Learning a new dance is both an exciting and awkward process. Exciting because dancing engages our entire body to express with freedom our own reality and experience. Yet, it is awkward because the steps are new and unfamiliar. It requires practice to be able to internalize the movements and to dance freely with others.
This was what the participants of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) conference went through. Composed of women theologians from all over Asia, EWA explored the difficult yet challenging steps of the “dance of liberation and transformation”, using the hermeneutical methodology of Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza. The resource person, Prof. Lieve Troch of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands, painstakingly demonstrated the dance step-by-step as applied to a particular theological issue of women’s oppression. She invited the Asian women theologians to move from a surface naming of issues to a process of analysis, critique and theological reconstruction. She challenged us to look at how the church and women in the church continue to be shaped by classical theology.
The first three steps of the dance deconstruct oppressive reality and conventional analysis. The first step is crucial for the dancer learns to reflect on experience and do a systemic analysis of oppression from a feminist perspective. The second step is difficult because it requires one to look at the issue with suspicion and do a critical analysis. “Women are normally socialized not to ask difficult questions”, suggests Lieve Troch. As such, women have to question “who” is benefiting from any particular concept, theological image, symbol or religious situation. The third step in deconstruction is the movement of critical evaluation and proclamation. This will bring one to a position of knowing what in the issue, structure or concept is truly redemptive and what is not. The final three steps move the dancer towards a new historical, symbolic and conceptual construction. Hand-in-hand with rigorous analysis (step four) comes creative imagination (step five), for language creates reality. The “dance” does not end with new theoretical constructions, however imaginative, for the point of theology is to liberate and transform (step six). As in any dance, the steps interact with each other and the dancer returns again and again to the first step to see whether the new construction is bringing about greater liberation and transformation.
Showing great interest in applying the steps to women’s issues in Asia, the participants considered how the complicated dance steps could be applied to the various contexts of Asia. Participants tried out the six steps in order to feel at home with the dance itself and learn to add Asia’s own distinctive movements and gestures. Grouped according to themes, participants took the dance steps with a mixture of seriousness, humour, eagerness and doubt. However, as the groups rehearsed the steps, they began to find their own rhythm and unique grace. Gaining greater confidence in themselves, some found the process liberating as it challenged their own thinking and mindset. It also confronted us with the reality that the only way we can invite others to dance this dance of liberation and transformation is for each one to first be at home with the steps and find her own way of dancing that would express what is truly feminist and Asian.
The movement out of a classical model into the methodology of a liberation/feminist theology led to a wide discussion. At times these discussions led to much disagreement with conflicting views being advanced. But through it all, the conference was characterised by a sense of joy in being together as Catholic women theologians and the honesty of being able to disagree harmoniously. More significantly, the conference was characterised by a seriousness in the search to claim Catholic women’s voices, their role and authority within the church.
What has become clear from this conference is that the voice of Asia’s Catholic women can be silent no more.