By Grace Aheron
This winter, five young women and myself are embarking upon an online adventure of alternative theological education. We’ve been dubbed “the feminary” and will be participating in a study cohort following the Bartimaeus Institute’s five-month online series. The seeds of the feminary were planted by a few voices crying out in the wilderness— crying for a radical feminist space where we could study scripture, history, and bible at a low price point and in community with like-minded people— and Ched and Elaine’s faithful response.
With that call and response, coupled with the marvels of modern technology and video chatting online, the feminary was born. Along with our 5 months of studying, reading, and learning together, we are composing a breviary of radical women throughout history— one for each week. As we build feminist community together through our study and support of one another, we are also reaching back through history to pull the threads of the legacies of feminist leaders through to our present-day experience.
I studied religion in college pretty extensively— Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, bible courses, liberation theology and all that. It was deeply invigorating for me to be able to pursue academic courses that seemed relevant to my walk of faith in the context of a student experience. In many ways, the student experience for me was learning for learning’s sake— for example, studying the many modalities of the theology behind the trinity was deeply invigorating and expanded my conception of God, but I’m not sure it totally changed my behavior in the world.
As I emerged from that learning context, I began to yearn for something different. For me, the first few years out of college have felt important— they have felt like the first foray into building a life and orienting that life around certain values. That has lead me to justice and activism work, living in Christian intentional community, and wading deep into healing circles to address my story’s trauma and the traumas society has placed upon me. My curiosity about the world and God hasn’t dulled at all since college, but it feels more deeply connected to my daily life choices. I want to learn about the world so I can more effectively change it; I want to learn more about Jesus so I can better learn how to follow him with my whole life. I had concerns that traditional expressions of theological education might not be able to do that for me.
And, perhaps more importantly, the farther I get away from my college education experience, the more easily I am able to see the power dynamics of the classrooms in which I tried to learn. I’ve been thinking a lot about radical pedagogy— what does it mean to learn and teach with the same values the subject matter contains? What does radical, healing, feminist, liberating pedagogy feel like? So much of my academic experience felt shallow— it felt like I always had to perform that I was smart and worthy and that I deserve to be there, and, concurrently, it was rife with the shame that none of those things were true.
Furthermore, I felt like I always had to fight for space in the learning environment— that I had to fight to make room for myself as a woman, as a person exploring God’s calling to queerness, as an Asian American person. What would a learning space look like where I felt seen and held in my fullness? Where space was already available for me? Where my full self was reflected back to me and celebrated?
Two months in, the feminary is beginning to feel like that sort of space. We gather online once per week to discuss that week’s readings, but also to grow deeper in community together, to lift up our lives to one another, to share deeply our experiences which are so often rejected or misunderstood by the communities around us. In many ways, the feminary is a circle of resilience and healing couched in a learning environment.
In our very first conversation together, we talked about our varying levels of identifying with the word “woman.” Was it okay with everyone that the word “feminary” implied identifying with a certain gender or gender performance? Between the six of us, our gender identities and expressions of queerness are all over the place, but just beginning in the place of gentleness heightened consideration for each others’ experiences made me think: perhaps this is what I have been looking for.
In many ways, the feminary is an experiment for all of us, but also a witness to a new way of learning and knowing. We are learning how to learn with our whole selves, not just our minds; we are learning how to learn together in community. And we are un-learning and re-learning the truth the arc of God’s radical history and how we are being folded into that story again and again.
Grace Aheron is a daughter, poet, and gardener who hails from Roanoke, Virginia. She lives on 8 acres of land in an intentional community in the vicarage of a rural Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia where she and her community grow food, offer retreats, and provide hospitality for travelers and friends. Grace helps steward the spiritual growth of middle school, high school, and University of Virginia students at St. Paul’s Memorial Church as their youth group and campus ministry coordinator.