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Summer Books

Survey of current scholarship with diversity on the agenda

By Anne M. Clifford
Orbis, 300 pages, $21


“On occasion I teach a course entitled ‘Women and Christianity.’ Every time I happily receive the course assignment.” With this characteristic understatement as an opener, Anne Clifford offers Introducing Feminist Theology, the results of her assignment.

Happily for us, her work reflects far more than an occasional engagement with the topic. This introduction is magisterial in scope, in scholarly range and in accessibility to the interested reader. Yet there is also a certain modesty to this work. It is not a showcase for Clifford’s own thought; rather, it is a survey of current scholarship in feminist theology that functions both as an introductory text and as an overview of the “state of the question.”

Two trends that emerge from the last four decades’ wealth of scholarly work in feminist theology characterize the state of the question. One scholarly trend fills in the pieces of the puzzle of “women in Christianity.” The other trend has sent the puzzle pieces flying apart as other scholars emphasize the important differences that have shaped the experiences of Christian women. So, the same work that places women in the picture of early Christianity also leads scholars to suggest that no single picture is adequate to the diverse experiences of women in these communities.

Clearly aware of these trends, Clifford’s work has two goals. First, she intends to describe the as-yet-incomplete field of feminist theology in the Catholic milieu. But second, she also intends to prescribe an agenda for feminist theology, and the issue of diversity is clearly at the top of this agenda.

Clifford’s description of feminist theology reflects a perspective operative among mainstream Catholic feminist theologians. These feminists tend to be reformers rather than revolutionaries, believing that incremental changes such as God-talk that includes female images and increased visibility for women in the institutional life of the Christian churches, will transform a religion that need not be sexist. In general, they are convinced -- though not naïve -- about the possibility of such change. These feminists are pragmatic, more interested in justice than in speculative flights of feminist theory. And finally, these feminists think ecumenically -- the word “Catholic” rarely appears as a description of a position -- though, like Clifford, they are clearly shaped by a Catholic perspective and in dialogue primarily with Catholic scholars.

These feminists would also agree, with Clifford, that the next step for feminist theology is a deep engagement with global thinking and global justice. Clifford apologizes for the placement of various perspectives from non-Euro-American women at the end of each chapter (e.g., “A South Korean Woman’s Perspective on God,” “African-American Women and Their Churches,” “Mary in Latin American Feminist Spirituality”), explaining that this simply reflects her decision to treat feminist theology in a historical fashion. Both the apology and the decision make sense for this book at this time. Indeed, while a further integration of the perspectives of non-Euro-American women is desirable, Clifford’s numerous references to a variety of women’s experiences build the case for a global view without prematurely homogenizing the diversity these experiences represent.

While the usual topics appear, the weight given each is of interest. Scripture, God and church appear in turn, with no separate treatment of Jesus Christ. There is little mention of moral theology, or of the movement of sin, grace and redemption. The focus is rather on personal integration, on human holiness, on the movement toward sainthood that calls forth determination and perseverance characterized as daring, in the words of martyred Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, to be “an alleluia from head to toe.”

Finally, the topic of ecology gets not simply the last word, but acts as a summary for both the analysis of sexism and the concern for justice that precede it. Feminists have long made clear the insight that the domination of women and the domination of nature spring from the intersection of patriarchy and dualistic thinking that can warp our understanding of the human person. For Clifford, this insight grounds the dialogue between current feminist theology and the global issues that must shape its future.

This book stands out as a thorough introduction that admirably balances user-friendly elements -- informative sidebars as well as a complete glossary of terms -- with a wealth of scholarly detail that illumines but does not overwhelm. Readers will be grateful to Anne Clifford for bringing to such generous fruition the work of her happy engagement with feminist theology.

Nancy Dallavalle is associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. Her e-mail address is Nancydallavalle@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001