Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom
The recent Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 28.1 features a roundtable discussion on Fifty Years of Reflection on Valerie Saiving. Contributors to the Roundtable will bring the conversation to the Feminism in Religion forum to open the discussion to an interactive audience. Throughout the next few months, contributors will feature a selection from their piece. Here, Mark Douglas frames the roundtable as a discussion starter. If you are a scholar of Valerie Saiving or Reinhold Neibuhr, or your class is reading these authors, join us for the conversation.
Let a hundred flowers bloom? Chairman Mao’s phrase–meant either to encourage the flourishing of the arts and sciences by promoting many schools of thought about socialist culture or to expose those whose ideas differed from the party line, depending on whom you ask–recurs in more contexts than Communist China in the mid 1950’s. I think of our roundtable on Valerie Saiving and Reinhold Niebuhr as one of those contexts: in a time during which Niebuhr studies are expanding (including outside of religion) and feminist thought has reached far more into the mainstream of American culture, the chance to hear from them again–to see whether they had ideas then that would be meaningful now–is inviting. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty and I tried hard to get a variety of perspectives on their thought and the ideas that would proceed from it; maybe we didn’t get a hundred flowers to bloom, but we did get nine to do so, and we’re pleased with the ones we got.
The roundtable, I think, also reveals some of the limits of such experiments in horticulture. On the one hand, at least of yet, there hasn’t really been any back-and-forth between the participants. We don’t so much have a roundtable as a dais with a lot of interesting speakers sitting all on one side. Maybe this blog site will give us all the chance for more interaction. And at the fall meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the Niebuhr Society has devoted a session to Niebuhr and Feminist thought, using the resources of the Roundtable as a launching-point. The trick is that letting a hundred flowers bloom is far easier than figuring out which flowers to cultivate and which to uproot and compost (I’m reminded of the time when my mom sent me out to weed the garden and I left dandelions intact because (a) they were flowers, too; and (b) I was looking forward to blowing their seed-tops off when they turned white). Maybe we’ve gotten better at uprooting and composting: most of us who work in the academy can pull apart an argument, revealing its roots and its flaws. But what about cultivating?
I worry that the resurgence in Niebuhr studies and the mainstreaming of feminist thought hasn’t revealed the degree to which we’re learning to cultivate ideas (to water, fertilize, re-pot, transplant, etc.) so much as to grow more monoculture gardens. Lots of energy spent on a favored flower; not much on hybridity (which is ironic, given current fascinations with the term). Early on, as Elizabeth and I were talking with people about this roundtable, we heard from both Niebuhr scholars who wondered why we’d want to return to early feminist criticisms of him and feminist scholars who weren’t so much opposed to Niebuhr as wondering why anyone still wanted to talk about him. But, for better or worse, Niebuhr is hot stuff right now–only without any acknowledgement that feminists have raised important criticisms of him that might change how his thought is understood and used now. And feminist ideas, especially as they continue to blossom in new waves of color and in new places, may find resources in Niebuhr worth knowing.
Or, to generalize that previous paragraph a bit, I’m glad there are roundtables in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (and, hopefully, they will grow a bit more roundtable-ish with this blog site.) I just wish more journals with titles like The Journal of Religion made roundtables a bigger part of their publications and included feminists, Niebuhrians, and the others in that mix.
Mark Douglas is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological School in Decatur, GA. He is currently working on a book about the impact of climate change on war and how resources in Christian just war and peacemaking traditions can be brought to bear on such conflicts.