By Fanos Tsegaye
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.