Monday, April 04, 2011

The "Secret Theology" of Women

I recently had the opportunity to be part of group of Fuller students and staff (specifically, those of us who serve either as "Ambassadors" for the seminary or who write for the Fuller Blogs site — now finally with new posts again after being down for two solid months due to technical problems) who were invited to have lunch with Fuller President Richard Mouw. During the hour, we were invited to offer our perspectives on the seminary and ask questions about things that interest or concern us. I took the occasion to ask Mouw about Fuller's ongoing commitment to women in ministry.

To preface his response, Mouw told a story about the first woman who graduated from Fuller. She was part of one of the seminary's first graduating classes, so this would be roughly 60 years ago. Because the prevailing interpretation of the time was against allowing women to ordained ministry, the seminary actually created a degree for this woman: "Master of Sacred Theology".* However, when it came time to print the diplomas, there was a typo, and so the woman's diploma instead said the degree was in "Secret Theology"!  (An abbreviated form of this story appears here, but it oddly doesn't specify that Fuller was the school, so take this story as anecdotal).

One could wonder about the possibility of a Freudian slip, as if to suggest that women doing theology would have to do so in secret, but I find myself thinking more about the ways in which people with different experiences inevitably bring those experiences to bear on the ways that they think of God. For good or ill, there is a reason that what is sometimes called "liberation theology" — for example — comes from parts of the world that have suffered tremendous poverty and/or oppression. A woman preaching in my church a few weeks ago used an illustration of something that happened to her while she gave birth to one of her own children. That experience clearly impacted the way that she thought about (in this case) the way that God provided her with strength that she didn't believe that she herself possessed in a difficult time, and it's the kind of experience that no man can legitimately lay claim to.

I don't mean to say that such knowledge is truly "secret," in the sense of "consciously hidden," so much as I mean that it may remain "unknown." It isn't knowledge that all people have equal access to. If one doesn't have a certain set of experiences, one must be in communication with a person that has in order to be able to access the wisdom that comes out of those experiences. This is one reason why having pastors and theologians from different groups can be so important.

One argument I often hear from those who think that the Bible doesn't allow for women in ministry, besides their insistence that the biblical texts prohibit it (an argument I've addressed elsewhere enough that I won't bother with here), is the myth that those of us who disagree with them think that men and women aren't different, all obvious evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. While I might not think that the differences extend in all the same ways that they do, the fact that there are such differences is not something we seek to ignore. Far from it, those differences are one reason why we advocate for their right to all forms of ministry in the first place. We deny ourselves the benefit of these differences if we deny women the right to preach. We don't want to keep the contributions of women "secret," but to bring them out into the open.

*I note that "Bachelor of Sacred Theology" (STB) degrees do, in fact, exist today, especially in institutions run by groups that don't ordain women. These degrees often do seem to be roughly equivalent to the MDiv with the exception that they do not prepare a person for ordained ministry. Although I haven't seen explicit mention of this as being created to provide degrees for women, this does seem to be exactly the kind of thing that might be done as a workaround for a woman who wants an "MDiv-like" degree from such an institution. There is also an actual "Master of Sacred Theology" (STM) degree, but it is a post-MDiv degree (I wonder how it compares to Fuller's Master of Theology (ThM) degree).

NOTE: All images in this entry are provided by Baptist Women in Ministry and used with their permission.  Readers are encouraged to check out the Baptist Women in Ministry Fan Page on Facebook, as well as the page for the book This is What a Preacher Looks Like, edited by Pamela R. Durso.

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