Educational Process, Feminist Practice

This article is adapted from her book Saving Work: Feminist Practices of Theological Education, and appeared in The Christian Century, February 1-8, 1995, pp.111-115. Copyright by The Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


The feminist practice of theological education features the themes of justice, dialogue, and imagination. Justice is central to the braiding together of ethics and epistemology in the formation of new meanings and functions of symbols. Dialogue is a process of concrete encounter, a conversation entailing risk and leading to transformation. Imagination, the ability to think the new, may well be one of the most crucial requirements of forming new ways of knowing and new ways of learning. Theological education is about the relationships formed, the style of teaching, and the extracurricular activities as well as the curriculum.

Concentrating on the "practices" of Christianity enables us to think about education in new ways. Identifying practices as the sites of learning in theological education allows us to avoid some common "divisions" in thinking about education and calls for the development of new language to name the process of education.

In most contemporary views of theological education, the task of education is to provide the individual with some sense of ordered learning. The focus is on the transmission of ideas. Many curriculums and pedagogics follow this assumption: that one begins with foundational courses that provide introductory materials and then directs students up the ladder, so to speak, in more and more advanced mastery of the subject matter.

In recent work on theological education the constructive suggestions usually return or remain limited to questions of how to order cognitive learning. Edward Farley, for instance, suggests the notion of theologia as a type of reflective wisdom, a suggestion quite close to feminist concerns for education as a whole process. But when Farley provides his own constructive hints at how to accomplish this process, his suggestions are about cognitive ordering. As Craig Dykstra has observed, Farley tends to limit the scope of his understanding of "cognition" to linguistic and logical -- mathematical realms. Howard Gardner, whom Dykstra cites, has identified seven kinds of intelligence, or what we might call ways of knowing: linguistic, musical, logical -- mathematical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, and two personal forms (that might be called feeling and intuition). While Farley's call for theologia invites an expanded vision of education beyond a new rearranging of "ordered" learning, his constructive suggestions, at least thus far, are limited to revisions of cognitive learning.

The same type of criticism of unrealized potential can be made against David Kelsey's constructive suggestions in To Understand God Truly. Though Kelsey draws attention to practices when he moves to issues of actual change and transformation in theological education, his concern is mainly with disciplines. And though he accepts Farley's aim of habitus, he argues that the way to achieve such reflective wisdom is to continue the types of critical thinking that have dominated modernity.

The advantage of focusing on the practices of a specific movement, within theological education such as feminism is that it both requires and allows a fuller range of forms of knowing. To focus on practices shifts our gaze away from the gap between ideas and their applications and causes us to look at how people are already engaged in a set of practices in and through which they are constructing and organizing ideas. Feminist practices as social activities require us to be sensitive to "knowing" as an intersubjective and embodied process; knowing appeals to an anthropology that is both communal and physical.

Feminist theorists of education have often pointed out that "knowing" for women has to be understood in terms of physical presence, relationships with students and faculty and connections between feelings and ideas. The book Women's Ways of Knowing identifies the following kinds of knowledge: received, subjective (in terms of the inner voice and the quest for self), procedural (reason as well as separate and connected knowing) and constructed. The text then offers some suggestions for reconceiving knowledge and education based on the actual practices of women. Likewise, Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought develops what she calls an "Afrocentric feminist epistemology" based on the practices of concrete experience as a criterion of meaning, the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, the ethic of caring and an ethic of accountability.

In an investigation of feminist practices at least three themes emerge within each practice: justice, dialogue and imagination. Utilizing these themes, I want to move toward conceiving education as a process and not merely a product. I want to contend that feminist theology both requires and contributes a process of education that is a training in justice, dialogue and imagination, even as it is an implantation of ideas from the past.

Justice. At the conclusion of God's Fierce Whimsy, the women of the Mud Flower Collective contend that "the fundamental goal of theological education must be the doing of justice." Likewise, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza places the doing of justice at the center of theological education:

I have argued that theology and theological education must be conceived as a transformative discursive praxis that critically reflects on the concrete historical -- political configurations and theological practices of Christian communities which have engendered and still engender the exclusion and dehumanization of "the others" of free born, educated and propertied men in Western society. At the same time it must seek to articulate alternative communal visions and values for the human community on the brink of atomic annihilation.

Justice, as a basic theme of theological education, is central to each practice of feminist theological education. In narrativity -- the practice of composing a new narrative of one's life, one that is different from the one originally scripted -- a communicative possibility of justice prevails: each person gets a voice in self -- determination. The activity of writing one's life in relation to self, others and earth is an act of being drawn out, learning to shape and be shaped in right relationship. In the creation of a new egalitarian community, the church as a counter --public of justice names a space in which ways of justice are modeled and formed. Justice defines the nature and mission of the ekklesia. And in the feminist practice of theology, justice is central to the braiding together of ethics and epistemology in the formation of new meanings and functions of symbols and in the development of new discursive practices.

Visions of justice are central to the new symbols and new meanings of symbols in theology. Justice as a key to the symbolic life of Christianity is represented not only in feminist theology but also in African -- American, Latin American and other forms of liberation theology. Within the various theologies of liberation movements, the symbolic construction of justice seeks to express the dialectical movement within the function of Christian symbols: justice enables us to name faith, and faith symbols reconceived as justice allow us to envision new spaces of life together.

But theological education is not just about justice; it is, in a sense, justice itself. We need to conceive of theological education as the doing of "ordered" learning, imaginative envisioning and dialogue. In American history the parallel referent, and that which feminist theology continues, is the understanding of education as the training of citizens. Justice names not simply the goal but the process itself.

Sharon Welch has called for a contemporary sense of this same notion of education in her language of communicative ethics. Welch argues that justice can be central only with the material and discursive relations between different groups. And this communicative ethic, as a basic shape of the education process, is based on solidarity. Solidarity, according to Welch, includes both the granting of mutual respect by different groups and, at the same time, recognition of the interdependency of different groups.

Dialogue. Justice, as a theme of education, is intertwined with solidarity, communication and dialogue. Welch is critical of Jürgen Habermas and others who focus on the ideal of conversation, assuming that the "other" has simply been "excluded" from the conversation. Welch asks, "If the inclusion of women and minorities is simply a matter of extension, why has it been so long in coming?" Dialogue requires real interaction among embodied persons, with openness and respect for mutual critique.

In theological education this material interaction might be envisioned as the creation of dialogical spaces. Theological education involves a series of quite physical spaces: classrooms, hallways and worship places, and sites of spirituality groups and committee meetings. These physical spaces are filled with the bodies of students, faculty and staff representing many differences that have come to define American Christianity and American culture.

The spaces of theological education, filled with persons who are different and seeking justice, are already "dialogical" places where lives meet and where bodies interact on physical, emotional and linguistic levels. In feminist theological education, these spaces are places where solidarity begins and where freedom occurs. As Maxine Greene has suggested, "We might think of freedom as an opening of spaces as well as perspectives." Within feminist theological education, education is a dialogical process of concrete encounter enacted through classes, worship and committees. Education is about social interaction, and even reason within education is dialogical and communicative.

"Conversation" has become a key term in analyzing the reading and writing of texts. David Tracy suggests that reading a text is like having a genuine conversation and must be distinguished from idle chatter, debate, confrontation and gossip. Tracy's model of conversation, which he adapts from Hans-Georg Gadamer, is defined as letting the subject matter take over, forgetting one's own self and, letting understanding occur. Tracy's conversation model provides us with a way of regarding understanding as not merely getting the facts in, but as a "disclosive" encounter. Conversation entails risk and leads to transformation.

As a kind of model for dialogue, Tracy's notion gives us key ingredients: understanding, risk and transformation. Yet in relation to the theme of justice, Tracy's model needs to be challenged at an essential point: the emphasis on forgetting one's self. At least within feminist practices of theological education, true understanding occurs as the "concrete" self is affirmed and understood. Dialogue that attempts to abstract from concrete selves too often results in a privileging of a particular self who becomes the ideal model of conversation. Justice and the quest for emancipation require that dialogue is always among embodied and embedded selves who speak in their own voices and develop connections, including struggles and conflicts, within their actual context.

Imagination. With the stress on material as well as discursive practices leading to transformation and the struggle and desire for new hope of justice, imagination is central to education. Imagination, the ability to think the new, is an act of survival. Yet the imagination is rarely explicit in the educational process and is usually relegated to a few elective courses emphasizing how to use music in worship.

Feminist theology makes imagination central, since the saving work of theology requires new imaginative visions. Central to feminist theological practice is recognizing the unrealized possibilities in a situation. Imagination, Iris Young tells us, "is the faculty of transforming the experience of what is into a projection of what could be, the faculty that frees thought to form ideals and norms." And feminist ecclesiology is based on imagination in terms of envisioning the church in new spaces. The practice of narrativity -- writing new life scripts-is also imaginative: it entails the ability to imagine new possibilities for our lives and for the world.

Within feminist theology and feminist practices of theological education, this need and quest for reimagining means not only specific acts of reconstruction but also the inclusion of literature and poetry as sources of theological reflection. In many cases these are the written documents by women, and their use is central to the inclusion of "tradition" in feminist theology. Such prose and poetry not only represent what women wrote but also teach us an imaginative process of reconstructing women's lives, the church, and the very nature of reflection as aimed toward the future. Feminist theology includes poetic revisioning, aesthetic production and imaginative construction.

It is ironic, in some ways, that modern theology and theological education have paid so little explicit attention to imagination and methods of imaginative revisioning. Modern theology, in thinkers such as Barth and Schleiermacher, Tillich and Rahner and the Niebuhr brothers, used imaginative revisioning to allow theology as the discourse of faith to survive the onslaught of modern rationality. Yet with the rare exception of thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jonathan Edwards, the dimensions of imagination, beauty and aesthetics were not emphasized as central to theological method.

The emphasis on imagination must not be seen as some romantic turn in any negative sense. Indeed, contemporary epistemologies increasingly emphasize the metaphorical and aesthetic bases of all forms of knowing. To bring imagination to the center of the educational process may well be one of the most crucial requirements of forming new ways of knowing and new ways of learning.

Feminist practices of theological education point us toward the conversation that needs to occur about theological education. In feminist practices the intertwining of the theological and

the educational in specific practices means that rather than hold only to the narrow notion of "ordered learning" as the product of education, we can begin to experiment and explore a broader and more creative notion of education as process. If we examine other practices of theological education, we can extend and enrich this view of education as a process, rather than a product. Central to my suggestion is the belief that change and transformation in theological education will never be achieved through curriculum reform alone. Rather, we must expand our discourse about theological education into the fuller range of educational process.

I suggest we begin to redefine "theological education" in at least three ways. First, theological education is about relationships formed, the style of teaching, and the extracurricular activities as well as the curriculum. The question of pedagogical styles to encourage and train the imagination requires attention both because of emergent practices and because of the desire for change and transformation. Or, to take another example, the notion of all education as individually focused may need to be decentered (not necessarily replaced) with a notion of education as communal cooperative activity. There is an enormous range of practices, relationships, activities and structures that are as important in theological education as is the curriculum. We need ways to speak of these from within particular movements and ways to speak on a more general level.

Education may well be about "what we do" as well as "what we say." If theological education is about merely the ordered learning of cognitive ideas, then finding the right curriculum will solve all the current problems in theological education. But if knowing God is as much a matter of right relationships as it is a mastery of correct ideas, then the present crisis of theological education cannot be fixed merely by reordering the curriculum. New relationships of imagination, of justice, of dialogue must be formed in the midst of a pluralistic world and new forms of relating, teaching and community building will have to be developed. The how of learning is directly related, in this notion of theological education as a process, to the what of learning. Indeed, the task for the subjects of theological education may be as much the making of new forms of relationships to God, self, others, traditions and society as the articulation of right ideas.

Second, theological education is formed in and through cultural problematics -- such as the tremendous changes in women's lives, the problems of binary ordering and patriarchal oppression, and the role of intellectual work as "saving" work. Furthermore, central to my focus on practices and theology within these practices is an emphasis on cultural contexts within education.

A great many other "cultural" problematics or issues must also be addressed -- global concerns

and concerns of racism, multiculturalism and technology. To ignore or belittle these cultural

problematics in theological education is, to use the old proverb, like trying to ignore the elephant standing in the middle of the living room. These issues are present in the lives of students, teachers and staff. They represent the dominant questions and possibilities for reflection and construction; they provide the material through which learning can be about praxis, or reflective, intentional living in Christian community.

In the tradition of pragmatist John Dewey, education is always a "public" activity, concerned with providing people with resources for reflection on and transformation of the environment. In feminist practices, theology itself is about such "saving work." To learn to address the current issues of the day in light of the past, present and future reality of Christian praxis is to make education a process of doing, rather than merely learning about, theology. And to take seriously the cultural problematies through which specific practices are formulated is to begin to explore and identify connections between theological education and the local community from which the students (and often faculty) come and to which they return.

Third, the symbolic patterns of religion and culture are inherently a part of theological education and need careful attention. Thinking about theological education as a participation in the symbolic will include the construction and engagement in present and future symbolic patterns as well as understanding and interpreting symbolic thought in past centuries. Students are taught the symbolic patterns of past centuries, and they should be taught how these symbols and ideas functioned within the practices of the time. But students and teachers also need to engage in the symbolic struggles of our day. Education, at least within a feminist vision, is about forming persons to be symbolic constructors, about training persons to be poets as well as interpreters.

One pressing issue in newly envisioning the symbolic patterning of Christianity is the concern for patterning that is open to bicultural and bilingual forms. As Christians in the U.S. learn to live with many different voices and cultures, one of the greatest needs in theological education will be to form persons in symbolic biculturalism -- the ability to move and flourish amid various symbolic patterns. If students and faculty can learn how to read and anticipate the symbolic structures of their cultures, and to read and anticipate symbolic constructs in a bicultural fashion, theological education will speak to the needs of the day. To compare different cultures, past and present, in terms of how Christ, for instance, is imaged, functions, conceptualized and so on is to enter a kind of bicultural symbolic analysis.

By thinking about theological education as a process of the intertwining of theology and education, in and through practices, within which different voices reflect and, construct practices of theological education, we can arrive at some sense of how to transform theological education. As I have indicated, change and transformation will be offered from new voices and new perspective -- new voices representing the pluralism within culture as a whole and within theological education, and new perspectives that allow us to speak about practices and utopian visions within these practices. Change and transformation occur, within this model, by tracing out the unrealized possibilities in the present.

The way forward is through a thick description of the present, including identifying emergent possibilities in the present. Clifford Geertz defines thick description as "an elaborate venture in" the "piled -- up structures of inference and implication" in human events and structures. To discuss change and transformation in theological education will be an elaborate venture of hearing different voices speak from their perspectives. Within all this speaking and hearing, creating thick descriptions of theological education will lead us not to an idea about ultimate aims (though that inference may also be included!) but to pile up structures of inference and implication within an intricate network of education as a process.