The Case for Open Borders in Theological Study
Recently a female seminarian posted the following lament on Twitter:
“You’d think after all these years in seminary I’d be used to men keeping their distance, not engaging with me, etc. because I’m a woman. The truth is, I’m not. It still sucks. It still feels like rejection. And it still hurts.”
Thankfully, not all men react this way. I was in the first class of female students (five of us) admitted to the same seminary she attends and, although I’ve experienced plenty of resistance since graduating, that wasn’t my experience as a seminary student.
Our arrival was uneventful. No fanfare, drumroll, or historic speeches. We just walked into the classroom and went to work. I don’t recall anyone discussing with us why the seminary was opening its doors to women or the five of us discussing it among ourselves.
To be honest, we were simply grateful to be there and assumed the seminary had done us a favor by letting women into this previously male-only bastion. Over time, however, I’ve come to realize something monumental had happened. This was more than another breeched barrier for women. Our female contributions were needed for theological reflection and practice to fulfill the mandate for which we were created.
In the field of higher education, scholars Jan Meyer and Ray Land have coined the phrase “threshold knowledge.”
Threshold knowledge refers to “core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject.”
Genesis 1 and 2 contain vital threshold knowledge, for this is where God is vision casting for his world and for humanity. God’s creative activity climaxes with the creation of humanity and God’s wholly unexpected decision to create human beings—male and female—as the imago dei. The Creator could not have conferred on us a nobler identity and calling than for us to be reflections of himself, to speak and act for him. Nor could he have placed before us a more demanding challenge.
As the imago dei, humanity’s first and most urgent task is to know the God who created us to become like him. This foundational enterprise stands at the center of every human life and requires significant effort from each of us—male and female. Every other human endeavor falls within and is shaped by what we learn about our Creator and how we work to represent him more faithfully and engage his purposes in the world.
It must be said, although some remain uncertain about this, the creation narrative doesn’t contain the slightest hint that responsibility for the study of God falls only or primarily on the shoulders of men. Everything God commissions at creation falls fully on the shoulders of his daughters too. The Creator prefaces the creation of the female with an unqualified statement that has bearing in every arena of human life: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
When female scholars engage in biblical and theological studies along with men, their male colleagues will be the first to benefit. If they are willing to listen and collaborate, men will discover a richer, deeper, more robust theological discussion has just become possible. Walter Brueggemann confirmed this when he wrote in the preface of his remarkable work, The Prophetic Imagination,
“I am growingly aware that this book is different because of the emerging feminine consciousness as it impacts our best theological thinking. That impacting is concerned not with abrasive crusading but with a different nuancing of all our perceptions. . . . In many ways these sisters have permitted me to see what I otherwise might have missed. For that I am grateful—and amazed.”
The scholarly study of God and Scripture is not primarily for personal fulfillment, although that surely happens. Nor are such pursuits ends in themselves. They serve the church and indeed, all humanity. The whole church benefits when a diversity of scholarly minds devote their lives to Biblical Studies, Theology and Philosophical Theology and do this vital work together.
A scientist once noted, “If earth were an apple, the exploration we have done beneath the earth’s surface would not yet have broken the skin.” If that’s how far we’ve gotten in exploring this finite planet, how much more remains for us to discover about our infinite God?
With such a daunting task before us, can it be any less true today than it was in the beginning that it is not good for the man to be alone?
Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge—Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising,” in Improving Student Learning—Theory and Practice Ten Years On, ed. C. Rust (Oxford: Oxford Center for Staff and Learning Development, 2003), 412–24.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), xxiv.
Carolyn Custis James
NOTE: This article was originally published in November 2018 on BLOGOS for Logia. Logia is an initiative of LOGOS Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at St. Andrews University which seeks to support women who are considering pursuing postgraduate Divinity education or who are already students or staff at this level. I serve on their Board of Advisors.