Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mary Bednarowski on the Power of Our Stories

Continuing with a series of interviews from the Rainbow Spirit (the journal of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities), I share today the 2004 interview I conducted with Catholic theologian and author, Mary Bednarowski. Enjoy!


The Power of Our Stories
An Interview with Mary Bednarowski

By Michael J. Bayly

Rainbow Spirit
Spring 2004

Mary Bednarowski is a professor of religion at United Theological Seminar (UTS) of the Twin Cities. Her theological interests include American religious history, women in American religion, and theological and religious creativity. Mary is also the author of a number of books, including American Religions: A Cultural Perspective, The Theological Imagination of American Women, and New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America.

CPCSM coordinator Michael Bayly experienced Mary as a professor when he studied for his MA in Theology and the Arts at UTS from 2001-2003. Recently he interviewed Mary about the “spiritual autobiography” course she teaches at UTS, the role of human experience in the life of the Church, the value of listening to one another’s stories, and the nature of authority within the Church. On March 10, a talk by Mary Bednarowski will launch the parish education series being sponsored by the Inclusive Catholic network – of which CPCSM is a member organization.

Michael Bayly: Where did the idea for the UTS course on spiritual autobiography come from? What are its theological underpinnings and objectives?

Mary Bednarowski: The idea for a course on spiritual autobiography emerged when Margot Galt – my good friend since American Studies graduate school days – and I were talking about the possibility of teaching a course together that would be co-sponsored by both UTS and Hamline University. We decided that a course on spiritual autobiography would suit us perfectly, because I could work on the “spiritual,” theological, and religious aspects of the works and she could focus more intensely on literary forms and conventions (Margot teaches creative writing at Hamline). We had to propose the course well ahead of the time we expected to teach it and, by then, it no longer fit into Margot’s schedule. But I had become so interested in teaching a course on spiritual autobiography that I decided to go ahead.

Part of the attraction of teaching the course had to do with my love of story, my nosiness about people’s lives, especially their faith lives, and how they think about them and put them together. Also, since I was a small child I have always loved the abstractions of theology, as odd as that combination sounds. So for me, spiritual autobiography is a perfect form in which to encounter people telling stories about “ideas” – ideas about who or what God is like, about the limits and the possibilities of our humanness, about who we are to each other, about how to love one another better and how to work together to transform the world, about how all of us together (ever the optimist!) might figure out how to respond most lovingly and justly to the relentlessly complex social and individual problems that are all around us.

Autobiographies tell us a great deal about how other people have done these things, how they have achieved sufficient moral certainty (and I don’t mean that in some absolutist way) to act on their best insights in any given historical moment, and what they have to tell the rest of us about that process – and why they want to tell the rest of us. “Why do we think the author wrote this autobiography?” is one of the essential questions to ponder in relation to any text.

I’ve discovered over the years that one of my favorite ways to teach is to present multiple perspectives on big questions. I wanted the texts for the course to be varied. We’ve used texts ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to twentieth-century Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trepass (about her experiences growing up in an enclosed household). What I was looking for, obviously, was variety of historical context, religious tradition, cultural background, nature of spiritual struggle, and of form. Because we had a whole semester together, we found ways as a class to bring all the authors along with us and to find both common themes and distinctive characteristics and questions. And certainly, our own autobiographies were very much present to us.

Yet another of the goals of the course was to foster some kind of critical reflection on our own lives. All of the texts pointed to the complexities of the spiritual life, the struggle to live out one’s life with integrity and compassion, with an openness to new ideas, with a spiritual grounding that gives one a place to stand – not rigidly, but with a resilient kind of confidence.

The course says so much about what I’ve come to experience about theology and the spiritual life – the power of stories told within the framework of a community, stories that give us confidence about the depth and power and wisdom of our various traditions, rather than stories that terrify us about the fragility of our traditions. And stories that tell us over and over again that we do not endanger ourselves, or our traditions, by being open to others.

This has certainly been my experience as a Roman Catholic woman at United Theological Seminary. I have been moved by all my years there to treasure the Catholicism that shaped me; to become more aware of some of its excessive traits (all traditions have them!) in ways that are more rueful than bitter, and to grow in knowledge and love of several other forms of Christianity.

That’s pretty idealistic, I know. But the alternatives feel so bleak to me, and so lacking in the kind of creative energy and confidence that keeps our communities vital. I have loved teaching that course, and, from what I could tell, the students enjoyed it as well.

Michael Bayly: Mary Pellauer once wrote: “If there’s anything worth calling theology, it’s listening to people’s stories, listening to them and cherishing them.” What are your thoughts on this statement? What role does human experience play in the life of the Church?

Mary Bednarowski: Mary Pellauer’s statement is a wonderful one that makes perfect sense to me in light of not only what I’ve experienced in teaching and learning, but in various ecumenical and inter-faith enterprises, and in living my life.

I would add that “anything worth calling theology” also includes the ongoing reflection of communities on what they experience as their best wisdom – both retrospective (looking for the lessons of history in which it becomes clear that the community was wrong, misguided for various reasons, about, for example, Jews, “science,” women, slaves, homosexuals, and the environment) and speculative (what must we be thinking about and working on for the sake of the future? Where are we headed? What are the stories we need to listen to now?)

That question about “human experience” is a tough one. From my perspective, all experience of the Church is “human experience,” whatever model of God or of divine presence undergirds our theologies. So, it seems to me that “human experience” plays the central role in the life of the Church – how we experience and talk about God as individuals and communities, how we experience and talk about “the other,” however defined, what actions we choose to take based on those experiences and on individual and communal reflection.

To say that “human experience is all we have” is not for me a statement about alienation or being lost and alone in an indifferent universe. It’s rather about taking responsibility for our theologies, our ecclesiologies, and our moral frameworks with the confidence that we are guided by a divine wisdom – through Scripture and ritual and community – that is greater than our own. And to say that “human experience is all we have” in that particular way doesn’t make things any easier to sort out, especially in a polarized – though not totally polarized – Church.

My experiences in ecumenical and inter-faith conversations have convinced me that we become the caretakers of each other’s stories, and that in doing so we ourselves are transformed by this gift exchange. I would be foolish, though, not to acknowledge that I’ve heard stories of anger and bitterness, fear and hatred that I do not want to be the caretaker of or tell to someone else. Once in a while, when I hear a story like that, I have the presence of mind to ask the person: “Tell me a little bit about the story of your life to help me know why you feel this way?” Other times I get frightened or angry myself, find myself unable to listen, unwilling to try to make a connection. Then what? What next? Where do we best put our most loving and creative energies?

Michael Bayly: CPCSM is dedicated to listening to and cherishing the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their families – believing that the transforming presence and action of God can potentially be discerned in every aspect of human life. Yet for some Catholics such a ministry is viewed with suspicion and hostility. We’ve been accused of attempting to change Church teaching regarding homosexuality – teaching that some believe is unchangeable. Why are some people so threatened by listening to the stories of others?

Mary Bednarowski: I’ve been very lucky over all these years because I have had so much opportunity, particularly at United Theological Seminary, to hear the stories of LGBT people – stories about all kinds of things: struggles with sexuality, struggles because of oppression of sexual minorities, but also stories of spirituality, relationships, academic worries and triumphs, vocational questions. In other words, “ordinary” human stories – stories that give me some sense of the wholeness and humanness of people of various sexual orientations.

All of these stories, together, have made me realize that the God-given gift of sexuality comes in a variety of forms. Why wouldn’t it? “Variety,” insofar as I can tell is the very stuff of reality. Having said that, it also needs to be acknowledged that people, including me, I must confess, are afraid of listening to stories that will make us change our minds about something we hold to be true and that is of great importance to us. I think that’s true of liberals and conservatives alike, actually, although that generalization isn’t of much help in the work you have undertaken. I am much more drawn to stories that generate hope and compassion and openness than I am to stories that generate anger and fear. Telling the latter kind of story does not foster changes of heart or mind – at least mine. And it’s these stories that are so very terrifyingly easy to come up with.

I wish I were smarter about how to allay the fears of those who have the worries you articulate – the idea that great energy must be exerted to keep the Church from changing. The Church has always changed or it would have disappeared by now. It’s tempting to condescendingly say to those who worry that the Church will change and who assume that it hasn’t changed, “Read a little Church history, for heaven’s sake! Read the Church’s very recent apology to Galileo. Read the Church’s very recent apology to the Jews. Read what Catholic bishops had to say in the nineteenth century about why abolition was not a good idea, if you want a quick lesson in how the Church changes in response to new knowledge about who we are as human beings and what constitutes just relationships. Read Church teachings on women – then and now.”

The Church, at its best and as I’ve experienced it, has never changed its mind about the words of Jesus: “Love one another.” It’s just that the Church does not have a perfect record on what that means. It (we) have had to learn again and again and again that we are at our best when we expand what we mean by “one another” rather than when we circumscribe what it means.

As far as I can see, CPCSM is doing the wisest thing possible in light of people’s fears: educating people through telling stories. It is wonderful, difficult, very, very gutsy work that you’re doing. You can’t make people listen to those stories. You can’t make people change their minds and hearts. But you can offer all those stories as gifts. You are right to trust in their power to move people to new understandings of the teaching power of the Church – how it evolves, how it integrates new understanding and wisdom about how the universe operates and who we are as human beings, individually and communally, and how it works to stay grounded in the gospel values of justice and love.

Michael Bayly: In the rhetoric directed at CPCSM from conservative elements within the Church, the issue of authority is always present. For these elements, authority resides outside the individual and in the Magisterium of the Church. It is not something mediated in and through lived experience. In their view, it is the institutional Church alone that speaks for Christ. How do you understand authority within the Catholic tradition? Is it within or beyond an individual – or both? How do we begin to dialogue with such conservatives? Is it even possible?

Mary Bednarowski: Again, Church history is very helpful here – essential, I would say. To think of “the Magisterium” as highly authoritarian and centered in Rome and in the authority of the Pope is a fairly recent interpretation of a kind of teaching function that, historically, was perceived as somewhat more speculative, by which I mean creatively reflective in responding to the realities of human life and experience in and of the world. It is also an interpretation that has not gone unopposed.

In reality, the Church has always had what I consider realistic and sophisticated means by which to “question authority”: the emphasis on the primacy of conscience, for example, or the system of “probabilism” are ways through which change emerges. I like what theologian Richard McCormick in The Encyclopedia of Catholicism (edited by Richard McBrien) says about how probabilism works: “A rule of thumb often cited is that if five or six truly reputable authors hold an opinion, that is a sign of its intrinsic probability.”

I understand “authority” as residing in both the individual and the community. For quite some time I’ve thought about “authority” as that in which I can place my trust. For me that means that as an individual who is a member of a faith community, I have to exercise my own conscience as an informed adult within the framework of the moral guidance offered by my community. If my conscience is not “clear” – that is, if I don’t know where I stand on a moral issue – I must seek clarity. Sometimes it comes from within the Church. Sometimes it comes from the culture in combination with the Church. Sometimes the culture in some aspect or another is, for the moment, ahead of the Church. As an individual and as a member of a community, I have to figure out how to hold it all together. It is my obligation to come to know “in what I can place my trust.” This whole ongoing process is informed by human experiences – mine and others, individual and communal. However we understand the workings of God in our midst and whatever our doctrine of the Church, there is no institutional Church that exists apart from the human community and its experiences and struggles.

And then there are those last couple of zinger questions: How do we begin to dialogue with conservatives? Is it even possible? I think I’ll go back to my previous response and suggest that you’re well on the right track in the telling of stories. It seems to me that dialogue, at its best, means telling stories. It doesn’t necessarily require formal arrangements. If you are telling your stories about God’s presence and activity in your and our lives, you can’t not be engaged in dialogue. The stories are being told and re-told, and I am convinced that they are changing hearts and minds – more, I suspect, than we can know.

Above: CPCSM executive coordinator, Michael Bayly, converses with United Theological Seminary professor, Mary Bednarowski, at the March 10, 2004 Inclusive Catholics-sponsored event at which Mary discussed the "power of our stories" in developing a Catholic sexual morality. Subsequent speakers in the series examined the role of conscience and tradition.

Above: Mary Bednarowski (center) stands with members of the Inclusive Catholics network. From left: Julie Madden (St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church), Brian Mogren (E-Spiritus), Michael Bayly (CPCSM), Theresa Hinnenkamp (Guardian Angels Catholic Church), and Cathy Heying (St. Stephen Catholic Church).

See also the previous Rainbow Spirit interviews:
The Voice of a Good Heart An Interview with Kathy Itzin
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy
The Other Side of the Closet: An Interview with Déadra Aalgaard
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex: A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak

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