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Holy Pathos, Subjectivity, and Pentecostal Feminism in the Global South

Who gains and who maintains power when the tune of emancipation is sung in one voice. What if there are multiple tunes? What if they’re all in a different key? What if only some of it is even music?

Image by Ian Kiragu: https://unsplash.com/photos/GSh_PwsZsPQ

A rightly critiqued impulse of the Man/White Man/White feminist is to play saviour in the drama of global emancipation. Un-interrogated efforts to raise the status and voices of those viewed as under the yoke of oppression can easily mutate into new forms of colonialism. Central to these “well intentioned” works for liberation is the desire for legibility. Such works seek to extract a common voice or enforce adherence to the script of white liberalism.  But what if we turned beyond and away from these traditions? Perhaps here we might find resistant discourses that can move white feminism beyond the colonial, globalising impulse.

The Global Idea

Feminism has always sought to mobilize its actions toward both the particularities of the local context and the universal experience of oppression under patriarchy. With varying degrees of attention to detail, and success, this has entailed large-scale efforts to raise consciousness of the conditions women suffer-under throughout the world.  Liberation for women, then, is a global idea. Well that sounds like something we all can or should all agree on, right? Maybe. I say maybe, because the ideas of the global/ism, and what we now call global theology, both require some careful unpacking, esepically for those of in the west seeking to evangelise the world with a message of women’s liberation.

In simple terms, globalism is the idea that as the world increases its varied forms of integration – economic/cultural/philosophical – peoples’ interests and expectations are converging. Feminism could be included as one of those converging ideas. Notions of the global can be traced back to-at least- the Roman Empire, or perhaps even within the Hellenistic world. However, in the twentieth century usage of the term globalism is explicitly tied to the global reach of capitalism, and the extensions of what have become known as neoliberal empires. Not surprisingly, globalism as an idea is critiqued from various angles.

There are those who suggest that while globalism pretends to bring about the dispossession of state sovereignty, it is instead the actualization of a global sovereign, an extension of the colonial project that seeks unprecedented power and control. Others critique ideas of globalism because it undermines national sovereignty and national borders. And many want to critique globalism for its sublimation of difference or diversity. That is, global ambitions often seek to celebrate diversity, but in fact smother difference in the name of sameness, imagining a world where desires and social cohesion are achieved through implementing the same kinds of structures and socialites across the globe.  What some would say the church sought to achieve in the missionary movement, is now finding far greater success in the age of late capitalism. When thinking of the global, therefore, we are navigating a space of contestation, one in which countless social concerns and contexts converge in the complexity of modern life. Through our unprecedented technological access to the globe -transport, internet, language technologies etc.-we are forced to contend with the realities of globalism, especially within a discourse of Christian theology, so often imagined along universalist lines.

Some scholars have argued that the chief success of neoliberalism as globalism is the way in which liberal, affluent, and white progressive communities of the west have unwittingly collaborated with a global project that supports the implementation of whole range of universals, including the so called well intentioned projects of emancipation, like, feminism.   While positioning their communities against more obviously conservative oppositions, progressives in the west often ignore or completely fail to see their own investment in what is largely a white, global project. An example might be the unquestioning white, liberal affirmation of political figures on the so-called left, such as Hillary Clinton, or the ever-expanding marketing of the LGTBIQ identities/s as capital. 

Given these concerns, it is necessary for us to consider what is at stake in the project of globalism and how this new frontier of human sociality relates to our particular theological visions/s. If the global reach that many of us now enjoy has taught us anything, it is that humans exist and live in often wildly different worlds.  And thus, our feminist theology should eschew at every turn a vision of sameness, a desire to implement a concrete universal language of emancipation.

In this regard, the emergence of feminist Pentecostal studies in recent decades poses a sharp challenge to both feminist theology and the global project. The experiences of Pentecostal women, especially in non-western contexts, confront common assumptions regarding women’s ritual experience and the emergence of subjectivity, the emergence of voice, the style of liberation.   

Almost twenty years ago, Sarojini Nadar challenged us as to consider the experience of Christian women who are outside the World Council of Churches membership. Here she shows that in some instances Pentecostal women have emancipatory resources that mainline groups do not have.[1] Lene Sjørup argued for the primacy of Pentecostalism in establishing subjectivity, or voice,  in the lives of poor Chilean women. She argued that it is precisely this voice of Pentecostal women (experienced from the inside out) which had the power to change wider social conditions.[2] Elsewhere, a joint research project links the embodied experience of ritual within Pentecostal communities in Salvador to the style of relation to self, others, and the wider social environment. Here women often become ‘important reference points in the neighbourhood, religious specialists who are frequently sought for guidance and healing’.[3] In each of these instances some form of personal subjectivity or voice has occurred within the practice of Pentecostal communities. Evidently, the Pentecostal tradition has provided resources that many women would otherwise fail to have. Feminist literature has been slow to report on these communities and to consider the broader theoretical implications.

Andrea Hollingsworth and the Divine Voice

In a 2009 Pneuma article on ‘Spirit and Voice’, Andrea Hollingsworth contends that despite the uncommon pairing, feminism and Pentecostalism can forge a constructive collaboration around the shared values of ‘transformation, embodiment, and empowerment’.[4] In noting the centrality of Spirit baptism, charismata, and witness, Hollingsworth shows that manifestations of the Spirit are often ecstatic, vocal, and communal.[5] She adds:

[Due] to the centrality of the charisms of the Spirit in Pentecostalism and the widespread belief that they are given to men and women alike, ecstasy in the Spirit and expressiveness in worship are generally encouraged among Pentecostal women. In addition, women frequently act as ministers, healers, teachers, prophets, and preachers in their congregations. In light of the recent explosion of Pentecostal spirituality among women and men in the two-thirds world and the centrality of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal faith, feminist theology’s overall hesitancy to integrate ecstatic experiences of the Spirit with Spirit doctrine is definitely worth noting.[6]

Hollingsworth argues for the incorporation of Sarah Coakley’s recent work on pneumatology in developing a feminist and Pentecostal approach to theology. By giving primacy to the place of prayer as a source for theology,[7] Coakley succeeds in ‘linking the Holy Spirit, Charismatic spirituality (especially vocal gifts of the Spirit), and women’s empowerment’.[8] For Hollingsworth, the manner in which Coakley appeals to divine empowerment through contemplation – as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit – provides a direct parallel with the charisms more typically related with Pentecostalism, such as glossolalia and prophecy.[9] Through this approach Hollingsworth believes that an increased sense of subjectivity emerges in women, providing the ability to ‘give voice’ in both the public and private spheres. In order to test these claims, Hollingsworth turns to Latina Pentecostal communities and, more specifically, to the experience of women experiencing the Holy Spirit within these communities. While she notes that there are many reasons to be sceptical about the benefits of Pentecostalism to Latin American communities – including the exploitation of faith for commercial gain and the profound entrenchment of patriarchal ideology – she points to the ‘substantial and growing body of sociological literature [that] points to the positive effects of Pentecostalism on the lives of Latin American women’.[10] She cites field studies that show how conversion to Pentecostalism was more likely to see husbands give up their machismo, leading to far greater equality within the home.[11] Citing Elizabeth Brusco, Hollingsworth suggests that this in turn leads to an ‘increased sense of autonomy in wives’.[12] Beyond the home, Pentecostal traditions have in many cases seen far greater numbers of women in leadership and ordained ministry than their mainline Protestant counterparts.[13] Hollingsworth’s argument is that it is embodied experiences of the Holy Spirit that have led to the empowerment of women within this tradition. She quotes Lene Sjǿrup whose research showed that Chilean Pentecostal women felt empowered to effect social change through Spirit ecstasy. Sjǿrup notes ‘Pentecostalism led to a new theology, where the believer became the subject of her own life’.[14] Further, Hollingsworth observes that such experiences are often manifest in a vocal and public manner. R. Andrew Chestnut’s research in Brazil found that women tend to experience these vocal gifts more often. Glossolalia is ‘speech for those whose tongue is tied by society, particularly for poor women of color’.[15] With the addition of public prophecy, testimony, and hymnal participation, women in these communities are given space and opportunity to raise their voice and speak as subjects – perhaps for the first time. As Hollingsworth adds:

Whether through glossolalia, preaching, prophesying, singing, or testifying, they are using their voices to articulate themselves powerfully and publicly, lead other congregants, develop an increased sense of agency/subjectivity, and find ways to cope with the suffering in their lives.[16]

Hollingsworth thus seeks to propose a constructive feminist Pentecostal pneumatology. She does this by suggesting that the Holy Spirit is the genesis of all voice, the voice that empowers or gives voice, the ‘condition and goal of all creaturely vocative efforts’.[17] She draws from scripture and from Christian tradition to demonstrate the prominence of the Spirit’s role in giving voice – particularly the voice of life, justice, and empowerment. She also argues for the importance of utilising as a category voice – which is relational and dynamic – instead of word. And the dialectical nature of speaking and silence engages a Spirit who is not located ‘in one or the other interlocutor, but, rather, is mediated in and through the interlocutory process itself’.[18] Thus by speaking of the Holy Spirit as ‘divine voice’, Hollingsworth hopes to develop a pneumatology that encapsulates women’s experience and ‘uphold[s] the feminist ideals of mutuality, plurality, embodiment as well as Pentecostal transformation, community, and ecstasy’.[19] Hollingsworth suggests that ‘giving voice and giving ear may be thought of as trinitarian practice, the creator’s voice graciously opening us up to participating in the relationality of the eternally welcoming, evocative conversation of the Triune persons’.[20]

These are potent themes, emerging directly from the doctrinal grammar of the Trinity. But contemporary trinitarian theology generally pays no heed to the cry for emancipation found in feminist studies, nor to the embodied experience of people in Christian community. Nicola Slee argues that there is a direct correlation between the neglect of a fully worked-out pneumatology and the ‘repression and marginalisation of women themselves in Christian tradition’.[21] Classic or typical – patriarchal- systematic approaches repeat the pattern in which pneumatology is presented in entirely theoretical categories, bearing little discernible consequence for embodied subjectivity and voice. In these models, it is the (masculine) Logos who speaks and provides the incarnate, fleshly experience of agency, while the Spirit may guide or encourage the listener to hear and therefore be affected.[22] Hollingsworth’s turn to the Spirit could be read to disrupt this repetition, as she turns to the flesh of women and draws attention to their agency and voice.  

The Promise of Pentecostal Feminist Pneumatology

From the perspective of globalism, or late capitalism, and the relationship of western feminist theology, there are several instructive facets of Hollingsworth’s model. She has placed her model entirely within the context of particularized community that can’t simply be made sensible, or legible, by the criteria of mainline western Christianity, and yet radical social change is taking place.  So often, Christian discourse of women’s empowerment produced in the west only vaguely point to the communication of liberation and eschatological hope.[23] Indeed, the same charge could be laid against Coakley, whose appeals to transformative spiritual practices nearly always give the impression of an isolated self. Although Coakley hints at inner empowerment, the actual encounter with the Spirit in no way manifests the kind of public identity or voice that one finds in Hollingsworth’s model. The way non-western Pentecostal scholars routinely provide examples of such public identity from fieldwork highlights the tendency to overlook real communities in academic theorising.  Here in this Pentecostal approach we are provided with multiple concrete examples of public empowerment, and yet it is a voice that cannot be easily translated into “our” language of feminism. 

Further, in Hollingsworth we find that the work of the Holy Spirit in giving voice, is given a potentially subversive social/political context and direction. Hollingsworth argues that the Spirit speaks life, justice, and empowerment.[24] She notes:

The Spirit’s strengthening power was especially important for Hildegard as a woman. Her context was a crushing, patriarchal society that often suppressed female voices from any kind of public area. But for Hildegard, the intense experiences of the Holy Spirit in mystical and ecstatic prayer was the source of the courage that enabled her to fulfil her prophetic call, even in a context that had conditioned her to view herself with some disdain simply because she was a female. [25]

Nicola Slee also argues that matters of justice, empowerment, and relational connectedness are hallmarks of feminist spiritualty.[26] But while studies of feminist spirituality are relatively common, it is necessary also to take the next step – as Hollingsworth herself does – by drawing questions of spiritual practice and emancipation into a broader social framework. What kind of spiritual experiences give voice, or agency, to new modes of discourse in the home? In the marketplace? In all of society? Perhaps unexpectedly for those of us in the west, here is considerable social research showing that the spiritual practices of Pentecostalism can and do! For feminist theology, then, many of the assumptions around the development of rational positions of equality, western-centric education, and the sheer rhetorical force of feminist arguments, at least as starting points in the project of global feminism, are challenged.

Indeed, the dialectic interplay described by Hollingsworth gives expression to the place of difference within Pentecostal communities. She writes: ‘Since it is mediated through a vast variety of human voices, the Spirit’s voice is astonishingly polyvocal’.[27] The divine voice does not denote gender, and is bound neither to the role of speaker nor listener. Difference is not only welcome but necessary in this account of the Spirit. For example, such an approach could easily be applied to Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s call for radical textualization.[28] Certainly it is noteworthy that both models rely on vocal categories to denote the divine and also the interaction of humanity with God. Serious questions remain regarding those for whom normative vocal categories are unavailable. There is no doubt that such conceptual frames are challenged by disabilities studies and the experience of those who are non-verbal. Of course, this is not to reduce language to the experience of vocalisation; rather to take seriously the limits of the category voice and the ableism evoked through appeals to the voiceless. As a simple metaphor for agency, this is problematic at best.  However, constructing a model not around Logos but pathos – the Spirit – presses the divine-human interaction beyond the normative bounds of language and reason. Here is an opening.

In Hollingsworth’s model the emphasis on voice, and the wider body of reflection on Pentecostal pneumatology provides opportunities to reconsider the boundaries of language within the context of glossolalia. While tongues-speech is often associated in Pentecostal circles as a sign of fully entering into the tradition, it is also a spiritual act that challenges western notions of God, religious experience, and epistemology.[29] The case could also be made here for the role of glossolalia in women’s subjectivity. The accusations of patriarchy made against language itself – particularly by Irigaray – have been felt profoundly by all strains of feminism. When appeals are made to the word, or acts of speech, the critique of language lurks in the shadows, ready to dismantle every constructive effort. Yet glossolalia does something with language that defies the rules and transgresses the boundaries – as one might expect if this is indeed the work of the Spirit, of God without boundaries; a divine speaking that brings forth an ever-wider pattern of relational involvement, a divine discourse that is not a unilateral address, but an invitation that enables the broadest social participation.

Against a Universalising Feminism

If the global project of neoliberalism is an extension of colonialism, which I think it is, and if feminism and feminist theology has a propensity to hitch its wagon to the dominant social arrangement, which I think it does, then it behoves us feminist theologians to think more critically about our universalising impulses. Who gains and who maintains power when the tune of emancipation is sung in one voice. What if there are multiple tunes? What if they’re all in a different key? What if only some of it is even music?  And of course, the complications of globalism aren’t felt by us only when we consider communities far from home. The experience of some Pentecostal women in South America challenges us to think about our own participation in the globalising project, and the ways in which western centric discourse seeks to remain centred – even discourses of emancipation. The experience of these Pentecostal women challenges us to develop feminist theologies that are multilingual, that resist the lure of logos driven rationality and legibility. And the experience of different women right across the globe challenges us to wait and watch for the unruly spirit of God, blowing where it will, not to make sense, or necessarily to give voice, but to bring about the liberation of women everywhere.

***

Written by Dr Janice McRandal, Director of the cooperative.
Portions of this essay first appeared in, “Subject to Spirit: The Promise of Pentecostal Feminist Pneumatology and Its Witness to Systematics”. In Pneuma 35:1 (2013), pp 48-60, and in Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: a contribution to feminist systematic theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.


[1] Sarojini Nadar, “On Being the Pentecostal Church,” Ecumenical Review 56, no. 3 (2004): 366.

[2] Lene Sjørup, “Pentecostals: The Power of the Powerless,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 41, no. 1 (2002): 25.

[3] Miriam C.M. Rabelo, Sueli Ribeiro Mota, and Cláudio Roberto Almeida, “Cultivating the Senses and Giving in to the Sacred: Notes on Body and Experience among Pentecostal Women in Salvador, Brazil,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24, no. 1 (2009).

[4] Andrea Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 29, no. 2 (2007): 190.

[5]Ibid., 192..

[6] Ibid., 193.

[7] For an excellent example of how prayer is framed in Sarah Coakley’s work see Coakley, “Traditions of Spiritual Guidance: Dom John Chapman OSB (1865-1933) on the meaning of ‘Contemplation’.”

[8] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 195.

[9] There are certainly a range of other experiences in Pentecostal communities that bespeak empowerment. The relationship between physical encounter (e.g., the laying on of hands for gifts of healing) and subjectivity could also be explored through a similar lens. This paper is primarily relating Hollingsworth work to the systematic fields and for this reason will mainly consider the evocative language that Hollingsworth describes.

[10] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 188-99.

[11] Lene Sjǿrup appeals to this “feminie ethos” (Brusco’s term) to argue that in the case of Pentecostal conversion there are clear expectations placed upon men to take greater responsibility within the home. The ensuing behaviour is thus interpreted in a manner more typically associated with the feminine. SeeSjørup, “Pentecostals: The Power of the Powerless,” 25.. While Rabelo, Mota, and Almeida argue that this same feminine ethos contributes to altering the power balance between spouses. Rabelo, Mota, and Almeida, “Cultivating the Senses and Giving in to the Sacred: Notes on Body and Experience among Pentecostal Women in Salvador, Brazil.”

[12] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 199.

[13] Ibid., 210 and 02.

[14] Cited in ibid., 202.

[15] R. Andrew Chestnut, Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

[16] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 204.

[17] Ibid., 205.

[18] Ibid., 207.

[19] Ibid., 209.

[20] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 208.

[21] Nicola Slee, “The Holy Spirit and Spirituality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology, ed. Susan Frank Parsons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 172.

[22] For example, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Theological Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Part 2),” 52.

[23] Ibid., 57-58.

[24]Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 205-06.. In contrast Vanhoozer states: ‘the “pathos effect is the Spirit’s persuading the reader to embrace the point of view expressed in the Logos’. Vanhoozer, “Theological Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Part 2),” 63.

[25] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology,” 206.

[26] Slee, “The Holy Spirit and Spirituality,” 179-82.

[27] Hollingsworth, “Spirit and Voice: Toward a Feminist Pentecostal Pneumatology.”

[28] Fulkerson, Changing the Subject: Women’s Discourses and Feminist Theology.

[29] Rabelo, Mota, and Almeida, “Cultivating the Senses and Giving in to the Sacred: Notes on Body and Experience among Pentecostal Women in Salvador, Brazil,” 2.


Written by
Janice McRandal
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Written by Janice McRandal