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Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21.2 (2005) 126-128

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Thoughts on the Twentieth Birthday of JFSR

Exactly one week after JFSR 's twentieth-anniversary conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was in Seoul, Korea, delivering a lecture titled "What's God Got to Do with It? The Place of Religious Studies in a Women's Studies Curriculum," at the Ninth International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women. Namsoon Kang, one of the respondents to my paper, had been a participant at the JFSR conference. We had a chance to talk and read each other's recent work in Cambridge before meeting again in Seoul. My acquaintance with Namsoon is an example of the success of one of the important initiatives undertaken by JFSR in the past several years: the inclusion of feminist scholars outside North America. The fact that the journal is using its international advisory board so well, both to gather articles and to set up international projects such as the Cambridge conference, bodes well for the next twenty years of feminist scholarship about religion. Globalization chez JFSR is enriching the lives and work of both the editorial board and the readership.

Nevertheless, despite my hearty approval of JFSR and all that it has done and is doing, in this birthday issue I want to offer a few words of critique—not about the journal but about the field of feminist studies in religion as it is developing. For better or worse, my thinking tends to focus on the holes in things—on what can't be said, rather than what is being said at the moment. Judith Butler suggests that critique should be understood as "an interrogation of the terms by which life is constrained in order to open up the possibility of [End Page 126] different modes of living." 1 My purpose in the following paragraphs is to point out a trajectory of theory that might place unnecessary constraints on the future life of both the field and the journal.

In my lecture in Seoul, I critiqued the field of feminist studies in religion for its tendency to become a parliament of religions in which academics and activists are identified as representatives of this or that faith tradition. I have noticed that, increasingly, in order to gain a place in the forum—that is, in order to gain a university appointment as a scholar with a specialty in gender and religion, or to be invited to participate in a conference on the theme, or to be asked to write for a publication dealing with the subject—one has to be recognized as professing a particular religious tradition. I am worried that the field of women and religion is becoming defined as a place in which feminist scholars function as auxiliaries to specific religions. We are supposed to produce ideology, discourse, and scholarship that can be used to reduce sexism and to highlight women-friendly texts and practices so that the traditions can continue in a less toxic manner.

The reason this admirable goal concerns me is that such a definition of the field precludes a serious feminist interrogation of basic categories. By our opting for a rather conservative model of ecumenical conversation about feminist reform, traditional ideological boundaries are unchallenged and reinforced. Instead of dissecting terms such as faith , deity, and spirituality, in order to explore their limits and obfuscations, feminists have been using these words uncritically in their own texts and are thus pumping up the aura of mystification that surrounds religious vocabulary. In Seoul I was encouraged by the discussion that followed my elaboration of this argument. Other people in the room expressed a desire to find different ways of talking in order to revive the spirit, if not the form, of consciousness-raising in the early feminist movement. It was gratifying to me that the concept "world religions" was raised as problematic—as, perhaps, a patriarchal construct, such as "nation" or "state," that could function as a disabling boundary between women. I came away from the Seoul conference having heard the...


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