Introduced by Christa McKirland and Written by Sofanit Abebe
This series provides the perfect occasion to introduce our first “Logia Global Partner” and to invite other institutions to consider partnering with us as well. Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) is leading the way in educating women in postgraduate theological and biblical studies. Through a women’s faculty training track, they have sponsored three women to pursue their doctorates in theology and biblical studies in the United Kingdom. We had the honor of hearing from Fanos Tsegaye in our most recent post and this month we will hear from another scholar, Sofanit Abebe. After they complete their doctorates, they will return to faculty posts at EGST to teach and equip the next generation of scholars.
Preparing the way for these women is Dr. Seblewengel Daniel, an administrator and lecturer at EGST. Exemplifying that “you can be what you can see,” Dr. Daniel was the first woman to receive a doctorate in theology/religious studies in all of Ethiopia, paving the way for those coming after her. She has agreed to serve on Logia’s Advisory Board to offer wisdom and direction as Logia expands globally. Our hope is to have cross-pollination of scholarship and an exchange of ideas and resources for equipping women to pursue postgraduate divinity education. If your institution is interested in partnering with us, please visit our new Logia Global Partner page on our website.
Now we will hear from Sofanit Abebe, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Like our other contributors, she will speak a bit about her research interests, what challenges she has faced as she has pursued her academic passions, and suggestions she has for how to bring positive change regarding those challenges.
Never Simply a Woman
In my head, I’m simply Sofanit (or “silly me” depending on the occasion) with a fascination for all things historical, political, religious and Ethiopic. At all times, I am Sofanit the woman and the Christian. On particularly sunny days when I wear my pink tinted shades, I am to me, a photographer collating a lifetime of memories for my daughters, a brilliant curator of my kids’ art and craft, an aspiring artist of hair braid patterns and handmade Christmas cards. To my family and friends, I am Sofanit the daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. To my colleagues and people in the guild, I often have other adjectives attached to my identity as a woman, such as “majority world scholar,” or a PhD student from Africa (fingers crossed, next year by this time I will be a freshly minted PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins from the University of Edinburgh).
When the world sees me, I am a woman with several prefixes attached to my womanhood. Depending on where I am or who I am talking to, I am rarely simply a woman. In the Western world, I am a black woman or a black African woman. In Africa, I’m an Ethiopian. In Ethiopia, back in the good old days of political correctness and social harmony, I had a simple adjective I consciously and joyfully appropriated for myself: the equivalent of the English “evangelical” – Sofanit “pentewa”. Recently, I have been christened with a new prefix: in Ethiopia I am now an Amhara evangelical – the ethnic identifier being simultaneously employed as an ethnic slur or self-aggrandization depending on who’s doing the labelling. Regardless of its connotation, this is still legally and constitutionally correct as evidenced by my government issued ID that also identifies me as an Amhara (yes, we really have meticulously labelled every citizens’ residency cards and official birth records based on paternal ethnic socialization for every single one of our 110 million population – the only country in the world to have done so after the Balkan Wars and the Rwandan Genocide).
So simply put I am everywhere not just a Christian woman currently writing a PhD thesis on how Early Jewish apocalyptic thought shaped 1 Enoch and 1 Peter. No, it’s slightly more complex than that. A woman is never just a woman. For some in Ethiopia, I am a privileged Amhara pursuing a PhD in the UK at the cost of the cultural subjugation of the majority ethnic group and several other people groups extending a few millennia. For some I am the token woman selected by EGST’s female faculty training track and accepted to a PhD programme in a place as prestigious as the University of Edinburgh’s New College simply because I am a woman. For still others, I am “the diversity quota” pursuing a PhD at a major UK university all expenses paid.
As complex as identity marking adjectives are, they tell a powerful story that can have a multifaceted impact on how a woman occupies the male-dominated space of academia, or any space for that matter. When I walk into a room and see myself as one of the handful of women present at biblical studies seminars and conferences and one of the few women of colour (and oftentimes the only black woman), walking out can be a serious temptation. Like countless other women in biblical studies and theology, I have found the strength to make my way to the podium and find a seat at the table by sorting out the adjectives I choose to attach to my identity. At times this meant I have had to simply override internalized descriptors that hold me back from taking advantage of every opportunity, like the fear of being perceived as a mere “token woman” or some sort of “diversity quota” and the anxiety associated with living as a minority in a country with a history of racism and social inequality. It also meant I had to chuck out unnuanced labels like “majority world scholar” or “woman scholar” with its implicit restriction of such a scholar’s contribution to the discipline within confined realms.
With all its complexities and the potential to open vistas of gender, racial, and ethnic othering and attempts to silence, diminish, and shame, I have learned to accept, cherish and celebrate my multi-layered identity as an evangelical black African woman from Ethiopia, who is an Addis Ababan Amhara and a female member of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community in the UK. Through my own journey of self-acceptance, I have come to firmly believe that it is only in embracing the various strands of our identity and finding the courage to grapple with the various confusing intricacies that a woman truly becomes all that she is and is created to be. This becoming requires not only owning one’s complex layers of identity and a tender acceptance of all one is and has come to be. It also requires rejecting cynicism and celebrating how far academia has come in welcoming women, while at the same time, accepting that more growth remains possible.
Sofanit T. Abebe is a PhD candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Her PhD topic is “The Apocalyptic Imaginary in 1 Peter and 1 Enoch.” Her research interests focus on New Testament epistles and how they have been influenced by Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman milieu.
As the Logia blog seeks to highlight women’s research in theology as well as the obstacles we have faced, I begin with an overview of my convictions and research interests.
Part 1: Research Interests
The chief purpose of human life is to worship and glorify God. This end is expressed in communal worship that articulates and declares our faith in the Triune God. Liturgy as a temporal collective partaking in the ongoing heavenly worship articulates this nature of God in the doxology directed ‘to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit’. Joseph Jungmann, in his seminal work The Place of Christ in Liturgical Payer, notes that this ancient liturgical formula has been undermined as prayers became directed to the second person of the trinity (ad Christo) due to Christological controversies of the 4th century. The Eastern church, in particular, reacted to the Arian controversy by overemphasizing the transcendence of Christ while undermining his humanity and his role as mediator of the eucharistic prayer.[i] My study, while renewing the emphasis on the significance of the mediatorial role of Christ, intends to demonstrate that prayers were addressed to Christ as part of Pre-Nicene Christian liturgical traditions. It presumes that the antecedents to ad Christo can be traced in Johannine Christology as well as the earliest Christians understanding of the resurrected and exalted Christ as worthy of worship. To this end, my study undertakes a historical and theological analysis of the Ethiopic liturgy to forward a more nuanced and constructive thesis than Jungmann’s.
The critical issue addressed here has its origin in early Christian worship and the Christological controversy of the 4th century. Broader implications pertain to studies of Christian origins and Christology of a liturgy. I hope that this study will also contribute to the dialogue between the Evangelical and the Orthodox Tëwahedo Churches in Ethiopia as it deals with a delicate marker of doctrinal difference on the understanding of the ‘active mediatorial’ role of Christ. As a historical-theological study, it will be a reminder in my evangelical context that church history represents our history and that God actively works in history as a testimony to God’s providence.
Part 2: Obstacles
Having provided a brief overview of my research interests, I would now like to speak into the obstacles I have experienced as a minority scholar. Ethiopia is experiencing a time of historical reform that lead our Prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. His measure of reform has especially promoted women to top-level leadership positions in a way unprecedented in the country; the cabinet shines with a female president and women constitute 50% of the top ministerial positions. Although never to this extent, in modern Ethiopia a woman who is assertive, confident, and successful in her career is held in high esteem. However, these new values are not yet thoroughly embedded enough to reverse the traditional roles assigned for a woman within religious institutions. The Church still hesitates to accept female leaders, preachers, and teachers. This attitude, coupled with misconceptions about theology itself, created quite a challenge to my experience as a black woman in theology.
One of the difficulties was the task of convincing those around me that I am called to be a theologian. Despite the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia, dating back to the 4th century, and a rich heritage of Biblical interpretation and literature, theology is conceived as an unnecessary mental abstraction that conflicts with faith and spirituality. And this ‘mystical’ task of Biblical interpretation and theology is reserved for men. Women are conceived as mentally and emotionally incapable of engaging in such a task. Hence, being a woman and a theologian doubly violates these boundaries. As a result, my decision and excitement to pursue theology is always encountered with numerous questions: why theology? Are you going to be a preacher? Can a woman teach men? …
Another more painful experience was related to my decision to be a mother. The desire to undertake academics and motherhood, two things that are perceived as mutually exclusive, brought quite a challenge. My violation of the advice ‘Don’t have a baby’ raised doubts about the seriousness of my commitment to my career. The concern was not totally off-base, I believe, since juggling family and academic study is demanding. But it is doable. The demand to choose between the two is more disappointing than the practical challenges of choosing both. The vulnerability of women in this phase should be interpreted as a call for action towards empowerment, not as the end of the road for either motherhood or becoming a theologian.
Fortunately, seeing a few successful exemplary black women theologians (M. Shawn Copeland, Kelly Brown Douglas and Seblewengel Daniel) and the encouraging commitment of a few men (especially thanks to my husband and my teachers at EGST) was/is enabling and convincing. There is no chance to look back—‘I can be what I see’!
Part 3: Encouraging Change
In the third part of this post, I want to describe ways that change can be encouraged in order to support women of colour as we seek to study and teach in the divinity disciplines. The proportional number of accomplished women, especially black women, is negligible in divinity schools. The existing systems in academic institutions favour men and hinder women from reaching their potential. This is reinforced through multiple factors: the cyclical nature of poverty, lack of opportunities, patriarchal structures, and the Church’s indecisiveness with regards to seeing women as leaders and ‘teachers of men.’ Therefore, any effective action towards empowerment of women also requires multiple interventions that begin with black women. First, we should take responsibility for our actions and powerfully prove to ourselves and others that we can be resilient and enthusiastic about what we are doing, putting ourselves forward and removing psychological shackles. If you don’t believe in your ability, no one can sincerely convince you! Second, divinity schools and the general community should attempt to create an academic environment that enables an inclusive environment, opening doors to faculty positions and taking more black woman students to engage not only on ‘contextual’ research interests but all forms of biblical and theological studies. Finally, designing projects that particularly work on empowering women and other minority groups would be helpful. What has started here with the initiative of Logia to encourage women in theology should be progressively extended to encompass all programs in divinity schools and other departments.
Fanos Tsegaye is a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s Divinity School, University of St. Andrews. She is currently studying the Christological developments and origins of prayers addressed to Christ in Ethiopic liturgy. Her broader research interests include pre-Nicene Christology, particularly its Christian origins, as well as patristic theology on prayer, worship, and Christian identity formation. She is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She completed her MA in Biblical and Theological Studies and MTH at Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.
[i] Joseph Jungmann, The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer, trans. A. Peeler (London-Dublin: Geoffery Chapman, 1965).Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash
Over this past year, we have focused on the question: “Why is it important for women to study, teach, and contribute to the fields of theology, biblical studies, and philosophical theology?” We had scholars from all three of these disciplines provide excellent answers to this question as well as suggest practical ways for individuals and institutions to encourage women in these pursuits.
However, as this question was explored, an additional layer became more and more clear—and that is how important it is for women of color to be contributing to these fields and recognized in these guilds. This was especially evident from Juliany González Nieves and Dr. Mitzi Smith’s posts. Reading their stories brought me back to my Women’s Studies program at the University of Georgia when my professor said that to be a woman and to be a woman of color meant that you already had “two strikes” against you. Growing up in the American South, those strikes were readily apparent.
Gender and race are arguably the most phenomenally salient aspects of how we are perceived in the world. Based merely on appearance, one is often negatively pre-judged by these identifiers. Ideally, we’d be able to address these biases head-on so that coping with them is not just a matter of avoidance but of true eradication. To move toward this ideal, those of us who hold power, influence, and privilege (whether we think we do or not), need to learn how to listen. We need to be confronted by narratives that are not our own. We need to recognize the pain that comes from systems that continue to disadvantage individuals for no fault of their own. We need to see each other as fully human.
A friend of mine recently presented a paper on how the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides us with a rich starting point for talking about race. In Bonhoeffer’s thought, when someone is confronted by Christ, there are three options: to die, to willingly participate in the killing of Christ, or to think we have died but be self-deceived (which is itself, of course, a more subtle, but no less culpable participation in the killing of Christ). I think many of us, especially in the Western church, believe we have died but are, in fact, self-deceived. The reason being, if we really had been incorporated into the death of Christ, our identities would not be so bound up in our political positions, our “rights,” or our freedoms. To be put to death means that all of our freedoms are now handed over to and redefined in Christ. It is only in this death that there is truly life.
However, I don’t often see this kind of life-giving death. Ego, self-preservation, and “might makes right” are alive and well. This self-deceived life is characterized by defensiveness—the true mark of the undead, because that which has died does not defend what has been surrendered to a crucified and resurrected Lord.
At the same time, this does not mean that everyone from within the majority group has it easy. No one is saying that. “Nobody is mad at you for being white,” as one eye-opening opinion piece communicates.
My hope, through this year’s series, is that we are confronted by our self-deception. By hearing the stories of women of color from around the world, perhaps we can pay attention to our quick dismissals, our distancing, and our justifications. If and when those crop up, perhaps we can instead think about what it must be like to be negatively judged solely on the basis of our skin tone and gender. Perhaps we can try to listen first, empathize with the pain, and think of ways to influence change in our own spheres of influence, before we judge, dismiss, or criticize.
As we do this, our theology will actually become deeper. For instance, in my own work on theological anthropology, when I realized how much the “image of God” concept had been used to justify the oppression of non-white bodies, I was shocked by how shallow the exegesis and consequential theologies have historically been. For instance, Charles Carroll published a book entitled “The Negro a Beast” or “In the Image of God”, where he claims, “If the White was created ‘in the image of God,’ then the Negro was made after some other model.” While he first published this in 1900, it was republished in 1967, 1969, and 2012! In this line of thinking (which extends far beyond this singular work), the white male is the ideal person—the true image of God—and all other persons are diminished images. However, his conclusion goes far beyond what the text actually states. Such a reading motivated me to understand what the text does instead say.
We can try to dismiss this conclusion as a racist ideology of the past (even dismissing the recent republication of Carroll’s work as a fringe phenomenon), but these ways of thinking still pervade everyday experience. For instance, the image of God is often associated with reason, and white men are seen to embody this attribute. The result of this ideology is subtle but pervasive. I remember mentoring a young African American woman a few years back, and she shared how she was sitting in the library with one of Plato’s books and a white, male student came up to her and asked, “why are you reading that?” She was crushed. As Mitzi Smith discussed in last month’s post, students of color are often assumed to be less competent than their white peers. Teachers then teach to this bias, reinforcing it in their students, who then believe they are less competent. As a result, these students don’t pursue higher education or become professors modeling in the classroom and through publications that you can be what you can see. This again reinforces that people of color just aren’t cut out to be scholars, and the cycle begins again.
My hope is that we can start to change this reality, which is why this year’s series will be rooted in that aim. As I approached different women to contribute to this blog, they were asked the following:
What are you researching/teaching and why is this important to you? Have there been specific challenges that you have faced as women of color and what were they? What are the ways we (institutions, professors, peers) can encourage women of color to study and/or teach in the divinity disciplines?
Interestingly, not every woman was comfortable with the designation “woman of color,” especially if she came from a context where she shares the dominant skin color. I found this acknowledgment helpful and humbling. As women, especially in the West, have sought to find a way to define themselves positively (“women of color”) instead of negatively (“nonwhite”), the presumption remains that these women are “other” because of their race. Furthermore, this was a valuable reminder that Western constructs of whiteness are not dominant everywhere and in all places. Whiteness is not the plumb-line by which all other others are measured, which is why this standard of measure is a reality that must be actively deconstructed and overcome.
I hope you will journey with us over this year’s series and perhaps even allow yourself to sit in some discomfort. I know that is a big ask in an increasingly comfort-driven culture, but I believe we will all be better for it. I will be sitting in this with you and would love for you to join me. Consider this your invitation.
Christa L. McKirland is a Research Fellow in the Logos Institute. Her research proposes a pneumatologically-Christocentric anthropology based upon the significance and uniqueness of the fundamental human need for intentional dependence upon the divine presence. She is the Executive Director of Logia.
 Bonhoeffer is a powerful example of a man who used his privilege to speak on behalf of the marginalized. Likewise, so was my friend’s (also a white man) appropriation of his theology to speak to issues of racial injustice. Thank you, Koert Verhagen.
 Charles Carroll, The Negro a Beast: Or, In the Image of God, (Mnemosyne Publishing Company, 1969), cited in John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 25.
 For a brief overview of this historical trajectory, see Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 21-29.
Africana and other nonwhite women are less than two percent of biblical scholars in the USA and globally. The implications and impact of this dearth of Africana and nonwhite women biblical scholars are significant. Too often nonwhite women are discouraged (or discourage themselves) from pursuing doctoral degrees in biblical studies largely out of the myth that white men are better equipped to master the languages and because of the dearth of nonwhite women biblical scholars, particularly Africana women. Women may not be welcomed at the table, but it does not mean we do not belong. I have met too many nonwhite scholars who have internalized this notion that only white men, a few white women, and an even smaller number of nonwhite women (and men) are capable of learning Greek, Hebrew and other languages necessary for doing doctoral work in biblical studies. Prior to my matriculation at Harvard University, about six Africana men had earned a doctorate in NT, but not one Africana woman. African American women who have voiced interest in pursuing a doctoral degree in biblical studies mentioned the fear of not mastering the languages as a major drawback. Thus first, I want to state what the low percentage of nonwhite women in biblical studies does not mean. It does not mean that Africana and other nonwhite women are incapable of successfully completing doctoral programs. Those of us who have earned the doctoral degree are not some DuBoisian talented tenth. It does not mean that Africana women cannot master the languages required to become a biblical scholar. All students, including white males, struggle and must put in the time and effort to learn the languages. One reason I actually love teaching biblical languages (and did teach both Greek and Hebrew the first four or five years of my career at Ashland) is the opportunity it afforded me to help students see how capable they are of putting in the hard work and learning the languages well; the teacher must believe the student can learn. From elementary school to graduate education, too many instructors operate with the bias of what they believe nonwhite and poor students cannot achieve and they teach toward that bias. In fact, for this reason, after taking one course in advanced Greek at Harvard Divinity, I chose to take my second advanced Greek course in the classics department in Harvard College reading Plato’s Protagoras because of the bias I experienced in the divinity school.
The dearth of Africana and nonwhite women, and women generally, and thus the dominance of white males in biblical studies means that white men will continue to be mentored in ways that nonwhite peoples will not. By this I mean that there is a mentoring that takes place by the mere presence of someone who looks like us. Most people can imagine doing a thing because they can see someone else do it and do it well. People can envision themselves doing something they’ve never done before when they can see others who look like them doing it, particularly when race and gender are a factor, and especially when the two intersect. For this very reason, theological education needs to invest in representative diversity and not tokenism, in equality and equity, rather than mere inclusion within the status quo. It was during my MDiv program at Howard University School of Divinity, a historically black school, where I took classes from Drs. Cain Hope Felder, Cheryl Sanders, and Kelly Brown Douglas that I began to imagine myself as a scholar and perhaps a biblical scholar.
When the white male body is the dominant one teaching in the biblical studies classroom and writing or translating the primary textbooks, students default to the white male body as the embodiment of authoritative normative teaching and interpretation. It is important that women, and particularly nonwhite women, committed to equality, equity, and justice are present as biblical studies teachers in seminary and divinity school classrooms and as authors and contributors to primary textbooks. Also, while other voices that represent God’s creation are missing from classrooms and textbooks, our education is deficient and biased as well, impacting how we view ourselves and others.
The white-male dominated biblical studies guild explicitly and implicitly (whether consciously or not) privileges Eurocentric and androcentric perspectives, values, contexts, and methods. As a womanist biblical scholar who privileges the perspectives, traditions, and artifacts of Africana women and contemporary justice issues when doing critical biblical interpretation, I see the need for more women, and especially women of color and Africana women in particular, in the field of biblical studies who engage in critical intersectional-type biblical interpretation that takes seriously the interconnection of gender, class, race, sexuality, and religion and who can speak and write experientially. Not all women will desire to disrupt the white male status quo that dominates the academy, but the more women, particularly nonwhite women, are mentored and enter the field, the greater chance for populating the field with women doing biblical interpretation in ways that open the field to diverse critical hermeneutical perspectives. To accomplish this disruption of white male space, we need white allies in places of power and authority to intentionally create space for women already in the field doing critical intersectional-type biblical interpretation to mentor potential women doctoral students. We need institutions, both schools and publishing houses, to be intentional about diversifying and hiring nonwhite women who are doing critical biblical interpretation. Nonwhite women faculty members who dare to engage in nontraditional intersectional biblical interpretation need greater institutional support, especially approaching promotion and tenure.
It is difficult being the only nonwhite woman in any white dominated space, which is an experience most white people will never know. Some Africana and nonwhite women biblical scholars no longer hold faculty positions in seminaries and divinity schools due to the isolation they experienced, the lack of support from administration when white students demonstrate antagonism toward nonwhite female bodies as authoritative figures, and the absence of helpful, sustained mentoring. In my previous institution I was forced to appeal the decision to deny my tenure application, despite my previous promotions. Although the then seminary president and academic dean (who had taken over the promotion and tenure committee as chair because the then chair was also up for tenure) initially said the committee voted to deny my tenure, my then department chair and senior department member supported me at the appeal proceedings and the majority faculty vote to approve my tenure after the successful appeal. This year I found that two other black women scholars, one of which is a well-published biblical scholar, also were denied tenure but successfully appealed. The experience is traumatic and requires valuable time healing from the wounds. Wounded people often find it difficult to trust and mentor others.
Not only do nonwhite women often face barriers to success which require extra time and emotional energy to overcome, but also because there are so few nonwhite women, we are spread thin. Many of us are asked to participate in projects in which we might be one of two or three nonwhite women of color represented, if not the only one. Like white men, women, including nonwhite women, can be territorial and embrace a hierarchy that prevents women from working collectively. The impact is greater on the nonwhite women as a group because of our smaller numbers. We need a critical mass of nonwhite women doing the work of liberative biblical studies, so that we can progress despite those among us who choose to embrace individualism and hierarchy and to ingratiate themselves to the status quo. Rather than fight for seats at a table set primarily for white men and a few submissive others, white and nonwhite women must insist on constructing a larger and different table by choosing to support, encourage, mentor, and advocate for one another and by embodying and insisting upon equity, justice, and equality in the academy, church, and society.
Dr. Smith is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Her latest book is Toward Decentering the New Testament (Cascade, 2018).
Why is it important for women to study, teach, and contribute to the fields of theology, biblical studies, and philosophical theology? What are some practical ways we can encourage women to do this?
1. The Parable
I’d like to begin with a parable. There was once a man who was blessed with many natural talents, and who found himself with access to ample opportunities for development. With a bit of work, he could have become…well, almost anything. But, finding himself with rather a comfortable lot in life, he considered this work superfluous and never did apply himself. And for a long time, he didn’t feel too bad about all that wasted potential. However, upon some reflection later in life, he realized that his neglect of his natural talents had been an immoral one—immoral, because had he cared properly for his duty, he would have cared also for the means to fulfilling this duty. Since he could not be sure just what challenges he might encounter in the future, he should have worked to develop all possible means for conquering these challenges. And he certainly had been privy to all possible means, had he only taken care to cultivate his gifts. As it stood, his failure to cultivate his talents had, at many points in his history, led to an abdication of duty by default; he simply had not prepared himself for it. A lesson learned late, he came to understand that he had a duty to himself to—for the sake of duty—cultivate those natural talents with which he found himself gifted.
2. The Problem
The man in the parable is, of course, the fields of Theology, Biblical Studies, and Philosophical Theology. Well, okay, in the original story the man represents each individual person. But there are unified collectives about which we can speak as analogous to an individual: the Christian church(es) may be thought of as onebody of Christ; an otherwise diverse nation may conceive of itself as onepeople; and one team wins it all in sports(ball). If the same goes for these academic disciplines (and those related, such as Philosophy of Religion or Religious Studies), then there has been a failure of duty—a failure of each of these fields to itself—to perform due diligence in developing all its talents to the fullest. And women comprise a great, neglected gift to these fields.
3. The People
I don’t mean that individual women have neglected their talents. I think of my wife whose incredible poetry draws from her past work in Biblical Studies and Theology and continues to speak to those fields. I think of my best friend and colleague whose work on religious trauma is, in addition to being groundbreaking and timely, a nexus that draws together several disciplines who need to be working together more closely anyway. I think of my colleague whose examination of the role of heterodoxy within religions both challenges and enriches our understanding of what religious belief even is. And I think also of my colleague whose books and consulting work provides pastors/churches an invaluable resource for addressing cases of abuse in their local congregations. These and myriad other women have certainly developed their individual gifts, which only highlights the fact that they are the great talent that their fields—Theology, Biblical Studies, Philosophy of Religion—should be focusing great effort toward cultivating. But in many cases, these individuals have accomplished their great work rather in spite of not only neglect but even outright suppression.
4. The Practice
While these fields cannot know exactly what challenges the future holds for them, they can know that they have a duty to develop their natural gifts—among these, so, so many women—in preparation for whatever may come. One practical way to do this is to conceive of the work as a duty indeed; cultivating women as the practitioners and compatriots of these fields is fundamental to the very aims that make these disciplines what they are. Women aren’t here to be shoehorned in, begrudgingly. They’re not here to boost an image. They’re not here for seniors in the discipline to chuck a baton at as they leave the field. Clarity on this point, and the beginnings of a good public record as ‘someone’ who is committed to developing all their talents, is one important step forward for these disciplines in which women have been ‘underrepresented,’ i.e., neglected as great talents worthy of all available resources for cultivation.
Craig E. Bacon (University of South Carolina, ABD) is a husband, father, philosopher, and poet exploring the intersections of ethics, religion, and musical experience. When not holding a baby, reading Kant, or listening to prog—and sometimes while doing all three—he listens out for the words to shine light into his experiences.
 To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “It’s all in Kant, all in Kant.” Parable adapted from Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, 4:423. Please temporarily bracket (don’t, ultimately, ignore!) the implied racism in the original text.
I don’t even remember her name. But she was instrumental in my coming to faith.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I attended a week-long Christian camp with members of the youth group from my church. It was exactly what you would expect: rambunctious high school students enjoying time away from parents and with friends, with a mixture of outdoor activities and intentional times of reading the Bible, worship, and prayer.
In the midst of that week, the Holy Spirit was at work within and upon me. Over the course of several days, I had many significant conversations about Jesus, the nature of Scripture, and what it means to accept Christ as Lord. But the most moving was a conversation I had with a young woman, one of the camp counselors, who – looking back – was not much older than I was at the time. She read Scripture with me, listened to my questions, and offered her own – sometimes hesitant, sometimes bold – answers.
She was, so far as I know, not trained in theology academically. But she provided exactly the theological voice that I needed to hear in that moment. At the end of the week, I made a confession of faith and was baptized into a new life in Christ.
Women in Scripture, Church History, and My Theological Journey
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline?
The question sounds odd to me now, like an old newspaper headline from years past. But it must be asked and answered, even today.
In my reading of Scripture, it is more than evident to me that women were essential to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and the declaration, understanding, and articulation of the gospel: from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry; from the woman who anointed Jesus with oil (whose story the church, by and large, has not told as Christ expected) to the women who witnessed his death upon the cross to Mary Magdalene’s affirmation of faith after encountering the risen Christ in the garden: “I have seen the Lord!”
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because the one we claim as Lord and Savior saw fit to be born of a woman, speak with women, teach women, eat with women, heal women, die for women, rise again for women, save women, and entrust his good news to women.
From its earliest days and throughout its history, the church has benefitted from (though not always recognized) the contributions of women to the life and ministry of the church. Women have been apostles (Junia), converts to the faith (Lydia), co-workers and teachers of the gospel (Priscilla), and leaders in the church (Phoebe). They have expressed their faith as martyrs, wives, mothers, nuns, empresses, mystics, biblical commentators, and theologians. Even those who would restrict women’s roles have always made exceptions to their rules: children’s Sunday school, the mission field, the small church, the hard-to-hire school.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because the historic and contemporary body of Christ would not be the body of Christ without their contributions.
The tradition in which I grew up – the Church of Christ (a cappella only, thank you) – does not ordain women. True, women still found ways to contribute to the life of the church, but there were always restrictions. This was blatantly apparent to me when, as a newly-baptized young man, I was asked to participate in the distribution of weekly communion, but my mother, who had faithfully attended the church for decades, could not. The interpretation of Scripture and the theology that support such a practice were among the many factors in my decision to move to a denomination that explicitly supports women in ministry. Moreover, my own theological education was deeply shaped by women: informally by my mother, female family members, and female friends; and more formally by female professors and texts written by female theologians. Their prayers, words of encouragement, insightful questions, challenging books, and faithful witness have all informed my theological perspective.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because our theology is much better with and much worse without their voices.
When I met Jennifer, the woman who I would later marry, I was a seminary student. I was, to her surprise, pleased to know of her plans to seek ordination. She is, after all, a “double PK.” In time, we both completed doctoral degrees, we have both been ordained, and we have taught classes together, written together, and even preached together. Today, she teaches church history and historical theology at Wheaton College. I hope that our children see in both of us the desire to glorify God in all that we do – together.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because our families should reflect Jesus’ vision for the church, where women and men serve Christ and his kingdom side by side.
I see no good theological reason to limit women’s participation in the theological discipline. In fact, I see good biblical and theological reasons to support and encourage women. Let me be clear: I think that women involved in the theological discipline should be held to the same standards as their male colleagues; that is, they should be capable exegetes, astute theologians, effective teachers, and gifted preachers. Anything less than that would be unfair to both their calling and the discipline. But to discourage their contribution to the church and the academy would not only be detrimental to these institutions, but it would also fail to support fellow Christ-followers.
So, how might we practically encourage women to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? I wear several hats, so allow me to put a few of them on in answering this question.
As a husband to other husbands: I don’t presume to know the specifics of your marriage, but I have found it absolutely essential to support Jennifer in her ministry and the calling that the Holy Spirit has placed upon her heart. Has that always been easy? No, of course not. But that has been part of my own calling in Christ, and that attitude has been beneficial to our marriage.
As a parent to other parents: Obviously, you know your child better than I do, but I would encourage you to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in your child’s life. Who knows what she’ll be called to do?
As an ordained minister to my fellow clergy: When you preach the Word of God, be willing to preach the harder passages, including those texts that feature women. Don’t give women all the jobs that you’d rather not do. Interview (and hire) women for that opening on your staff. Put women in the pulpit.
As a professor to my fellow professors: Look at your syllabus again. Update your lectures. Intentionally encourage and allow space for comments from female students. Remember, those female students pay for your and your family’s livelihood just as much as your male students do.
As an editor at a Christian publisher to female authors: Seek out and be willing to receive feedback from both female and male colleagues in the academy. Find a publisher who believes in the importance of women’s voices within theology. Send me your proposal.
I have found that our theologies are often helpfully clarified in light of what ultimately matters, so allow me to close with an eschatological comment:
I trust that by God’s goodness and grace in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, I will be brought before the risen and ascended Christ. On that day, when I stand before my Lord and Savior, I will not say, “Well, Lord, I didn’t want to restrict those who could share the good news of your incarnation, death, and resurrection. And I didn’t want to prevent anyone from seeking to understand and express their faith in you. And I didn’t want to overlook more than half of your faithful disciples around the world. And I didn’t want to tell my wife or our daughters that they could do anything except seek a vocation in the church or theology. And I didn’t want to reject that application to our program, or ignore that student in my class, or turn down that article for our journal, or reject that book proposal. But, Lord, she was a woman.”
The Rev. Dr. David McNutt (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is an Associate Editor at IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, and a Guest Professor at Wheaton College. He is also an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and he serves as a Parish Associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn. He and his wife, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer McNutt, serve the church together through McNuttshell Ministries, their preaching, teaching, and writing ministry.
In fifth grade, my middle school band director handed me a trumpet and told me to try it. I was able to produce a halfway decent sound, and so I joined the other newly selected trumpet players and became the only girl in a trumpet section of boys in my middle school band. I grew up with this group of boys, playing alongside them through junior high and high school, always managing to stay near the top of the section. I went on to become a very good trumpet player, and I majored in trumpet performance at university. All the while, there were always one or two women in a vast sea of men, but never in my years growing up, or even at university, did it occur to me that being a woman might somehow be an impediment to being a good trumpet player.
The machismo of a university brass section is palpable. How high can you play? How fast can you play? Can you play X lick from Mahler No. 5 or Y excerpt from Pictures at an Exhibition? Brass players, regardless of gender, are enculturated to play with confidence and bravado, which are culturally “masculine” virtues that good trumpet players everywhere possess in spades. I had to learn these traits, just like every other trumpet player. Although I was a woman among a studio dominated by men, no one ever treated me as if I couldn’t hope to compete with the men who were learning their craft right along with me. As long as I could play (and I could), I was accepted and respected. Even more, my peers encouraged me to be confident in my playing, and eventually I learned this confidence also.
I had a wholly different experience when I went to seminary for my M.A. in New Testament. I wanted to earn a Bible degree because I loved teaching; I wanted to teach the Bible so that other people could learn to love God and to love others through studying Scripture. Because I did an academic degree in New Testament, I was again often one of a handful of women in classes that were predominantly populated by men training for ordination. At first, I didn’t think much about the gender imbalance because I assumed it wouldn’t be that different from my undergraduate degree. However, being in a male-dominated environment in seminary was not at all like being in my male-dominated trumpet studio. Suddenly, being a woman was a distinct disadvantage. Some of the male students accused me of not taking the Bible seriously, and some just didn’t speak to me or acknowledge me. It was a disorienting environment, to say the least. I was often lonely because the experience was so isolating.
My Greek professor, Ms. Elodie Emig, was my saving grace during seminary. She is sharp-witted, tough, and yet exceedingly compassionate toward her students. She is an exceptional teacher, and her love for Greek is infectious. She has been teaching at the seminary since 1983, and thousands of students have learned to love Greek because of her. More importantly for me, she was doing what I dreamed of doing when I finished. Through her dedicated and careful teaching, I saw what was possible. She was the embodied answer to the objections of my classmates who said that women “can’t” or that women “shouldn’t.” Her mere presence made it clear that women “could” and her excellence made it clear that women “should.” As in my experience as an undergraduate trumpet player, I saw most of my fellow students respect Elodie’s teaching because she was so clearly gifted and had honed her craft. Her presence gave me hope that a woman’s excellence in the field could be respected without an asterisk for her gender. However, I note here that, because she is a woman, her respect has been hard-won and her road has not been easy.
In her classroom, Elodie did exactly what I hoped to do as a theological educator. She led me to a deeper love of God and neighbour because she so clearly loved Scripture, and because she so clearly loved all of us. She concretized neighbourly love in her classroom by learning who we were and where we came from, by praying with us, and by being vulnerable with us, and she challenged us to do the same. As I have thought more about theological education and love of neighbour, it is precisely the concrete neighbourly love of my Greek classroom that has motivated me to be more inclusive in my own classroom now. I know my presence is meaningful to my female students who are training for ministry and for the academy. I know it is important for my male students also, because through my teaching they learn to attend to voices who look different and sound different from their own. But my Greek professor also showed me that mere presence is not enough; a theological educator must also strive for excellence that is motivated by love for her students and for her subject.
Finally, as I have reflected more on love for neighbour since becoming a theological educator in my own right, I am increasingly aware of which neighbours are not represented in most classrooms. I work hard to represent these neighbours as best I can by diversifying my bibliographies and assignments so that these important voices are heard. The realities of embodied experience shape how we approach theology and biblical studies, and theological discourse is impoverished wherever it fails to include people from different genders, ethnicities, and social classes. If it is true, as it was in my case, that “you can be what you can see,” then it is my job to make sure that my students see the full range of what is possible.
Erin Heim joined Wycliffe Hall in 2018 after a previous five-year stint at Denver Seminary. In 2019, Erin received the Manfred T. Lautenschlaeger Prize for her published doctoral thesis, Adoption in Galatians and Romans (Brill, 2017). She has authored numerous articles and essays on Pauline theology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, metaphor in the Bible, and the use of the Pauline adoption texts in contemporary discourse on adoption. Erin is also a co-host of the OnScript podcast, which features conversations on current biblical scholarship. Currently, her research is focused on Pauline Literature, New Testament metaphors, and Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Erin is married to Peter, and they have two young children.
In Book I, §44 of her allegorical masterpiece, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, 13th-century German theologian Mechthild of Magdeburg presents the reader with a dialogue in which the soul, depicted as a woman of noble birth, longs to dance with her youthful suitor and potential bridegroom (a.k.a. Christ) in the garden. Her male chamberlains, the five senses, instruct her to dress herself in the traditional female virtues – the “chemise of gentle humility”, the “white dress of sincere chastity”, and the “mantle of good reputation” – before entering the garden to search for her lover, and she obliges.
Yet after hearing the song of the “birds of holy knowledge” and dancing “a splendid dance of praise” with the personifications of the theological virtues she has summoned to her side, the bride’s own tune begins to change. When her overly-sensitive chamberlains try to get her to “cool down” from the heat of the dance of knowledge, she rebukes them. In response to their “helpful” suggestions that she stop and refresh herself with chastity, confession, apostolic wisdom, martyrdom, and “holy austerity”, the soul notes that she has already suffered enough in her life and has been “martyred so many a day”. She claims that she has already attained the requisite theological wisdom for the journey and that this wisdom will be her sole (and soul-) guide. She even rejects her stewards’ sensual offer to suckle from the “supernatural milk” of the Virgin, asserting that nursing is for babies and that she is a “grown-up bride” who requires an adult lover. “Leave me be,” she tells them. “You understand not what I mean. I will drink for a while the unmingled wine!”
The senses, still playing the role of paternalistic bodyguard, warn that without them the soul will surely go blind and will not be able to “survive for even a moment” in the fire of the “divine breath”. But the soul is not to be dissuaded. She calmly replies that “a fish in water cannot drown” and that she is created with all that she needs to encounter the Divine: “God has made all creatures to live according to their nature,” she tells them. “How, then, am I supposed to resist my own?” She wonders aloud whether her guardians might not have ulterior motives – “Perhaps you don’t even want me to experience him?” – but nevertheless patronizingly assures them that, despite taking leave of her senses for the time being, she will still have use for them when she returns from her rendezvous.
The soul then enters into the “hidden bedchamber of the pure Godhead”, where she is instructed by her bridegroom to take off her clothes. When asked for an explanation, Christ tells her, “You are so completely en-natured in me that nothing more must come between us”. She should thus “set aside her fear and shame and every external virtue” and instead feel the “noble longing” and “unending [groundless] desire” that is most internal to her. Christ then “gives himself to her, and she gives herself to him” in mutual love, and there arises a “holy stillness” and intimacy that both desire.
* * * * *
OK, so why am I giving the SparkNotes version of a story that, to the average reader, might look like nothing more than a piece of 13th-century Jesus fan fiction? Well, in addition to being quite the medieval page turner, I think Mechthild’s story can provide the occasion for a few reflections on what the inclusion of women and minority voices can mean for philosophical theology as a discipline. If one thinks, as I do, that theology is a dynamic, living discipline, then it is worth asking how such inclusion might transform the discipline in ways that both speak to our present concerns while remaining grounded in its history.
Let’s begin with Mechthild herself. Those who have heard of the Beguine author may have been surprised to see me characterize her in the opening paragraph as a theologian. True, Mechthild probably did not know much Latin beyond the liturgy, meaning that even if she had access to theological and philosophical sources, she could not have read most of them without assistance. She certainly did not enjoy the kind of scholastic theological training that would have been available to her medieval male contemporaries (including Thomas Aquinas, whose Aristotelian views on women as defective and misbegotten babymakers, incapable by virtue of their sex to represent the image of Christ, don’t exactly hold up as well as much of his other theology). Instead, Mechthild’s work is usually classified under the heading of ‘mysticism’, since the entire work is an expression of her religious visions, her continuing sense of God’s presence, and what she has learned from reflecting on her revelations. But the term also unfairly serves to push thinkers like Mechthild to the margins of Christian thought and to largely exclude them from the domain of the “serious”, the “systematic”, and the “philosophical”. This marginalization is exacerbated by the fact that Mechthild wrote in the vernacular Middle Low German and employed diverse non-scholastic literary genres like courtly-love poetry, allegorical dialogue, hymns and prayers, and first-personal testimony.
Yet Mechthild’s contemplative work displays significant theological erudition and philosophical nuance, and although The Flowing Light of the Godhead is not structured like a scholastic summa or a quaestiones disputatae, it is another kind of theological and rhetorical treatise – an extended, intimate reflection on the nature of the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christian eschatology, and the relationship of human beings to the Divine. It might look to us today like a harlequin romance written for randy Christian noblewomen, but the fact that The Flowing Light was translated into both Latin and Middle High German and distributed throughout Germany and beyond indicates that her work was taken to have value for both scholastic and monastic readers. Indeed, Mechthild’s vernacular text is encoded in a rich theological symbolism – one with which medieval readers would have been familiar. In fact, the trope of the soul as female (represented simultaneously as sister, mother, and bride of Christ) was a symbolic with which devout men and women were invited to identify. Even Mechthild’s overt erotic imagery was not overly unorthodox for the period (although it does seem to have been edited into a PG-13 version for the Latin translation).
At the same time, despite Mechthild’s continuity with the theological and literary traditions of her day, there is also a subversiveness to her work. Like many female (and quite a few male) authors of the period, Mechthild repeatedly emphasizes the importance of humility and her own human wretchedness. But she also claims for herself religious authority, insofar as it is the Flowing Light of Godhead itself that speaks directly through her. (One wonders what kinds of debates she might spark if she were writing today.) Mechthild presents herself both as her own person and as the vessel of divine illumination: Her personal voice is at the same time God’s voice; her words express the Holy Wisdom of the divine Logos. And if we look at what she is doing in §44, we see in the words she puts into the female mouth of the personified soul a “demand [for] the direct apprehension of God without any mediation”, even that of the church, the apostles, or the Virgin Mary herself, as suggested to her by the ever-dominating (male) voices of the physical world. Moreover, although the soul must initially adorn herself in the righteous “undergarments” of humility, purity, and respectability, she is told by Christ himself to throw these “external virtues” off, in order to become one with her Beloved and the “Secret Word” that he embodies. In this sense, the female soul, through illumination and the demand for knowledge, becomes free of the restrictions imposed on her by the world in the secret chamber of the Divine. This is more than a demand for knowledge: It is an affirmation that the true nature of the human soul – even that of a woman – lies beyond these extrinsic virtues in the love of God and is not bound by them. For similar (purportedly antinomian) ideas, another Beguine, Marguerite Porete, would be burned at the stake less than 20 years after Mechthild’s death.
* * * * *
So what does all this mean for philosophical theology? First, from the standpoint of the historical philosophical and theological canons, recovering – and, in some contexts, strategically centering – figures like Mechthild and her contemplative contemporaries can complicate the way we think about the history of Christian thought. It can also provide occasions for interrogating ideas about what kinds of texts belong to “theology proper” and which kinds of persons count as “genuine theologians”. It can bring other perspectives into theological focus and create opportunities for students and scholars to find new voices with which they can identify and on whom they can draw for inspiration. It can also remind us that not all theology is systematic theology as we know it – or, perhaps better put, that theological ‘systematicity’ might not always look the way we’ve been trained to expect it to look. Moreover, if it is at least part of “analytic and exegetical theology” to reflectively interpret and understand the meaning of Scripture, the doctrines of the Church, and the nature of God in ways that promote and cultivatelove for the Divine and our fellow human beings, then the addition of historical contemplative literature and vernacular theology gives us an extended set of hermeneutical tools to do so.
Mechthild’s work can also remind us that philosophical theology – analytic or otherwise – is not, and should not be, detached from the religious life and the perspectives that inform it. As feminist philosophers of religion have discussed at length, there is no abstract, neutral “view from nowhere” that will simply deliver us an impartial understanding of what aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari potest [that than which nothing greater can be conceived] might be, and many of our divine imaginings – even in analytic theology – might turn out to reveal as much about us as fallible and biased human beings as they do about God. It is thus perhaps hasty and irresponsible of Christian theology to assume that the God of classical theism or perfect-being theology is (or ought to be) the only imagining of the Divine in the game. Instead, if we think it important to develop a philosophical theology that truly confesses the catholicity of the church – and to pursue the aim of genuine religious understanding as opposed to merely defending the rationality of a particular version of Christian theistic belief – we need to aim at an objectivity that is not impersonal and monotonic but instead perspectival and polyphonic. We need what José Medina has called resistant imaginings to create the necessary “epistemic friction” to be able to walk forward in faith, instead of remaining stuck in modes of imagining God that may do more epistemic and moral harm than good for all concerned.
By reading and taking seriously historical and contemporary perspectives from women, gender and sexual minorities, persons of color, refugee and migrant populations, and other communities often marginalized in “mainstream” theological discourse—by centering and making visible feminist, queer, liberation, and protest theologies and liturgies—by reflecting on what these perspectives can reveal about the way we construe both ourselves and the Divine—by inviting and including and (ahem) hiring members of underrepresented groups in academic contexts… These are just a few ways the discipline of philosophical theology can better promote the common pursuit of a fides quaerens intellectumet caritatem – a faith that seeks understanding and love. Perhaps, then, to borrow an idea from Karl Rahner, the theology of the future will be “mystagogical”, insofar as it will strive to both understand and respect the epistemic and social situatedness of our fellow human beings in their particularity, while at the same time cultivating the kind of “noble longing” and “unceasing desire” with which we can give ourselves over to each other – and thereby to the Body of Christ – in mutual, transformative love.
Amber Griffioen works on topics in philosophy of religion, value theory, and history of philosophy at the University of Konstanz. She has conducted extended research stays in Iran to study comparative mysticism and in South Africa to work on bridging the gap between Analytic and Continental philosophical theology. She also engages in research and teaching in moral psychology and the ethics of belief, Islamic philosophy, social philosophy, and philosophy of sport. She is a committed umpire voluntarist and baseball evangelist who actively advocates for the abolition of the designated hitter and the K-zone box. When not debating the finer points of theology or baseball, she can be found running road races, biking the Bodensee, or hiking the Alps with her husband.
 Pun intended.
 Even today, some women readers may also recognize in Mechthild’s allegory elements of their own experience in the earnest pursuit of religious knowledge.
 For a genealogy of the term ‘mysticism’ and its relation to power and exclusion, see Grace Jantzen (1994): “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics,” Hypatia 9(4): 186–206. In this vein, Christina Van Dyke often designates the women thinkers she works on as ‘contemplatives’ instead of ‘mystics’ and the tradition in which they write as ‘contemplative philosophy’. This seems perhaps a better term to classify this form of philosophical theology than Bernard McGinn’s “vernacular theology”.
I left an evangelical seminary to do my PhD at Emory University as a conservative young woman in a progressive institution. At one point, I wrote a paper for a directed study in hermeneutics, in which I discussed the authority of the Bible, and my professor, Gail O’Day, called me to her office for a conversation. Gail could be terrifying. She was tall, smart, articulate, and assertive. And so I was terrified. When I sat down with her, she said she was concerned about certain assumptions I had made about “God’s being at work” in the process of canonization. She didn’t conceive of it that way and genuinely wanted to hear my views. She didn’t terrify me at that moment; instead, she put me at ease. She encouraged me to articulate my ideas and she listened. In the course of the ensuing discussion, she helped me to distinguish between what I could claim in a critical argument based on empirical data and what I could not. She didn’t ask me to change who I was or what I believed, but instead challenged me to refine the critical nature of my thinking. While Gail was not my supervisor, she continued to come alongside me to name my aptitude for biblical exegesis, to call out any sloppy thinking, and press me to follow my aspirations. In seminars I took with her and classes in which I served as her teaching assistant, she modelled what it is to be an excellent scholar who happens to be a woman. I often thought, “I want to be like her” (but perhaps not so terrifying!).
There are countless others (both women and men) who have inspired, encouraged, or challenged me. But my relationship with Gail serves as a perfect example of the sort of mentoring and modelling that helped to retain and sustain me as I progressed from my masters studies to doctoral studies to teaching.
Retaining and sustaining women in theological education isn’t easy. A recent UK study reveals a female/male ratio of 60%-40% at the undergraduate level (comparable to other undergraduate degrees); a female/male ratio of nearly 40%-60% at the Masters level, 33%-66% at the PhD level, and 30%-70% at the level of academic staff. In short, women drop off through the educational trajectory. The study also compared the educational trajectory in religious and theological studies to that of other fields and found that women drop off in theological and religious studies at more than twice the rate as they do in philosophy, English, math, chemistry, or anthropology.
It is not surprising, then, that the 2018 gender distribution of Society of Biblical Studies members, according to member profiles, is 68.46% male and 21.55% female (less than 1% transgender and 9.93% no answer). Even though women outnumber men in religious and theological studies at the undergraduate level, we haven’t figured out how to encourage many capable women to continue beyond that.
Yet we need to figure it out, because not to see and hear and read women (and minority and global voices) in biblical studies and theology impoverishes us. Without them, our scholarship, and our thought and practice may tend towards the monochromatic (as the history of interpretation and university syllabi show). Yet this does not correspond to the appearance of society, nor to the appearance of the church, which are variegated. Moreover, not to see and hear and read women damages our witness in a culture that is occasionally obsessed with identity politics. Even more, we lose key capable resources for developing our thought and practice. In a world such as ours, we need all hands on deck to contribute to the church, engage the public square, and progress the gospel.
So we need to begin early to encourage women to study and continue to encourage them through the trajectory of their studies on to teaching and scholarship. From my own experience, I suggest that women and men alike work intentionally to mentor women and model for them the sort of infectious teaching and scholarship that makes them say, “That’s what I want to do!”
Elizabeth Shively is Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the Synoptic Gospels and Mark in particular. Secondary interests include pedagogy and homiletics.
 See M. Guest, S. Sharma, and R. Song, R.  Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, Durham, UK: Durham University
Though not without controversy, 169 Russian athletes were allowed to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic games on the heels of a pervasive doping scandal. While these competitors were not found culpable, they shared the incrimination of being from the offending country. Thus, they were prohibited from wearing any national identification or from hearing their country’s national anthem. Yet, they retained access to the world’s most prestigious arena of competition.
Why was it so important, not only to these athletes, but also to the International Olympic Committee, to allow them to compete? It’s simple, really. To claim an Olympic medal implies that this person is the best in the world. However, if some of the best athletes are not allowed to compete, then this calls into question the caliber of the winners and the rigor of the competition itself.
Now, imagine if half of the world’s athletes were not allowed in the Olympics.
Such has been the state of play for women in both the religious academy and the church for millennia. While in many ways different from the Olympic games (much more is at stake than medals), these are spheres of influence in which women have been barred or significantly hampered from investing in to the fullest extent.
Logia exists to help remove gender-specific barriers that inhibit women’s thriving, especially in the academy and church. Women and men deserve equal voice and equal standing within the academy; but women still face gender-related obstacles to entry, full inclusion, and advancement across the Divinity disciplines. Consequently, the excellence in these disciplines is diminished because half of the potential scholars are inhibited from contributing to these pursuits. We miss out on half of the world’s most critical thinkers contemplating, writing on, and teaching about the divine and the nature of reality.
Furthermore, historically, the Christian theological tradition has not fully recognized or valued the voices of women Yet women’s contributions to the church are just as valuable as men’s. By having women involved in various levels of service, the church is able to be the body of Christ more completely when everyone is maximizing their gifts and callings.
Fortunately, we can take practical steps to see this change. Specifically, as Logia seeks to affect the academy, here are ways you can help.
IN YOUR CLASSROOM
Include women scholars on your course syllabus (for a developing list of women Divinity scholars, see the Logia webpage).
Invite women to guest lecture in your class.
Mentor women students and new faculty.
Encourage collaborative engagement in classroom discussion.
Establish constructive Q&A guidelines for discussion. For instance, students should ask themselves: Is this question about making me look good? Is this question about making the speaker/author look bad? Will my question benefit the majority of the class? Will my question further this discussion?
Structure class time to include small group discussions such as the think-pair-share technique. This helps students test their voice in a lower-stakes context before speaking in a larger group.
AT YOUR INSTITUTION
Conduct a survey of both students and faculty to assess your institutional gender climate.
Review parental leave policies to examine if these support faculty who are parents (and ask them for their input).
Allocate financial resources to contribute to childcare costs of affected students and faculty.
Set up breast-feeding sites and baby changing facilities with clear signage. This helps to communicate that having a family and an academic career are not mutually exclusive.
Schedule meetings and seminars within the regular working day.
Allow for flexible working hours where possible.
Install glass windows on all office doors so that meetings can occur with privacy and transparency.
You may not have a classroom or be in an academic environment, but there is still plenty you can do to help:
IN YOUR OWN LIFE
Foster perspective-taking and active listening of those with different gendered experiences.
Seek out friendships with those who do not share your gender or gendered experience.
Be an advocate when someone dismisses the need for full inclusion of women in the academy and church.
If you have a church community, encourage women’s active and visible participation in your gatherings (praying aloud, reading scripture, etc.)
These are all just the tip of the iceberg in terms of addressing gender-specific barriers. Be creative. Be intentional. And one day, we’ll be amazed at the richness of all of our contributions to the academy and the church.
*Much of the material for this post can be found on our website in a distributable format.
Christa L. McKirland is a Research Fellow in the Logos Institute. Her research proposes a pneumatologically-Christocentric anthropology based upon the significance and uniqueness of the fundamental human need for intentional dependence upon the divine presence.
 Unfortunately, this restrictiveness is not limited to the Christian tradition, but this is the tradition in which Logia is sourced and is most immediately seeking to affect.
 This is a technique wherein students are given a prompt for discussion and first think to themselves (possibly writing down their responses), then they pair up with a partner to talk through their responses, and finally, they share out with the larger group.