FEMINIST THEOLOGY: A NEW DIRECTION INCHRISTIAN STUDIES
by Professor Ann Loades Professor of Divinity in the
Theology Department, University of Durham
Feminist, has many meanings, as has Christian, and theology,. The variety to
which I subscribe is that of equity feminism,, that is, seeking greater justice for women (and children) both within and without the churches. It is widely assumed outside the churches that the Christian tradition is in its own way responsible for the devaluation of women, and that self-respecting women and men who are feminist will necessarily have nothing to do with it. Those who stay within the churches and work for their reform have to persuade themselves and others that the Christian tradition contains resources for transformation and change, despite the considerable weight of criticism which may be levelled at Scripture and tradition. As we will see, there may well be limits to what can be said and done in respect of the interpretation of Scripture, so finding tradition to be life-giving, and taking responsibility for it is crucial. And tradition, here can encompass all the resources and insight we can muster, from whatever source.
In principle, if Christianity is to fulfil the promise of full human dignity
it professes (human beings made in the image, of God) Christian feminism should be possible, and theological reflection concerned with feminism will in our time be a vital stimulant to working this out. Since being female is as much the predominant human experience as being male, the insights and experiences of women are as valuable as those of men. The challenge to the Christian tradition and to Christian theology is to come to terms with this reality in a way it has not done before, because feminism simply hasn,t been on the scene in a sufficiently distinctive way. So whilst both men and women may be feminist in the sense I indicated above (justice-seekers) it is absolutely essential that
women's distinctive voices are heard, and that their presence in church as well as in society is genuinely acknowledged.
Anyone unaware of justice issues need only look around them, but in any case
we need to be aware of the global context as indicated by the UN figures commonly quoted. Women make up slightly over 50% of the world's population, but over 75% of those starving are women with dependent children. In some parts of the world there are fewer women because female children and women do not have access to a fair share of whatever medical care, good food and social services may be available. Narrowly conceived ecclesial, issues may easily look trivial by comparison, unless the matter of e.g. the ordination of women is recognised as having a wider symbolic importance about the value of women (and their dependent children) in their relationship to God, whoever and wherever they are.
┬ Historical examples and their importance
Even the recognition that women are to be regarded as equal to men rather than subordinate to them is relatively new in Christian tradition.
Claiming that women are equal but different, may be found on the lips of those who want nothing to change. Hence the possible appeal of such texts as Gal.3.28, despite
the fact that its use to advocate equality, has not unsurprisingly escaped readers of the New Testament for centuries, as witness the longevity of the practice of slavery and the deeply troublesome phenomenon of anti-semitism in Christian history. However, one needs to beware of sweeping over-simplifications, and here the work of the historians is invaluable, given the complexities of women,s relationships with men.1
Sex and Gender
Gender matters for it affects the way religious traditions work, the
symbolisms they use, the characteristics of roles within them, and the way religious traditions reflect social assumptions and shape and re-shape these.2 Nursery rhymes and fairy tales illuminate gender issues for us at their simplest. The question, what are little boys/girls made of?, and the answer, traditionally given tells us quite a lot, on reflection, as do the stories of Cinderella (sitting in the ashes), Snow White (asleep in a glass coffin) and Sleeping Beauty (asleep behind a thorn hedge) all alike waiting for rescue, the sugar and spice and all things nice girls not yet grown up. All these perpetuate certain gender assumptions, and these not only for girls and women. Who wants the intolerable burden of playing Prince Charming for someone else,s life?
Another set of assumptions is reflected in other folk-tales and traditions
where this time the burden is borne another way. Beast, is made civilized by the kisses of Beauty,, and faithless males redeemed, by the love of those they have wronged, as in the ballets of Giselle, and Swan Lake, to refer to two of the best known. None of these tales and traditions need be taken to apply universally, however, and represent certain cultural constructions of what it is to be male and female in some circumstances and some classes and some economic circumstances. In other words, basic biological differences, and the significance attributed to these is variable. Hence, perhaps, the exasperation expressed by women who are neither western/white if those women who are presume to speak for them, since their own understanding of gender may be obviously or not so obviously different.
The running in feminist theology was to begin with made by well-educated, western, white women who rightly found great difficulty with the
Christian versions of some of the gender constructions indicated above. African-American women prefer the term womanist, theology, which stems from the work of Alice Walker and The Color Purple. The
analogy is simple and powerful: feminism
is to womanism as lavender is to purple. African-American women have traditions to draw on from within their own experience of Christianity which do not necessarily correspond to those reflected in the preoccupations of white feminists theologians.3 Hispanic theologians are mujerista, theologians, again defying white feminist theologians to speak on their behalf,4 and there is now feminist theology from the perspective of Far East Asia.5 So what follows about gender for the Christian tradition may by no means always have been believed or acted on, and represents, so to speak, the worst-case, scenario which causes Christian feminist theologians the most exasperation.
Gender and naming' God
At worst, women have been taught that they are derivative from and secondary
to men; that they are characterised by passivity; that their bodily difference from the male may not symbolise lesser spiritual status, but certainly may be associated with lesser intellectual functioning. In cultures in which women were married off at or near puberty to men much older and better educated than themselves, constantly childbearing, breast-feeding, losing children near birth or whilst growing up, what was described and taught may have seemed all to credible. Being dependent and emotional,, weak, and childlike (in the worst senses of the word) is problematic enough, without also being deemed to be particularly responsible for sin and evil. The one thing women seem to have been spared, given their apparent lack of brains, was primary responsibility for pride, the chief sin of the intellect, although they were taught self-sacrifice, the remedy for pride and an over-confident sense of self-worth. Males, on the other hand, have been taught the Prince Charming, gender construction, of being active, independent, intelligent, brave, strong, good and godlike rescuers, of women. Unsurprisingly, therefore, males have been deemed to be more godlike,, to bear the image of God in their own right, with God in turn being male-like, though with qualifications such as being all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good and so on.
Given this sort of thing, and however variable in certain circumstances and contexts, it is unsurprising that there is such unease about the
association of the female/feminine with the godlike and divine, and the consequent devaluation of women. One theological canon or rule is that God transcends both sex and
gender, but we find it surprisingly difficult to act in accordance with that rule in liturgy and other forms of religious practice. So there is another problem about the phrase feminist theology, quite apart from the difficulties womanist, and mujerista, or Far East Asian feminist theologians may have with it, and that is that it cannot make sense. The point is that the
os means god-male, and to be internally consistent, we should speak and write of feminist thealogy to indicate god-female. We may think that it is worth continuing to use the phrase
feminist theology, to indicate, insistently, that however problematic, in its oddity it does at least remind us that God is given to us and that we respond to God in humanly inclusive ways. And He and
His remind us that God is not anthropomorphically merely masculine.
The language of doctrine
There are various options here. We might choose to name God in a variety of ways, each of which acts as a corrective against the tendency of any
particular one to become reified and literal and stuck,, or appropriately evaluated as
idolatrous. God is ultimately mysterious, incomprehensible and ineffable, and in attempting to say, God we are like children who stammer. Another tack to take would be to avoid anthropomorphic language for God altogether, or even to witness to the mystery of God by our silence. In particular, we might want to avoid parent, language for God, though the language of God as Father, may by no means be irretrievable, and for a specifically feminist as well as Christian theology needs to be re-thought. There is no necessary association of Father, with being dominant, implacable, distant, unrelated and controlling, and it may well be possible both to be faithful to the language of Christian doctrine and to find imaginative and refreshing ways of re-appropriating it. ,Father, may be intimate and accessible as well as righteous (e.g. John 17.25-26). The one thing father, can no longer mean, however, is what it once meant in biology, and which is has not meant since about 1830. It used to be thought that it was males who are primarily creative and that a child originated essentially from only one source, that the male has the primary and essential role in reproduction.
A woman, on this view, is a merely nurturing receptacle for his, child, and the male father is the true procreator. To this assumption, based on
biology of its day, now known to be false, much of our damaging gender constructions seem to relate. Unsurprisingly, simply taking on board the role of women as co-procreators with men of new human life has profound effects on our symbol system, and affects discussion of ordained and other forms of ministry, of marriage and family life, and of what we mean by the sacramental. On the one hand then, we need to re-think what it might mean to call God Father,.6 On the other, we need to attend to the point that a central goal of feminist theology in overcoming the unease in formal expressions of belief about the association of the female and feminine and the godlike is to gain acceptance for another theological rule: that the feminine, can of and by itself image God in as full and in as limited a way as God is imaged by the masculine,. This is not a matter of simply adding a feminine, dimension to a God basically imaged as masculine, (despite many disclaimers to the contrary). Nor is divine transcendence compromised by associating God with the feminine,, since the mode and manner of divine presence with us need not be gender,-exclusive either.7 As with naming God Father, it should be possible to re-vitalise the Trinitarian tradition in the light of feminist theological insight and to praise God in a proliferation of ways.8 The way forward is not to bowdlerize, liturgy, prayers and hymns from the past, but to go on using them for the insights they preserve, and enrich them by new writing, actively tradition-making.
It was Rosemary Radford Ruether who brought discussion of Christology into
focus in her work which sprang from her earlier studies in the Patristic tradition. Given a renewed Trinitarian pattern of thought, what feminist theology makes of Christ may not be so intractable as it might at first sight appear. Here again the rule that an adequate Christology must be adequate for doctrines of salvation must be helpful. In other words, such stress on Christ,s maleness, as to exclude females from incorporation into his saving humanity will precipitate a quite fundamental error of an avoidable kind, and as we know, has had an extraordinary impact on discussions of ordination. Rosemary Radford Ruether,s major text here is her Sexism
and God-Talk (London, 1984) (and see bibliography in A. Loades ed., Feminist Theology. A Reader(London, 1990)) but others have tackled the problems in distinctive ways.9 Other voices now attend to issues both inside the church and out.10 A major one-volume work of comparable weight from the Reformed tradition has a focus primarily outward-facing, from the church, with a significant and important emphasis on the discussion of work, which is perhaps to be expected from the Protestant tradition and its concern with work and vocation. It is ed. by M. Stewart Van Leeuwen as the project-director of which this is the result: After
Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (Carlisle, 1993).
The contribution of feminist biblical scholarship
As a whole, the Protestant contribution to the development of feminist
theology has been biblically based, as one might expect, and certainly the work of biblical critics, very properly, feeds into the work of the theologians already mentioned. The distinction between biblical critics, and theologians is of course too crude, not least in feminist theology, since feminist theologians are hyper-sensitive to the connections between appeal to scriptures to which issues of feminism are anachronistic, and present-day life in church and society. This has been so since the very beginning of feminist theology as a recognisable movement about a century ago, with the publication by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her team of collaborators of The Woman's Bible of 1895.11 It will be clear to any reader of C. A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe eds., The Wome',s Bible (London, 1992) that biblical criticism by feminist theologians is very much engaged, with the impact of the interpretation and use of Scripture on women's lives.
Some of the work published by feminist biblical critics is now classic,, such as Phyllis Trible's God and The Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, 1978) and her Texts
of Terror. Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia, 1984). (See also her essay in ,Overture for a Feminist Biblical Theology, in B. Ollenburger, E. A. Martens and G. F. Hasel eds., The
Flowering of Old Testament Theology. A Reader in Twentieth- Century Old Testament Theology, 1930-1990 (Winona Lake, 1992)). In the first mentioned book, she finds resources in the biblical texts of
Genesis chapters 2
and 3 to challenge convictions about women,s inferiority and therefore necessary subordination to men, with the love-story going wrong redeemed in the love lyrics of the Song of Songs. She also tracks down overlooked female/feminine related imagery for God, metaphor which is reality-depicting as much as any language for God may be, e.g. Deut.32.18, Isaiah 42.14- with other texts from Isaiah of special importance. The appalling examples of violence to women of Texts
of Terrorhave been followed up by Cheryl Exum in Fragmented Women. Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives (Sheffield,1993), with an invaluable bibliography; and the theological impact of this
material by Renita Weems in her Battered Love. Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis, 1995). To what extent is God being portrayed as a male character, a manifestation of
the male subject, and therefore to be given the same kind of critical scrutiny as that of the other characters in the text?
Feminist interpretation of the New Testament adopts and adapts new ways of
approaching scriptural texts as they become available. For instance, in Luise Schottroff,s Lydia,s Impatient Sisters: a Feminist Social History of Early Christianity (London, 1995) we find
attention to social history, oppressive
structures, and the possibility of their transformation. The placing of biblical texts in their socio-economic context can help to align them with the present in such a way as to generate severe and justifiable social criticism. Out of such criticism can also come theological claims, such as that revelation, can mean that God,s action becomes visible in the work women do to keep life going. The most outstanding contribution to feminist theological interpretation of the New Testament, however, is undoubtedly the work of Elisabeth Sch├╝ssler-Fiorenza, first woman President of the Society for Biblical Literature. In
Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London, 1983) remains a landmark in feminist theology. Central to this book is the principle that women as church may claim Jesus and the praxis of the earliest church as a prototype of their own history, open to future transformation. Not only symbolism and metaphor for God are in principle open to reconfiguration, but inevitably, ecclesiology and ministry. Here is another example of someone attending to the implications of their work for the sake of deep commitment to Christianity and the Church.
In Memory of Her not only recalls the massive achievement of Elizabeth Cady Stanton12 but makes theological claims, as well as challenging at every point those who relegate women to marginal importance in church and theology. Her whole method depends upon an egalitarian vision hardly characteristic of Christianity as we have known it, but represents great hope for the future. A major point is that by paying attention to what was really at stake in the movement initiated by Jesus of Nazareth and the women and men associated with him, we can find resources for change to mutual acknowledgement of the full dignity and worth of all human persons. It may be, as some of her critics have said, that she finds more in the early Christian movement than can justifiably be claimed. For her, however, faithful representation of the discipleship and apostolic leadership of women is important in encouraging women to continue in their efforts to appropriate Jesus, practice of love and service, so that they too may be seen as the image and body of Christ. A very important section of In Memory of Her is headed The Sophia-God of Jesus and the discipleship of women, and it is inevitable and appropriate that she should turn her attention to Christology.
The notion of Sophia-God, expresses the gracious goodness of the divine,
re-employing the language of wisdom, theology, making possible Jesus, invitation to women to become his disciples.13 In Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet (London, 1994) she turns her attention to Jesus's execution and the theology of the cross. Feminist interpretation of Scripture, here as elsewhere, is deeply critical of texts and traditions which however inadvertently, urge the willing suffering of violence, even when such suffering is allegedly redemptive, since such suffering makes the dominated serve the interests of the dominant. The earliest Christians struggled to make sense of the disaster of Jesus, death, with the presence of women ascribed a leading role in the stories of his suffering, death and resurrection. Of particular importance is the future-orientated empty-tomb proclamation of Jesus as the vindicated, Resurrected one, ahead of us,. Feminist theology needs to position itself as it were, within the open space, of the empty tomb and the open road to Galilee to experience and proclaim divine and life-enhancing power.
||For example D. Baker ed., Medieval Women (Oxford, 1978); D. Wood and W. J. Shiels eds., Women in the Church (Oxford, 1990); A Oden, ed., In
her Words. Women,s Writings in the History of Church Thought (London, 1995).
||┬ See E. Graham, Making the Difference. Gender, Personhood and Theology (London, 1995).
||┬ See R. E. Chopp, Feminist and Womanist Theologies, in D. F. Ford ed., The Modern Theologians (Oxford, 1997).
||┬ See A. M. Isasi-D├şaz, En La Lucha. In the Struggle. A Hispanic Women,s Liberation Theology (Minneapolis, 1993)
||┬ See A. Loades on feminist theology in the section on Transregional movements, in D. Ford ed., as above; and U. King ed., Feminist
Theology from the Third World (London, 1994).
||┬ See Janet Martin Soskice, Can a Feminist call God Father?, in T. Elwes eds., Women,s Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology (London,1992).
||┬ See the section on God as Mother, in R. Gill ed., Readings in Modern Theology (London 1995); E. A. Johnson, She Who Is. The
Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York, 1992); Janet Martin Soskice, Trinity and "the Feminine Other",, New Blackfriars 75(1994) pp.2-17).
||┬ B. Wren, What Language shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology (London, 1989).
||┬ For example A. E. Carr, Transforming Grace. Christian Tradition and Women,s Experience (San Francisco, 1988); R. Nashima Brock, Journeys
by Heart. A Christology of Erotic Power (New York, 1988); M. Grey, Redeeming the Dream. Feminism, Redemption and Christian Tradition (London, 1989); E. A. Johnson, Consider Jesus. Waves of Renewal in Christology (London, 1990).
||┬ See C. Mowry La Cugna ed., Freeing Theology. The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (New York, 1993);D. Lardner Carmody, Christian
Feminist Theology. A Constructive Interpretation (Oxford, 1995).
||┬ See the material in A. Loades,Feminist Theology. A Reader as above.
||┬ See also the first volume of Elisabeth Sch├╝ssler Fiorenza ed., Searching the Scriptures. A Feminist Introduction (London, 1994;second volume, 1995).
||See also her work, But She Said. Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston, 1992).
┬ Some further reading
G. Cloke, This Female Man of God. Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 (London, 1995)
R. Holloway, ed., Who needs Feminism? Men Respond to Sexism in the Church (London, 1991)
A.Loades, Feminist theology: a view of Mary, in W. McLoughlin and J. Pinnock, Mary is for Everyone (Leominster, 1997).
K. M. Sands, Escape from Paradise. Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology (Minneapolis, 1994).
S. Thistlethwaite, Sex, Race and God. Christian Feminism (London, 1989).
A. West, Deadly Innocence: Feminism and the Mythology of Sin (London, 1995).
┬ BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Ann Loades is Professor of Divinity in the Theology Department, University of Durham. She has published work on theodicy and in philosophical
theology and spirituality as well as in feminist theology. Her current interests are primarily in sacramental theology.
© The Farmington Institute for Christian Studies