Mary McClintock Fulkerson laughs at the memory of herself and a friend at Salem College who were comically known as “The Godsquad.”
“We were so naive back then,” she says. “We used to hitchhike from Salem College to UNC just to go to Campus Crusade meetings! And we just assumed that God would take care of us!”
The image of this esteemed scholar thumbing her way along I-85 for Christ does not come easily. But the faithful passion that informed her sojourns from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill, while re-directed, is in no way diminished.
McClintock Fulkerson, professor of theology and women’s studies and director of the new Gender, Theology and Ministry Certificate Program at Duke Divinity School, is recognized today as one of the nation’s leading scholars of feminist theology.
She speaks with passion about the importance of recognizing the ways that Christian tradition has denied or diminished the full imago dei of women, and by implication, of men as well. Telling those truths, she maintains, includes often neglected aspects of what it means to live fully into the imago dei, the beautiful and multifaceted image of God.
Raised in the “staid, white southern Presbyterian Church” of Little Rock, Ark., and enrolled at the all-female Salem College, McClintock Fulkerson soon found herself intoxicated by UNC’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC). This approach to Christianity, in fact, led to her transfer to UNC, where she completed her degree in music performance. Gradually, though, she realized that she was growing out of her campus ministry boots.
“The longer I stayed in CCC, the more difficult it was to square my feeling to a call to ministry with my being a woman,” she says. “Campus Crusade began to feel narrower and narrower a fit for me.” Members went from dorm to dorm sharing the four spiritual laws, and one Friday night, as she watched a girl getting ready to go out on a date, she thought to herself, “Jeez, I’d rather be doing that!”
Before graduating from UNC in 1972, she had moved away from CCC, but not from her commitment to ministry. She planned to attend Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va., but realized Union Seminary right across the street was a better option. At the very last minute, she entered Union with plans to become a Christian educator in the local church, the only ministerial role she had seen women perform. But that would soon change.
Halfway through her Union education, McClintock Fulkerson’s husband, Bill Fulkerson, was accepted at UNC Medical School. She transferred from Union to Duke Divinity School and earned her M.Div. in 1977. She was ordained the following year in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., just as she and Bill, by then a graduate of UNC Medical School, moved to Nashville, where he began his medical internship and she entered the Ph.D. program in theology at Vanderbilt University.
Her experiences at Vanderbilt dramatically influenced both her scholarship and her teaching, and she emerged with a new understanding of what it meant to lead students to more faithful discipleship as Christ bearers in a diverse and unjust world.
“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.”
Vital to the tradition, she says, is asking, “Is privilege or power substituting for recognition of God’s call to be radically open to something new? Critiques of sexism, of racism, of homophobia are generated then not by some secular external discourse, but by commitment to refuse idolatry, and the way that idolatry is always connected to injustice to the neighbor.”
Along with responsibilities for teaching, speaking and research, as well as completion of her new book (Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church, Oxford University Press, July 2007), McClintock Fulkerson has directed the new certificate program, served as an advisor to the divinity school Women’s Center and Sacred Worth, and organized a lecture series, “Framing the Family: Theological Visions for the 21st Century.”
The spring 2007 semester series invited the divinity community to reflect on what a faithful family should look like in the context of changing family structure in the United States, as well as in the context of biblical and ancient models. Guest speakers included scholars Carol Meyers and Elizabeth Clark of the Duke Religion Department, Joel Marcus of Duke Divinity School, Bonnie Miller-McLemore of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Eugene Rogers of UNC Greensboro, Esther Reed of St. Andrews University, U.K., and Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
As a woman of faith concerned with the future of the church and the faithful formation of students, McClintock Fulkerson hopes for the continued growth of the certificate program in Gender, Theology and Ministry. “The men who have been involved have been great,” she says, “but I hope more men will get the message that this is about them too.”
Her “wish list” for the program’s growth includes grant funding for course development, lectures and student opportunities, but also the continued and increased support of faculty in helping male and female students alike understand how issues of gender affect them.
Her journey may have brought McClintock Fulkerson a long way from the 1970s Campus Crusade for Christ, but her faithful passion abides.