Like a lot of opinionated people, I am rumored to never change my mind on anything. But this is actually just a false association. People unthinkingly equate passion with stubbornness. In reality, I’ve quite publicly changed my mind in a number of circumstances. For instance, I have written many times before about having been anti-abortion earlier in my life whereas now I do abortion doula work. I have also very publicly moved through phases of religion and non-religion. For me, there is no shame in being a human being who explores things and sometimes, as would be likely for anyone, changes her mind. I don’t see a contradiction in being a passionate person while also being someone who can be self-reflective and honest.
So, with that said, I’ve changed my mind.
Actually, I changed my mind two years ago but was unsure about how to write about it. I knew I had to write about it at some point not because I’m in any way important but because people were very confused about certain changes in my work. I wasn’t afraid of explaining it, just unsure of how to approach it in a world in which what I’m about to say and, more to the point, the way I think about it, is so foreign. I know that I will probably be misunderstood or thought to be saying something that I’m not, especially because this is a blog post and therefore not going to cover the topic sufficiently but – I need to let go of all that.
So, after having written The Humanist Ceremonies Handbook I can now say that I do not identify as a humanist, as an atheist, or as a nontheist. No, I haven’t become a theist either. I don’t believe that any of those labels have any real meaning behind them. This doesn’t mean that I disavow my book or that I’m “against” any of those things either. It simply means that after years of studying, thinking, and writing, I have now come to the conclusion that the way we think about and conceptualize religion is faulty. More specifically, I realized that western (organized) atheism and humanism rely on the protestant narrative for their definitions, philosophies, and, really, entire worldview. That’s bound to confuse a lot of people so let me explain…
The protestant narrative informs most of the western worldview. It is the narrative that gave us ideas such as that certain religious practices are superstitions, that the reformation was an improvement on matters, and that we are marching confidently toward further enlightenment every single day. We can go nowhere but up! In its desire to separate itself from “backward-looking” superstition it gave us the Enlightenment itself! Rationality! Rational religion! Science! Progress! And it is from the Enlightenment, generally speaking, that the skeptic and atheist and humanist movement was born.
Let’s take a brief moment here to talk about humanism because this is my focus for now. What is it? The truth is, it is a constantly moving target. To be a humanist is to be one who studies the humanities. I am a humanist therefore by the original nineteenth century definition of the word. But somewhere along the way, the word humanism began to take on all kinds of different definitions, just like any word does. Studying the humanities (humankind’s expression of its own experience of existence) became entangled with ideas about human self-sufficiency, our power to affect change for the better (or worse), our responsibility to each other. This had nothing to do with concepts of theism or atheism (which people largely wouldn’t have understood until the seventeenth century at least) and, in fact, many devout Christians have been retroactively proclaimed humanists. Today, according to the American Humanist Association, the term demands nontheism though I can’t seem to find any historical reason for the shift. Up into the present day there are plenty of so-called theists who identify as humanist who have been left out in the cold.
With the humanist movement of the late twentieth century came unchallenged and unquestioned assumptions, definitions and concepts. Religion, a construct so complex that not even scholars of the topic can agree on what it is, was loudly proclaimed to be a negative thing in all its manifestations. Theism and nontheism were carefully delineated and never the twain shall meet.
If you ask a humanist today what they think/believe, they’ll tell you that they are “good without God” and they will say it as though it is a revolutionary concept. And, to be fair, it is for some. Especially here in North America and, in particular, the States, where religion has been so weaponized that to declare oneself a moral being without allegiance to a deity can appear more unusual than in other places in the world. I get it. I used this phrase too. It’s neat and pat and saves a lot of time. And yet, I found myself at a complete loss to describe what this actually meant. To declare oneself good without God is to imply that those that believe in a God are only good because of that fact. And yet, having been religious I knew that the vast majority of religious people did not believe that they were one church service away from raping and pillaging their neighbors.
Another tenet of humanism, if I can call it that, is an allegiance to science. It was one of the most attractive things about humanism for me and I still find it an important construct. But, again, I knew that the vast majority of religious people subscribed to a mostly scientific worldview. I knew plenty of people who were proponents of evolution or who fought climate change and did so as part of their commitment to their religion.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary humanism is an insistence on atheism or agnosticism. But here again religious people appear to be misunderstood. History is replete with examples of people we might (anachronistically, I’d say) call nontheistic or, at the very least, post-theistic. The thing is, prior to the reformation era, western people would not have understood the idea of having a secular world and a religious world. This compartmentalization came about largely during the enlightenment. People would not have understood concepts such as theism and nontheism but they would have understood that there were many, many different ways of understanding mystery. This is exemplified in the diversity of spiritualities within the pre-reformation Catholic church – everything from folk practices to intellectualized clerical practices. Huge conversations were happening all over Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages” concerning the nature of God, whether God was a being, whether God was really us. And if you want to say, “yeah, but they were still talking about God, ” I would submit to you that the word God didn’t necessarily mean then what it means to a twenty-first century American. And don’t get me started on how the humanist movement relies entirely on a narrow western idea of theism in the first place.
And all of this comes back to that protestant narrative. I am, of course, generalizing because I’m sure you’re all dead of boredom by now, but it was the reformation that helped usher in a more uniform and “correct” Christianity, one that demanded more stringent categories and railed against the “irrationality” of folk devotions. This attitude is still prominent today in Religious Right circles and it is that attitude that prompted a reactionary American (and, I’d argue, western) humanism, this despite the fact that the Religious Right represents a tiny minority of religious people in America. But don’t feel bad. The Catholic church got all reactionary too. They felt a little sensitive after the reformation and many folk practices (“superstitions” that we wrongly associate with paganism) died out.
The American Humanist Association describes humanism as a philosophy. And yet, I’ve never, in all my years as a humanist, been able to identify the philosophy behind it. “Good without God” is not a philosophy. “Likes science” is not a philosophy. “Sticking it to religious people”(as yes, someone in a very senior leadership position once said to me was the point of humanism) is not a philosophy. It’s late, so I’d better get to the point which is that I’ve decided that humanism, while well-meaning, is simply a reactionary movement born out of the protestant narrative it so desperately wants to critique. How meta.
That said, I don’t repudiate my book. I think it’s a lovely idea to have an option for ceremonies without God language. All the above bitching aside, there are people for whom religion, whatever that is to them, leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and I don’t want those people to feel like they can’t have nice things. I’m particularly proud of having included trans naming ceremonies and other ceremonies for marginalized people. I feel like that is all worthwhile and I feel honored to have worked closely with other celebrants to bring these to the fore. I also don’t regret my time as a humanist. After all, it was seeking to become a more conscientious humanist minister that led me to study theology and, eventually, seek out a PhD program in religious studies. I’m grateful for that.
I had two experiences last week that are great examples of why I’m once again on the side of “no ordination”. I do have to say though, these feel pretty definitive for me. Allow me to explain:
In the first instance, I was at church. A parishioner who is very conservative when it comes to women suddenly began to talk about how he does not believe in abortion but that “liberal women” need to have an abortion every time they get pregnant. He said this to me, knowing I am what he would call “liberal” and knowing that my three-year-old daughter was right there. He essentially told me that I should have aborted my daughter. The women around me were shocked and disgusted but he seemed not to notice their reactions and carried on. He said that if we all just had abortions, there would be no liberals (a huge failure in logic I, the daughter of hard-core, bunker-having, Glen Beck-loving conservatives, am not even going to address here). He then told us that none of “his house” would ever “be allowed” to have an abortion. That was the only point at which I opened my mouth to tell him that that his attitude was probably why “his house” would just come to someone like me. I told him that my ministry was helping women obtain care and that none of my patients had ever told their families because they knew they’d be ostracized. He told me that my work was emphatically not a religious calling and said it with all the confidence of a man who is used to sitting in for God.
I was a bit put out by this scene but put it out of my head and went ahead with church. But I made the mistake many women make – I spoke about it. I mentioned it to a select group friends online but word got around until I was approached by someone who was concerned that I was saying something that could reflect negatively on the church. I should mention that I had not said anything negative at all but simply narrated the experience and ended by imploring people not to say negative things about the person who attacked me but simply to use it to recognize how we often choose our politics before we choose our religion. However, the topic of abortion is often something that can be interpreted by some as negative in and of itself, without them realizing it. I also need to say that this person had very good private reasons for approaching me and I don’t fault them for it at all but rather the structure and culture of the church that makes it necessary.
All that aside, what really bothered me was that I felt that I was ultimately being tasked with the responsibility for the situation. The man who had verbally attacked and defamed me and my child was not, as far as I am aware, ever really confronted over his sin (and yup, that’s what that was). He certainly never apologized or acknowledged it. There are probably several reasons for this – one being that he has been at the church for quite some time and I am rather newish. The other I’ll demonstrate with a quote from pro-choice Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison who said that when it comes to abortion, “the demand to speak judiciously falls exclusively upon [women]” (from Our Right to Choose, 2011). In other words, we, knowingly or unknowingly, often excuse men from out-of-control speech regarding abortion while scrutinizing women’s speech.
Weirdly enough, I had another experience like this just five days later in, of all places, my knitting group. As I sat there cursing the fact that my hat was too big and I was going to have to frog it and start again, someone asked me what I do. I explained that I was an abortion doula and that I attempt to construct positive feminist theologies, especially surrounding abortion. Some of the women murmured their support as their fingers worked away at their shawls and sweaters. But others began to tell me that women who have abortions are irresponsible, that they just need birth control, etc. This is not shocking anymore as I get the same script, almost verbatim, from women who have clearly not had to struggle when it comes to their reproductive health. I took a few minutes to explain the realities behind the stereotypes (most women having abortions ARE using birth control, abortion IS a responsible act, the myth of the friend of a friend of a friend who had six million abortions in five seconds because it is “easier” than using birth control is not a thing, etc.) but soon gave up. It never actually matters because none of these people are interested in anything but condemnation, even if they are otherwise good people (patriarchy really instills this need to condemn so that we aren’t ourselves perceived as bad girls). So, I just went back to my knitting. But I was upset. Not for myself but because in a room of roughly 20 women, statistically speaking, at least three or four will have had an abortion and those women were probably listening to all this bullshit thinking, “And THIS is why I’ll never tell anyone.” It could have been left at that but the women with OPINIONS just went on and on and then I heard someone say to me, “Autumn, change the conversation.”
And that’s when I lost my shit a little. Because for the second time in a week I was asked to manage a conversation I wasn’t even really a part of. It seems that my very presence is all it takes to offend people and no one wants to stop and examine why they need to put me in charge of that or why I should be censured for my having the audacity to mention what I do and then stand up, in the politest way possible, for myself, my work, and the many women who I’ve been privileged to walk with. And if that isn’t enough, I am put into that quintessentially female role of assuaging the uncomfortable feelings of others.
But I UTTERLY FUCKING REFUSE to manage other people’s feelings. And therein lies the problem for my life trajectory at this point. As clergy, my job would be tied to that role of Emotion Manager and doubly so with an abortion doula ministry. When I sat down to reflect on both of these experiences, I realized that I would be spending so goddamn much of my time and energy having to explain myself, defend myself, etc. that I’d have nothing left for those I minister to and that is hideously unfair to them. Being clergy would kill my ministry.
In the end decided two things – that I am not able to stand up for women and destigmatization in the way I feel called to within the ecclesiastical structure of the church, even as a deacon whose job it is to “speak truth to the church”. And also, I need a break. I love church. I’m an absolute church nerd. But as long as men like that man I ran into are given implicit permission to determine who is heard and who is silenced, I cannot hear God in such a place. Her voice is drowned out by the loud, aggressive, and unfounded confidence of entitled white men.
So, in the meantime I’ll just go to another knitting group I’m fond of and I’ll participate in my women’s circle for religious and spiritual feminist community. Will I go back to church? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine right now. After all, what was I thinking? A post-theist who is an abortion doula – I may as well have wrapped myself in tin foil and stood on the roof of the church in a storm.
My ministry and, indeed, one could say my entire way of being, is quite different for some people. This isn’t a shock. I’m an abortion doula. I help women access reproductive healthcare and I construct theologies that support reproductive justice. It’s not standard church fare. As such, I’m used to being either a little ostracized or feted, depending on the crowd. There are times when people love what I’m doing or they fear it. You really need good support system to do this work.
Yesterday was an interesting lesson in who my supporters are. When I turned off the lights and climbed into bed last night, the people I thought I knew who had my back when I got up that morning had changed and I was physically sick with apprehension. It was a day filled with intense anger, some of the most white hot fury I’d ever felt in my life, and a day of abject sadness and isolation. It was also a day in which I found myself more grateful than ever for the people I love.
It’s really hard sometimes being an aspiring clergywoman who advocates for the positives of abortion care. But one place where I’d felt completely supported in my work was in my doctoral program. After all, its here that I’m studying the spiritual lives of abortion care workers and everyone knows what I’m doing – or so I thought. I had been struggling for about a year with a couple of people in my program who weren’t quite sure what I was doing regardless of having read my work. At first, I thought perhaps I hadn’t been very clear myself. So, I send out my lit review to a few outside informal advisors who assured me that my work was quite clear. So, I persevered with the two in my program until it came to a head last week. The details are unnecessary but the summary is this: these two had negative views about both abortion and feminism that were making it difficult for them to be able to understand the crux of my work. Unfortunately, it was these same two people who had the responsibility of conveying my progress to the doctoral committee. In short, I realized that for an entire year, no one at the school had the facts about my work, nor did they know anything about my background, my education, or my experience. For the last year, I had been looking like a joke, like a loose cannon who was writing a “dissertation” on how great abortion is and that everyone should have at least ten of them.
I was alarmed and immediately met with the appropriate person at the school to express that alarm and hopefully find a solution. This person was very sympathetic to the situation, thankfully, but they, also being on the committee, had no idea of my background and began to ask me questions based on assumptions they had made from imperfect information.
She said that she remembered that I said I ran a bible study. It’s called Bible Study for the Rest of Us and is a way for people who have no interest in being converted can study what scholars have said about the bible through the ages. It’s a safe place for theists, nontheists, and post-theists to find common areas of appreciation for wisdom literature. But while this might sound harmless to most of us, she asked me a question that lit a fire of fury in me. She said, “Where do you get the confidence to think you can teach this?”
In other words, what gives you the right to engage in this ministry when you’re not a bible scholar. She said she was worried that people taking part would see that I’m a student of theology and have “certain expectations” that she seemed to think I wouldn’t be able to fulfill. “Why,” she asked, “do you think you can give them answers?”
And right there we have the problem, folks. There are still people (especially in the academy) who believe that laypeople and even students of theology are not equipped to read bible scholarship and talk about it amongst themselves (by the way, this would make every single church bible study illegitimate). The implication is that without a formal degree (yet, or ever) somehow no one has or ever should engage in learning on their own.
Friends, this is EXACTLY the bullshit I try to push against every day in my ministry. “How can you help people get abortions and be a Christian?” “How can you be a Christian and not believe in a theistic God-being?” In other words, how can I or anyone else be exactly who we are? Ironically, it is because we HAVE studied and we understand the long traditions that support both post-theism as well as reproductive justice. It’s a process called theological reflection that is as second nature to us as breathing. I shared with her that I didn’t feel I needed permission and that the confidence came from an intimacy with scripture and the support of those who felt I could introduce them to it. Moreover, I said, I come from a liberation theology perspective which believes that both theology and biblical interpretation are built from the ground up, not handed down from on high.
I was then told as an aside that when I speak of being ordained in the Anglican Church, I need to make sure I tell everyone that it is ordination to the diaconate and not the priesthood. The assumption here seems to be that the diaconate is an inferior order and that we don’t want people to think I’m in any way getting above my station. But the truth is that in the Anglican Church, the diaconate is a “full and equal order,” not a lower part of a made-up hierarchy of awesomeness. Moreover, I am always happy to talk about the diaconate but who the hell knows what that is? I don’t have the time during an introduction to talk about the history and significance of the diaconate so, when I meet people, I tell them that I am discerning ordination in the church. If they want to know more, that’s great, I will happily tell you why I chose the diaconate over the priesthood or, rather, why God made this choice for me.
At this point in the meeting, I was very upset inside but kept it together on the outside. I left as soon as I could and drove home, literally screaming the whole way with the windows up. I had never been this angry in my life! Seriously! Like, EVER. Once I got home, I curled up into a ball on my stairs and sobbed. I felt that everything that I am, all that I hope to do, was deemed inadequate by the powers that be, the people that apparently get to decide these things.
My question for them is, “WHERE DO YOU GET THE CONFIDENCE?”
Where do you get the confidence that you hold the answers?
Where do you get the confidence to assert that only those with multiple theology degrees get to tell everyone what’s what?
Where do you get the confident belief that laypeople haven’t read extensively, haven’t studied constantly, haven’t had a passion for wisdom that is worth sharing?
WHERE DO YOU GET THIS CONFIDENCE?
I sat there sobbing on my stairs until my priest and great friend Colleen texted me to see if I was okay. She suggested I stop by for knitting and tea, so we could chat about what had happened. Colleen is kind of the most amazing human being ever. She is open, sunny, and very easy to talk to. In fact, as I cried in front of her, I was startled to realize that she was the first person I had never apologized to for my crying. We chatted (well, I ranted) and she gave me what I absolutely most needed at that moment – reassurance that I wasn’t delusional, that I was doing good work, and that my research was important. Because as much as I rail against pointless authority and ridiculous assertions by the academy, something in them makes me doubt myself a little. I told Colleen all of this and about how a lot of it stemmed from my mother not really believing that I was capable of college, let alone an advance degree and ordination. I told her how ridiculous I felt that at almost 40 any of this still mattered.
But it did matter. I DO have moments of doubt. That’s what its like having ministries like mine or being someone who thinks a bit differently. We’re not the people who get famous or win massive adherents to our way of thinking. We’re the people who continue to do our work, even when in pain, because we can’t NOT do the work. God has called us to something for some damn fool reason we don’t quite get and our lives aren’t right until we answer. We’re told in scripture, specifically, Romans 8:31 that “If God is for us, who can be against us,” but I’m not so good at claiming that I know what She is about. But I do know that God wants me in this stupid, agonizing, lame-ass struggle.
And this is why human support is so vital. No, I’ll never be famous. I also know I may not have the support of my program. I’ll never have more than a handful of supporters but that is all I need. I just need someone to feed me tons of tea and Chocolate Crack and tell me that the work that I love so much matters.
I know I’ve not offered you any substantive writing in the last month and so I thought I’d just pop in to let you know what’s going on. As many of you know, my newest book for Humanist Press (The Humanist Guide to Ceremonies) is about to be released and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the advance copies! The last month has been spent in last minute edits and photo searches as well as arranging for podcast appearances and book review articles. I should have a final book release date for you soon!
On top of this, I’ve been working hard at launching the first episode of the Electric Eel Pond podcast! Our first episode will be me interviewing my co-host Shawn Birss about his study of Christian anarchism. It should be a great episode so stay tuned for an official release!
In other news, I’ve launched a newsletter which you can sign up for on the right hand side of this page. Twice a month I offer a (hopefully) insightful piece of short writing as well as tell you what I’m reading, the status on all my projects and books, and share upcoming events such as our monthly feminist liturgies. If you want to keep up with what’s going on in the world of feminist theology and reproductive justice, sign up for the newsletter!
Aaaaand, finally…I am hard at work on two new titles that, at least for now, will only be available on my website. Theology and Reproductive Justice is an exploration of just that – how we can use theology to gain a deeper understanding of the necessity for reproductive justice for all people. It is geared toward people that are new to the topic so it’s a great primer to pass on! So, You Want to be an Ally?: Reproductive Justice for White Folks is another beginner’s explanation of the idea of reproductive justice, this time geared toward white people who may be unfamiliar with the topic. This book tackles the difference between reproductive rights and reproductive justice and gives white folks the necessary tools to become allies in the fight. Both should be available on my website later in 2018.
If you just can’t wait for all this excitement to commence, you might think about joining us over in the Electric Eel Pond Facebook Group where we broaden the conversation to talk about innovative and accessible theology as a whole. If you love good, friendly conversation about a variety of interesting modern theological topics, you might want to stop by!
Well, that’s it for now…I have to go work on all those projects!
*Heads up, friends. This post contains a lot more graphic sexual shit than I usually get into.
There is perhaps nothing more illustrative of the male sense of entitlement than its expression of what it believes women desire. This was brought home to me by the following completely unsolicited Facebook message I got today.
So, let’s break down the complex psyche that is Frances and what it says about his view of women’s desire:
First of all, Frances knows that I need to be complimented in an extravagantly and overblown way. He knows that all I need is for someone to tell me that I’m a goddess (no, wait, a step ABOVE goddess!) in order to see that he is perceptive and sensitive to my needs. Automatic panty dropper. He’s clearly expecting the underwear (can we stop infantalizing women by calling them “panties”?) to drop because he has illustrated his expectations with the digital equivalent of the dirty old man wink.
Now, just in case I’m thinking that this is all too good to be true, he tells me his physical stats and expresses his astonishment (and what he presumes to be mine) that he is Sill Single by capitalizing the first letter of both words. Great! So, so far, a total old man stranger thinks I am a goddess and that I, of course, want to bone his 6’1″ frame. But wait! Lest I think he is too creepy (something lots of bitches do because they can’t take a joke/compliment/straight talk) he wants to humanize himself. He wants to hide the creep factor behind a curtain of his HOBBIES and INTERESTS which include such man-about-town divertissments as scuba diving, rollerblading, SEX (it’s like he has creep Tourette’s), and travel. I am also meant to be impressed that he smokes cigars because chicks dig men who do things that poor people think rich people do. He is truly a well-rounded gentleman and he accentuates this by asking (with the obvious assurance that it is totally okay to do this) that I send him photos by email or text. He ends with a rather disingenuous request to know all about my “Hobbies and Interests” because he needs to pretend that I am a human for my sake.
In case you’re wondering, his assumptions and general technique are not unique. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these kinds of messages and it certainly won’t be the last. The words may differ but they all contain the same basic assumptions: that women are thirsty for outrageous compliments they are too blind to see through from old men masquerading as international playboys. We want a little naughtiness (such as a leering text wink) but we also want to be on a pedestal. It hardly needs to be said that we also need the guy to cajole us out of sexually explicit photos but secretly, we love it. We just can’t say that because we’re ladies.
Sadly, all Frances got for his effort was a series of dick picks.
So, what do women actually want? As much as we are stereotyped as being inscrutable in this regard, it is actually quite simple. Ask a fucking woman. I mean, we spent our high school years being dry humped by guys who think sex is done when they are. Some of us still endure the relentless poundings men assume we enjoy because some actor in a porn he once saw screamed with pleasure while having absolutely none of her needs attended to. We are absolutely down for a little change up but, sadly, many women don’t even realize this is an option until they are asked. Many men have never even considered it because, whether they are good men or not, the sexual world has always revolved around them. Check out any “women’s” section of a porn site (I know you look at porn, so let’s move on). Here you can watch “lesbians” in implausible lingerie fellate dildos while staring smolderingly at the camera, or you can watch “daddy” clips (fucking eww). The women’s sections don’t reflect what (most) women want. They are androcentric fantasy projections. All this, we’re told, is curated for us. Not that they’ve sought advice or input from actual women or the woman-run companies that produce actual porn for women. They just know chicks love it. Why would you ask an actual woman? Guys totally know about sex!
Funny thing is, this concept doesn’t play both ways. As I said earlier, I sent Frances some dick pics in response to his request for photos (after all, he didn’t specify they were to be photos of me) and I know how this will end. It will be just like every other incident in which I’ve sent dick picks to a dudebro. He’ll be incredibly offended that I assumed what he’d like and no, he won’t see the irony in that.
Frances, let me tell you what I want. I’m a big fan of feminist theology in relationships and in the bedroom. And, in case you don’t know how that squares up, let me tell you that it is the exact opposite of your worldview. A feminist theological view of sexuality prizes the following things: mutuality and consent, female pleasure and, wait for it…the full personhood of women. That means that sex and relationships become a truly holy thing in which both people are aware of each other’s needs, boundaries, and, you know, status as a human. Part of this includes talking about what we like in bed, not assuming that your girl has a clitoris in her mouth. It means understanding how vital our sexuality is to our basic sense of humanity.
I am sometimes overwhelmed by the Franceses of the world. I have my ideals, I’m passionate about what I speak and write about but what do we really need to do to incorporate our feminist theology into our institutional theologies of sexuality? How do we address this when so many institutionalized churches reject the very idea of women as human? Honestly, I don’t know. I have literally no idea how to counter the Franceses of the world except with a steady barrage of dick pics. But maybe there’s something to that. Although it can feel tiresome and fruitless, perhaps all we can do is hold up a mirror to our churches and our society while in our own lives mirroring what a healthy sexuality can look like.
The thing I love best about feminist theology is how easy it is to describe to someone who has never heard of it. Feminist theology is about humanization. It is about taking the focus off of the abstract and instead attending to the daily existence of all human beings. It is rejecting abstract dogmatic concepts in favor of praxis. Of course, the impulse to living in a feminist theological context is found in compassion. It is through compassion that we are led to reject damaging dogma. It is in compassion that we find our deepest and most generous theological impulses.
And yet, I’m convinced that compassion is still something we don’t quite get. We use the word as though it means mercy. But does it? Mercy, to me, implies a power relationship. The oppressed cry for it and the oppressor grants it (or does not). Mercy does not require “com” (together) “passion” (suffering). It requires only will. Others believe that compassion is a synonym for kindness. But kindness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. From where does it spring?
Compassion, actually suffering WITH someone, is quite hard to come by. I don’t mean by this that most people in this world are shitty, just that we’ve come up with less difficult ways to engage with others, ways that allow us to keep a degree of healthy distance. The trouble with compassion is that it can only really take place through an emptying of self combined with the desire to fully love the other – much like Christ did. And although we laud this ideal, how can we, as twenty-first century people, really get on board with letting go of the “I” so that we can love more fully? How is it possible to let go of our precious egos?
What IS the “I”? As a post-enlightenment people, we tend to equate our mind with “I”. Our likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts – those are all what make me me. And yet, wise people throughout the centuries have not thought so and have believed that discipline through meditation can teach a person to shed this illusive sense of “I”, what we now call the ego, in favor of a more universal “I” that is no “I” at all.
Here is an experiment. Take a moment right now to observe your thoughts. Right now, mine are telling me that I probably appeared like a total nutcase to the person with whom I just had a meeting. There is also a voice telling me that that is nuts, that I’m proud of how different I am and that I was just fine. In fact, there are several voices in my head judging the event and creating a narrative.
So, tell me, if I am my thoughts and feelings, then who is the “I” observing them? Who is saying, “I am thinking that so-and-so probably thinks I’m crazy.” Who is this “I” that is not making judgments about anything but merely observing what is going on in my head? I have no answer to that, nor does anyone else. And yet, it is this “I behind the I” that is observational and free of judgment that we really need if we are to truly become compassionate people. You can’t just decide for compassion, you have to make it into a discipline and learn to be at home with this hidden “I”. You must be able to separate your identity from your thoughts and emotions. Buddhists know this. Saints know this.
Emptying yourself so that you can fully experience the suffering of others has often been a trait universally ascribed to women. After all, isn’t one of the complaints we have against sexism that women are expected to abandon or sacrifice themselves for others? And if we have been socialized to do this, aren’t we automatically more compassionate as a gender? I argue that no, we aren’t, and that is simply because compassion as a practice demands an intentionality fully centered in a desire to love and understand another. When we empty ourselves as a social obligation, we are not fully intentional. Moreover, the kind of “compassion” we perform in this example does not necessarily require a true emptying but rather a denial of ourselves. Finally, abandoning self for others in this sense does not rely on the “I behind the I” but rather on the “I” constructed in our egos and social identities.
When women practice compassion as an intentional act, this emptying of self is done not as a gendered sacrifice of all she is, but as a spiritual practice of discovering her true self and that of the other person. Moreover, practicing the “I behind the I” helps her to develop self-compassion which is then passed on to her companion in a gift of true connection. Thus, practicing true compassion enables self-knowledge, self-compassion, connection, and healing – all goals of feminist theology.
It is when we can become self-knowing and self-compassionate that we can fully enter into the experience (have compassion with) another and it is that experiencing from which theology is born. Good theology is not made in universal decrees and inflexible dogma. It is born in experience and built from the ground up.
I got a chance to speak at the Ever Wonder conference in Edmonton, Alberta the first weekend in September. My topic? Post-theism, of course! Below is a transcript of the talk. Let me know what you think.
I am a post-theistic Anglican with one foot in the humanist world and one in the Christian world. As an author and a theologian, I think of myself as a bridge for those I minister with. I myself am unimportant. What I envision is providing the example of a new way of being, a visible answer to the question, “Do I have only two choices – that of supposed “belief” or “unbelief”?” Popular culture tells us that this is so and that we need to take up arms in either of these ill-defined camps. But that way of thinking is an illusion. It does not describe what a good number of people experience in their spiritual and intellectual lives.
Many people are unaware of the idea of post-theism despite, I believe, being functionally post-theistic. Post-theism is different from popular conceptions of the terms atheism, theism, nontheism, etc. We can quibble about what these words really mean, mainly because we don’t actually have even academic consensus, but broadly speaking, post-theism is a nontheism (in other words a non-belief in a supernatural god) combined with the sense that to even ask the question about whether such a god exists is unimportant and sometimes even distracting. Post-theists can be religious or nonreligious. They come in many varieties from those who plumb the depths of religious traditions, including Christianity, for the wisdom of their ancestors, to those who reject those traditions and God language entirely. I myself am of the first type. I revel in God language, finding in it a rich source of inspiration for the otherwise unnameable fluctuations of the human condition. Though I understand and fully advocate the need to think twice about what we mean when we speak of God, I think most current attempts to abolish God language absolve us of the heavy task of having to examine what God might actually be. Theists don’t have a monopoly on God or God language. Not all gods are omnipotent. Not all gods are supernatural. Not all gods are even beings.
I was raised in a religiously neutral family back in the states. I had an interest in religion but it was rather academic. By the age of 12 I was calling myself an atheist and I held some pretty antitheistic ideas. But something weird happened when I was 21. While I felt I was being intellectually honest in my atheism, it was not enriching or fulfilling me personally. In 2000, I decided that it just might be possible to be a religious atheist and I became, of all things, a Roman Catholic.
I was drawn to the meditative pace of the liturgy, the sense of common humanity that the mass can inspire. But I was also drawn to Catholic social justice teachings, finding there a way to live out my values in a way that “hard” atheism was too broad to encompass. But I hadn’t taken my life as a feminist and reproductive justice activist into account. Well, rather, I had some naïve idea that I would be able to navigate the situation, holding fast to my love of the liturgy as well as my convictions. I also discovered that I had a calling and that it wasn’t to the convent, the only avenue open to me as a Catholic woman. But the final nail in my Catholic coffin was dealing with a family crisis that left religious hypocrisy laid bare before me. I began to see that my thinking about faith, about religion, and, most importantly, about what God means, was so vastly different from those around me that I no longer felt like I was at home in the Church. So, I left.
And in my disappointment, I began again to navigate the choppy waters of antitheism. For those who don’t know what antitheism is, it is an opposition to the idea of gods, any gods. For three years I didn’t see the inherent problem with such a theologically unaware definition, namely that anything can be declared a god and that not all gods fall into the neat categories that some antitheists create for them. I became even more active in the atheist movement, publishing articles, writing blogs, appearing on TV, founding groups, serving on boards. And lest it sound like I’m picking on atheism, let me tell you that I don’t regret this. I think I needed atheism at that moment in my life to help me really think about what it was I believed in. But I was still in the old cycle, vacillating between hand-me-down constructs of “belief” and “unbelief” that I unquestioningly bought into.
During this time, my calling never went away, it just confused me. What was I supposed to do with it? I became a Humanist celebrant and chaplain but it still wasn’t right. Humanism, a belief in the ability of humans to better the world through reason, science, and technology, was, on its own, too vague and too scientistic (not to be confused with scientific) to be of any real use to me. I still had an affinity for Christianity and especially the life of Jesus but I couldn’t seem to make it work with the definition of reality I was being handed. And this was when I thought, “What if we don’t have simply two choices? What if our choices aren’t restricted to supposed belief or unbelief? What if philosophical humanism has a natural home within Christianity? What if I don’t have to police my “God language” because it can still serve a vital function in my faith life?”
I began to explore this question by reading the usual suspects – Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, etc. and a new world of possibility opened up to me. I started listening to the Nomad podcast, a show put out by two guys undergoing what they call a “faith deconstruction” and searching for what really matters to them. I began to delve into the history of Christian thought which is replete with references to a nontheistic God and chock full of humanism. And eventually, I found a place for both myself and my calling within the Anglican Church, a church so historically theologically open that the joke is that it is hard to find a Church of England priest who believes in God. In short, I found a context for my humanism. I’m hoping to be ordained a deacon within the church and continue my ministry working for reproductive justice and advocating for the needs of the post-theistic and nontheistic in our local congregations.
I relish my journey, every bit of it. I don’t reject a single moment of it. I’m glad I found new ways of naming God as well as new ways of understanding what the name of God has meant to people throughout history. I’m also glad that I had a cleansing period in which I could reject everything and start again. Because of my time in “hard” atheism, I feel much more grounded in what I believe. I’ve thought hard about it. I’ve studied. I’ve even, dare I say it, prayed about it when I felt like it. Because of this, I no longer feel the need to capture and cage the idea of God.
My journey has prepared me well, I think, for the work that I do now. As I said before, I’m often a bridge for people who are functionally post-theistic but have never heard the term or explored the idea. There are millions of people out there who have religious sensibilities but no language for it since its definition has been claimed by a false theist/atheist dichotomy. Readers of my blog, my articles, people who appear in my ministry work, tend to be those people who are not comfortable either with a “traditional” religious framework or strict secularity. They are the inbetweeners who haven’t yet realized that nothing is wrong with them, that they aren’t ignorant or sinful or lacking in education. I’m happy to provide a living example (as poor as it may be at times!) to show that we never have just two choices. But I also feel I need to say that those who choose one of the two traditional choices – there’s nothing wrong with them either. My way of being is not everyone’s way of being. Both of those two traditional choices provided me with an incredible learning experience, not to mention lots of great friends. Besides, I try not to imagine that I’ve reached the end of my journey. I haven’t come to some great revelation and now all I have to do is dispense wisdom. That’s ridiculous. As my journey has shown, I’ve gone all over the map in search of wisdom and will likely continue to do so. In a way, it’s my job as a theology student! My publishing record also shows the roads I’ve been on. I’ve written everything from theistic to antitheistic and now post theistic content. I’ve got a book coming out on Humanist celebrations from Humanist Press and the book I’m researching now is on post-theism. Later on, I want to write a more traditional lectionary (albeit with some non-traditional elements). So, I’m not done traveling yet, not by any means. Who knows where the future might take my thinking? For the time being, it is important only that I stay in dialog with my fellow humans, that I hear about what is most meaningful to them in their traditions, what has ceased to serve them, and what they envision for their own futures and communities. I’m thankful that this conference exists, that it has given us a chance to begin to spread the good news that there is not just one way of spiritual being.
I was honored to be asked to speak at an event sponsored by the Student Christian Movement Edmonton. “Women in the Bible: Imagining the Story Behind the Story” was a chance for scholars to talk more deeply about marginalized voices in the bible and to share not just our scholarship but our personal insights. Busy mother that I am, I chose to deliver a short paper about Sarah and Hagar and the way their story illustrates one of the most pernicious features of patriarchy – that of turning women against each other in order to reinforce the existing power structure. You can listen to me deliver my paper here. I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and insights.
*This is an unedited version of an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of CrossCurrents
The majority of a woman’s life will be spent worried about either getting pregnant or not getting pregnant. For those that choose motherhood, even more time is spent worrying about poverty, healthcare, education, racism, and a whole host of other concerns related to her reproductive and family life in some way. Reproduction and family care is the primary focus of a woman’s life for the simple reason that she exists in a world that is not framed to understand her biological, emotional, and social realities. Where society and religious institutions have not stepped up to include her experience as a primary focus of concern, she must instead focus her own energy on framing her life around those biological and social realities.
Since the beginning of time, women have had every other reality of their lives made subject to her biology. For instance, a woman’s career trajectory must take into account the possibility that she may become pregnant and decide to have children. Apart from the time she must be off to recover, the reality of our capitalist work structure and gendered parenting expectations practically insist that she will need additional time off to care for sick family or to stay at home for a period while her children are young. Women are, in fact, expected to take on the “second shift” as a matter of accepted fact. The power women’s biology has to either liberate her or to circumscribe her life can mean the difference between being a full participant in her own life and becoming a footnote in the lives of others.
Along with the work world, society, and other areas, theology has often failed to take into account the varied lives of women. While the twentieth century saw an explosion in feminist theology and biblical interpretation, theology often still failed to address the single, overriding concern of every single woman who is physically capable of becoming pregnant – the power of reproduction to shape her life in a way that is different from men. There is an incredible amount of work now being done to rectify the situation but we still see many more theological defenses of women’s subjection to biology than we do liberating theologies of reproductive justice. Those theological defenses of women’s reproductive rights that do exist tend to focus on statistics, abstractions, and apology, as though women should be allowed to guide their reproductive lives simply because it is expedient for everyone else. Theologically, women’s experiences have been written about as a subset to the “normal” and “standard” spiritual life, which is to say, that of men. Feminist theology is seen as a kind of theology, not as theology itself. Any theology that sees, either implicitly or explicitly, the experience of men as the default, is a theology that cannot speak to all of humanity.
It’s my hope that this short piece, with its focus on women’s lived experiences and not on simple academic abstractions, will go some small way to beginning the work of a woman-centered theology of reproductive rights/justice. I have structured this essay in sections dealing with theologically based concepts I have witnessed outside the clinic as I escorted patients past protesters. These include the theologies at work in protesters and clinic workers. I have provided what I believe are sound theological arguments that speak to the urgency of recognizing reproductive justice and especially non-coercion in childbearing as a theological concern for women and the health of the entire church of which they are a vital part.
Reproductive justice is an incredibly large topic that encompasses a wide variety of issues and concerns connected to women’s ability to procreate. Because the subject is such a large one, I focus mostly in this paper on the right of women to control their fertility through abortion. I frame my arguments through the lens of my experience working with women at an abortion clinic in Richmond, Virginia from 2010 – 2015. However, it is important that readers understand the totality of reproductive justice so that we can set the arguments within their proper framework.
What is reproductive justice and why is it a theological concern?
Reproductive justice is a term coined by women of color in the nineties who recognized that women needed more than access to abortion and contraceptives to fully live out reproductive freedom. With the vision of prophets, these women pointed out to the world that our reproductive lives encompass a great deal more than pregnancy and birth, but also extend to the freedom of women and families to raise children in healthy environments, free from coercion by the state, the ravages of poverty, and the racism that infects our society. Reproductive justice also recognizes the freedom to choose not to have children and the dignity of women who cannot. It hears the voices of those who choose adoption as well as those coerced into it. Reproductive justice is the recognition that women’s lives and that of their families are impacted by social concerns and policy decisions that, on the surface, do not seem to have anything to do with the issue of reproduction. Outside of North America, reproductive justice concerns itself with child marriage, genital mutilation, and other issues that affect the reproductive and family lives of women across the globe.
Women spend the majority of their lives concerned in some way with childbearing; avoiding it, attaining it, raising children, making money to raise those children, dealing with violence and racism in the lives and environments of their children, struggling with day care and breastfeeding, and seeking access to birth control and abortion. In short, women’s lives are intimately centered around questions of reproduction in its multiple aspects and, as women are full human and spiritual beings, the things that concern them must and should concern the church. In fact, within those concerns listed are some that have been the special focus of Christianity for millennia – poverty, education, the care of families, violence, and loss of personhood. That these concerns should cease to be interesting to the church when they impact women’s reproductive lives is a tragedy. Theology and the church should take note that issues such as these have a very targeted impact on women (mothers or not) and families.
We should also consider our varied definitions of religion when beginning to ask why reproductive justice is a theological concern. Daniel Maguire says that religion is our response to the sacred. I would take this even further and say that if religion is responding to what is sacred, religion must also respond to desacrilization. The rejection of women’s lives and experiences as part of the tapestry of creation, is a rejection of their sanctity, both of person and of creation itself. This idea can extend even further. Many theologians admit to the sacredness of sex and therefore it seems fitting that we respond religiously and theologically to anything that threatens the sanctity of sexual and reproductive life. This includes forced childbearing, rape and sexual assault, enforced ignorance of sexuality, child marriage, denial of women’s sexuality, and all manner of crimes against women’s sexuality.
Finally, all Christians are tasked with working in the world for the kingdom of god. For women, this can only ever be a secondary task when combined with the effects of forced birth, lack of health care, lack of daycare, and the other concerns that take over their daily lives. To deny women the ability to determine their own reproductive and family lives is to deny them the ability to fully live out their religious calling. At present, many women live this double life and the result is that the world has not yet benefited from the same flow of theological writings, innovative ministries, and other endeavors in which unencumbered men are free to engage.
Outside the Clinic
On any given Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, there are about twenty protesters that gather outside an abortion clinic on Boulevard. These twenty are divided into three main groups: a group of Roman Catholics from several different parishes, a group of congregants from an African American prosperity gospel church called Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, and an interdenominational group from Sidewalk Advocates for Life, an organization that instructs volunteers on how to engage with patients entering clinics. I’d like to briefly mention the general overall theological outlook of each of these groups.
Roman Catholic: This group is staunchly Catholic in that they are largely influenced by Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that formally enshrined what many see as the Catholic view on abortion and contraception. This group believes strongly that use of contraception of any kind is prohibited and that abortion is the murder of a fully human child. The tactics this group employs are largely singing and praying the rosary around the clinic. They see prayer as a stronger weapon than engagement with patients, though patients often report their presence as intimidating. A few members of the group regularly break rank and yell loudly at the clinic or at patients.
Mt. Gilead: This church is heavily steeped in the prosperity gospel which promises not just wealth and health but that God will see anyone through any difficulty so long as they are praying using the right words (right speech is incredibly important to adherents to prosperity gospel). Church members can often be found engaging in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and even in performing theatrical pieces outside the clinic. They are the loudest and most aggressive of protest groups, often trespassing onto clinic property to take photographs of license plates and patients. Most of the theology of this group is found couched in the Black Genocide Theory about which I’ll say more later. It is enough to say here that this group sees themselves engaged in a very real, non-metaphorical struggle against Satan to save their race and ensure its prosperity which gives them an urgency and boldness not seen in other groups. A quick glance at their website shows their preoccupation with concepts such as victory, prosperity, character, and rigid gender roles in the service of all three.
Now that I’ve laid out some introductory theological viewpoints, I’d like to examine in more detail what I see as the two major points at which these various theologies intersect: the full humanity of women and the idea of the invisible woman.
The Humanity of Women
One of the most noticeable shared ideas between all the protest groups, and the one I argue is at the root of most of their actions and words outside the clinic, is the conditional humanity of women. Though I imagine that none of the protesters would ever say that they believe women are anything less than full human beings, I believe that most of their anti-abortion advocacy rests on certain assumptions and beliefs about women that are not compatible with the idea that women are fully human.
My past work as a Humanist chaplain and now as an Anglican seeking diaconal ordination, has always been centered on a concept I call female personhood. In simple terms, it is the philosophy that women are full human beings and that they were made to be reflective of their creator. Though this statement about personhood seems non-controversial, it is actually revolutionary. Lurking beneath the surface of all our institutions, systems, and cultural discourse is the ugly realization that, in many cases, women are considered wombs first and human second. Take, for example, the advice recently given to pregnant women by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States: women should “stop drinking alcohol if they…could get pregnant”. We all know that excessive alcohol consumption can cause serious problems for the fetus during pregnancy but we also know that any woman with normal fertility can get pregnant. What the CDC is saying, probably unwittingly, is that women between the ages of roughly 12-50 should abstain from alcohol altogether until after menopause. Note that this abstention is not recommended for her own good but for the good of the potential contents of her uterus and this despite the fact that we know that it is excessive alcohol that damages fetuses. There is no similar recommendation for men to avoid alcohol even though there is plenty of evidence that the father’s alcohol use figures into the health of the fetus as well. We see this same dynamic play out time and time again whenever we’re in the presence of a pregnant woman. Well-meaning people are likely to give her astonishing amounts of advice and even commands about how to care for her fetus. While the impulse to give such advice is usually coming from a place of love, the effect is to dehumanize a woman and turn her into a mere receptacle. This is only compounded by the constant uninvited caressing of her belly. By all these means, a pregnant woman ceases to be a private individual and becomes public property.
There are even more obvious ways in which we deny women’s humanity. When it comes to the issue of abortion, women are considered to have no particularly important input. Many abortion opponents claim that women should not be allowed to choose abortion because they will regret it. Despite studies that consistently show that women overwhelmingly understand their decisions and that most do not regret their abortions, we are led to believe that women do not make rational choices about their reproductive health and thus, these choices need to be made for them. Even in cases in which a woman does regret her abortion, the logic of forced birth does not hold. No other laws exist in the United States that are designed to protect a class of people from the regret they are supposed to feel as a consequence of an individual decision. That is, no class except for children. That women are expected to feel remorse and that they must be protected from making decisions unique to their experience are evidence that we have not yet truly accepted women as full human beings with their own power of reasoning.
There is precedence for these sexist views of women in the writings of Aristotle and the early church fathers. Aristotle believed that women were “incomplete males” and that they lacked rationality and Aristotle’s thought was highly influential to the medieval church. Augustine said that if it were not for reproducing the species, there would be absolutely no use for women at all. In fact, according to Augustine, women were not made in the image of God unless joined to a man:
“Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”
Such has been the nature of popular interpretation throughout the centuries. Though often softened to a more paternalistic tone, this basic thinking has pervaded the view of women as spiritual people. For instance, it is the reason Mormon women cannot attain heaven on their own but must instead be sealed to a male to ensure salvation. A woman is not complete before God. The implication here is not just that women are not fully capable of spiritual recognition by the creator, but also that her assigned male is to be her guardian. He is the one to make decisions regarding the family, including decisions regarding reproduction. The idea that women exist in the private sphere only, under the guardianship of her nearest male is nothing new and it still exists today, amply demonstrated by Sheila Jeffreys in her essays on the subordination of women’s human rights to male religious rights. She skillfully demonstrates that the UN is reluctant to insist that women be given full human status when working with countries that have, through the application of religious law, pushed women into the tyranny of the private sphere.
The Roman Catholic protesters at the Richmond clinic demonstrate the softer, paternalistic side of this thinking. To begin with, the Roman Catholic Church does not admit women into decision making roles at the higher levels. This means that men will always be making the decisions that affect women based only on abstractions. The real lives of the women who enter the clinic each week are not real but simply pieces on a theological chessboard. No better demonstration of this can be found than in the opening greeting of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical dealing specifically with female reproduction, “Honored Brothers and Dear Sons,”. The only audience to the encyclical is the all-male, celibate leadership of the church whose job it is to disseminate it to the faithful. It then goes on to speak only to the male side of a heterosexual couple, leaving women out, even linguistically. The document further cites that the commission examining questions relating to conjugal relations spoke with married couples to ascertain their opinions, not the women whose bodies endure repeated pregnancies and whose lives endure repeated interruptions, but the couple who, conjoined, represent Aristotle’s vision of the only acceptable spiritual state in which women should be considered. Humanae Vitae explains that procreation is God’s design for married couples and, in the end, Paul VI declares that, “From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow.” Of course, Humanae Vitae made some small provision for spacing/delaying births but many laypeople have absorbed the culture of Humanae Vitae without the substance. In fact, many protesters, though claiming to be very influenced by the encyclical, admitted to never having read it. What they believe they know of the document is simply that if a woman becomes pregnant, it is God’s will that she carry the pregnancy to term without regard for her situation, the overpopulation of the planet, or ecological issues surrounding the white pronatalist tendencies that some of the group have. Many protesters I spoke to also seemed intent on punishing a woman with pregnancy. In this case, it became clear that what was important was less God’s will or the fetus and more that a woman be punished for transgressing the rules about her place. Protesters who believe pregnancy is a punishment are typically those who also subscribe to a complementarian idea of womanhood – that is, the idea that women have a specific nature in relationship to men. What we see in all of this is the belief that women, like children, must be led by God’s representative in the family, the male head.
When it comes to the humanity of women, the Mt. Gilead group is particularly vocal about the inferiority of woman to man. This group, with its belief in the pronatalist Black Genocide Theory (the idea that abortion is an attempt to exterminate black babies, described in more detail in another section) sees women’s role as primarily that of a spiritual subservient whose duty it is to bear more black children. Mt. Gilead believes strongly in fixed gender roles and the headship of the male, as evidenced by their sermons which can be found on their website. Their theology of woman is one that reduces them to their biological function. Indeed, the church has itself hosted the Duggar family, made famous by the reality television show 19 and Counting, who believe that a woman is to bear as many children as possible, not seek higher education, and submit entirely to her husband in all things. With such beliefs, it is not surprising that Mt. Gilead has an “Abortion Clinic Ministry”:
“Members of our ministry stand outside of abortion clinics and only have a matter of seconds to communicate with the men and women entering the clinics to gently convincing [sic] mothers to preserve the lives of their unborn children. Due to the intensity associated with this ministry, volunteers are approved after an assessment and recommendation from the ministry’s overseer.”
Part of this “gentle” convincing is yelling at men that they need to “be men” and “take your woman out of there, pick her up and carry her out if you have to”. For Mt. Gilead, men taking over women’s decisions is an extension of a man’s duty to be the God-ordained leader in a relationship. In fact, when the group is successful in surrounding a couple entering the clinic, they will often forcibly separate the male from the female and while the women of the group witness to the woman, the men of the church will talk to the male companion about headship and his right to make the decision about “his seed”.
In both the case of the Roman Catholic protest group and the Mt. Gilead protest group, elements of punishment can be discerned in their theology as it pertains to women seeking abortion care. While the Roman Catholics will claim that their theology is grounded in Humanae Vitae and the Mt. Gilead group claims it is the infallible word of God spoken in love, both groups attempt to shame women by asking them personal sexual questions and ensuring them that seeking abortion care is a prideful and selfish act that will result in years of guilt and mental illness. As theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it, “every abortion represents a heinous act of self-assertion, a bloody, wicked renunciation of all that women were created and born to be.” The conclusion many observers of the situation outside the clinic come to is that the real abortion debate isn’t about abortion at all but about the true place of women in the human family.
The Invisible Woman
The second tendency I see outside the clinic, and which is very much entwined with concepts about women’s humanity, is the tendency to take women themselves completely out of discussions of reproduction, often by reducing them to statistics and other abstract concepts.
Abortion and contraception are, without a doubt, the most contentious issues when it comes to religion and female agency and yet women are seldom part of the conversation. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, there are no women in positions of significant decision making power and yet the Catholic Church is one of the most vocal participants in issues affecting women’s reproductive lives. We can add to this the fact that most nations on earth do not have significant female representation in their legislative bodies and the result is that women are directly and purposefully excluded from discussions about issues that literally shape their entire lives. As Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it:
“Only women can get pregnant, yet men, almost exclusively, interpret the morality of and make the laws about abortion. The political conflict over abortion is so intense partly because the population at risk from the effects of public policy is all but excluded from a direct voice in the policy-making process. Whenever such politics of exclusion obtain, it is predictable that those who make the policy, or favor it, will focus on the intensity rather than the substance of the conflict”
In other words, the debate around abortion both in religious and political circles is so intense simply because the males that make decisions about it are unable, by virtue of being men, of experiencing the true complexity of the issue. One way in which this plays out is in the significant difference one sees when men speak about abortion versus women. Men on either “side” of the issue tend to see abortion as a heartbreaking and difficult decision, which gives more power to the idea that someone needs to be helping her to make it, while women tend to understand that abortion is sometimes a hard decision, often not, and usually made more difficult simply by the manufactured intensity of the debate surrounding it.
This last point is something I’ve personally witnessed. In my ministry of providing escorts to women accessing abortion care, I’ve watched women who were confident in their decision to terminate a pregnancy, women who were not ambivalent or conflicted about it, reduced to tears by the spiritual bullying of protesters who reach out to grab her, who hurl insults at her and call her a murderer, a slut. This becomes truly a Valley of the Shadow of Death moment for patients. The protesters are never interested in a woman’s reasons for controlling her fertility because to them (all of whom come from patriarchal faith communities), it is not the point. To them, a woman aborting a fetus is committing the crime of stepping outside a narrow theological definition of womanhood that has been central to the operation of most of our social, political, and economic systems for thousands of years.
The invisibility of the woman is a central theme in both protester group philosophies. It exists especially in two contexts – that of the Black Genocide Theory and the Catholic principle of Double Effect.
Black Genocide Theory is the idea that abortion is a crime against African-Americans and that abortion and contraception became mainstream in the 1920s to eradicate the black race. Though many working for reproductive justice deride this theory, it has some basis in fact. The eugenics movement enthusiastically embraced modern birth control technology as a method of controlling race reproduction. However, this theory ignores the fact that many black women found relief from the availability of birth control and abortion and it also ignores economic realities and continuing American segregation with its claim that clinics exist in low-income neighborhoods simply to target black women’s children for genocide. The fact that most women who choose abortion are white (though black women are overrepresented, likely due to economic and social segregation) is not accepted by the movement which seems impervious to the experiences of black women. The Black Genocide theory is a pronatalist theory and, as such, is not interested in the actual lives and wellbeing of women when it collides with their justified anger over a birth-control based eugenics policy. It is a theory that has gained huge acceptance lately among black Christian churches but as early as 1940, black male scholars were writing editorials critical of birth control, saying, “It [birth control] is a move away from the full development of the race”.
For many of these churches, including the one that protests outside the clinic in Richmond, prosperity includes as many children as a woman can have. Black Genocide Theory, though championed by some women in the movement, does not put women at the center of conversations about reproductive health despite women being those who absorb the realities of those decisions. In fact, it openly calls black women genocidal traitors when they opt for abortion as evidenced by billboards with sayings such as, “The most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb.”
But perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of the invisible woman is that which I learned about from Amberlee, the president of the University of Alberta’s anti-abortion group. It is a philosophical concept popular among Catholics, particularly among those who protest outside of clinics, including in Richmond. Amberlee is a very pleasant young woman in her senior year. She protests my workshops and speaking events but, nonetheless, we have a cordial relationship and she agreed to be interviewed for my upcoming book. During the interview, I had asked Amberlee to explain to me how she deals theologically with the idea of something like an ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus will not survive in any possible outcome. She told me that she had recently taken a bioethics class at St. Joseph College which described a concept called Double Effect. Double effect is a theological justification that allows someone to perform an action that will result in an outcome one would normally want to avoid. It is a way to absolve someone of guilt when they are performing some action that results in what the church believes is sin. Amberlee told me that the instructor explained that in an ectopic pregnancy, a doctor could perform a surgery on the woman by cutting out the affected portion of her fallopian tube. In this way, the doctor would not be performing an abortion, even though they knew that the result would be the death of the fetus.
In describing Double Effect, Amberlee was, in effect, describing the perfect case of the invisible (and expendable) woman. Ectopic pregnancies are usually discovered quite early in pregnancy and can be terminated simply with a dose of methotrexate.. It is incredibly safe and the effects are minimal. What Amberlee suggested was the more theologically sound route was to perform an invasive surgery, one that would involve recovery time far beyond that of an abortion (even surgical abortion recovery is measured in days) and non-therapeutically removing a portion of a woman’s body, a portion that is not guaranteed to heal or regain functionality. In this scenario, the woman is indeed invisible to the entire decision making process around her as the doctor focuses on performing an abortion that is not an abortion.
Indeed, whether examining Mt. Gilead’s assertion of a Satanic genocide being perpetrated against black people or the Roman Catholic group’s view of a cosmic war being fought for the souls of the unborn, women are nowhere near the center of concern for these groups. The women are invisible in a debate that tends to center on the morality of the act of abortion itself. When abortion is taken out of its context, divested of its meaning to women and their well-being, women become nothing more than an abstraction in a theological debate. At times, both groups of protesters try to make up for this lack of focus on women as agents by trying to paint the act of abortion as gruesome, bloody, and violent, as damaging to their health and wellbeing. To this end they use medically discredited information about the procedure and its effects. Abortion as it is usually performed is about a ten to fifteen minute procedure (unless one is having a late-term abortion, only 2% of abortions performed in the United States). There is minimal blood and recovery includes a couple of days of cramping and heavy menstrual-like bleeding. There are no mental illnesses associated with abortion and absolutely no link to breast cancer (one protester used to shout for hours that 88% of all cancer was caused by abortion). Before having the procedure, a woman meets with a counselor to determine that she is not being coerced and that she understands her rights and options. Nonetheless, protesters will claim concern for women by painting a horrific and bloody picture of an operating room (operating rooms are not usually used) and the extraction of fetal limbs (the fetus is usually too small for anyone to discern limbs). They will also claim that death is a very real possibility despite abortion being one of the safest procedures anyone can have, about four times safer than a colonoscopy. Some protesters are, no doubt, accepting debunked science as valid in good faith. But there is another current of thinking that one can find on their social media sites and in conversation outside the clinic and that is that one is justified in telling falsehoods if it results in a moral victory, in this case, saving a fetus. There is a long tradition in Roman Catholicism of theological debate on the nature of falsehood (Augustine’s On Lying being but one of many) and what a falsehood truly is. Some Roman Catholic protesters I’ve spoken with have embraced the idea that telling a lie is justified if a life (fetus) is saved. Still others take a more nuanced approach and believe that a person is justified in deceiving but that some subtlety is necessary. This would be in accordance with what Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, writes about lying, “…it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says”
This approach has been used to formulate laws such as in Texas where a doctor or genetic counselor may withhold information about fetal abnormalities if they have reason to believe a woman may seek an abortion. What all of these arguments and approaches demonstrate is that the woman, who should be the focus of any discussion regarding her reproductive life, is shunted off to the corner to await abstract theological conclusion.
A Woman-Centered Theology
But the story outside the clinic is not simply one of a negative use of theology that is used to justify an ancient social order. Many of the clinic workers I’ve known have come to their work not just with spiritual convictions but with theological justifications for putting women back into the story of their own lives. My own story follows this path. I founded Richmond Clinic Defense in 2010 as a ministry of presence for patients. I saw that women and their lives were abstractions to many of the protesters and that this resulted in dehumanization and stereotyping that was damaging for everyone. My idea was that clinic volunteer escorts would not contribute to the abstract debate, philosophical or theological, but instead simply be present with a woman in her current situation. By walking with her and providing comfort when needed, we would demonstrate a theology or, ( for the atheist members among us) a philosophy that was woman-centered and focused on a patient’s real world needs. The practical duties are simple: to ask an arriving patient if she would like an escort past the protesters at our entrance. If the woman declines, we respect that and fall back. Likewise if she says that she wants to talk with the protesters. This is all part of respecting that a woman has been given the ability to make decisions about her life and situation, sometimes even decisions that might make us individually uncomfortable. For women who want an escort, we never touch or hug her without consent as the protesters do because we recognize that to do so is to continue in the tradition of denying bodily autonomy. We also recognize that some of the women coming to the clinic had been sexually victimized and might not welcome non-consensual touching. In short, the experience is purposefully tailored to the needs of the patient as a means of putting her back in charge of her experience and its interpretation.
Patients and clinic workers themselves represent a variety of religious views. Because they do not come to the clinic as a religious group, we must speak to them as individuals to get a sense of how they might theologically interpret their experience. Most patients who have felt comfortable talking to me have claimed Christianity as their religion and some have felt that, though they’re making the right decision for themselves, God must be condemning them. Other patients have told me that they believe that God does not want them to bring a suffering life into the world and a few told me that they believed it was immoral for protesters to impose dogma on others, especially when they don’t understand the situation.
The other most common group of patients claim no religion or atheism/humanism. Clinic workers fall largely into these same categories – mostly Christian or Atheist/Humanist though the Atheist/Humanist presence is slightly more dominant. Among the Christians are clinic workers who feel specifically called to this work as a vocation. The Atheist/Humanist contingent feel similarly pulled but for nonreligious reasons. A few of the latter have very negative attitudes toward religion, particularly in its historic attitudes toward women, and this can result in breaking the non-engagement policy when protesters use scripture to promote the inferiority of women.
The vast majority of religiously-minded clinic escorts felt that being a presence was the most important part of their work. Emily, who is a Quaker and a clinic escort in New York told me, “George Fox, who founded the Religious Society of Friends said, ‘Do rightly, justly, truly, holily, equally, to all people in all things.’ I definitely see clinic protesters as not doing justly to patients and staff and so escorting is a way to mitigate that and do rightly. We also believe that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ which, to me, speaks of the divinity of individual choice rather than imposing doctrine.” Emily also finds the Quaker injunction to “speak only when you feel powerfully and directly called to do so” helpful in her work. Clinic escorts are meant to be non-engaging which means that they should not return the insults or debate with protesters since this turns the focus of the work from being woman-centered to being about egos and an abstract principle. Emily’s practice of silence in worship is, she feels, a powerful way of countering what she sees as an imposition of doctrine on women.
Among the religious escorts is a rather large group of Unitarian Universalists who see working for reproductive justice as a sacred act. These escorts see the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism as speaking directly to the issue. When speaking with UU escorts, you will often hear them talk about the First Principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. For UU escorts, this means that women possess an inherent dignity that is challenged each time she walks the gauntlet of protesters who shout insults or insensitive remarks. The Fourth Principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning speaks powerfully for them against what they see as an imposition of a single church’s dogma upon a stranger. The Sixth Principle: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is a call to create a world in which women are at liberty to make their own reproductive decisions without interference.
Clinic escorts are not the only people who come to reproductive justice work for religious reasons. Dr. Willie Parker, who provides abortions in the southern United States began his career with dreams of working as an OBGYN in Hawaii. Over the years, he began to hear more and more from his female patients about the realities of their lives and he realized that he was only providing part of the care they needed. In an article for the CBC, Parker said, “For me, the challenge came around what it meant for me to self-describe as a woman’s health provider and yet to feel unable to provide one of the most essential health services that a woman needs. One in three women (in the United States) by the time they reach age 45 will have experienced abortion.” His answer came later as he was listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King on the Good Samaritan in which King said, “The first question that the Levite asked was ‘If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The result was that Dr. Parker packed his bags and moved back to his hometown to begin providing full spectrum care for women. He is active within our network of activists and continues to lend a religious voice to the struggle.
My own theological views have undergone a change since founding Richmond Clinic Defense. I began the group as a dedicated humanist who saw the protesters as individuals wishing to impose a single theological doctrine on women entering the clinic. As the work went on, I began to see the ways in which well-meaning people (the protesters) could promote a dogma of subjection without realizing they are doing it. It was at this point that it became clear that what was truly happening was a clash of ideas about what it meant to be a woman couched that were being fought through theological claims. For many traditionalist religions that were founded on and continue to operate out of, a patriarchal worldview, the change in women’s status was profoundly threatening. If women can control their fertility, they can engage more fully with life on their own terms. They can go to college if they want to, they can choose not to have children or to have many, they can become more and more the authors of their own lives. For religions that promote female subjection, this is not a welcoming prospect because control of women’s bodies ensures control of women’s lives. Thus, the abortion and contraception debates are just one more front on the war against female personhood. People who view, consciously or subconsciously, controlling women’s bodies as necessary for the survival of their tradition or faith can deny overpopulation, climate change, and worsening economic realities because, for them, these are lesser concerns than that of preserving an ancient way of life in which women and reproduction are relegated entirely to the private sphere for the survival and benefit of the tribe. Theology has, for far too long, been interpreted in the service of a male-dominated world. As Harrison puts it, “Christian theology has advanced when it comes to man. We do not rely on iron age observations, etc. But when it comes to women, we are still apt to view childbearing and child rearing from the Iron Age perspective. It is the one area that did not receive a critical historical analysis or evolve in theology as man did.”
A theology that speaks directly to women must include a theological understanding of women as bearing the image of God, as having agency, as having the capacity to make decisions for herself, her body, and her family that promote their wellbeing. It must recognize women as a part of humanity, containing the wisdom of the female experience, an experience of half of humanity, an experience that is centered around what it means to have the power to reproduce the species. Such a theology, bearing on the lives and happiness of 51% of the population must involve women in its crafting and interpretation and it must involve them at the highest levels of leadership in order to avoid abstraction. Anything less is only half a theology of what it means to be human.
 Maguire, Daniel C. Sacred choices: the right to contraception and abortion in ten world religions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
 Bowler, Kate. Blessed: a history of the American prosperity gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
 Rocca, Corinne H., Katrina Kimport, Sarah C. M. Roberts, Heather Gould, John Neuhaus, and Diana G. Foster. “Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (2015).
 Augustine, and John Hammond Taylor. The literal meaning of Genesis. New York, NY: Newman Press, 1982.
 Jeffreys, Sheila. Man’s dominion: religion and the eclipse of women’s rights in world politics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.