No Mere Spirituality: Recovering a Tradition of Women Theologians
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No Mere Spirituality
Recovering a Tradition of Women Theologians

The experiences, thoughts, and actions of centuries of Christian women have often been gathered together under the somewhat dubious category of “spirituality.”1 This practice was evident before the Second Vatican Council and continues more or less unabated in the postconciliar Catholic Church. In this article, I argue that this use of the category of “spirituality” is dubious insofar as it invites a contrast with theology and insofar as this contrast manifests and reinforces a problematic construction of the “feminine” as spiritual figure and the “masculine” as theologian. At the same time, I maintain that theology is best done in unison with the prayerful ways of life that theologians call spirituality and, therefore, that those Christians—many of them women—whose works theologians are accustomed to treat as cases of mere spirituality may in fact be very helpful guides to a more adequate understanding of what theology is really about and what it could be. Hence, for more reasons than one—for the sake of women and for the sake of theology—we need a category of “women theologians” that is not limited to those women who have finally been permitted to earn theology degrees in the last few generations but also embraces the many thoughtful women who have come before, whom we will badly misremember if we restrict them to the feminine role of a spiritual (as opposed to theological) source.2 Recognizing a tradition of women theologians promises to change the ways that theologians of any gender identification teach theology and do scholarship. [End Page 107]

After the Second Vatican Council, the study of spirituality has been refined through the use of interdisciplinary and critical hermeneutics of various kinds. More attention has been given to lay spiritualities, interreligious and cross-cultural spiritualities, and spiritualities of liberation, including many sorts of feminist spirituality.3 Moreover, following the pioneering efforts of Sandra Schneiders, who is internationally recognized as both a biblical scholar with expertise in Johannine literature and as a proponent of spirituality studies, it has become more acceptable to pursue spirituality as a worthy academic field distinct from theology.4 This disentangling of the two disciplines has not only allowed spirituality to come forth more freely on its own terms but has also opened up a pathway for generations of women to be received and recognized as vital sources in contemporary Christian reflection. One might consider, for instance, the numerous texts by and about women that have appeared in Paulist Press’s highly successful Classics of Western Spirituality series. Also from Paulist we have a rich repository of Madeleva Lectures in Spirituality, given annually from 1985 through the present, which show (among other things) a diverse group of contemporary women scholars constructively interpreting women of the past.5 Would we possess these valuable materials without the rise of spirituality as a distinct disciplinary category? I am not confident that we would.

Nevertheless, I see some problems with this strategy for the critical retrieval of insights from past generations of women. For one, it accepts (and perhaps even encourages) a widening gap between theology and spirituality that imperils both over time. Elsewhere, I have argued that Christian efforts to know God and to live in relation to God should be intimately interconnected and even [End Page 108] nearly indistinguishable endeavors, or else both will become groundless.6 But there is also a gendered problem here. By locating women’s works in a category of spirituality set apart from theology, we risk perpetuating a centuries-old sexist assumption that women are not likely to contribute very much (if anything) to conceptually rigorous and communally normative thought about God. When the label of “spirituality” is applied to women thinkers from the past or the present, it can carry a belittling connotation. Sometimes, it is as though one means to indicate with this label how seriously or not this work should be taken. It is as though one wishes to brand women’s ideas as subjective, irrational, or emotional and supposedly therefore of little consequence to the theological tradition. One may find inspiration in women’s examples of Christian holiness and...