Starving for Healthier Theology

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001 | Go to article overview

Starving for Healthier Theology


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Wrong theology is key to American womens eating problems

She wasn't looking for a future in theology, but when she found it, Michelle Lelwica realized, "theology is a powerful discourse." And at times a painful one.

Lelwica, director of the Women's Studies Program at St. Mary's College, Moraga, Calif., and assistant professor of religious studies, comes from rural Minnesota. There "the faith was so central" in her upbringing and daily life, she grew up thinking the entire world was Catholic, and that Catholicism itself was pretty close to perfection.

That view was undone, and her development as a feminist accelerated when, as a student at the St. Benedict's College for women in St. Joseph, Minn., her professor handed her Rosemary Radford Ruether's Faith and Fratricide.

"It shocked me," she said, "I'd had a pretty sheltered and traditional Catholic upbringing. This was my first introduction to the darker side of what Christianity had done to human beings, the non-flattering aspects nobody had told me about. I was incredibly alarmed."

She decided she needed "to sort out, for lack of a better way of putting it, the more liberating and humanizing aspects of Christianity versus the more oppressive and de-humanizing aspects." She did a project on the anti-Jewish underpinnings of Christianity and, by the time she went off to Harvard for graduate study, was hooked on theology.

At Harvard, she said, "I came to feminism through the back door of my own recovery from all eating disorder." And, by the time she'd finished a master's program in Christianity and culture, she was struck by some correspondences.

"I'd started realizing the parallels between some of my feminist understandings -- in particular the destruction I had caused my body -- and what feminists were critiquing in traditional theology: namely the misogynistic and anti-body messages women had received."

What Lelwica felt she'd recognized as she moved into doctoral work were "all kinds of theological ideas and beliefs and paradigms very subtly present in the sociological influences on women's struggles with their bodies." Starving for Salvation is her dissertation.

One critique she has of the Catholic church, therefore, is its failure "to challenge societal norms such as, for example, the idea of thinness being supremely valued. I mean Christianity began as a religion that was very critical of the dominant social norms and the dominant social hierarchies, even the dominant gender expectations of Jesus' day."

Not surprisingly, when Lelwica broached her dissertation topic, reaction included suggestions she'd be better off pursing it through studying medicine or psychology.

"I insisted that I wanted to understand the way theology contributed to this problem," she said. "Nobody had talked about it, and yet the readings I had done in feminist theology and conversations I had with other women who'd gone through similar struggles with their bodies and food convinced me there was a connection. So, I was lucky to find support from some kind non-traditional theologians I was working with -- Margaret Miles, Elisabeth Schussler Florenza, Gordon Kaufman -- who could think more broadly about what religion is, not just in terms of church doctrine or the Trinity or something like that.

"I mean," she said, "if we look at the gospel, Jesus is constantly sitting down and eating with his friends. It's so ironic Christianity picked up such an anti-body attitude.

"It' we look at the stories in our own tradition, they're very affirming of what we call earthly things. You know, Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. It's clear he wasn't. It's clear, he was enjoying himself, and this was part of the tradition," she said. "The more earthy and more material and physical realities were not seen as interfering with one's progress to God. That's very much the Greek influence, unfortunately. …

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