Here is my latest post for Feminist Studies in Religion. It is a personal reflection of a recent conference I attended at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
A little more than a year ago, I received an invitation to participate in the Inaugural Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Scholars’ Conference at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The generosity of the Frierson family of First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, Louisiana made the conference possible. They endowed a faculty chair that will allow future conferences to occur at the seminary. It was an honor to be invited. I accepted the invitation with excitement and much anticipation.
Thirteen participants from North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and New Zealand gathered for the conference on March 20-22, 2014 in Austin, Texas. The theme was “Always Being Reformed: Challenges, Issues and Prospects for Reformed Theologies Today.” This broad scope allowed the diverse group of participants to address themes, questions, and issues in the Reformed tradition from their own particular contexts, interests, and areas of expertise. The conference was intentionally designed to engage works in progress rather than finished pieces; it will result in a book publication for both the academy and church.
The participant essays were gathered and distributed in advance of the meeting. Each essay was given one hour of collaborative engagement at the conference. Authors briefly described their work and one of the other members of the group offered a brief response to the paper, followed by discussion of the paper by the entire group. This design provided wonderful opportunities for collaboration, mutual engagement, rigorous dialogue, exchange of new ideas and affirmation of one’s own theological journey.
I presented “”A Foreigner Living In-between Spaces: In Search of God in a Broken World,” which is a working paper for a larger book project for Eerdmans. Mary McClintock Fulkerson responded to my paper and offered critical insights and questions. She raised a question that I have been personally wrestling with for the last few years: the “sexualization of women’s bodies” and its consequences. This resulted in a critical conversation of women’s sexualized bodies and the difficulties it has caused as the church seeks to view God as feminine.
We have a tendency to sexualize women’s bodies but not men’s. Sexualization happens to all women. It is especially problematic for Asian American women. We are imagined as hyper-sexualized, often portrayed as Geishas within social media and movies/television. An example that comes to mind is the woman in the musical Miss Saigon who is used sexually and then thrown away. The sexualization of women’s bodies causes practical problems: women are treated as objects, valued for appearances rather than skills and abilities, controlled and violated, to name a few ways this happens.
The sexualization of women’s bodies also causes theological challenges. We see this in how Christians through the ages have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in the first book of the Bible. Eve has been blamed for the problems of sin in the world by some theologians and many popular interpreters of the story. Her sexuality has become an issue of contention and difficulty for most of church history. Even though the text does not support this interpretation, Eve is often viewed as seducing Adam to violate God’s mandate, thereby causing the downfall of humanity.
When women’s bodies are sexualized, this view is projected or transferred to God if God is understood to be feminine and described in feminine imagery. There is also the added layer of the intersection of race and sexuality/gender in the process of creating feminine imagery of God. As Asian American women’s bodies are hypersexualized, it becomes even more difficult for Asian Americans to embrace a feminine dimension of God. For many, a feminine understanding of God equals a sexualization of God. This makes many people in the church uncomfortable. A male understanding of God is non-sexual. Therefore, people in the church are comfortable using masculine language for God.
Using only masculine imagery and language for God limits our understanding of God. God is always greater than we are able to understand, more gracious and wonderful than we are able to express. Our understanding of God also has consequences for our lives as disciples. A male-only understanding of God may result in the exclusion of women from leadership, or at least make it more difficult for women to serve in leadership roles in the church. Seeing the Divine only in male images contributes to the devaluation of women as they are seen as less than men.
The church needs to reexamine its biblical interpretation and its understanding of, and language for, God. This reexamination depends upon a reconsideration of the church’s understanding of women and men. We need to reexamine our tendencies of sexualizing women’s bodies and making them into erotic objects. We need to welcome the feminine aspect of the Divine. Doing so will not only deepen our understanding of God, it will enhance our discipleship and help to free women and men alike to be the fully human children of God we all are.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 5 books, Contemplations from the Heart, Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers, Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology & The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.