Breaking New Ground and Pushing the Boundaries
Tuesday, June 4, 2019

By Susan Jane Dunlap

Mary FulkersonMary McClintock Fulkerson arrived at Duke Divinity School in 1977 to pursue a master’s of divinity degree. She went from Duke to Vanderbilt to earn her Ph.D., and in 1983 she returned to Duke to teach. For the next 36 years she broke new theological ground again and again. From pushing the boundaries of feminist theology to raising questions about the nature of theology itself, she has taught and published in areas that are both attuned to the theological present and pushing forward into new territory.

In 1994 she published her first book, Changing the Subject: Women’s Discourses and Feminist Theology. She studied Appalachian Pentecostal women and middle-class Presbyterian women, expanding the reach of feminist theology to include women beyond white feminist academics.

Her second groundbreaking work, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church, used ethnographic methodology to study a small interracial church that included residents of a group home for people with disabilities. In it, Mary describes her early experience of interacting with a someone with a disability in that church:

"As I approach the man in the wheelchair, my body feels suddenly awkward and unnatural. When I get in his immediate vicinity, I realize I do not know where to place myself. My height feels excessive and ungainly. I tower over the pale man strapped in the wheelchair. Do I kneel down? Bend down to be face level with him? Speaking to him from above feels patronizing. Or is it the crouching down that would be patronizing? My hand moves to touch his shoulder, as if to communicate, 'I care about you, despite your mildly frightening, contorted body and guttural gurgling sounds.' But I withdraw my hand quickly, wondering if this, too, would be a sign of condescension."

As this excerpt illustrates, Mary’s work has brought richness and novelty to what counts as theological discourse, and her vulnerability and honesty is both admired by her peers and adopted by younger scholars.  

Mary is acknowledged as the theologian who is the cornerstone of theology that insists on including the particular as surfaced through ethnography. You will not find any writing on ecclesiology and ethnography that does not include her work. Chris Scharen, director of contextual learning and assistant professor of worship at Luther Seminary, said that “she gave birth to a network that is now global.” In order to pursue her theological hunch, she crossed disciplinary borders and took an ethnographic methods course—an illustration of her creativity and initiative. All of this accomplishment and ingenuity was recognized in Uppsala, Sweden, in early 2019 when she received an honorary doctorate degree.

As I have read scholarly works that have incorporated elements of Places of Redemption, at least three concepts have particularly captured the attention of her colleagues. While she acknowledges that she is indebted to others for these themes, she is the one whose work has disseminated them.

  1. Theology begins at the site of a wound: “Wounds generate new thinking. Disjunctions birth invention—from a disjuncture in logic, where reason is compelled to find new connections in thought, to brokenness in existence where creativity is compelled to search for possibilities of reconciliation. Like a wound, theological thinking is generated by a sometimes inchoate sense that something must be addressed” (from Places of Redemption, 13).
  2. Obliviousness: “Obliviousness is a form of not seeing that is not primarily intentional but reflexive. A kind of disregard, both experiential and geographical, [that] may coex¬ist with well-meaning attitudes” [from “A Place to Appear: Ecclesiology as if Bodies Mattered,” Theology Today 64 (2007): 165].
  3. Places to appear: Redemptive spaces, then, are places where obliviousness is transformed, and “deep, embedded habituations are altered.” It is “[a] place to be acknowledged, to be seen and heard by others” [from Places of Redemption, 169].

Younger scholars grasp for words to describe how Mary opened up new categories and paradigms, creating seismic shifts in what theology is and how to engage foundational theological texts. This was my experience with her 32 years ago when she was my professor.

Mary McClintock FulkersonI had been a pastor for four years when I came to Duke in 1987 to do a Th.M., eager to reflect on my experiences of caring for the dying, the brokenhearted, and the violated. I was trying, week after week, to preach the gospel to them. When I was registering for classes, I saw a class taught by a feminist theologian, but it had the vague title of “Authority in Theology.” It did not sound as though it would offer the engagement with real human problems and redemptions I had seen in the parish. But I did take the class, and it shook my theological foundations to the core. My theological edifice did not crumble; rather, it became more vivid, alive, and a vibrant vector toward the divine, one that deeply enhanced my theological engagement with God’s presence in the midst of human beings.

Scholar Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, director of contextual education and associate professor of contextual education and theology at Emmanuel College (University of Toronto), describes a similar reation: "I first encountered Mary’s work in a real way in graduate school when I was trying to figure out how to even be in the academy. And then my advisor handed me Mary’s Changing the Subject to read. As a work of deep humanity, it gave this young feminist theologian a path to pursue radical ideas in my scholarship without losing the God who takes up residence in my flesh."

For years at Duke Divinity School, she was the only person on the faculty openly advocating for and writing about LGBTQ people. They knew her office was a safe place where they would be welcomed when that was a scarce (if not nonexistent) resource at the Divinity School. We have to wonder how many students were able to stay at the Divinity School because she provided a safe space for them.

Like many institutions in the last decades, there were times when Duke Divinity School was not an easy place to be feminist. Speaking of that time, her colleague Willie Jennings, now associate professor of systematic theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, said: “Mary was so courageous, all the time. I watched her as a young woman speak her mind. She always listened, even to those who dismissed her.”

Mary FulkersonMary’s courageous risk-taking was visible through her self-disclosure in her writing, through stepping out in a novel direction in her field, and, at times, through speaking and acting against the institutional grain. James Crenshaw, Robert L. Flowers Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, adds, “A champion of women, people of color, and the powerless, Mary drank deeply from the Fountain that inspired prophets of old, who gave a voice to those silenced by benign neglect or by outright malice."

As she retires, she is the longest serving member of the faculty. Duke Divinity School bears the marks of her tenure here, and, speaking for all who have been touched by her presence here, let me say that we are most grateful.