The Journey Is Home by Nelle Morton. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. 248 pp. $21.95.
Reviewed by Carter Heyward
Vol. 7, No. 5, 1985, 29-30, 32
Among feminist theologians, the name Nelle Morton conjures up images of courage, intelligence, and friendship. Morton was the first (and for years only) woman on the faculty of the Theological School of Drew University; a worker for civil and other human rights; and a leader in the Southern Presbyterian Church and in the ecumenical global community. She is a theologian whose book many of us have been awaiting as if for the birth of a child. This remarkable book has arrived at last.
The significance of The Journey Is Home is not primarily in the logic of either its structure (ten occasional pieces–lectures and essays that span the 1970s) or its content (a carefully crafted interplay of history, autobiography and theory that focuses on language and metaphor). It is a well structured, deeply intelligent book, but the power of its impact resonates beyond the printed page. Beginning with its title, The Journey Is Home is a metaphor–which, as Morton shows, is not something that can be explained or analyzed discursively.
Emphasizing the vital role of metaphor in feminist theology, Morton writes that it “begins with the concrete and demands total presence.” [It] cannot be defined. It can only be actively followed on its journey and perceived in its functioning…. [It] is not metaphor unless it is on the way.” It involves a “shattering of inadequate image[s] . . . and [an] ushering in of [a] new reality.” In these words, Morton conveys a sense of how her own book affected me. The Journey Is Home is the concrete, daily, lived experience of one woman who is inviting open-ended participation by others who cannot expect to have our way defined for us by the author. We can only follow this woman’s journey and see for ourselves what happens.
I was shaken as I read, which is why I often shut the book for days at a time, saying to friends who asked what I thought of it, “I’m not sure.” One can be sure about what one thinks of most theological works–including most feminist texts. But one cannot be clear in the moment about a book that rattles the brain as it churns the gut, pushing to expand even seasoned feminist sensibilities. In patriachal time/space, one is not prepared, logically or reasonably, to meet the theologian as an eighty-year-old white Southern woman whose “wild and bizarre” blood cells are keeping her alive; whose “cunt” is sacred space; and whose lifelong liberation journey with marginalized people of different colors, classes, and creeds has plumbed new depths during
the past decade, carrying her to the point at which, in her own words, “I am now in search of new positive images faithful to woman experience.”
“Woman” experience is no grammatical or typographical error, any more than it is, for Morton, an historical aberration. The journey that unfolds in these pages is not merely about “women’s” experiences or the “women’s” movement.
“The women’s movement” [implies] something tangible and more organizational, such as NOW…. To say “the woman movement” . . . opens up a whole, moving, pervasive way of perceiving–an emerging, accelerating, enlarging, powerful, growing potential that cannot be contained by the use of the possessive “women’s”.
Morton’s dynamic journey becomes, for her and for this reader, woman home. She tells of the place that is no place–and every place–for the woman who is shackled within the politics of patriarchal logic and, in the same historical moment, is “heard into speech” by those who are willing to listen to her find her own story rather than attempt to tell her what it is.
Nellie Morton tells us nothing about what feminists ought to believe (which is one reason she suggests that this book is not “theology”). She tells us what being Nellie Morton involves and, through the lens of her particular life, something about what may be the costs and consequences, losses and gains of being ourselves in a world that is harsh with those whose love for life and justice knows no bounds.
Shaken in a woman world
Many Christian feminists may be troubled by Morton’s unequivocal indictment of God the Father. Unless we see, however, that the turmoil into which we may be spun is not Morton’s fault, nor our own, but rather is rooted in the contradictions of living life as self-respecting women in a world/church that does not teach us to value women, we will miss entirely the purpose of this woman book and the power of this woman journey. Post-Christian and other non-Christian feminists are likely also to be shaken by Morton, specifically because her woman home includes the church. For her, the Christian church is no place for feminists to get stuck–but it is a place for Christian feminists to sojourn along the way that cannot be contained within patriarchal fixtures of institutional space or chronological time.
Morton realizes what many feminists lust after–to be empowered/empowering women in a woman community that cuts across lines that divide us in patriarchal space. Christian/post-Christian, lesbian/straight, “academic”/ “common,” older/younger are categorical pitfalls into which Morton does not fall. She sees that common women are not to blame for the vicious consequences of patriarchal structures, including those which separate woman from woman–such as compulsory heterosexism, religious imperialism, racism, classism, and sexism.
Because Morton has been for several generations a public antagonist to white supremacy and economic exploitation, I was surprised and disappointed that she made no attempt in this book to integrate an analysis of racism and classism into her compelling metaphoric treatment of sexism and heterosexism. This is a serious problem–not with Morton’s life-journey, but with her analysis, since no structure of oppression can be understood adequately without some analytic attention to other structures that help hold it in place. What is autobiographically apparent is Morton’s awareness that the truths of which she speaks cannot be measured adequately simply by those who share her own race, class or gender. She recognizes the limits of her own autobiography and does not pretend to transcend them. Moreover, she has lived the struggle that moves beyond the lives of white middle class women, and the resources from which she draws her book have been cultivated by her engagement with the global work of liberation. She sets several of her essays and lectures explicitly in this context, not to “prove her credentials” but rather to help bring the written word into the praxis of real human struggle.
Morton makes no claims to speak authoritatively for or about the universal and daily liberation work of all people who are oppressed. She speaks with confidence only of that which she, a white middle-class woman, believes. And, from her own struggle for justice, what Morton has come to believe is that God the Father is the supreme deity of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism, and that he is the deadly foe of all truly human liberation.
The last three essays of this book bear witness to Morton’s most recent spiritual sojourning. It is here that we are introduced to the Goddess. She has come to Nelle Morton via a number of woman-loving groups and occasions, and most especially through meeting, “in a river of blood”–and becoming–her own mother. In this reunion, Morton–already a strong, empowering woman to others of us–was reborn into a “new child,” able at last to respect herself (and her mother), newly empowered to embody the heights–and depths–of her woman being.
Morton writes that no one whose imagination and creativity are inhibited by the rationality of patriarchal theology will be able to hear what she is saying, and she is correct. For here is an empowered woman, a citizen of planet earth in a pervasively patriarchal time/space, whose power is emerging full force through the aegis of other women as she moves into and beyond her eightieth year. Here is a formerly liberal Christian woman who was born again, if you will, in
meeting the Goddess. Morton has been moved to speech by a womanpower literally unavailable within the limits of patriarchal reason. She has experienced the creative power of God the Mother, not God the Father: Wisdom, not Word; being heard to new life, not being taught new insights. She writes, “[In] a sexist culture and sexist religion the option for the Goddess may be the only, the only sane, redemptive move.”
Morton is an honest woman who is speaking the truth not only of her own life but moreover of the power of images in the life of the world/church. The symbol of God the Father (which, Morton suggests, has lost whatever metaphoric power it may once have had) does not empower men to respect women or women to respect ourselves–no matter how He is dressed up, not even if He is called “She.” The metaphoric, imaginative images of the Goddess–God the Mother, woman God, sister God, lover God–may be indeed the “only sane, redemptive” spiritual resource left for self-respecting woman.
As we come into our power, regardless of our patriarchal affiliations, we can begin to live as self-respecting, woman-loving, life-affirming, justice-making women whom the institutions of our lives have no power to break or destroy. Our strength to love ourselves despite patriarchy does not derive from our escaping patriarchy but rather from our Goddess-given knowledge that each of us is more than simply herself. We are women connected to women. Our power and community carry us beyond the boundaries of our own skins into the past (which teaches us), the present (which presents us with our life work), and the future (which we are co-creating, and which belongs to us, although we may not, as individuals, live to taste the fruits of the harvest we sow).
Morton’s faith rings with the same moral commitment and metaphysical implications that characterize other theologies of liberation, but her radical feminist bias reveals what is missing from all nonfeminist liberation movements; a deeply woman-rooted, woman-loving power. The Goddess’ is with us, not above us. Her realm is sexual, not disembodied; organic, not dualistic; inclusive, not exclusively the domain of those who think right, look right, speak right, or have the right genital structure. She is celebrative and permissive, not morbid and proscriptive. Her spirit is rooted and grounded in justice making, not in law and order. Most notably for Morton, the Goddess is not merely another face of God. She is the antithesis of everything that the patriarchal deity has come to symbolize.
If other women want to spend energy trying cosmetically to touch up God the Father, to transform Him into an androgynous figure and thereby to “create the false impression of having arrived,” Morton will not attempt to thwart us. It is simply the case that she herself is moving on. Lest we imagine that her vision is too facile for this oppression laden world, we should recognize that, for Morton, the journey is struggle. It is as bloody, angry, and conflictual as it is tender, playful, and celebrative.
Nelle Morton has not only shaken me to the core of my patriarchal remnants. She has also, with this book, made me a wiser, happier feminist. For she is herself a metaphor, an image of what can happen to little Southern girls who “go barefooted and take off our winter underwear every spring” all the while aware that something bad is the matter with the world into which our mothers have borne us. Many of us have been there, and many are yet to come. Nelle Morton offers us fresh water for the journey.
Carter Heyward a native of Charlotte, N. C., is professor of theology of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Mass, she is the author of Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation (Pilgrim, 1984). This review of Nelle Morton’s book is copyright 1985 by Christianity and Crisis, and reprinted with permission.