I have shared with you my struggle to get my students to understand the dialectic. Today, going over the section of Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk where she talks about the “conversion experience” of feminists and then even more where she talks about the relationship between the feminist “base community” and the institutional church, something started to click. Using Cornel West’s description of the dialectic as “negate, preserve, transform,” my students were suddenly able to fill in the gaps themselves and more than one said, “Wow, you could really use this on everything!” Hegel would be proud.
I also thought that this would be an appropriate time to share Ruether’s thoughts on the relationship that critical and transformative movements should have with the institutional church (Sexism and God-Talk, 205-206):
A feminist base community is an autonomous, self-gathered community that takes responsibility for reflecting on, celebrating, and acting on the understanding of redemption as liberation from patriarchy. Such a community might take on as many or as few of the functions of Church as they choose….
The formation of such feminist base communities does not necessarily imply a sectarian rejection of institutional churches. People who find their primary support in such feminist communities might also participate in various structures of institutional church life…. The creation of “liberated zones” in at least some sectors of institutional churches would be seen as one of the “fields of mission” of the base community.
The exodus out of the institutional Church into the feminist base community would be for the sake of creating a freer space from which to communicate new possibilities to the institutional Church. The relationship between the two becomes a creative dialectic rather than a schismatic impasse. Indeed, precisely as one takes seriously one’s responsibility to transform the historical Church, it becomes essential to have a support community that really nurtures liberated ways of living together rather than remaining crabbed and frustrated by religious experiences of alienation and negation of this vision.
A dialectical relationship between base community and historical institution is also necessary if one is serious about the communication and historical transmission of the liberating options of the base community. By retaining lines of communication into the historic institution, one can also find ways to communicate these options to a much larger public than is possible from the resources of a small group. Many other groups of people can hear that “good news.” New communities can be touched by the flame and take fire. Some parts of the historical structures then become vehicles for transmitting the message of the Gospel as redemption from patriarchy. Eeven if the base community itself dissolves, the historic institution becomes a means of transmitting the memory of these new options to other groups and new generations. Only by this creative dialectic between renewal community and historical institution is the Church regenerated by the Spirit within history. This is the inescapable paradox of living in the liberating community within the framework of historical existence.
That seemed relevant to recent discussions about “the church.”
I’ll note that once we tackled this particular dialectic, my students were so eager to apply it to new things that they asked whether the institutional church also undergoes its own dialectic in its relationship with the base community. We concluded that it does in fact, and that the process is best summarized as “negate [these communities are evil and Marxist! GAH!], preserve [but people do seem to really like them...], co-opt.”