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Feminist Theology

Feminist Theology

Grenz and Olson point out that

“late twentieth-century feminist theology shares certain similarities with North American Black theology and Latin American liberation theology. Like they, it begins with a situation of oppression, thereby becoming critical reflection on praxis – the experience of oppressed persons freeing themselves from domination” (225-26).

The principal difference is found in the identity of the “oppressed”. Liberation theology focuses on the plight of the poor and Black Theology on the unique needs of the African-American. Feminist theology insists that the primary form of oppression from which it seeks liberation is patriarchy, the widespread domination of women by men in its many forms.

Important introductory issues:

Although feminist theology emerged in conjunction with the so-called “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960’s, it has an identity all its own

Publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s, The Second Sex (1945) and Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

The National Organization for Women (NOW)

Feminist theology has a variety of forms, not all of which are Christian: Jewish feminism, worship of “Mother-Goddess” (see Carol Christ’s Laughter of Aphrodite [1987] and Naomi Ruth Goldenberg’s Changing of the Gods [1979], the sculpture “Christa” (Christ is a woman on the cross) in a cathedral in New York City

Feminist theology is not to be identified with biblical egalitarianism or evangelical feminism (cf. Christians for Biblical Equality)

Some representative thinkers and authors of feminist theology:

Mary Daly, author of The Church and the Second Sex (1968), Beyond God the Father (1973)

Sallie McFague, author of Metaphorical Theology (1982)

Judith Plaskow, author of Sex, Sin and Grace (1980)

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Harvard Divinity School), author of In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1984)

Letty Russell (Yale Divinity School), author of Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective – A Theology (1974) and Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology (1987)

Rosemary Ruether (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), author of Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983) and Women-Church: Theology & Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (1986)

Elizabeth Johnson, author of Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990)

Anne E. Carr, author of Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience (1988)

Pamela Dickey Young, author of Feminist Theology / Christian Theology: In Search of Method (1990)

Characteristics of feminist theology:

(1)           Classical Christian tradition is patriarchal to the core. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition is characterized by the cultural and religious subjugation of women by men and the misogyny that is its inevitable fruit. The language, symbolism, and theological framework of Christianity must therefore be re-evaluated in the light of the pervasive influence of patriarchy.

Many feminist theologians do not restrict patriarchy to the relationship between male and female but see it manifest in any and all forms of hierarchy: kings over subjects, masters over slaves, etc. Hence, feminists often call for a revolution against contemporary culture as a whole to the degree that it perpetuates structures of power and control. They look for a wholly egalitarian and non-hierarchical society devoid of any form of relational submission.

According to Ruether,

“the feminist critique of sexism finds patriarchy not only in contemporary and historical Christian culture but in the Bible. The Bible was shaped by males in a patriarchal culture, so many of its revelatory experiences were interpreted by men from a patriarchal perspective. The ongoing interpretation of these revelatory experiences and their canonization further this patriarchal bias by eliminating traces of female experience or interpreting them in an androcentric way. The Bible, in turn, becomes the authoritative source for the justification of patriarchy in Jewish and Christian society” (“Feminist Interpretation: A Method of Correlation,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, 116).

Fiorenza insists that

“feminist biblical interpretation must therefore challenge the scriptural authority of patriarchal texts and explore how the Bible is used as a weapon against women in our struggles for liberation. It must explore whether and how the Bible can become a resource in this struggle. A feminist biblical interpretation is thus first of all a political task. It remains mandatory because the Bible and its authority has been and is again today used as a weapon against women struggling for liberation” (“The Will to Choose or to Reject: Continuing Our Critical Work,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, 129).

(2)           The most grievous evil is androcentrism in which all of life, both cultural and religious, finds its epicenter in the male. Ruether contends that,

“starting with the basic assumption that the male is the normative human person and, therefore, also the normative image of God, all symbols, from God-language and Christology to church and ministry, are shaped by the pervasive pattern of the male as center, the female as subordinate and auxiliary” (“Feminist Theology in the Academy,” in Christianity and Crisis 45/3 [March 4, 1985], 59).

(3)           The source for contemporary theology is neither Scripture nor tradition but the unique experience of being female. All “doctrines” must be re-examined and re-cast based on the particular reality of women’s experience. Says Ruether,

“the patriarchal distortion of all tradition throws feminist theology back upon the primary intuitions of religious experience itself: namely, the belief in a divine foundation of reality which ultimately good, which does not wish evil or create evil, but affirms and upholds our autonomous personhood as women, in whose image we are made” (61).

What will ultimately count as the “word” of God is what women who are identified with other women in community decide is most efficacious in bringing freedom and affirmation.

All theology has traditionally been done by males and for males thereby prejudicing both its content and form:

“The use of women’s experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology, including its codified traditions, as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience. Feminist theology makes the sociology of theological knowledge visible, no longer hidden behind mystifications of objectified and universal authority” (Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 13).

Grenz and Olson explain:

“All feminist theologians agree, then, that Scripture alone – sola scriptura – cannot serve as the principle of authority for theology, because the Bible is thoroughly permeated by patriarchy. . . . One must . . . recognize women’s (feminist) experience as divine revelation and elevate it as a primary source and norm for contemporary Christian theology, if theology is to be credible to women and liberated men. The key to feminist theological methodology, in short, is the primacy of feminist-defined women’s experience in theological formulation” (231).

(4)           Not even Jesus can be retained as a norm for theology. His life and beliefs were thoroughly interwoven with the patriarchal and oppressive culture of the first century.

Some feminist theologians believe Jesus was in fact a feminist himself insofar as he avoided using his authority to dominate or coerce people, whether male or female.

(5)           Traditional Christian doctrines must be re-evaluated in the light of the preceding. For example:

·          Christology has been the source of considerable sexism within Christianity. The maleness of Jesus is only incidental to his fundamental identity, similar to his being Jewish. Feminists are uneasy with both Nicea and Chalcedon, given the fact that these creedal affirmations envision Jesus as “Son”of the “Father”.

·          The nature of sin must be redefined, insofar as the biblical categories reflect the perspective of its male authors: sins such as pride, ambition, and egoism are less applicable to women who typically struggle with lack of pride, lack of ambition, and lack of a healthy sense of self-esteem.

·          Some feminists insist that male language and imagery of God must be balanced by an emphasis on female characteristics (God is “Mother” no less than “Father”); hence the demand for gender-inclusive translations (not all who prefer the latter are feminist in their theology). Others argue that any use of “parental” imagery is inappropriate: “Patriarchal theology uses the parent image for God to prolong spiritual infantilism as virtue and to make autonomy and assertion of free will a sin” (Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 69). Ruether prefers to speak of God as the “primal Matrix” “God/ess”.