Digging in the Gardens of Feminist Theology

by Gretchen E. Ziegenhals

Gretchen E. Ziegenhals is an assistant editor of the Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 8, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


By describing our gardens – our personal histories – we can begin to understand our differences.

Feminist scholars are divided over strategies for defining women and women’s experience. Radicals like Monique Wittig, who see the present systems as categorically exclusive, advocate inventing new ways of speaking and even new categories of experience. Liberals, on the other hand, aim to increase women’s power and expression by working within traditional contexts, rereading, redefining and reclaiming traditions in light of women’s reality.

Working in the latter vein, feminist theologians have recently made use of the metaphor of the garden in reclaiming women’s experience. Whereas radicals might reject the garden because it has been a setting for women’s oppression, these theologians find. the figure of the garden important precisely because it points to women’s historical experience, and so allows women to speak not only about faith but about what Katie Cannon calls our "blighted" history.

The metaphor of the garden allows theologians to articulate faith through images from everyday experience. Letty Russell has described the importance of "kitchen table" theology, which begins with the faith stories of ordinary women grouped around kitchen tables or in other everyday settings. In many cultures, the garden is one such setting. Thinking of the garden in defining ourselves and our theology . can help us to incorporate women’s daily experience, and to gain strength from the countless women for whom the garden has been the only ground of creative expression.

While gardens represent women’s commitment to home and to crafts- womanship, they are also examples of the ways in which women’s sphere has been limited. The garden walls have been confining ones. In Virginia Woolf s novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsey’s world is defined by the garden hedges; she never gets to the lighthouse beyond. The biblical garden is also problematic for women. From that garden women have inherited the blame for the Fall, Eve’s label of "temptress," and the curse, "He shall rule over you." The canonized story of the garden has reinforced a sexual politics of domination.

Thus, in reclaiming the creative, everyday nature of the garden, feminist theologians must acknowledge its muddied history. But in working with that history, they can help us utilize the power of our experience to redeem it. And by cultivating new life within the tradition we have been handed, we are able to pay respect to those women who toiled in the garden.

Japanese-Canadian poet Joy Kogawa illustrates this kind of transformation in her "Garden Poem" about a woman who both defies and transforms her garden confinement.

"Marigolds," he said

rooting her firmly

in his garden bed

"are sacrificial plants

for garden slugs."

She wiped the telling slime

from red-rimmed eyes

grew dragon leaves at dusk

turned dandelion.

And in every neat

suburban lawn

she nestled her tiny

umbrellas down.

The woman escapes this "slug" and his "bed" by using the flower image he wants her to inhabit and becoming a plague in his lawn!

Finally and equally important, the garden image underscores that we all come from very different gardens -- different social, religious and cultural contexts. Even the category "women’s experience" has no single definition. By describing our gardens -- our personal histories -- we can begin to understand our differences and the perspectival nature of our theology.

When writer Alice Walker and her mother returned to their old home in Milledgeville, Georgia, after 22 years, Walker was confronted with memories of poverty and segregation. But her mother pointed to her daffodil garden that had run wild around their rotting shack, blooming from one side of the yard to the other. Despite their poverty, Walker’s mother had always been able to translate her own vision of beauty and freedom to "whatever rocky soil she landed on." In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker uses her mother’s gardens as a metaphor for all that she has inherited from her mother, including artistic skill and a vision of harmony.

The book consists of eight personal histories by women of African, Asian, Anglo-American and Latin-American descent. Each author begins with a description of her mother’s garden -- the meaning of which varies with each writer. Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s gardens stretch "at least through five generations of Methodist churchwomen from Ghana." Marta Benavides describes the luscious oranges, guavas, avocados, mangoes and mammees in her mother’s mountain village. Joann Nash Eakin defines the garden in terms of her mothers’ talent as a landscape architect. Each definition points to the literal and figurative soil that nurtured their mother’s values, and to the arena of these mothers’ most vital activity.

The "gardening task" itself is divided into three interrelated sections: "Claiming Our Mothers’ Roots," "Clearing Our Space" and "Cultivating a Global Garden." The stories in Part I, in which the authors relate stories of their mothers and grandmothers to their own theological development, show how autobiography is an integral part of theology.

For example, Pui-lan describes the influence of her mother, her mother-in-law and her "spiritual foremothers" in her struggle to develop an "inclusive theology in a Chinese context." A Christian and a member of a Buddhist family, she was in a double bind: as a Christian she had to prove to her people that she was not "the instrument of foreign aggressors," and as a Chinese woman she was concerned about Christianity’s "dualistic tendency and patriarchal bias." In this identity crisis she has turned to her mothers’ gardens, the journals, songs, poems, myths and even obituary notices of her foremothers. She has formed her own theology as she has learned from a long tradition of Chinese Christian women who struggled "not only for their own liberation, but also for justice in church and society

Some gardens are colored by destructive factors -- family violence, racism, heterosexism or classism -- which women struggle to acknowledge and understand. They may choose the difficult task of consciously rejecting these gardens, or of transforming them -- the activity of "Clearing Our Space."

Cannon cannot accept a part of her inheritance -- slavery. Yet she defines her mother’s garden as the rich folklore, legends and slave narratives that her mother told around the kerosene lantern in their home. Those ancestral narratives became "the soil where my inheritance from my mother’s garden grew." And while slavery is the poisonous weed in the gardens of her ancestors, Cannon became a student of slave narratives, "seeking the interior garden of Afro-American culture" and consciously working to inherit the strength and dignity of her slave foremothers.

Isasi-Diaz recounts the history of her mother and her grandmother who emigrated to foreign lands. "I have not inherited a garden from my mother but rather a bunch of cuttings," she writes. Having planted "a Hispanic garden in a foreign land,’ away from her native Cuba, she values what she calls the flowers of faith -- family commitment, and strength to struggle in her mother’s "bouquet" which help her combat rootlessness. But she rejects the "weeds," like her mother’s inability to understand those different from herself and her unwillingness to recognize domestic sexism. Yet Isasi-Diaz claims that even her differences stem from her mother’s bouquet. "I think the differences exist in part because what she has told me and the way she has lived have pushed me a few steps farther."

"Cultivating a Global Garden" asks "how we might find ways to share a global garden as partners, rather than as exploiters of one another." This is admittedly a "hoped-for" rather than a present reality. Here, Russell discusses her refusal to accept a privileged inheritance -- symbolically her grandmother’s rose garden -- because of the classism that supported it. She chose instead a 17-year ministry in East Harlem, where the only gardens were "dug out of several feet of garbage and debris in a vacant lot as an annual church project." In making this choice she did not deny who she was or where her roots were, but consciously chose not to perpetuate the gardens or systems of her past. It is only in taking that step that we will be prepared to move "from garden to table, where all people are welcomed to God’s feast."

Benavides, a Salvadoran Baptist minister, also understands her theology as political. Her work with refugees grew out of her mother’s belief in their responsibility to feed the poor in their mountain village. "It is important for me to garden with others," she explains. "That is what being compañieras is all about. Gardening is visioning, dreaming, and futuring for me too. It is to envision and bring about the new earth, right here and now." For the Salvadorans, God’s new earth will restore the garden of the people, which flourished before the wealthy landowners kept people from planting their corn, vegetables and beans to make room for the profit-making coffee, cotton and sugar. Benavides uses the image of her mother’s garden as the basis for her "new earth" theology. "Only when we stand together will the flowers of justice and humanity grow," she writes. "Only then will all people be truly free to make the global garden their home."

At the AAR meeting, theologian Delores Williams noted that this book is not a book about theology but rather a book about perspective. It suggests that our theology is a fruit of the garden of our experiences. The garden gives us a specific image around which to study our individual histories, beginning with the influence of our mothers.

The panelists at the session discussed theology’s perspectival nature by pondering their own gardens. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza noted that her mother had to plant vegetables instead of flowers after World War II. Because of the backbreaking labor involved; Fiorenza wanted nothing to do with her mother’s garden. She confessed to stealing fruit from a neighbor’s garden instead! As an adult, she also chose another garden than her mother’s, claiming an intellectual heritage rather than her mother’s experience. She added that in the long run, the war-torn garden would probably have been more peaceful than the religious academy.

Author Chung Hyun Kyung clarified the usefulness of the garden for articulating theological particularity, pointing out that there are many shades of suffering, and that we must be particular about those shades. The garden image helped her discover her own Korean voice while studying theology in the U.S. Here Third World women must package their stories in English, and in terms white liberal theologians will want to read. Kyung stressed that she did not want to be a Jonah, bringing liberation theology to save middle-class women -- at least not before she had a chance to explore her own gardens. The stories of both her Korean birth mother and the Korean woman who adopted her had shown her, she said, a history of classism and cultural imperialism. They also enabled her to see women as more than survivors, as agents of liberation.

Williams observed that mothers’ voices had been excluded from the book, and she wondered about the legacy mothers have attempted to give their daughters. She also contended that the figure of the garden is too gentle to capture the "ecological warfare of the soul" life’s "tufts and tragedies." Nevertheless she noted that the collected stories in the book formed a mosaic in which all the pieces sustained one another. Such a collective effort is vital for forging what Williams called a womanist, "montage" theology.

All the participants agreed that the garden metaphor gives new energy to our lives because it invites response. It encourages us to clarify why we believe what we believe. Seldom are Christians given such a tangible opportunity to trace and articulate our personal faith histories. Whereas ethics presents models for living, observed ethicist Margaret Farley, the garden image involves us in our particular life stories, with all the ambiguities involved. Nothing seems more given than our mothers, noted Farley. yet this book tells us that at some point we do choose our mothers -- our gardens are lived in, left behind, accepted or forgiven.

In the same manner, she added, we can come to terms with our particular Christian tradition. The garden metaphor gives us the necessary perspective. And while our religious tradition is often not as easy to comprehend as our individual histories, we must make the attempt in order to identify what we have in common. "Shall we ever weep over commonly perceived tragedies? Commonly loved goals? Shall we ever learn from one another’s languages?" Farley asked.

Remembering that our garden.. is only a small plot of land and that there are many such plots is necessary for a rich harvest. By listening to and supporting those who have been excluded from our gardens, we can cultivate a global garden.