PLTS Installation Address

Jane Strohl—September 18, 1996

I want to begin with a word of thanks to the PLTS community—for your call, your confidence in me, the warmth and energy of your welcome. Driving home at the end of the second week of classes I had two thoughts, “Oh my heavens, I’m so happy” and “Californians live in one of the most wonderful places on earth; why do so many of them drive like they had a death wish!?”

To members of the Graduate Theological Union I also want to say thank you for the challenges and satisfactions that await as I find my place in your unique community. I am honored by the opportunity to do so.

A dramatic transition like this one—new home, new job, blessedly new climate!—leads one to rethink all the identifiers that appear on one’s vita: associate professor of Reformation history and theology, ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, mother of one child. Last summer I encountered one of my colleagues from Luther Seminary in the locker room at the YMCA. She was hurrying home so her son could have the car. I was hurrying in to get my daughter to her swimming lesson on time. We remarked briefly on the difficulty of holding the various parts of our lives together. My friend said, “Jane, I have just the essay for you. And the good news is that when your child is older and takes off with your car, you actually get t o finish reading something at home.” A few days later a copy of “Can Mothers Think?” by Jane Smiley landed on my desk.

This short piece by the noted American fiction writer helped me get a handle on the vocational “cognitive dissonance” that has been brewing since my return to the classroom after Lucy’s birth. This discomfort has been echoed by others of my colleagues w hose theological endeavors were derailed by maternity.

Jane Smiley begins her reflections by acknowledging the seemingly hostile relationship between literary (and one might add theological) production and human reproduction.

No denying it, our literary culture is built upon the works of many women and a number of men (Kafka, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman) who did not have children. One effect of this is clearly the notion that… life without children provides a freer, and perhaps more disinterested, vantage point for passionate observation, that parents must be so whittled away by mundane, piecemeal concerns that a larger artistic [or theological] vision is necessarily destroyed, or at least lost sight of… “I don’t think about larger existential questions as much anymore. Some days it’s all I can do to figure out how to get everyone home at five o’clock.” This wilder, freer art claims for itself a broader, more disinterested, and therefore truer truth. T his is often accompanied by disdain for the middle class, for the safety and security that the middle class seems to seek, largely as a response to the perceived needs of children for safety, routine, stability, order, and the daily felt love of their parents. (p. 6)

But, Smiley insists, the absence from the inscribed wisdom of our society of a record of mothers’ sense of themselves as mothers and their view of the world around them has pernicious results.

Successful motherhood is a unique form of responsibility-taking, rooted in an understanding of competing demands, compromise, nurture, making the best of things, weighing often competing limitations, in order to arrive at a realistic mode of survival. A successful mother, we may imagine, is one who actually looks at her children and sees them, constantly weighing their potential against who they already seem to be, finding a balance that encourages them to live up to their best potential while not destroying them with impossible demands—while at the same time knowing the world they live in well enough to realistically judge how free they might be allowed to be without endangering themselves. Can a culture exist without such a strong mode l of responsible, realistic care? (p. 8)

And I add, can any credible Christian theology?

I have expended a great deal of energy in the course of my academic and pastoral career teaching people to do like the Lutheran confessors did, that is, to distinguish law from gospel, faith from works, justification from sanctification. One of my colleagues used to respond to the earnest inquiries from students about the sanctified life, “Sanctification is simply getting used to being justified,” the kind of succinct answer students love to have at their disposal come exam time but one whose surface simplicity begs endless amplification in daily living. “Far from depriving me of thought, motherhood gave me new and startling things to think about and the motivation to do the hard work of thinking (p. 15),” writes Jane Smiley. For me it is the experience of motherhood that has given me an understanding of the nature of discipleship, or as one of my students puts it, “living into the reality” of that alien righteousness that is God’s alone to give and ours only to receive. I remember waking up in my hospital bed in the early morning hours after my child was born and realizing, “Oh my gosh, I’m a mother.” Like the mark of my baptism it was a done deal, unalterable and leaving no part of my life untouched. And the rest of my life is simply getting used to it.

The Lutheran Confessions have what I call a preferential option for the troubled conscience. The confessors judged the truth of doctrine by its pastoral effect. And it was to be tested against the hardest cases— the persons crushed by the weight of judgment, anxious to justify themselves as good and worthy, struggling to do enough and do it right so as to receive the reassuring word of divine and social approbation. Mothers surely qualify—the witches who condemn thousands of us to years of therapy, the madonnas we keep expecting to make all things well—these are persons who experience the interplay of love and power profoundly. “And so I gave birth to my child,” writes Jane Smiley, “and I also, I found, gave birth to my subject… the implications of daily power—the way in which one’s sense of virtue, and desire to be good and innocent, conflicts with the daily exercise of power over the child. I never knew what it felt like to have my actions magnified so enormously by the dependency of another” (pp. 14-15). There is the claim of the neighbor, relentless and total, upon us, fraught with temptation, fertile field for both the law and the Gospel.

In a memorable passage Luther writes:

Women are created for no other purpose than to serve men and be their helpers. If women grow weary or even die while bearing children, that does not harm anything. Let them bear children to death; they are created for that.

Well, he does recognize motherhood as a legitimate Christian vocation, but clearly he is no expert on the matter. So much more needs to be said, and it needs to be said by those engaged by the theological vision of the Lutheran tradition but denied (spared) the luxury of making such obtuse applications! For this tradition can help mothers think well about their labor and live hopefully in the midst of its tensions. And mothers can help the church give new depth and understanding to the confessional positions we still profess to be normative.

It seems that when maternity is suggested as a vital theological resource, a number of people get their backs up. Some may interpret this to mean that women are claiming a spiritual access that men, even when they are fathers, cannot match. And women who are not mothers take offense at what they perceive as a denigration of their personhood, a suggestion that they have missed out on the best life has to offer them and ended up incomplete no matter what else they may have accomplished. But my point is precisely not to perpetuate such an alienating idol of motherhood. Mothers’ experience isn’t privileged; it isn’t an automatic guarantee of anything, least of all religious enlightenment. But it is an experience so essential to the whole of what it is to be human that it is shocking to find it as silent in our theological culture as Jane Smiley discovered it to be in our literary one. I am thrilled to join this community where the curious and troubling silences of our history can be breached, our understanding expanded, and our faith renewed. For the opening of this conversation today and for all the conversations to come, I thank you.