Professor Elaine Wainwright, Head of School of Theology, talks about Biblical hermeneutics and her emergence as a feminist theologian.
My journey into Theology probably began in my family. It was not overly religious or pious, but my mother did have a deep faith. We were Catholic. I didn’t go to a Catholic school initially but we attended Mass once a week. So there was a sense of religion in the family - it was a grounded foundation in religion - which was very helpful for all of us in different ways.
From there I went into teaching and that has been the constant in my life, and I think I have become a good teacher over time because of my love for it.
The step that took me closer to becoming a theologian and studying theology as my life’s work came when I joined a religious congregation. In the Catholic Church it was just after the Second Vatican Council so there was a whole opening up of the Scripture to people generally which was incredibly exciting. At the time, there were significant leading Biblical scholars visiting from the United States, teaching the people who eventually taught us. So during the two years I was in the Novitiate we had some excellent instruction in the Scripture and I thought “if I could do this for the rest of my life … I think I would love it”.
Not much later, I was asked to teach Scripture to some of the younger women joining the congregation. This made me very nervous and prompted my graduate and postgraduate studies in Biblical Studies through the University of Queensland.
Writing my honours dissertation was a notable turning point. I read Phyllis Tribble’s book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. It was the first emergence of a feminist approach to Biblical Studies – it captured my imagination and I haven’t looked back since.
One of the things that I smile about is a time when I was teaching at a secondary girls school in Brisbane. I had some books about women for the girls to read. One of them was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique - an early and influential feminist publication. I hadn’t explicitly set out with a feminist approach but there had obviously been something in my mind although I was not fully conscious of it at the time.
By 1983 I had an opportunity to go overseas when the feminist movement was beginning to have an impact on Theology. I began my masters studying Feminist Biblical Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and my PhD at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. The feminist readings reflected what was happening socially and were cutting-edge at the time. This feminist work was a natural extension of earlier involvement in social justice. There were public demonstrations and fierce differences among people in the justice area about how you interpreted Scripture. The justice area suddenly opened up took me into the hermeneutical area.
Hermeneutics is an important area in Biblical Studies. It simply means the art of interpretation and scholars are always interpreting the Biblical text. The emergence of specific "justice" hermeneutics like liberation, feminist and more recently postcolonial and indigenous have made us very aware of the impact of the reader in interpretation.
Although the feminist approach is very closely aligned to the liberation hermeneutics generally, it was the one that took Biblical Studies in quite a significant hermeneutic direction. Since then the postcolonial approach interprets texts in the light of the ways in which imperial powers are evident in the text. Also much more nuanced gendered approach has emerged and, more recently, an ecological approach considers how we might read and interpret biblical texts in dialogue with emerging ecological consciousness. So now there is a whole variety of contemporary frameworks for interpreting the Biblical text that bring it into the ethical life of Christians. That is the type of interpretive work that I have been engaged in and which has challenged and excited me.
When I returned to Australia after my Study Leave, I took up a teaching role I had begun earlier at the Catholic Theological College and completed my study at the University of Queensland. For me it was a very good move. The College was part of a consortium bringing together Anglican, Catholic and Unicity Church scholars. We had built up our degree collaboratively and I taught there, following the development of Biblical Studies from that time on, and was engaged in some of the key professional bodies for the next 20 years. So all my teaching and study, apart from a couple of years, has been in an ecumenical Christian context.
Joining The University of Auckland as Head of School in Theology opened up a new leadership opportunity in theological education, which I had been looking for. It was at a point when the relationship between the University and the Auckland Consortium of Theological Education (ACTE) were setting up the School and with that a new curriculum. In the University environment I thrive on the ability to make a significant contribution to academic life, and to offer my expertise to others in a way that I can actively grow the future of the discipline.
I continue to teach in my specialist areas: Biblical hermeneutics and Matthew’s Gospel. Women and healing is also an area of ongoing interest. I recently did a fascinating study of women healing in the Graeco-Roman world and early Christianity, and looked at the three Synoptic Gospels and at women in those Gospels in relation to healing.
Looking to the future and considering world trends, probably one of the big challenges for both the School and the University is the relationship between Christianity, Christian Theology and the other world religions.
I think the issue of world religions and religious dialogue is a quite a challenge for a big university like The University of Auckland with its diverse student population. Given our context both global and local it is a logical next step to consider expanding the School of Theology to include the study of religion and be the vehicle for enabling that within the University. It is a movement that is happening globally and, to me it seems a natural evolution. I began my academic life at the University of Queensland studying theology in a “Studies in Religion” context so to establish this at Auckland would be a nice book-end.