how ought we to deal with that fact? Do we really need 50/50 representation to be alerted to our blindspots?

  8. Hannah J. says:

    To the man who was…Women have been involved in the field of fiction and poetry far, far longer than in the field of evangelical theology, so I’m not sure you can make the comparison (and women often used pseudonyms in order for their work to be recognized as legitimate). Also, were you suggesting there aren’t “excellent, capable” women scholars out there in the field of evangelical theology? Cherith Fee Nordling and Leanne Van Dyk come to mind for me. It seems from your comment that you think if there were capable women scholars, they would certainly be recognized, and since they didn’t make it on the list, there aren’t capable women scholars in the field of evangelical theology. I can’t agree with that, if that’s what you’re saying, because I think it’s more nuanced than that. Hence, my comment. But I could be reading you wrong.

    I don’t think people intentionally ignore women’s work either. But men’s work certainly is the norm, as Alistair extensively discussed. And I think that plays a significant role in the reception of theology. I’m simply trying to point out the other side of the coin: that while women’s work may not be intentionally ignored, it might be overlooked because of norms. So it’s not only these norms keeping women from writing theology, but it’s also these norms that might play into how works become influential (in regards to their being legitimated as influential). Much more could be said here, but ultimately I was trying to add another dimension to the discussion.

    Alistair, I’m not sure I had anyone in mind to add to the list. Unfortunately, I agree, that if we’re defining most influential as changing or having an effect on evangelical theology in a powerful way and across a large audience, then the list is pretty comprehensive. I just wanted to point out that WHO gets to decide what is influential is important. Not all women have just been scared away from pursuing theology, so why have the ones who aren’t not making the list? I hope it’s not because we believe they are less capable of being influential. So that question for me is what prompted my comments.

    And certainly people wouldn’t want to deprive themselves of top-notch female scholarship, but it seemed to me from the list of names that most of those people became influential because they reached beyond just a specialized academic audience. And as you say, if many theologians in academia are reading female scholarship, then it gets back to my question as to why there aren’t more women on the list.

    As for representation, I do think it’s more important in the field of theology than in other fields because of the importance and nature of the subject itself. That is personal opinion though. And your challenges are good; I don’t have great answers. 50/50 might be an ideal more than a practical goal. Ultimately, people should study what they want. But again, desires can be dictated by norms (as you also pointed out).

    Thanks for taking this subject up and engaging with my response!

    • Thanks for the continued interaction, Hannah. It has been very helpful and stimulating.

      Just a note on The Man Who Was’s point: I don’t think that he was denying that there are excellent and capable women scholars in evangelical theology, just that it is unlikely that their absence from the list can be attributed to their being systematically ignored by male peers. It is also important to remember what the list is of: the most influential evangelical theologians of the past fifty years. While such a list does suggest something about the current state of the field, it is largely retrospective in character and, even if slowly, the field is changing. There are probably up-and-coming female theologians in the academy at the moment who will be on a similar list in fifty years’ time. Also, anyone on such a list is in fairly prestigious company. There are thousands of excellent and capable evangelical theologians who aren’t present on it and are no less worthy as scholars on account of that fact.

      I think that the question of representation is a particularly important one in theology. While I think that it would be beneficial for evangelical theology both to learn how to make the discipline more accessible for women and to increase the numbers of women within it, I am not convinced that 50/50 representation is an ideal. There are a few concerns that I have here, the following being some examples:

      1. Theology needs to represent the interests of many parties within the Church and most of these parties are not equipped or able to represent themselves. The suggestion that representation is only genuine where we share key identities with people we are representing, while well-meaning, strikes me as problematic. For instance, perhaps even more pressing than the need of theology to represent the interests of women is the need of theology to represent the interests of the poor and the oppressed. However, the poor and the oppressed cannot really represent themselves. Advanced theological education is a product of a fair amount of economic, academic, and social privilege and, even in the absence of systemic injustice or oppression, those from poor backgrounds will find it incredibly hard to rise to the top.

      I have taught theology to students in Myanmar and, being brutally realistic, I think that it is fair to say that it is highly unlikely that any of the students that I taught will have much influence as a theologian. They lack the infrastructure that Western theology students enjoy (they have hardly any Internet access and seminary libraries half the size of my personal library). With a poorer education system, even the best students are years behind the average student in the UK. Nor do they have many centuries of a theological tradition in their own culture and language. While we try to do what we can—sending over books and technology along with teachers—such imbalances may well persist for centuries to come.

      While one could suggest that the absence of theologians from places such as Myanmar from such a list is proof of injustice and oppression, I don’t believe that it is as simple as that. Privilege isn’t necessarily a product of injustice. The fact that we have high speed Internet connections, have built up large libraries, have well-equipped institutions, reliable infrastructure, better nutrition, a more temperate climate, more stable governments, a historically Christian culture, and more effective education systems is in most respects (though perhaps not entirely all) not a result of oppression of countries such as Myanmar. Given our advantages over them, no matter much of a leg up we seek to give them, they will almost invariably lag behind.

      I believe that privilege will always exist (as Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us) and that we should be prepared to own privilege in the interests of the underprivileged. Part of what this means is recognizing just how unrepresentative and advantaged we are as theologians and to see in this a responsibility to speak up for those who lack our privilege. By virtue of its character as a fairly elite conversation (any top level academic conversation will be elite and be virtually impossible for the vast majority of the population to access), theology will always be unrepresentative. My fear is that, if we were to assume that such things as gender parity made the discipline ‘representative’, we would forget this crucially important fact.

      2. And this point needs to be pressed home in the case of female theologians. Female theologians are not representative of women. Female theologians are overwhelmingly from middle and upper class backgrounds. The very fact that they are theologians means that they have significant academic privilege. On account of assortative mating, they will likely have spouses and social groups with similar privilege. Female theologians will not be representative of women in extreme poverty, of single mothers, of stay at home mothers, of Christian women from the two thirds world, or even of the average woman in the American church pew on a Sunday morning. The suggestion that, if 50% of theologians were women, Theology itself would be representative dulls us to the reality that female theologians are not representative of women and could never really be.

      This is why I have suggested that we should focus on the criteria of faithful advocacy rather than presence, while recognizing that faithful advocacy will also involve advocating for women who want a greater degree of access. I have suggested the analogy of legal and political representatives before. Both legal and political representatives are highly privileged persons who have the duty of speaking on behalf of people without their privilege. They use their privilege on behalf of their communities. In an ideal world, we want our advocates to be powerful, authoritative, and highly privileged (this is why we rejoice that Christ intercedes for us at God’s right hand). By shifting from a criterion of effective and powerful advocacy to a criterion of inclusion, we risk being represented and led by people without the same power and authority.

      For instance, the best representative of the interests of a poor single mother who dropped out of her education is seldom another person just like her. The person like her may be better equipped to empathize with and understand her—just as Christ’s use of his privilege is shaped by the fact that he is like us and knows our weaknesses—but only the person with power, privilege, and authority that she lacks can truly be an effective advocate—just as Christ has immense power, privilege, and authority that we don’t have.

      In advocacy (and, just to be clear, much of the task of theology doesn’t really involve advocacy) we need both sensitivity to and concern for the interests of the less privileged and power and privilege with which to advance these interests. I would suggest that these are the two criteria by which we should assess the representation of women’s interests in theology. I would also suggest that, measured by these two criteria, often the best representative of women might not himself be a woman.

      3. When speaking about representation in theology, we also need to recognize that the purpose of theology is not primarily that of representing human beings (although this does come into it), but of serving the Church by honing our language about, thinking of, and worship of God and developing our understanding of his truth. It is a second-order discipline in these respects. The Church’s primary discourse about God occurs elsewhere: in worship and the daily life of the Church. By pushing towards 50/50 presence of women in the discipline, I believe that we are at risk of mischaracterizing the primary ends of the theological task. Even if women were equally present in those conversations that have direct relevance to their particular interests and concerns, would it be the case that the discipline would be 50% women? For instance, is it important to argue that women are equally represented in conversations about the literary genre of the Gospels? And, if women, why not also the poor, the disabled, persons of colour, non-Anglophones, etc. If all of these identities needed to be included at the table, I fear that such conversations would hardly get off the ground.

      I also believe that it is important to remember (referring back to the previous point), that womanhood, despite its importance, is only one identity among a great number within the Church. By pushing for 50/50, I fear that we are at risk of effacing these other identities and the need to represent them and elevating gender to a ridiculously high and overriding level of concern. Also worth asking here is the extent to which male theologians represent men in their ‘maleness’. I don’t think that most do this much: the vast majority of the time they are writing about issues for which their maleness has little direct relevance.

      4. By focusing upon the equal representation of women and implicitly suggesting theology’s deficiency in the absence of such conditions, I fear that theology will become much more fragmented as a discipline. When our theology is increasingly regarded as heavily conditioned by our identities I think that a relativizing impulse can result and the field can become ghettoized. We also risk forgetting the primacy of the shared identity that we enjoy as baptized members of the body of Christ. In theological enquiry I am learning from fourth century Roman Africans like Augustine, a sixteenth century German theologian such as Luther, a thirteenth century Dominican friar such as Aquinas, etc., etc. Their backgrounds are far further removed from mine than any contemporary British or American woman’s is and yet I appreciate that we share a common inquiry and that the blindspots resulting from our backgrounds are of fairly minor weight in the wider scheme of things.

      My concern is that the discipline of theology may, with the current focus upon identity, fall prey to a narcissism of small differences. Every person may start to elevate elements of their own identities as if they were utterly beyond the comprehension or appreciation of their neighbour or brother and sister in Christ, as if they coloured everything, and as if people of other identities were thereby disqualified from speaking into ours. Without denying the existence of differences, my inclination is to suggest that, within in the shared task of theology, these differences don’t actually matter a great deal. As modern identity theologians have ceased to do theology as members of a catholic community of theological inquiry and have retreated into their own identity camps—feminist theology, queer theology, black theology, etc.—rather than addressing the subtle ways in which the theologians of the past tradition have projected their identities onto God and the field of theology, the tendency has been to project these other identities onto God and the field of theology in a far more overt and all-determining manner.

      This is not to deny the need for a practice of justice whereby the rifts between identities can be addressed. Nor I am suggesting that a simple appeal to oneness in Christ can paper over the cracks and faultlines that lie between people. However, what I am suggesting is that theology, pursued in a manner beyond a narrow focus upon our identities, is one practice of Christian unity whereby our differences can be traversed. I am also suggesting that Christian love is capable of overcoming the separation of vantage points, enabling us to identify with the voice of our Christian neighbours as they speak for us, and enabling us to speak on behalf of others in turn. Theology needs to be undertaken for the whole Church and to be attentive to the Church in its catholicity. However, one of the messages of the Christian faith is that the separations between us can be overcome and that we are not necessarily as opaque to and divided from each other as we might presume.

      Thanks once again for discussing this. I have enjoyed and benefited from the exchange.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Also, anyone on such a list is in fairly prestigious company.

        Yes, the standard here is more than merely capable. I have no doubt that most female theology professors are generally competent, but the people on the list are a bit more than that.

  9. Pingback: Continuing Discussion of Women, Theology, and Representation | Alastair's Adversaria

  10. I’m fascinated by the notion that a woman’s indulging her interest in theology might be in conflict with Paul’s prohibition against women speaking in church — even if she’s not teaching anyone theology or discussing it in church. And is there some point at which a woman’s interest in theology must be actively suppressed lest she be in danger of becoming more theologically astute than her husband? Or would the husband be sinning by not keeping up with her? Or both?

  11. Carl Trueman has a post over on Reformation21 which expresses a strong concern that I have in these areas. He writes:

    The whole phenomenon raises tangentially one of the cultural problems which seems to be emerging amidst the current popular evangelical market for books written by women. I consider that market in itself to be a good thing. No man could have written Wuthering Heights, after all, and what’s true for literature might well prove true for theology. Indeed, various genres of theological writing seem on the whole to have been enriched by women’s voices. It is interesting, however, that critiquing such literature seems to be becoming increasingly hard and subject to vehement reaction. Witness the response to Tim Challies’ comments on Ann Voskamp from a while back, or the author’s own preemptive publicity on Jesus Feminist which ruled any future criticism as unfair and hateful. And who in this age wants to be seen to be beating up on women?

    Yet, when it comes to theological writing, a culture of silence, where all criticism is seen as sexist, where all critical interaction is seen as a personal attack, where reviews offering critique are always decried as ‘scathing’ or ‘hateful’, is going to prove very unhealthy in the long term. Sentimentalism will be treated like deep insight. Gruesome doggerel will be treated like great verse. Heterodoxy and even heresy may well be treated like truth.

    Pastors have a responsibility to make sure people understand what they are reading. That must be done in an appropriate way; but it must still be done. The gender of the author should provide no special protection from rigorous scrutiny.

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