The Church and the World
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft
"Thinking about Feminist Bricks and Church Walls”
Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, and a Bye-Fellow and Tutor at Sidney Sussex College. She is originally from Bury in Greater Manchester. Her research sits at the intersection of theology, philosophy, literature, and intellectual history, and has focussed on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century thought in particular. She has written a book about the 19th-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Her research interests include hermeneutics, religious language, gender and epistemology.
Some of the key questions that frame this series of talks that Luigi has organised:
q. How are Christian parishes in particular of value in our society today?
q. Do they fulfil a constructive role in society?
q. Can they help to build, strengthen not only religious but also civic communities?
q. How can they fulfil their civic role in a pluralistic society?
The discussion I want to open with you is framed in the light of these kinds of questions. What does it mean to talk about the Church – and specifically the parish – in the world? In other words, what is the Church for the community, and what is it not?
I am not speaking here of course as someone who has all of the answers, but as a person who finds this boundary line between the ecclesiastical and the civic, the church and the world a very interesting one. Want to offer you a series of theological resources or motifs to think through with me.
To reference the two images in my title:
· Departure from last month’s lecture about church buildings – here more symbolic motif: walls a great and evocative way of speaking about what characterises the community, binds it together, identifies it, how does it carve out a place in society?
· Qs guiding in this talk: what kind of walls does the Church have? What kind of walls should it have? 1. walls that are both temporal and eternal
2. walls that keep safe
3. walls that keep out
4. walls that ground and stabilise a community
· This imagery is not from a theologian, but from a feminist theorist, Sara Ahmed
Context: the academy. The research university. a place where women, especially women of colour, are not flourishing. A place where there are walls to keep them out.
In this context, Ahmed’s vital contribution not just to analyzing the nature of the feminist task, but also to supplying practical tools for its realization, includes her referencing policy, which regards citation as feminist memory. “Citations”, she writes, “can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Those left on the outside of the vast architecture of mainstream theological and philosophical traditions and academic spaces will find themselves in an exposed position. But it is from here that they might gain a vantage point for resisting established practices: for building spaces capable of unifiying and making whole where there is currently division and exclusion.
(it is not lost on me that bricks also used as a violent missile through windows. This not the spirit in which Ahmed is writing here, as you can see. Not simply about tearing down, but about rebuilding, resituating, reframing and recentring).
This fearsome generosity also evident in an insight from the poet and author Audre Lorde on this matter: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Women who have been thrust outside of the societial standard of acceptability, Lorde states—those who are older, who are women of color, transgender women, and queer women—become accustomed to seeking outside of existing structures to determine and build a context in which all can flourish-in-difference. In contrast, however, those white feminists who have crept inside the walls of a given institution and simply content themselves with repeating the structural patterns of racist patriarchal thinking, have bought their own inclusion at the cost of the heightened exclusion of others.
Feminist bricks: You’re hearing from someone who is herself in this instance perched on a wall (like a bird, the raven of my surname)
Tonight: I want to run through these 4 motifs I mentioned.
1. Church walls as both eternal and temporal, spiritual and material
What do I mean by this?
A bit of scene setting. Could refer to:
— Augustine, City of God
— Martin Luther
‘God has therefore ordained two regiment(s): the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own’
But here, want to present a much more simple thought. (not so lofty). Thinking about the church/society relationship in our own day, means coming to terms with the fact that the Christian life is one rooted in the present but with eternity as its horizon (and a transcendent reality as that which is most—nay—really real).
Whereas secular society does not judge its own actions with regard to what is eternal, the church does.
Here are a couple of quotes from Søren Kierkegaard and then a contemporary anthropologist to get at what I mean.
‘Habitual Christianity can indeed have many forms…. if there were no other choice, if the choice were only between the sort of habitual Christianity which is a secular-minded thoughtlessness that nonchalantly goes on living in the illusion of being Christian, perhaps without ever having any impression of Christianity, and the kind of habitual Christianity which is found in the sects, the enthusiasts, the super-orthodox, the schematics — if worse comes to worst, I would choose the first. The first kind has still taken Christianity in vain only in a thoughtless and negative way. . . The second kind has taken Christianity in vain perhaps out of spiritual pride. . . . One could almost be tempted to smile at the first kind, because there is hope; the second makes one shudder’.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, eds. Edna and Howard Hong, p.52
A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively and in beautiful language, etc. — but as mildly as possible. In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale—and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing; and when he can do it perfectly, he is a paragon like Mynster.* How disgusting!
Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 6853 (XI.I A March 1, 1854)
* Jacob Peter Mynster: a Danish theologian and later Bishop (1775-1854). Used here, in Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom as an exemplar of conservative religion
‘How does it happen that in modern capitalist society Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, live more or less the same life? Put another way, unless you knew someone well, you could not tell whether she was a believer or not merely from the way she lived. What does this say about religious belief? One answer may be that religious belief where it exists among moderns is so deep that it has at best a very tenuous connection with observable behaviour’.
Talal Asad, ‘Thinking about religion, belief, and politics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed Robert Orsi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 49-50.
2. Church walls as bringing shelter, food, comfort (longest reflection)
· Tweet about the storm:
· I am sure that this is borne out by the experience you will all have had of how Churches can open up their doors to local communities in times of need. Can still be a symbol of sanctuary and aid now. (Blood bank? Lunches for infirm? Foodbank?)
· In Cambridge: St Giles the site of a sleep out for refugees and homelessness every year. Cambridge Churches homelessness project. Church a place that people can come.
What is the scriptural warrant for understanding the church to have a social responsibility in our world? Reminded of two New Testament passages – both so vital, and so resonant – which I suspect will be of central relevance to each and every one of you interested in questions like these.
The first is from Matthew 25: 31-46 —Christ’s teaching on The Sheep and the Goats.
This passage confronts us with the idea that it is Christ Himself who we fail to help, if we fail to care for the sick, or the thirsty, or the outcast, or the unwanted. In this passage, which immediately precedes the narrative of Jesus’s betrayal and arrest—the handing over and treatment of Jesus as a criminal, as an outcast, as a prisoner left to hunger and thirst—we have it thrust upon us that Jesus identifies himself with the “the least or the smallest” of people [in the Greek ἐλαχίστων; elachistōn]
In this passage therefore, we are confronted with the notion that in doing the work of social justice, Christians are not only working in and through Christ, but we are also working for Christ. And in such work, moreover, Christians will also be worked upon. They will be confronted by Christ, in the face of the poor and the needy.
I’ll return to this crucial point in a couple of ways in the rest of this talk —that Christ identifies himself with the needy. But for now, there’s a second core New Testament passage I want to mention. This is the section from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he outlines his vision of the church as a body made up of many different members, each member being honoured or respected according to their particularity, with no one part being dispensable.
(1 Corinthians 12: 12-21.)
21The eye cannot say to the hand [Paul writes] “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Those parts of the body which are respectable – or which we could even call beautiful -- are not simply beautiful, Paul says. They are not simply aesthetic accessories. These parts also contribute work: as members, they labour towards the functioning of the whole. And those parts which we think to be less presentable, or proper – those parts which do the dirty work of the body, to put it crudely, actually have their own special kind of beauty, or regard, St Paul tells us. They are to be “clothed with honour”.
What do we make here of Paul’s language about the body’s members? He speaks here in terms of respecting, of valuing, honouring different members. [τιμήν in the greek– to have honour, to be honoured]. Well for me, this language is significant, because when we respect or honour something, we are being partial. We are treating something in a special way. Heeding it in a way that we would not heed something else. A Lord is given more honour than a knight, a knight more honour than a servant boy. By using this partial language, St. Paul is thus indicating that the parts of the body are not to be treated merely in an equal way, so to speak. ‘Equal’ in the flat mathematical sense of this word. In the sense that 1 is equal with 1, or 2 is identical with 2, or in the sense that if a little boy has pocket money of £2 a week, then his little sister will naturally and jealously also want £2 a week.
Instead, St Paul seems to be suggesting, that as a member of the body of Christ, just as in a person in the world, Luigi here does not ‘equal’ Ruth (as if the two were numerically or mathematically the same). Nor does Mary equal Martha, or indeed Elijah or Isaac. To say we are equal would be the wrong word. And not just in the sense that we all look different, or dress differently, or sound or smell differently(!). Because we can also say that Mary is not treated, and should not be treated “equally” to Martha. For Mary, in Mary’s own way of being in the world, has different needs and desires and hopes to Martha. The response of the world to her, should be qualitatively different to the response that it offers Martha, or you, or me. Each of us in this Zoom room and outside has our own ‘this’ness. Our very own ‘me’ ness of me.
What is the payoff here: a note about theological anthropology.
Difference—relations of difference, the things that make us stand out from one another-- is natural to human life, integral to human flourishing. The hand is not a foot, is not a nose, is not a stomach, and this differenciation is not only clear but also necessary for the well-being of the whole.
> here we also see how there are stark limitations to ‘inclusive’ practices in theological contexts. Debates around equality and inclusion so often smother an attention to fruitful accounts of difference between human persons, while also shoring up the notion of a single, homogenous, ideal of human flourishing. There is no one final way to be part of a Christian community. No one final yardstick against which we are all measured.
But there’s more. Because: as the same time that we learn from St. Paul that every human being is a specific human being, we also learn from him that there is a unity between us, as a community of creatures, that underpins, underlies and makes possible all of our differences. And that unity, is our being created by God out of nothing, our being made and remade through Christ. You may remember that as St. Paul introduces this model of the church in 1 Corinthians, he explains the following:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews and Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12)
This fundamental unity that Christians are said to have in Christ—a unity that lies before any difference we have between us of gender, or race, of being a free person or a slave—is one that Paul will go on to speak about once again in his letter to the churches of Galatia. Here, and in the context of a discussion about the role of the law of Moses in Christian life, St Paul writes the following:
“in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. (Galatians 3:26)
No longer Jew or Greek! No longer male or female! St. Paul stresses the unity and of people in Christ here, then. But in doing this, importantly he does not contradict or undercut the emphasis he places in his vision of the church, on the specific and embodied and fundamentally differing nature of different people in Christ. We are irreducibly different parts within this same body Why does he not contradict himself?
Well, I think that one can understand St. Paul to mean something like this:
That although we are all individually different, we are held being continually by a God who is beyond all difference.
In God, who is transcendent and perfect, there are no attributes that will make God ‘different’ in the human sense. God is beyond height, weight, gender, fitness, . God has no body.
Transcendent perfect God is thus in a position to hold in being without partiality or pain, without trouble or without qualm, all humans in all of their differences.
So: we can thus see that as people, our bodies – our material nature matters. We are shaped by our bodies. We live in and through them, and the good we can do in the world is good we do through them. To be healthy, and to flourish, we need to look after our bodies. And the needs we have are consistent with the nature of them. Some of us need more care than others, and this is written into the teachings of Matthew 25. Let the hungry be fed, the thirsty be given drink.
And of course—St. Paul might well add here—our bodies primarily matter because we have been given them by God. Our bodies, because they are gifts from God, are radically devalued—exhaustively devalued—if they are seen and treated as if it was simply someone’s property. The property of an employer, the property of a pimp, or an exploitative partner, or authority figure. My body is not, St. Paul teaches us, a commodity either for me or anyone else to manage.
In addition to this, however, what I think St Paul also wants to communicate, and affirm, is what the Israelites were made to learn in the desert, and what Christ himself practiced in his own journey into the desert: namely the truth that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. [Deuteronomy 8:3].
Addressing us as temporal, living people, scripture nevertheless tells us that we have a purpose and set of needs that cannot be fully seen by human eyes, fully tasted by human lips, nor fully taken away by the hands of other humans. As God’s creatures, in other words, it has been given to us to be more than just our statuses on earth. The good news of Jesus Christ amounts to something other to, and much more significant than, simply earthly riches or power. This is why St Paul can include those who are slaves in the body of Christ—in the body of the church. Because we are more than our worldly needs. More than our bodies. We stand in the present with our eyes looking and seeing in the light of the eternal.
As Christ preached (Matthew 6:19-20): “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rustdestroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Thus: there are deep scriptural resources, resources all of us will already be aware of, for suggesting how Church ‘walls’ should and often can be walls that keep safe, that hold tight, that offer aid and sanctuary in society. Deep structural resources for noting how the church is responsible for human flourishing in the here and now, and is confronted by Christ in the world in the work of social responsibility.
Christ identifies himself with ‘the least’ of those who suffer.
3. Church walls as exclusive and excluding
So at this point, you might well turn around to me, and you ask “Ruth, everything you’ve been saying—about St Paul’s vision of the Church, and what this tells us about the worth of people, does it not seem like a bit of a slap in the face to those who find the walls of the church high and insurmountable? Has not the church been an institution which excludes some of those marginalised in society? Is it not often a difficult place to fit in, or work well within?
(I alluded to this when I spoke about Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed at the outset – their assessment of secular communities).
Well, I think St Paul’s vision of community is really important here. Because St Paul’s notes about the Church as body, and the worth of that body with all of its integral differences, can help Christians, to articulate the absolutely fundamental sense in which anything less than upholding honour and respect for its members is a scandal.
Liberation theology : rich theological resource for this point.
- Liberation theology: [20th century movement, arising in Latin America Guttierez = peruvian – Black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology]
- key point : God is a liberator of the oppressed. Liberation theologians believed that God speaks particularly to the poor
- Psalm 82: ‘Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked’
Gustavo Gutierrez: [A Theology of Liberation] offers a critique of theological approaches to salvation which focus merely on the spiritual – that which humans can hope to receive after death and resurrection.
Christ still for Gutierrez the only one who can save, and the only one who can liberate from sin and admit humans to communion with God. Nevertheless, in the full sense, Gutiérrez argues, salvation for humans has to begins now. In the present, as we are called to fight injustices.
Here there is an:
- expanded attention to Marxist category of alienation: we are alienated in society from aspects of our human nature.
- expanded attention to Sin as a selfish turning upon oneself
Salvation: struggle against an unjust society and the creation of a new humanity in the light of the Word. To work towards the transformation of the world is to be part of the saving action
“the human work continues creation only if it is a human act: i.e. is not alienated by unjust socio-economic structures”
Rosemary Radford Reuther: a feminist theology of liberation: if your theology excludes women or denies their humanity, their belonging (asks them to change or deny themselves in order to become truly holy) then it is not a liberative theology. It cannot speak truly for women or be a message of redemption to them.
In Reuther’s view, also, women who have experienced oppression and difficulty must strive for a “…a continually expanding definition of inclusive humanity – inclusive of both genders, inclusive or all social groups and races.”
The resources Ruether proposes for this a biblically-rooted faith. The resources of the tradition. don’t abandon the bible as a vital source of liberation. Rather, reach deeper within it. Find in it that which has always been there, supressed via male domination and patriarchal norms
Earlier I mentioned that I was going to return to the teaching, conveyed in Matthew 25, that Christ identifies himself with the poor. Here is the time for making that return, because part of what is articulated in the response to dehumanisation and alienation in Liberation Theology, is to turn and to point to Christ. Christ is the one who speaks before and on behalf of all Christians in this moment. For having identified himself with the vulnerable and the outcast, in his teaching about the Sheep and the Goats, Christ was betrayed and arrested. And as part of this betrayal, he himself was treated simply as a lump of flesh. As a thing to be disposed of. His body was stripped, flogged, he was afforded no dignity whatsoever. He was even transferred to a cross, where his life was bled out of him. And so, Christ not only symbolically identifies himself with the poor and the suffering in a parable, then, but he becomes one of them.
James Cone, black liberation theology:
The Cross and the Lynching Tree
‘life is not possible without an opening towards the transcendent’ -- but the gospel cannot just be a transcendent reality; it must also be an immanent one.
The lynching tree frees the cross from false piety, so that it does not become a symbol of abstract sentimental piety.
The lynching tree nevertheless needs the cross, else it is merely an abomination
The source of Christian hope and faith in Christ rests in the fact that Christ did not allow such exploitation—such treatment—to have the final say. In his resurrection, Christ overcame the devaluation and the exploitation in involved in his arrest and his death. He overcame the intentions his captors had for his body. [James Cone: loving solidarity with the least of these] And so by overwhelming and transforming the actions and intentions of his captors, Christ not only now stands at the head of the body of the church, but he also provides us with the standard by which Christians should judge the treatment and exploitation of others.
4. Church walls as providing roots & foundation for local community? Final category here.
> speak about Simone Weil here:
In 1943, having recently arrived in England, the theorist and activist Simone Weil was approached by the Free French, in London, to author a report on the task of organising the regeneration of France.
The resulting document became her posthumously published work The Need for Roots (in the original French, L’Enracinement), in which she made the following pronouncement:
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define”.
“A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
Speaking in a context of war and occupation, it is significant that Weil turns, first, not to the assertive language of rights and freedoms to discuss programatically what it means to live together fruitfully as human beings, but to the involved language of duty and obligation. Even to the language of obedience too (Note about Iris Murdoch, who took this language of obedience on too, having been influenced by Weil).
Paramount here in Weil’s account of the human soul’s essential needs — which include honour, order, responsibility, and, perhaps more unexpectedly, obedience and punishment — is the need to actively and naturally participate in the life of a community. Humans need to be rooted.
The reason I mention this here, is that Weil helps us to consider why providing any sort of meaningful home for a person requires much more than the simple allocation of space and shelter. She challenges us to consider how fundamentally important it is for human well-being that people are able to cultivate bonds, shared memories, and institutions with each other over time.
The “roots” here that Weil is talking about are multiple: we are not just musing about knitting a person into a particular region, nation, or institution, or about ensuring that that person is fed, clothed, and secure in their employment. Weil is also talking about making a person accountable for their past, and the past of their ancestors, as well as responsible for the future of their community, too.
It is to make an utterly banal and basic point to say that human life is shaped and limited by the fact that we have bodies — that we’re made of flesh and blood and have all the accompanying biological requirements and urges.
But, emboldened by reading Weil, I would add that humans can become very good at denying the intergenerational responsibility entailed in having a body and living in our world. As individuals, we are on earth for only a relatively short time, yet despite our precariousness and our fleetingness, we can be good at ignoring both our inheritances and our legacies. We can fail to cultivate practices of remembrance for those who have gone before, and of hope and expectation for those who will come after us.
In the face of the ecological and climate crises that we are now facing, for instance, we can ask seriously of our politicians, leaders, and of the CEOs of large corporations: “What are you actually doing to ensure that the humans of tomorrow can live safely and fruitfully on our planet?”
Weil protests that, when human souls are shorn of the perception of obligations to past, present, and future human communities, as well as from the opportunity to fulfil these obligations, they become sick and inert. They are uprooted.
The parish, in particular – to bring things home to Luigi’s set of questions behind this series of talks -- can provide us with walls that maintain such communal and networked rootedness.
Standing very firmly in time, amid the machinations of history, between generations, while also living in the light of the gospel, the parish is—or should be—a place where Christians can hopefully gather the perspective to cultivate practices of memory and memorialisation for those who have gone before, and live preparing the way for the those who will follow.
It is no surprise that a central category in Weil’s philosophy became that of attention : the practice of developing a loving and patient regard, the practice of standing still, to take account of what is true, to notice the needs of another.
Reading recommendation for you all:
> Julian of Norwich : specifically theological attention // living in time, but also, and most definitively in God’s hands
> Church walls as both temporal and eternal
> Church walls as
> Church walls as excluding & exclusive?
> Church walls as what can root us.
 Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), pp.2; 16-17. See also Ahmed’s blogpost ‘Making Feminist Points’, in her blog feministkilljoys : https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/  In her introduction to Audre Lorde’s collection Sister Outsider, Nancy K. Berano describes Lorde’s writings as an “impulse toward wholeness”, p.9.  Audre Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), p. 112.  Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference, p.3; Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, (Cascade Books, 2018) ; Linn Marie Tonstad, ‘The Limits of Inclusion: Queer Theology and its Others‘ Theology & Sexuality 21, no 1 (2015), 16.