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Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
University of Notre Dame Press, 2010
384 pp., $35.00
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
When I told people that I was writing my dissertation on Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, the first question was always, "Who?" quickly followed by, "How do you spell that?" So much for the immediate recognition factor of a Barth or Luther dissertation.
For me it was, in part, a debt of honor. An Orthodox priest friend, Michael Plekon (the editor of this volume), put her work in my hands when I was in college, desperately seeking reasons in favor of the ordination of women while in equal measure desperately trying to avoid the conclusion that I was called to ordination myself. I knew the Roman Catholic arguments against, the Lutheran arguments for (and a few Lutheran arguments against, for that matter), and then there was the hazy world of feminism, so diverse as to make its exact role in this dispute unclear to me. "Here's someone outside the Western crossfire," Plekon told me, and I settled down to read the work of an unlikely combination indeed: a very aged lay Orthodox theologian, a woman, a supporter of the ordination of women in the church most unanimously opposed to it, a reader and appreciator of feminist theory who nevertheless based her arguments entirely on the Scriptures, the church fathers, and Orthodox theology from the medieval hesychasts to 20th-century neopatristic scholars. Who would have thought it?
This remarkable woman, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, is still barely known in the United States, but in Europe it's another story. Everybody knows of her; and it seems she knew everybody who was anybody. Draw up a list of the great Orthodox theologians of the 20th century; she knew them all—Sergius Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff, Olivier Clment, Kallistos Ware (to name just a few!). Her best friend at university was Emmanuel Levinas, with whom she corresponded until his death in 1995. The non-Orthodox know her as well as the Orthodox, as she was an ecumenist from the very beginning; and, not surprisingly, the chief thing known about her ...