We are tickled to hear from Sheila Taylor, who is currently finishing a doctorate in systematic theology at Graduate Theological Union. Sheila shares her journey from studying history to studying theology and reflects on what it is like to be a female scholar in a male-dominated field.
B.A., History, BYU; M.A., History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; MTS, Theology, University of Notre Dame; PhD candidate, Systematic Theology, Graduate Theological Union.
How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?
I started out in history; that was my undergrad major, and after my time at BYU, I headed to a PhD program at the University of Illinois, planning to become a historian. I was particularly interested in the Reformation. But the more I dug into that, the more I found that I was far more interested in the theology of it than the history, and I finally realized that probably history wasn’t the field for me. So I left the program with an MA, and headed to Notre Dame to see what theology would be like. In a lot of ways it seemed like an odd choice; Mormons didn’t do theology (as far as I knew, and I got some strange looks when I mentioned my plans!). Academic theology had hardly been on my radar screen—the field doesn’t exist at BYU, of course, and I was only vaguely aware that people did it. And I was nervous about coming in without much of a background in the subject, except what I’d kind of picked up while working in history. But I absolutely fell in love with it. In retrospect, I can see that I’d been fascinated with theological questions since I was a teenager; it just hadn’t ever occurred to me that you could go to school and study them!
What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects (papers, books, dissertations, etc.)?
Right now I’m finishing my dissertation, which is titled “Re-Orienting Our Life Stories: Salvation as Narrative Transformation.” It looks at salvation from the perspective of the self as a narrative construction; in other words, if the way we understand who we are is through the stories we tell about our lives, what does it mean in that context to talk about the traditional Christian notions of redemption or liberation? I’m drawing on work from contemporary psychologists and philosophers on narrative, and from a range of theologians.
Theological anthropology has always been my primary area of interest—what does it mean to be human? What is the imago Dei? What are we talking about, really, when we talk about grace at work in a human life? I’m interested in connections between psychology and theology—what might psychological explanations of human behavior contribute to theology? What about mental illness? And I keep coming back to questions involving religious pluralism, which is one of the most pressing challenges for contemporary theologians. Assuming that I do finish this dissertation someday, I’m sure I’ll come back to these kinds of questions.
I also keep getting sidetracked by entertaining Mormon-related projects. I’ve been co-editing a special feminist issue of Element (the journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology), and I’m also currently working on articles having to do with LDS perspectives on the atonement and grace.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?
On the whole, my own experience has been quite positive. Though I did struggle with the climate at BYU, even there my (male) professors encouraged me to go to grad school. And in grad school, I don’t feel like I’ve encountered many situations in which my gender was an issue in terms of feeling like professors and colleagues took me less seriously or like I had fewer opportunities. I suspect the fact that I’m single has also played a significant role in shaping my experience, in that I haven’t had to navigate the challenges which arise from balancing academic work with raising children. (On the other hand, I’m not sure quite what to think when people comment, as they often do, that they never could have made it through grad school without the support of their spouse!)
Because I’m in a field that is still male-dominated, I have, however, been in a lot of situations where I’ve felt very aware of my gender. I went to my first area meeting at the GTU and looked around and was quite stunned to realize that I was one of maybe two or three women in the room—almost all the professors and grad students were male. I hadn’t been expecting it to be quite that skewed. It’s actually evened out some since then, but almost all of my professors have been men. I’ve been in more than one seminar where I was one of two women. I’ve found such situations challenging both in terms of the way that set-up impacts the conversational dynamics, and because I’ve felt a kind of implicit pressure to prove that I could keep up. It’s striking to me, as I’m thinking about it right now, how different it feels to be in a class that’s more evenly split, versus one that’s almost entirely men; the former feels friendlier, an easier place to be.
Last fall I presented at a small conference, to an organization that is made up almost entirely of older white males, and the very senior professor who responded to my paper really went after me. Needless to say, it was not the most welcoming of environments. I don’t know that it would have made much difference if I were a young male scholar, but I did have a sense of being very out of place. (It ended well, though, because I felt good about the way I responded to him and I got a lot of positive feedback about the whole thing.) It’s hard to untangle to what extent this is tied up with gender, and to what extent it’s simply temperament, but I don’t have much patience with the kind of old-school highly contentious style of interaction that seems more about argument for the sake of scoring intellectual points than actual discussion of ideas. Looking at how this plays out, I think to some extent it might also be a generational thing—though that’s probably also related to the ways in which the field has been impacted by having more women in it. In any case, I’ve found that situations like that conference have been more the exception than the rule.
I do some feminist theology (particularly in relation to Mormonism), but it’s not actually my primary focus, and I don’t like it when it gets assumed that of course the women will do the feminist stuff, work on the “women’s issues.” I’m always cheered when I see my male colleagues wanting to do feminist work themselves! I work with a lot of dead white males, and I’m okay with that, because they have exciting and thought-provoking ideas. However, I also often find that feminist perspectives have a lot to add to those ideas. My dissertation isn’t about feminist theology, but a lot of the stuff I’m saying is influenced by insights from feminist theologians. And that’s ideally how I think feminist theology should be operating, rather than being placed in a corner by itself, so to speak.
I also have to add that in many ways as an LDS woman I’ve found the academy, for all its many flaws, to be a refreshing change from LDS culture—as a place where my credibility doesn’t hang on my marital status or my gender, where I don’t keep crashing into ideals of femininity that simply don’t connect with my life experience. I’m neurotic enough to have spent plenty of time feeling like I’m on the verge of failing out, my dissertation makes no sense and I should simply incinerate it, etc. I don’t want to romanticize academia; there are plenty of frustrating aspects, all sorts of politics and general craziness. But still, that sense of being taken seriously, feeling like I have something to contribute, being in an environment where it’s simply assumed that of course women should have a voice—those things have been a real positive in my life.
In your field who are some women (living or dead) whom you admire? Why?
Though I don’t always agree with them, I owe a lot to people like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly and Valerie Saiving and other early second-wave feminist theologians who raised a lot of really important questions and laid the groundwork for many things that I take for granted as a female theologian working in the early 21st century. Elizabeth Johnson’s work (She Who Is) has given me a lot to think about, especially because as a Catholic she’s also working within a somewhat authoritarian ecclesiastical context—I’m always interested to see how women in other patriarchal religious traditions have navigated various challenges. I’ve definitely been influenced by Catherine LaCugna’s work (God For Us) on relational trinitarianism. Though I don’t do process theology, I’ve been intrigued by some of Marjorie Suchocki’s ideas, especially her thinking about sin and relationality.
More historically, I’m intrigued by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is kind of a pioneer in feminist biblical studies. And going back even further, I love Julian of Norwich. (But who doesn’t?)
For someone who is interested in studying what you do what are some books you would recommend on the subject?
If you don’t know much about systematic theology, and you want to get a sense of what it’s generally about, you could have a look at Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction, which is quite accessible and often used in intro courses.
On grace and theological anthropology, Roger Haight has a nice little book called The Experience and Language of Grace that gives a brief overview of some of the issues. For something more in-depth, I like Stephen Duffy’s The Dynamics of Grace.
Theology, alas, is not always known for its clear and accessible prose. As an alternative to volumes of systematic theology, it can be fun (when they’re available) to look at the sermons of some of the more influential thinkers—for example, Karl Rahner’s The Great Church Year, or Paul Tillich’s The Shaking of the Foundations.
For feminist theology, I really like Johnson’s She Who Is, mentioned in the previous question.
And if you’re interested in the growing field of contemporary LDS theological work, you should definitely read Musser & Paulsen’s Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. And join the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology (see www.smpt.org).