Continuing on my earlier theme of examples of theology flowing from the wisdom of the collective lives of folks often overlooked, I want to share a little from Carol Flinders’ book Enduring Grace : Living Portraits of Seven Mystics.
Flinders explores students of women’s lives who suggest that the unique ways women relate and make moral choices are suggestive of ways of changing our approach to life for all people which can lead us toward my ecologically just lifestyles that lend themselves toward peacemaking. These scholars suggest these “ways of thinking arise out of the ‘practice’ of being a mother”, not meaning of course that all women become mothers but all women are acculturated to think of motherhood as the norm. These ways of thinking seem to naturally fall in line, according to Flinders, to the practices and approaches of peacemaking and nonviolence. These approaches can be and are at times embraced by men but, according to Flinders, are unique to a women’s experience.
Here are some of these approaches that are shaped by the wisdom of women’s lives, according to Flinders, which also can point toward new more peaceful ways of relating:
1. Holding close while welcoming change.
“The growing child needs protective ‘holding’ and yet even while she welcomes it, she is struggling to break free and assert a new identity. Mothers snuggle, therefore, and reassure; we reenact the family traditions tirelessly, telling the child in effect that her world is stable no matter what. And when she shrugs off the bedtime ritual one evening as if it had never mattered anyway, we know we must shrug it off, too, and move blithely into the next stage of life”.
This attitude recognizes limits of what can be controlled, embracing change.
2. A preference to the concrete rather than the abstract.
This is because of focusing on not children as ideas but this child – this daughter and son – and their unique needs. Flinders suggests that this leads away from abstractions to concrete, real needs. You can see how so much of our conflicts are ideological, and could not be sustained when seeing others as real people.
This leads to not focusing so much on sharp divisions between self and others, outer and inner world. This includes a focus on open ways of approaching others, seeing the connections that exist. She suggests this is “related to the kind of entity a child is. ‘A child herself might be thought of as an ‘open structure’, changing, growing, reinterpreting.’
This includes recognize the value of their own bodies and the bodies of others.
“Women tend to know … in a way and to a degree that many men do not, both the history and cost of human flesh … No woman who is a woman says of a human body, ‘it is nothing.’” After all it is from the flesh and blood of a woman’s body that humans enter the world: as particular, vulnerable bodies of children.
3. “Attentive love” as a discipline that guides living.
This is love that mothers must learn to raise children, love that “does not give place to self-serving fantasy” but rather “stays focused upon the child as he or she really is”. This love “implies and rewards a faith that love will not be destroyed by knowledge, that to the loving eye the lovable will be revealed”.
4. “Women tell stories to one another out of their daily experience, stories that are meant to strengthen their values in themselves and one another”.
Flinders goes on to suggest what practically could flow from all of us, of all genders and gender expressions, learning to embrace some of these aspects of the wisdom common to women:
“The relevance of all this to current political events is not hard to find. In a world full of breaking-up empires and emerging nations, respect for the ‘complexities and uncertainties of another’s experience’ is surely of the first importance. So are a strong sense of connectedness, tolerance for ambiguity, and the capacity to ‘hold on’ while at the same time welcoming change. So, too, if we are to keep ourselves from destruction, is a reverence for human flesh itself — all human flesh: First World, Second, Third, and Fourth”.
She goes on to suggest that “the values that arise out of maternal practice are in fundamental opposition to those of a military-industrial complex” and the machinery of war or mass violence.
Whether one completely agrees with every suggestion Flinders is making of what her experience and other women’s experience looks like (and I will not assume as a straight cisgender man to be the best one to determine how close to a woman’s experience her analysis is), I do think there is truth to her essential premise: as we listen to women’s stories, as we hear them speak in their own voices, there is a wisdom that can call into question the violence, both psychic and physical, at the heart of our patriarchal society. We might, if we would listen to mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, single women of all stripes, and all who don’t fit our patriarchal mold, hear some wisdom that can point us in a different direction that the violence we have seen in our streets both at the hands of police and people raging against police oppression, that we see occurring in gang violence and domestic violence, and that we continue to engage in on institutional levels through our war machine as a country.
Taken together with the example I shared from queer theology, I think the example of feminist and womanist theologies suggest how important this work of individually listening to another’s story for the wisdom that guides their days can be helpful in us and those we connect with discovering helpful lessons that can guide our days.
What have been your examples of ways listening to the wisdom of other’s lives has shaped your own lives?
Your progressive redneck preacher,