Spring 1994, Volume 1
Robert J. Arway
Christian Feminist Theologians
A Speech delivered at the Women's Educational Resource Center, Weber State College, May 18. 1983.
In a conversation recently about feminist theologians a colleague remarked with surprise, -I thought a theologian had to be a man of the cloth.---The comment, of course, was mistaken on both counts. To be a theologian one need not be a clergyman, nor need one be male. In fact a growing number of women are undertaking the study of theology, receiving theological degrees and even teaching in theological schools. Not all women theologians, however, are feminist theologians. Some through training and conviction theologize in traditional male ways. 1 use the word "feminist" in the generally accepted sense of a person who has reached a resistant awareness of oppressively sexist social structures found in language and literature, political, economic and religious organizations with their discriminatory customs, policies and practices. Feminism is a state of mind, a level of consciousness, in which the realization dawns that we live in a sexually oppressive society. When you encounter persons who have reached that consciousness and who are also interested in doing theology, you discover an interesting mix. What follows will sketch the thinking of some women who represent such a mix.'
A few preliminary statements about theology, however, are in order, as a way of setting up background for later comments. 1 understand theology to be an intellectual discipline in which one basically reflects and discourses about God, although in doing so theologians reflect upon and discuss many other topics as well. So if they talk about the world, or human actions, or Jesus or any other matter, they try to relate it somehow to their central focus upon God. When one speaks of Christian theology (as distinct, let us say, frorn Jewish or Muslim theology) we are speaking about theology takes its source in Christian witness or faith. An adequate Christian theology (for not all such is adequate) is one which has two characteristics. First, it adequately expresses the apostolic witness. It is difficult to think of Christian theology as adequate that does not get back in some way to the tradition of the Christian community even in its earliest phase, to reflect on it and understand it, to clarify and articulate it. The second aspect of an adequate Christian theology is that it must coherently express and respond to human experience broadly understood, notjust your experience or mine, or that of some select group, in some limited place, time, or culture. That is to say, a Christian theology will be less or more adequate to the degree that it addresses and coherently clarifies a limited or more universal human experience .2
The life blood of theology, what distinguishes it from mere antiquarian interest, contributes to its growth and development, and makes it a matter of vital concern in our lives, is precisely this dialogue it maintains between the proclamation of the good news of the gospel and the everchanging life experience of those who hear it.
If we now turn from these general considerations about theology to the work of feminist theologians, we find them all wrestling in various ways with the Christian religious tradition. Viewing this tradition through their feminist experience theyjudge it to be heavily masculine and patriarchal. They point out the sexist language used to refer to God: "Father, Lord and King ... .. Christian brotherhood" and so on. It would come as a shock, for example, to phrase the traditional benediction in feminine terms to read, "May God bless you and keep you, may she let her face shine upon you and give you peace." Furthermore, women have been largely excluded from holding office in the churches and from church ministry in many denominations. Women have been made to feel like "5eCond class" members of the Christian churches. Again, sexism not only contaminates Christian religious language and power structures, but has also seeped into Christian doctrine with statements of female inferiority and subordination to males.
Illustrating this last point, Rosemary Ruether analyzes the traditional theological world view as a dualistic and hierarchical mentality inherited by Christianity from pagan classical times. According to her analysis human beings traditionally have been situated between two poles, one valued positively, and the other negatively disvalued. The positive pole is identified symbolically with the divine, masculine elements of soul, spirit, rationality and transcendence, whereas the negative pole is symbolically identified with the worldly and feminine elements of body, flesh, matter and immanence. Schematically this can be represented as follows:
Positive soul body Negative
(+) spirit flesh (-)
rationality Human matter
(God) transcendence beings immanence (World)
MALE individual community FEMALE
In short, Ruether and other feminist theologians claim that historically the human experience which is the basis of all theology has been identified with and defined by men. Phyllis Trible, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, puts it this way: "The uniqueness of feminist theology is its use of women's experience to expose the male-centered bias of classical theology and articulate a faith that incorporates full humanity. Whereas the traditional paradigm begets domination and subordination, feminism seeks a mutuality that allows for variety and particularity in women and men. The goal is not to diminish men but to affirm both sexes whole, along with all races and social groups.-3
It must be acknowledged, however, that theologians like Ruether and Trible represent what might be called the "moderate" or "reformist" wing among feminists. The movement, in fact, is animated by tensions with other feminist theologians of a more "radical" or "revolutionary" bent, exemplified in Mary Daly. The moderates acknowledge "usable traditions" in the Christian (and Jewish) heritage. Some see Jesus himself, in his openness to women, as a feminist, and recognize in Paul, for all his patriarchal proclivities, an admission of female equality with men: "in Christ there is no male or female" (Gal. 3:28). They also admit in the biblical prophetic tradition a call to justice and freedom from oppression that fits feminist attitudes. The radical wing, in contrast, sees the tradition as irreformably sexist and attempts to "get behind the tradition" to a foundation, for example, in "Goddess worship" of the Earth Mother, re-evaluations of witchcraft and other embodiments of feminine experience. Thus, for example, Mary Daly in her book Beyond God the Father abandons the effort at Christian theology because the God of Christian religion is an idol used to legitimate male power. Not only is there a language problem involving male symbols for God, she says, but the very characteristic attributes of the Christian God are patriarchal. Absolute transcendence and power are used tojustify unrestrained submission of "the other," "the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost" to legitimate the "Unholy Trinity of Rape, Genocide and War." For Daly the "original sin" of patriarchy is its depersonalizing of sexual difference and its projection of evil onto women: "Woman is the original other because sexual difference was the first perceived form of otherness and the first projected into dualism of superordination and subordination .-4
This tension concerning the tradition is not the only one that animates feminist theologians. They also differ in their views of what is valuable and transformative in women's experience. One group tends to focus on the distinctively bodily experiences of menstruation, pregnancy, nursing and menopause, relationships of marriage and motherhood, and relatively stereotyped traits such as feminine intuition, expression of feeling and concern for the personal and "caring" dimensions of relationships with others. They emphasize the precious values in women's traditional roles that have allowed them to remain close to nature and nature's God in a society and culture which as a whole are increasingly being alienated from both. Another group, however, see grave dangers in this coalition of women with nature, because it threatens their ability to rise above nature's laws and their freedom from biological determination of their life choices. They stress the new experiences women have of liberation from the restrictions of traditional roles, an expanded sense of community in sisterhood, and the widening of horizons once women confront sexist institutions.
The theological relevance of this tension can be related to Judith Plaskow's critique of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr in their views of sin and grace. Plaskow takes on these two Protestant theological heavyweights in a carefully researched and subtly reasoned study entitled Sex, Sin and Grace.5 Basically, she holds that Tillich and Niebuhr, each in somewhat different ways, fail to dojustice to women's experience of sin. Tillich sees sin as the effort to reach selfactualization that leads to estrangement from the ground of being, his label for God. Niebuhr sees sin as the usurpation by human beings of God's place as divine King and Father, a matter of pride and rebellion. Plaskow asserts that both fail to see that women's experience of sin lies in the refusal and consequent failure to realize their own freedom and to grow in true selfhood. Theologles like those of Tillich and Niebuhr, she claims, encourage women to continue the sin into which society enculturates them. Society conditions women to sacrifice themselves for the sake of husband and children and to forego development of their own full God-given potential. So they become closed off from grace as Plaskow understands it, namely, from self-creation toward a future of wholeness in a dialogic community.
Feminist theologians, therefore, share common goals with the broader movement of liberation theology concerned about other forms of oppression stemming from economic, political and racial discrimination. For them the central theme of Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom of God is expressed in terms of freedom. What thereby is called into question is the very notion of God. Plaskow says, "Who God is determines the boundaries, possibilities and imperatives of human life."6
Among feminist theologians we witness a conspicuous search for liberated language about God. Having rejected the concept of God as patriarch because of its sexist implications, some suggest an androgynous (Daly prefers "gynandrous") label, joining God and Goddess in a complementary union. Ruether points out, however, that the concepts masculine and feminine are themselves patriarchal creations. Furthermore, for monotheists the "God/Goddess" formula raises problems of polytheism, Well then, what about God as "Farent"? This too is rejected for its implication of childishness as the human correlative. Would "God the Adult" serve as a label? Certainly it would emphasize full responsible personhood for both women and men, but it lacks symbolic mystery. Daly's attempt to get "beyond the Father," i.e. beyond gender and stratified status, results in her emphasizing the dynamism of being that ultimately grounds the feminist movement, and she contends that this dynamism cannot be expressed in nouns but only in the Verb, "being." However true such a contention may be, this highly abstract naming of God as Verb is hardly likely to win many adherents as a solution to the problems of appropriate language for worship, linkage with biblical and post-biblical tradition and the articulation of religious experience. The age-old problems of religious and theological language remain intractable for feminist theologians. No easy substitutions of---Mother,----She-and -Daughter- offer plausibly satisfactory solutions. While some consider it "essential that feminist spirituality develop new stories, symbols and rituals which express, celebrate and further the wholeness of being discovered in feminism," no new language has been forthcoming to replace the admittedly sexist expressions of the tradition.' If language is a potent shaper of thought, feeling and action, then feminist theologians are right to focus on this problem. They simply have not yet come up with satisfactory solutions.
In the light of the foregoing sketch of feminist theological thought one cannot help pushing the inquiry one step further. Is the movement simply concerned with a change of human consciousness about -divine things,- perhaps at most "merely" a matter of changing words and language, or does it suggest further that God (himself/ herself /or whatever) is undergoing change, is somehow in process? Along with its link to liberation theology is feminist theology also linked with the direction of another significant contemporary thrust, that of -process theology"? Those who have been raised in a classical thinking mode for which perfection (and therefore God) is equated with changelessness might find it hard to assimilate such a perspective. After all, how can the perfect lack anything or acquire something new as change would imply? Questions, however, can be and have been raised. Does God undergo gender transformations related to those in human consciousness and language? Can God really be affected by such human developments? Is the God who transcends sexual distinctions so immanent within human process as to be -eternally new" in conjunction with human novelty? Putting it still differently, has God hitherto been constrained by the limited development of human consciousness and does the feminist expansion of that consciousness liberate God to new possibilities of freedom? There pan be little doubt that affirmative answers to these questions would reorient theological perspectives profoundly.
Because feminist theology is still in its formative stage, one can expect further intensification of the tensions already mentioned and the development of others. The present generation is strong on criticism of tradition, but relatively weak on positive construction of alternatives. Ruether comes close to an overall view in Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. She has been criticized by other feminists, however, for disfiguring and truncating the sources, e.g., biblical perspectives and historical facts. Mary Daly in GynlEcology has perhaps been most adventurous in developing a consistent new perspective but her language is esoteric, sometimes forced and hyperbolic and her argument becomes a bitter reverse sexism, if not outrightly misanthropic. Still others have done excellent work in limited areas such as Flaskow's Sex, Sin and Grace, and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza in In Memory of Her. A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins. This sort of spade work is probably the most fruitful strategy at the present time. With contributions by those who emphasize a more literary approach, such as Carol Christ and Sheila Collins, there is a reasonable possibility that "God-talk" may gradually outgrow its sexist accent. The development of a feminine spirituality is also a strong source of change. In both the literary and mystical domains, however, the twin dangers of reliance on jargon and the privatizing of experience need to be controlled. Theology is a discipline of public communication, and as such it does not flower in an atmosphere of mystification. In addition, some feminists draw attention to class and racial bias in their own movement, growing as it does out of a middle class, white milieu.
As feminist theologians more and more confidently find their "different voice" (to borrow Carol Gilligan's title), we can expect a deepening understanding of the Christian tradition, a growing sophistication in the interpretation of religious symbolism, and ajust evaluation of feminine religious experience. This will not occur without conflict and the pain of inner conversion. Trible writes of the Christian feminist theologians' task that it is to chart "a course that neither abandons the Christian religion nor succumbs to its patriarchy. They call for radical transformation. In religious language, the imperative word is 'Repent.' "
1 For a good collection of viewpoints and summaries of the main lines of feminist theological writing see Carol Christ and Judith Flaskow, Woman Spirit Rising: A Feminist Reader (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). See also Carol Christ, "The New Feminist Theology: A Review of the Literature," Religious Studies Review vol. 3, no. 4 (October, 1977): 203-212.
2 This view of Christian theology owes much to Schubert Ogden, The Reality ofGod (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), and David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury Press, 1975). Readers interested in a systematic and penetrating study should consult Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1979).
3 Phyllis Trible, "The Creation of a Feminist Theology," New York Times Book Review, I May 1983, sec 7, p. 28.
4 'Carol Christ, "The New Feminist Theology," p. 20.
5 Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace: Women's Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).
6 Ibid., p. 162.
7 Carol Christ, "The New Feminist Theology," p. 21.