Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Responding to, "Can You Love God AND Feminism?"

Right before I sat down to write this post, I splashed cold water on my face, brushed my hair out and roped it into a pony tail and did two brief neck stretches. No joking. Before you delve into an issue like feminism and God, you have to be ready for the long haul.

At the ever-stirring community of Feministing, a specific headliner, in the form of a question, caught my eye, "Can you love God and feminism?" Not unusual to online communication, the comments quickly delved into discussions of organized religion, personal experiences, and emotional declaratives. Not surprisingly, several different topics surfaced and none were resolved or even wholly addressed, which is typical in an online format. But even in face to face conversation, the subject of religion and feminism is too wide, the issue is personal for many, and the scrutiny too close for honest disclosure.

The question got me thinking: "Can you love God and feminism?" The two issues of religion and feminism have been the backbone for some of the ugliest debates I've ever seen. There are usually two problems in such verbal banter. First, at least one person with really good ideas backs down or refuses to take the plunge into the conversation. Thus, the dominant talker dominates. Two, the discussion freys into a million other topics and it doesn't stay spinning on one or two issues, but splatters into a mess of biting words.

I've split this post in two segments. The first part are a few helpful hints if you ever find yourself in a dialogue with another person or with a group of people discussing these issues and you find yourself backing away. Try these suggestions. I've found them helpful as I grow as a feminist. They're for everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, agnostic, or atheist identity.

The second part of this post is my personal experiences and background of religion and feminism and the problems I've found in the feminist blogosphere in regard to these topics. Also, to be clear, I'm not knocking the post at Feministing. It was a great stimulus for conversation and the content of the post is not what I'm addressing. I'm expanding on a much larger issue that the question raised for me.


Tip #1 Look at the question being asked.

Take a critical eye to the question and examine the heart of the issue. There's nothing academic or scholarly about thinking about the crux. Everyone can do this - at a table, a wedding (I almost saw a fight break out at a reception), or over a campfire. It's true that there is no such thing as a dumb question, just as long as it's a sincere one. The art of questioning is often misused as tool by some to instigate or flame a controversial issue, e.g. (the ever popular) "How can you vote for that candidate when s/he is pro-choice?" If you choose to ask or answer a question, be prepared to use a mental scalpel. Bypass pretense and admit if you don't know something, or haven't fully thought through your way. In most instances, people are willing to engage in honest and challenging debate that stimulates growth, not defensiveness, when you get to the heart of the question and remain calm about your position and experiences.

Tip #2 Start a revolution and embrace the gray.

Even science cannot yet find a way to explore the outer celestial heavens, so why should we presume to know every artifact of faith? Nobody, save the handful of religious scholars tucked away somewhere, has all the background knowledge on religion and religious text. Good thing we don't need to know everything to examine our own lives and its meaning. It's impossible to know it all or grasp all the different interpretations. Relax in the fact that you will likely never get resolution if you're looking for black and white answers. Reject the immediate answers that most gravitate toward.

Ye be not confused with apathy or uncertainty, however! Embracing the gray is standing in conviction, not lying down in laziness. While it's wise to accept complexity, it's important to continuously chisel and define your evolving beliefs. It takes a carefully tended maturity to remain unthreatened and curious about these issues. It's work, hard work, but it's always worth it.

Tip #3 Be Yourself. Be Open. (if you) Believe.

We're all entitled to participate or not participate in organized religion and define its traditions and orthodox with our chosen teachers, families, mentors, and conscience. But, too often in feminist circles, that freedom dissolves. I've seen young questioning women of faith abandon the term "feminist" because of this ridiculous notion that feminists do not believe in God. I've witnessed so many neon bright feminists not identify as such because of the paradoxical branding of "feminist" on a religious person/spiritual individual/worshipper of a higher power. What comes of hiding who you truly are? Come out of your shell. Most people get the fact that activism is about trying to make the world a better place and that, typically, is one of the agenda items for those who are active church goers, mosque attendees, or temple worshippers. We all have a lot more in common than is perceived.


What I didn't like about the question, "Can you love God and feminism?" is that it reminded me of all the times I've been asked variations of that same thing over the course of my life and how I've never really been able to put my finger on my frustration; that is, until I started blogging. Only then did I get it: both sides pigeon hole the other.

While on one hand it's clearly understandable as to why so many could ask a question such as "Can you love God and feminism," given the media's attention on fundamentalism and right-wing extremist's ties to evangelicals, what's equally disturbing is when I find feminist bloggers conflating religious groups with the terms conservatives,"pro-lifers," and then add some sort of an insulting name because the author thinks religion and conservatism go hand in hand. Much like how feminists go hand in hand with other stereotypes, right?

With privilege, I've attended Catholic schools my entire life, from pre-school to graduate school. I've genuflected before crucifixes everyday of my existence, including the rebellion years and the periods of tumultuous resistance. I grew up with rosaries in my hands, and penance room visits on Saturday afternoon. I went through the whole blind acceptance, acidic rebellion, and then painful self-doubt. Here is what I know after 29 years of Catholicism and Feminism: neither is perfect, nor am I.

Feminism is about liberation. It is about the deepest analysis of and against the intersecting powers of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, sizeism, and ethnocentrism that enslave ALL marginalized persons, but most especially women. Feminism recognizes, as well, that just as women are enslaved, it positions men into false characters they often do not wish to be, but in the absence of alternatives and voice, they become culprits to kyriarchal practices of domination.

In my religion of choice, Catholicism, it is about endless efforts to love others and ourselves. It is sorely educated in many gradeschools and children are short-changed from the start with cartoon coloring books and three ring circus holiday distractions. But the beauty of its symbolism and its disarming dedication to the marginalized captivates me again and again. Believe me, I know and understand its problems with women, sexuality, power, and choice, but after a lifetime of studying it, I stand with Rachel A. R. Bundang who states in "This is Not Your Mother's Catholic Church," in the anthology Pinay Power, "...Catholicism's cultural significance and its ties to who I am as a Filipina are thick as blood itself. My experience of the Church cannot be encapsulated in a single sticking point and is greater than one sole controversy."

What I'm saying is that religion and feminism are not easy. They're difficult terrain to cross and explain. But I do know that the exploration of self within both is a thrilling journey, but both sides - religion and feminism - need to re-evaluate how we write and use language, how quick we are to interchange descriptors like "religious" and "conservative" or "feminist" and "pro-choice." Regular everyday people - you and I - are much more than these lables and the language we choose to communicate with one another needs to make room for the reality that feminism is growing and we need our language to reflect that complexity. We do ourselves a disservice when we intentionally or unintentionally exlude activists when we point our verbal guns at communities of faith. As a small sample (in my research, I typically read Christian and Catholic feminists), here are just a few of the most courageous and inspiring lovers of both God and feminism:

Joan Chittister is one of the greatest writers on contemporary feminist spirituality. Her anti-war speeches are legendary. Mary John Mananzan is one of the most prolific writers I have ever researched. Her views on women and prostitution in Challenges to the Inner Room enriched my feminism in unspeakable ways. The term kyriarchy that I wrote about which has been so well received in the feminist blogosphere was created by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of the pioneers of feminist biblical interpretation and with whom I had the honor of studying under and stood forever changed. Leela Fernandes wrote Transforming Feminist Practice and advocates for a spiritualized feminism if it wants to survive and, more importantly, succeed.

I don't believe any of these women would laugh at me if I asked them, "Can you love God and feminism?" I think they'd be silent, as they wouldn't see a distinction between the two.

Cross-posted at Bitch Magazine.


  1. When I saw the title of that Feministing thread... well, the title was all I read...and you have perfectly summed up why.

    Thanks, and good work.

  2. I was going to leave off commenting until I had something of substance to say, but, great post.

    I'm pretty annoyed by the feminist approach to atheism and religion, generally. I mean, they're basically just transposing the authoritarian guilt stuff they don't like about organised religion onto feminism, especially with the whole "are they compatible?" thing. It's actually profoundly Western and Christian, ironically, because there are places where it's not a problem to be a Christian and keep worshipping traditional gods. I mean, out of necessity aside from anything else, if your ancestors were colonised, I should imagine.

    And I say all this as an ignostic (which means that my grey area is greyer than your grey area dammit!). In fact, you and a couple of other bloggers have opened my mind to the fact that it's preferable to ask a lot of questions than just have this constant pressure to know all the answers.

    *fails miserably to keep comment short, as ever*

  3. Thank you for this post. I especially connected to the last line. Aren't both feminism and Catholicism (in their idealized forms) about loving and respecting out fellow human beings?

  4. The original post seems problematic because it uses the terms of conservative Christianity to ask a delicate question. It seems disingenuous. Wouldn't it be wonderful if feminist pop culture blogs could approach the topic of religion with the same amount of effort and care that you put into your response?

    Thank you for teaching me about Mary John Mananzan. I've been searching off and on for 20 years for such a voice.



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