"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson on Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

Last week I received from the publisher a copy of Sarah Hinlicky Wilson's book Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (T&T Clark, 2013).

I have been reading it with great interest after being introduced to Elisabeth Behr-Sigel by my friend Michael Plekon who, over lunch a few years ago, gave me a copy of a wonderful biography he edited, Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. If you are interested in her fascinating life, or simply want a good biography about an unusual figure who led a long and interesting life, this biography is for you. 

(photo credit: Jim Forrest)
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (EBS) (left) is not as well known as some of her other contemporary Orthodox theologians, perhaps in part because she does not fit into the usual categories. Her thought on several issues stands out, but it is perhaps on the question of women, and their possible sacramental ordination in the Orthodox Church, that most marks Behr-Sigel's thought. This question has been treated in a new book just published by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, whom I asked for an interview. Here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background:

SHW: I’m an east-coast American Lutheran of assorted European heritage who lived in a very Lutheran bubble until leaving college. Thereafter I worked at a journal under the leadership of an ardent Catholic, went to a Presbyterian seminary, and ended up the consultant to the international Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, which serves the Lutheran World Federation, itself an organ of communion among about 95% of the world’s Lutherans.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
AD: How did you, an American Lutheran writing a dissertation at the Presbyterian-affiliated Princeton Theological Seminary, end up writing about a French Orthodox theologian?  

SHW: The easy and uninteresting answer is: I needed a topic I could finish in a year, so that meant Luther was out of the question! I highly recommend doing dissertations where the secondary literature is virtually nonexistent. 

The more interesting answer is this. During my college years, I was in a very Catholic-oriented crowd of Lutherans, and some of them thought that eliminating the ordination of women in Lutheranism would increase our chances of ecumenical reconciliation with Catholics. (Now I think that’s not only placing an unfair burden on women but ignores the vast number of other issues that continue to separate us.) At the same time, one of my mentors said to me, “You’re the only reason I still believe in the ordination of women.” I was really shocked by this ad hominem (ad feminam?) argument, which I knew he would refuse in any other context. Ironically, I didn’t actually have any intention at the time of becoming a pastor—for awhile I myself was opposed to the ordination of women because it was the surest way to keep safe from such a terrible fate! 

Enter my friend Michael Plekon, an esteemed Orthodox theologian and priest, who said: you need to read Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s book. I did, and it cleared my head beautifully. Here was a woman outside of the Lutheran-Catholic crossfire, who knew and appreciated feminism but did not consider it determinative for Christian faith, and who built on Scripture, patristic studies, and contemporary Orthodox theology to make a case for the ordination of women. Though the set of arguments on this topic is different depending on one’s confessional location, tracing the argument in another church’s setting was extremely illuminating of my own. I went to France to meet her the following year and exchanged occasional letters with her until her death. In many ways, my dissertation was paying a debt of gratitude to this remarkable woman. (And I did end up getting ordained after all. Oh well.)  

AD: You currently hold a position at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg. Among some Orthodox (and others) “ecumenical” is a bad word (the “pan-heresy” even), thought to mean the evacuation of all doctrine and the reduction of Christianity to the lowest common denominator. Tell us how you understand ecumenism and the search for Christian unity. 
I think we can get at ecumenism best via a cultural analogy. The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not to make everybody speak and understand one language, but to make all the people there understand the gospel in their own language. In mission, we don’t seek to draw all people into one single culture that alone houses the gospel, but for the gospel to move out into every culture and make each culture its dwelling place. This means that people are entitled to remain “at home” in their own cultures, even as the gospel takes hold of those cultures, inhabits them, and transforms them. But Pentecost also implies that we need to step outside of our home cultures, out of those places comfortable for us, to see what other people’s homes are like. Note how hard it was even for the apostles to leave Jerusalem; the Spirit had to keep nudging them out—sometimes only persecution would do the job! It is an essential part of growth into Christian maturity not to make the mistake of thinking that the gospel and our home culture are logical equivalents; we will naturally equate the two if not pushed beyond our boundaries. The tension between “at home” and “away” has to be maintained, not eliminated. We are allowed to be at home where we are at home; we are not allowed to deny other people the right to be at home where they are at home. 

Analogously, ecumenism should not demand that no one feel at home anymore, leaving one theological tradition for an ecumenical super-theology or minimum-theology that belongs to everybody and nobody. But ecumenism should drive people to travel beyond the borders of their home theology and home church to see what else is out there, which will then help them to be better Christians both at home and abroad. Ecumenical voyaging helps people see the weaknesses and failures in their home church—every church has them, for none can manage everything perfectly—and also to recognize their own real strengths. It should make them discover that there are real Christians over there—and thus that their church is also Christ’s church, which means it is also our church, even if in different clothing! We may legitimately critique other Christians, but we may not deny them the baptism that made and keeps them Christian. I think there has to be a lot more of this “ecumenical voyaging” before any further talk about unity can even be meaningful.

AD: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel herself had an interesting “ecumenical” path in her own life, moving from the Protestant tradition to Orthodoxy but continuing to be deeply engaged with the World Council of Churches and other Christians. What message does her life have for Orthodox Christians today--and others?

I think of Elisabeth as a shining example of the beauty of hybridity in Christian faith. We have only one God, but where creation is concerned we are not to be locked boxes or fall into essentializing delusions. Elisabeth’s earliest experience was of the cultural hybridity of Alsace (where I live now!), a place both French and German, always negotiating those two realities. Then there was her multilayered religious hybridity: her father was a Protestant Christian but her mother was Jewish. Elisabeth was baptized in a Lutheran church but experienced the friendly engagement of Lutherans and Reformed, something that has been impossible or rejected in other parts of the world, and her most significant mentors in her teen years were Reformed. Then she became Orthodox through chrismation, not rebaptism—but even after that, she served as a lay pastor in a Reformed church for eight months. She married a Russian, learned the language, and participated in Orthodox churches whose identity at the time was much more Russian than French. Her dearest friend Lev Gillet had a Catholic-Orthodox hybrid identity. And on and on. 

The basic thing she calls into question is the idea that authenticity means closure. I resonate deeply with this part of her witness. Earlier in life I would have thought that ecumenism would mean watering down my Lutheranism; in reality, I think it’s made me a better Lutheran, because I am no longer an ideological Lutheran: I have a better sense of our genuine strengths as well as a humbling sense of our serious weaknesses. (I also am an American living in France, and a white mother of a brown child, so I experience hybridity at many levels of my being.) I once thought ecumenism was a winner-takes-all struggle to be the true church—whether through the triumph of one confession over the others, or a reduction of all local and confessional details to a minimal acceptable homogenous standard. These kinds of perspectives only survive if you assume that you have to be one thing and one thing only. If hybridity is OK, proper to the church instead of alien to it, the whole question shifts radically. I think this is the challenge that world Christianity especially poses to “historic” churches.

AD: You note in your introduction that the question of The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church is assumed by some to be an “intrusion” of “secularism” or “feminism.” You argue that it was not so with EBS. Tell us how she approached the question.

It wasn’t an intrusion, because Elisabeth went out after it herself! Again, such a perspective assumes a “locked box” attitude toward the church, which is further premised on some kind of competition between creation and redemption. They’re not the same thing, but they’re not mortal enemies, either. Changes and movements in the world’s history and culture may have prompted the discussion about women in the church, but Elisabeth was convinced that these changes were already the long-term outcome of the gospel itself: that the leaven of Galatians 3:28 had taken nearly two millennia to raise the heavy lump of pagan societies. To assume that questions about women are an intrusion is basically to assume that being a woman is somehow not natural or proper to Christian life. Well, you can find remarks to that effect here and there—but these must be considered as much a heresy as a radical feminist denial of the Fatherhood of God or the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

AD: Your second chapter is devoted to Paul Evdokimov’s thought on women. I’ve heard it repeatedly said that, had he lived longer, he would have revised his writing and thinking in the area. If so, what in his thinking likely could or should have been revised?

He said as much to his wife, who reported this in a letter to Michael Plekon—that’s my hard proof—though I think others heard him say the same. Evdokimov was a pioneer: nobody had thought and written so extensively but also positively about women in the Orthodox world before him (and it wasn’t exactly an ancient tradition in the Western world by his time, either). He wanted to validate and honor women in the church and criticize their maltreatment. He also perceived a particular variant of feminism that actually despised sexual difference and wanted to make women the same as men, so he set out to oppose that. (I find many people think that this is the single unanimous goal of feminism; it is certainly not.) So it always happens that people at the forefront are starting from scratch, trying things out, making things up—and some things work, while others don’t. What Elisabeth ultimately came to differ with Evdokimov on was his essentializing of feminine being and attributing it to the being of God the Spirit. The more she searched, the less she could find to support such a notion. Had Evdokimov lived longer and stayed in conversation with Elisabeth, I think he probably would have begun to revise in the direction she laid out.

AD: Your third chapter begins by noting that prior to 1976, EBS had never put anything in print about women in the Church. What led to the change in her thinking and writing? 
I expect she thought about it quite a bit before. But the impetus for writing was her invitation to give the keynote address at the first-ever international gathering of Orthodox women at the Agapia convent in Romania. By then, the ordination of women was in the air in the West, so she touched on the matter briefly (and rejected it). But I think a lifetime’s experience as a woman in the Orthodox church was ready to erupt, and once she got started there was no holding her back!

AD: Tell us a bit about the female diaconate, treated in your sixth chapter. I’ve often heard it remarked by competent historians (e.g., Robert Taft) that the evidence of female deacons cannot be doubted. How did EBS approach the question? 

She accepted the conclusions of many scholars that there had once been an active female diaconate, and she spearheaded a petition to the ecumenical patriarch asking for it to be reinstated—however, not simply re-created from the past, but adapted to present needs. At the same time, she was concerned it could be seen as “throwing a bone” to women as a way of giving them an office but avoiding further discussion of ordination to the presbyteral and episcopal offices. My own sense is that the interrelationship of the three offices is strong enough that there is great fear that a real female diaconate today would inevitably lead to a female presbyterate—and that has been enough to strangle all progress on reinstating a female diaconate.  

AD: Ultimately your argument, if I understand it correctly, is that discussions about the ordination of women to the priesthood depend less on what Tradition says, or which passages of Scripture one consults. Ultimately everything rests on Trinitarian theology—an argument I’ve made elsewhere in writing about same-sex marriage. Tell us what light Trinitarian theology sheds on these debates. 
Yes, the Trinity is determinative, but probably not in the way expected. Elisabeth doesn’t follow the social trinitarian approach of community-in-diversity. In fact, had she known it, I think she would have been suspicious of it, because it was precisely the assertion of gender diversity within God that she found so problematic. Evdokimov had argued that the Son is masculine, the Spirit is feminine, the two together image the unknowable Father; Thomas Hopko made this line of thought famous, and it was finally accepted by the Rhodes Consultation on women in the church in 1998. Elisabeth, by contrast, followed the trail blazed by Vladimir Lossky and his work on personhood in both God and humanity. To be a person is to be fully one’s nature and yet not reducible to one’s nature, not enclosed by it or self-identical to it. For Lossky, this was the proper reading of what it means to be in God’s image—we don’t share God’s nature, but we share God’s non-reducibility to His nature in His tripartite personhood. For Elisabeth, this is how Jesus could take on and redeem the flesh of women without sharing their “female nature,” and therefore why women could iconically image Jesus as priests. The last chapter of my book traces this out at greater length, for while Elisabeth referred to Lossky frequently, she never developed the exact line of correspondence between her thinking and Losksy’s, so I tried to reconstruct her line of thought to make it clearer.

AD: Having finished this book, what writing projects are you at work on now? 
Most immediately in front of me is a kind of handbook on Pentecostalism and charismatic movements for Lutheran churches in the Lutheran World Federation, as Pentecostalism is our most pressing ecumenical challenge at the moment (and the other side of my responsibilities at the Institute, along with Orthodoxy). Longer term, I’m working on re-evaluating the practice and theology of saint veneration within Lutheranism. While we definitely dispensed with the invocation of the saints, I see compelling evidence that we quietly created our own Lutheran version of veneration, including of our own indigenous Lutheran saints. Once again, Elisabeth was a huge help to me here, as a practitioner of the “new hagiography”: one that doesn’t shy away from the flaws and failures of the saints but takes them up into the greater view of God’s transformation of humanity. I think there is a great deal of ecumenical potential to be found in attention to one another’s saints. For my basic perspective on the matter, see my contribution to Church and Culture!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...