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There’s something about Eve
What women bring to the conversation among faiths
At the start of a September 20 forum titled “Women and Inter-religious Dialogue,” Boston College theology professor Catherine Cornille asked whether women are making “distinctive contributions” to dialogues among believers of different faiths. That the question was even raised is indicative of an issue identified by Cornille and the three scholars whom she introduced to an overflowing and largely female audience in the Heights Room in Corcoran Commons. “Invisible” was a word used at several points to describe the presence of women in such dialogues, particularly in high-profile discussions involving official religious representatives.
The next hour and a half provided a sharp focus on ways that women in fact are helping to build bridges across global religious divides. Sponsored by the theology department, the School of Theology and Ministry, and the Church in the 21st Century Center, the late afternoon assembly featured a presentation by Rosemary Radford Ruether, a pioneer feminist Catholic theologian and emerita professor at the multidenominational Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
Ruether surveyed feminist theologies that have emerged in recent decades from major world religions, beginning with Christianity. Christian feminists, she related, have made considerable use of “prophetic language”—rooted in Scripture and attentive to the plight of the marginalized and oppressed—in critiquing their own patriarchal religious tradition. Such language is not “directed against other religions, but is self-critique. It is directed against teaching and practices of its own people and its leaders,” Ruether said.
For their part, Jewish feminists “do not have to deal with” the concept of Original Sin—which, in Christian tradition, is linked to Eve—because the doctrine is not part of Jewish theology, Ruether noted. But these feminists do contend with such obstacles as rabbinic laws that excuse women from “the time-bound commandments of prayer on the grounds that women are busy with housework and child care,” she said.
Islamic feminists, meanwhile, have shown that the Qur’an, unlike Islamic oral traditions, does not contain “the rib story,” in which the female gender is created from a rib of Adam, in subordination to men, according to Ruether. It only speaks of Adam and Eve as created at the same time. “The rib story and the idea of women’s secondary creation . . . came into Islamic tradition later,” said Ruether, who drew chuckles when she added—”probably from Christianity.”
After sampling critiques among Buddhist feminists, aimed also at internal patriarchal practices, Ruether—who traced feminist theology in general to Boston College theology professor Mary Daly’s 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, and whose own 1983 book, Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, is also a landmark—concluded that women of various faiths are finding commonality in “the quest for an inclusive God who is not male” and does not see men as singularly representative of the divine. “Feminist theology today is a global and interfaith discourse,” said Ruether. This holds true whether the conversation is initiated in the halls of academe or jumpstarted by faith-based nongovernmental organizations in the Third World to relieve hostilities.
Two scholars responded to Ruether’s remarks. The first, Marianne Moyaert, associate professor of theology and philosophy of religion at VU University Amsterdam (in the Netherlands), stressed that, in interfaith dialogue, women shouldn’t limit themselves to matters of “justice and injustice,” as Ruether often seems to do. They can speak more universally about “learning how to deal with situations of infidelity, jealousy, despair, anger,” about dealing with “the human condition in all its smallness and greatness.” Citing another commonality, Moyaert said that women also often share “a rather ambiguous relationship to their religious tradition: a relationship of attraction and repulsion, submission and revolt, acceptance and rejection, a longing for silence and a desire to protest.”
Moyaert was followed at the podium by Nelly van Doorn-Harder, a professor of Islamic studies at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who is, like Moyaert, a Christian from the Netherlands. She pointed to the practical differences that women are making in interfaith dialogues. These include an emphasis on “relationships over dogma,” in which doctrinal differences between religious traditions do not overshadow common ground; and a particular interest in grassroots connections (often sponsored by religious congregations and local interfaith associations), as distinct from the official exchanges among mostly male hierarchs. Said Doorn-Harder, “Women speak a different interfaith language than men.”
The public forum kicked off the fifth and final Boston College Symposium on Interreligious Dialogue—which continued for two days afterward among a group of 40 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu scholars at the University’s Connors Family Retreat and Conference Center, in Dover. The series of parleys began in 2008 with a gift from University Trustee Brien M. O’Brien ’80. The September 21–22 discussions in Dover featured presentations such as “Story and Practice in Contemporary ‘Abrahamic’ Engagement: Asking the Overlooked Question of Gender,” and “Impediments to Constructive Interreligious Dialogue Concerning Muslim Women.” Each of the previous symposia has produced a book, the most recent one published earlier this year and titled Interreligious Dialogue and Cultural Change (Cornille is the primary editor of the series). The final volume, on the role of women, is expected in the fall of 2013.
Read more by William Bole