Many Americans are treading into the 21st century riddled with spiritual trepidation. Women’s uncertainty is often shaped by gender issues wrought with difficult choices about where to stand in relation to their religious communities: Be silent? Be radical? Be a reformer? Be a dissenter? Mary Farrell Bednarowski argues that women’s ambivalence ought not be seen as negative, but as an emerging religious virtue.
Critics may counter that Bednarowski is putting a positive spin on a deplorable situation created by patriarchal systems of religious thinking resistant to change. By her own account, Bednarowski says many women speak of their traditions as an exercise in "inhaling contradictions" and relate to their communities as both insiders and outsiders. Caught in a web of tension, women describe their traditions as simultaneously life-giving and death-dealing, liberating and imprisoning.
If none of this sounds very virtuous, Bednarowski says that’s because ambivalence in any religious context is seldom seen through that lens. In popular usage, she says, "ambivalence connotes the lukewarm attitude, the wishy-washiness, the holding back from full commitment that religious communities preach against." But she contends that women’s ambivalence might be "cultivated" as a creative choice and, at the very least, looked upon as honorable. Creative ambivalence requires critical distance from one’s religious community, yet an appreciation for its deepest insights, Bednarowski says. Such communities often exclude women from positions of public authority and embrace religious symbols, rituals, and theology steeped in patriarchy. But ambivalence, she says, can summon forth women’s creativity and imagination, leading to new visions and perspectives drawn from tradition, experience, and the culture at large.
OVERALL, BEDNAROWSKI’S book is a well-researched survey of some American women’s religious thinking from 1985 through 1997. She emphasizes feminist theological scholarship in several traditions: Catholic, mainline Protestant, Goddess, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, and others. In these traditions, she sees common themes, struggles, and responses to women’s ambiguity about the shortcomings in their religious traditions.
Ambivalence as a "new" religious virtue is her most provocative theme. Other themes include women’s religious thinking that stresses divine immanence, relationships, healing, and the revelatory power of the ordinary. The latter chapter is the weakest, and its call for a "theology of everyday dress" seems trivial compared to the more complex issues tackled elsewhere in the book.
Bednarowski situates the thinking she evaluates in relation to the early years of contemporary feminism, which she says focused on discovering, understanding, and critiquing the reasons for male dominance in most religious communities. But while much of her material is engaging, her writing too often has the stiff overtones of a term paper ("This chapter looks not at women’s experience in general...").
Had Bednarowski been a food critic, you’d say she was excellent at describing the qualities of a meal—the texture, distinguishing ingredients, and overall aesthetics. But you’d be left hungering for morsels about whether she appreciated the taste.
That’s the kind of path Bednarowski charts as a scholar. She ably summarizes the vast theological landscape of women’s thinking about religion, walking readers through intellectual twists and turns, explaining what’s at stake, down to every ontological nuance.
But in the end you’ll have only subtle clues as to where Bednarowski herself stands in relation to the thinking she presents, which is an obvious and fair question. You’ll only learn that she comes from a Roman Catholic tradition, teaches at a Protestant seminary in the Twin Cities area, declines to think of herself as a theologian, but rather a student of religion and culture. Whatever ambivalence she may feel, she keeps to herself.
SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH is a reporter for the Minneapolis StarTribune.
The Religious Imagination of American Women. Benarowski, Mary Farrell. Indiana University Press, 1/1/99.