“At Union Seminary, there were women who wanted to be ordained ministers, and even though there were only three of us in my entering class, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this is a possibility.’”
But giving up the familiar is never easy. McClintock Fulkerson pauses, recalling professors who seemed determined to salvage the treasure from the trash of her early formation. “I remember crying in my theology professor’s office because I felt he was destroying the biblical and doctrinal authorities for me. But later I realized that my education at Vanderbilt really was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Ultimately, she was able to take the historical contextual human character of the Christian tradition with complete seriousness, and also the liberation trajectories of the Christian faith. “I became Christian in a new way,” says McClintock Fulkerson.
She no longer felt threatened by every new experience, by every new kind of knowledge, threats that originated in the fearful, protective attitude towards Christianity found in so many versions of conservative Christianity. Her education at Vanderbilt was “an enormous liberating, freeing exposure to the Christian faith, its fallibility and its promise.”
Ever since, she has considered the classroom her parish, a place where she lives out the ministerial call she’d felt since young adulthood. She has made a vocation out of sharing those transformative lessons and the deepened theological insights they nurtured. Among them is the recognition that both women and men must think about the issues involved when women serve as leaders.
“This is not simply about access or inclusion,” says McClintock Fulkerson, who joined the faculty at Duke in 1983. She advocates using gender, race and class as lenses to reveal where the symbol system of Christianity has denied both men and women a fuller imagining of God.
“The more you can humanize authoritative texts the better,” she adds. “It’s easier to imagine God acting in the world today if we don’t have rarified notions of the communities that produced Scripture.”
The theological critiques she embraced in graduate school weren’t denials of her faith, says McClintock Fulkerson, but a way to open up the self-critical character of the Christian tradition, a posture that is essential to radical dependence on God’s grace.
“We are not justified through some specific version of the tradition that we protect at all cost,” she says. “There are, of course, certain central traditions around redemptive existence and ecclesial community that define us. We believe in God’s presence through Jesus Christ and understand the community to be characterized by mutual accountability, honoring the imago dei, confession, forgiveness and eschatological hope. But we need that constant self-critical impulse about the ways in which we’ve substituted some version of Christianity for the kind of radical openness to the stranger embodied in Jesus.”