|God, Gender and Identity|
|by Linda Woodhead
Department of Religious Studies Lancaster University Lancs LA1 4YG UK
|Introduction: Our Contemporary
Concern with Identity
The term 'identity' has become such a staple of contemporary academic discourse that we hardly pause to think about it. Yet in its contemporary usage is relatively recent, and points us towards some characteristic modern concerns.
In order to see this, let me call as a witness St Augustine and his Confessions. Many of us today would understand this great work as the narrative of one man's search for identity. Just a century or two before, people would have been more likely to view it as an account of Augustine's quest for truth, or his quest for God. Augustine himself understood the Confessions in yet another way: as an account of God's quest for his soul.
I make these comments in order to illustrate how that habit of thought which understands human life to be dominated by the quest for identity is relatively recent. To think in such a way -- however illuminating it may be -- is to show one's allegiance to a conceptuality quite different from the Christian-Platonic one which shaped Augustine and which continued to shape the Western world until the dawning of the modern age.
What does the increasing dominance of discourses of identity reveal about the contemporary culture which has submerged an older Christian-Platonic (or even an Enlightenment) framework? One thing it reveals is that our culture no longer assesses our stances, beliefs and loyalties primarily in terms of their coherence or correspondence with wider norms, but in terms of what they reveal about the self
The self is another characteristically modern notion. Its use in a substantive sense dates only from the late seventeenth century.1 It signals a shift from a view of the human person from a third person perspective (caught by the gaze of God or of another human person) to a view of the person which privileges the first person perspective and does not objectify the subject to the same degree. Whereas the language about the 'human creature', 'human person', 'human being', or 'Man' tended to specify the subject in terms of its relationship with other things (the Creator, other human beings, the rest of the created order), language about the 'self tends to see other things in terms of their relationship with the subject.
Identity-talk is inseparably bound up with self-talk. For a conceptuality shaped by these terms a person's decision, for example, to join a particular religious community will be explained not in terms of their belief that they will thereby be enabled to enter into truer relationship with God and fellow Christians, but in terms of what they wish to say about themselves. This way of viewing things inevitably feeds back into the way we live; we make our 'life-style choices' with at least an eye on what they will say about the sort of person we are.
In the attempt to explain this shift towards a concern with self-identity many sociological and cultural commentators tend to speak in terms of the fragmentation and fragility (or destabilisation and decentering) of the modern self. They suggest that many of the changes which define modernity lead directly to the shaking and undermining of stable human identity. Social differentiation and the division of labour, the speeding up of time, cultural pluralism, de-traditionalization -- all these characteristics of the modern (or post-modern) condition are said to lead to the increasing fragility and fragmentation of the self. 2
It seems then that our increased concern with 'self and with 'self-identity' can be attributed at least in part to the destabilisation and decentering of the self in modern times. As our identities become less fixed and given, so our anxiety about identity increases. As we have become more and more cut loose from stable cornmunities, occupations, social and gender roles, it becomes harder both for me to know who I am, and for others to know who I am. I meet you not as the daughter of Paul the butcher and wife of Bill the ploughman who lives in the house on the comer, but as a cipher whose identity hangs in the air. Similarly I meet myself as the crossroads of a host of conflicting and unstable multiple identities, many of them validated and recognised by no-one but myself I may not know who my father is; my family may be from a country and culture other than the one in which I now live; I may have been formed by no religious community but given a 'multi-cultural' education instead; and none of the people around me may recognise me.
So whilst my need to be recognised, known, accepted, rooted, and placed is perhaps no greater than that of previous generations, it may be less easily met. And it is this loss of identity gives rise to our contemporary concern with identity (as well, perhaps as our nostalgic longing for 'community'). As Christopher Lasch argued so powerfully in The Culture of Narcissism, the modern (American) condition is narcissistic, and a narcissus is not one who has a strong or even egotistical sense of self, but one who lacks a strong sense of self and is therefore trapped in self-referential behaviour in the desperate quest to find out who they really are.3 The huge number of contemporary courses, books, and products which promise to unlock the secret of my 'real self all bear out Lasch's thesis.
Feminist Theology and the Quest for Identity
My main purpose in this paper is to relate this discussion of identity and identity-loss to feminism and, more particularly, to feminist theology. By this means I hope to open up a fresh and potentially revealing perspective on feminist theology, and perhaps to take forward some debates within and about feminist theology.
My argument is that some aspects of feminist theology can be viewed as a manifestation of our anxiety about identity, and that the very strong stress on the essential difference of women and of women's experience which characterises much feminist theology can be viewed in part as a strategy to resolve contemporary anxieties about identity. In the final part of the paper I shall argue that this is in many ways a misguided strategy, and I will try to show why that is, and to propose what I believe to be better feminist -- and Christian -- alternatives.
i. Gender as primary identity
All feminist theology is, of course, not the same.4 But one of the more common features of feminist theology is an insistence that gender identity is primary identity. Many feminist theologians agree this whether they are Christian or post-Christian, liberal or radical, and whether they believe that gender is naturally given or socially constructed. In order to see just how central the assertion of gender primacy is in feminist theology there is no better place to start than with the claims which the discipline makes for itself For in many cases, feminist theology does not present itself as one school amongst others within the wider discipline of theology -- as a parallel, say, to Thomistic theology or liberal theology. Rather, it understands itself as more radical than that, as an entirely new departure, an entirely new way of doing theology which calls into question the methods and self-understanding of all traditional (male) theology. Rosemary Radford Ruether, for example, presents feminist theology as a whole new way of doing theology because it is based upon women's experience. As she says,
ii. Problems with the elevation of gender-identity
The claim made by some feminist theology that gender-identity constitutes primary identity and determines the whole religious and theological enterprise has clearly won many supporters. And in the forms in which it is so forcefully stated by some feminist theologians, it does at first sight seem to have some plausibility and an immediate attractiveness (I will say more about this attractiveness below). On closer examination, however, I believe that feminist theology's assertion of the primacy of gender-identity is in fact beset by a number of serious problems.
One cluster of problems concerns the very notion of women's identity and women's experience. In the sorts of feminist theology I have cited above these notions are absolutely central, and the claim that feminist theology is unique is built upon belief that there is such a thing as a clear and distinct female identity and experience. But in practice these notions prove elusive. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow divide women's experience into two categories: 'women's traditional experience' which includes 'marriage and motherhood', 'intuition, expression of feeling, 'women's body experiences such as menstruation, pregnancy'; and 'women's feminist experience, which includes 'the experience of liberation itself -- recognising oppression, confronting sexist culture and institutions, and moving into freedom'.8 This way of specifying what constitutes women's experience and women's identity in terms of the experience of liberation and oppression on the one hand and bodily experiences on the other seems a fair summary of the approach adopted by a majority of feminist theologians, and a number of more recent works identify women's experience in nearly identical terms.9
More recently there has been yet another development in feminist theological thought about women's experience, namely an increased stress upon women's experience of nurturing, connectedness, relationality and sisterhood. Mary Daly was one of the first to speak about women's orientation towards sisterhood.10 Her comments seemed to win empirical backing from Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1982), a work much cited in subsequent feminist theology. Since then, Rosemary Radford Ruether's work has also displayed an increasing stress upon this aspect of women's experience, and one finds similar ideas in the work of Isabel Carter Heyward, Rebecca Chopp, Mary Grey, Anne Johnson, and in many of those feminist theologians influenced by ecofeminism. Indeed it is a measure of the increased popularity of the construal of women's experience in terms of relationality and connectedness that in her recent book Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet (1994), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza feels the need to attack it for its lack of political awareness, and to reassert the primacy of women's experience of opression and liberation over against that of relationality. 11
A final construal of women's experience -- and so of women's identity- - which has long been influential in feminist theology is one which speaks of women's experience as linking women directly with the divine. Very often the suggestion is made in feminist theology that authentic women's experience is transparent to the divine or participatory in the divine. This goes hand in hand with the suggestion that women are naturally spiritual and naturally connected with the divine. As the South African feminist theologian Felicity Edwards expresses it,
Here then are four of feminist theology's most characteristic attempts to specify what women's experience is: experience of motherhood, menstruation and other things related to women's bodies; experience of oppression; experience of connectedness; and experience of Spirit. As I have explained at greater length in an article in Modern Theology I am seriously suspicious of all these attempts to give content to women's experience -- and indeed to the very notion of women's experience. 14 To me, each one of these attempts to specify what women's experience actually amounts to seems beset by difficulties. Take the claim that women's experience is constituted by the experiences of oppression and of resistance to oppression. For a start, not all women would agree that oppression has been such a defining feature of their lives. And even if they did, there seems to be something highly problematic about the strategy of building women's sense of selfhood upon victimisation. To do so is to suggest that women have a vested interest in maintaining oppression and that without it their identity -- not to mention their ability to do theology -- will collapse. What if the opposite pole is stressed: not victimhood but struggle against oppression and liberation from oppression? To see self-identity in these terms is certainly one option open to women, but the model of woman as liberator, far from saying anything distinctive about woman's identity, seems merely to buy into a long-established male paradigm: man as freedom-fighter, deliverer of oppressed peoples, the political or martial hero, the fighter for rights.
In some ways I believe that the claim that the distinctiveness of women's identity is based on experience of connectedness and relationality is therefore more promising than its alternatives. At least it has no vested interest in victimhood. In addition, there is some (limited) experimental evidence for the claim -- Gilligan's study, for example, and it receives additional support from some everyday observations. 15 Moreover, there seems to be an obvious plausibility about the claim that women's role as mothers and child-rearers should affect the way in which they relate more generally, and might influence them differently from men. But not all women are mothers, and, increasingly, not all mothers are child-rearers. Equally, many women resist the self-image of themselves as nurturing and relational and see it as an attempt to restrict their identity. And as women increasingly enter into public life it is clear that some can be just as ruthless, independent and self-determining as men.
An additional problem with the claim that women's experience is essentially one of relation and that women are naturally in tune with one another and with the divine, is that it can easily begin to sound like something an evangelical cleric might have said in the last century in order to maintain women in their role as 'angel of the house'. Here is William Wilberforce on the subject:
Feminist theologians' attempts to give content to the notion of women's experience and women's identity are therefore fraught with difficulty. The attempt is, I think, admirable in its recognition that there are real differences between men and women, and that these differences can and should affect the way we organise our thought, our lives, our society. And yet the way in which these differences are explained by feminist theology, and the way in which they are thought to account for women's identity in its entirety seems to me problematic.
On these issues I believe that an engagement with the thought of the Belgian-born feminist Luce Irigaray can be illuminating. " Following Irigaray, I would want to affirm the importance of women's sexed differences, but recognise that these are not such that universal declarations can be made about them. They are differences which are bound up with our shifting cultures and discourse, which are affected by women's different locations, and which are not simply the product of a given and fixed women's 'nature'. Like Irigaray I would want to affirm that our sexed differences should not be simply suppressed by the invocation of universal 'human' nature, for the latter can indeed turn out to be a cover for predominantly male (or other dominant) interests. But that does not mean that women need claim an identity entirely different from that of men, nor that this identity can be clearly and universally specified.
In its attempt to give clear and universal content to women's identity and experience then, I believe that the direction taken by much feminist theology should be resisted, and that there are good feminist grounds for this resistance. In denying the complex, shifting and multi-faceted nature of women's identities I believe that feminist theology is guilty of being reductionist. It seeks to reduce my identity as a woman to less than it really is. It tries to foreclose prematurely on my richness and variety and contradictoriness and possibilities. One can often see the same process at work in secular feminism. Reading a feminist collection on Heterosexuality, for example, I was interested to see that most of the contributors acknowledged that this was a topic which feminist theory had hitherto excluded from its agenda. Heterosexuality and heterosexual relatedness had therefore become an invisible aspect of women's lives. Consequently, the contributors to this volume struggled to speak about the topic. They felt guilty in acknowledging the importance of their relationships with men and the centrality of this important aspect of their identity. As one commented, 'having a good husband seems to be many feminists' well-guarded secret'. 19
Feminist theology is often equally guilty of such reductionism. Those aspects of my identity which are affirmed as 'authentic' women's experience are acceptable, enabling me to acknowledge wholeheartedly my sisterly endeavours, my ecological ones, my nurturing ones, my spiritual ones. But those aspects of my identity which have been labelled inauthentic -- or simply not written or spoken of -- become problematic. In Changing the Subject (1994), Mary McClintock Fulkerson points out how the discourses of American Pentecostal and Presbyterian women have thus been excluded by academic feminist theology's tendency to a hegemonic and reductionist understanding of 'authentic women's experience'. 20 'Women's experience' has become a tool of exclusion and a political device. Women who are not like what a woman is supposed to be like, who believe things that women are not supposed to believe, or who willingly belong to institutions deemed oppressive by feminist theology find themselves either having to repress the 'inauthentic' parts of their identity, or feeling that they are not proper women at all.
iii. The attraction of innocent gender-identity
Why, given that it faces so many problems, has feminist theology's reductionist strategy of identifying a narrowly-defined gender-identity as primary identity seemed attractive to so many women? One reason is surely that it provides such a neat solution to our contemporary anxieties about identity of which I spoke at the start of this paper. Currently these anxieties are perhaps more acute for women than for men as women enter into roles, offices and institutions only recently opened to us, and in so doing leave behind the clearer and more stable roles, duties and identities that our mothers and grandmothers were more likely to know. How appealing then to be told not only that one has a clear identity -- one's identity as a woman. This identity is made secure and attractive in a number of ways:
First, it is presented as a natural, given identity. It demands no training, effort or exertion to attain, but must simply be 'owned' and 'celebrated'. It may require 1consciousness raising' or the banishment of 'false consciousness', but it is there to be discovered rather than achieved.
Second, it is an identity which is wholly my own, inalienable and autonomous. It is not bestowed by another nor given in relationship, but is entirely within my control and can never be taken from me.
Third, it is an innocent and a good identity, a state of natural and original blessedness. Women who get in touch with their true selves find there all the moral and spiritual resources they need. The self, it is suggested, is not merely good, but is in deep connection with the divine and ultimately one with the divine.21
Finally, woman's identity is often made yet stronger and more stable by defining it over against the 'other' of male identity. Any fragile identity may be made stronger by this oppositional strategy. Thus Christian fundamentalism reinforces its identity through opposition to a wider 'modern' and 'liberal' culture regarded as totally corrupt and enslaved to evil.22 The blacker the enemy is painted, the sharper the definition in which the whiter-than-white group appears. Unfortunately, the same process can sometimes be seen at work in feminist theology. Thus a male viewpoint ('androcentric' or 'phallocentric') is seen as a bad thing in itself, whereas a female standpoint is seen as having a natural legitimacy. As with forms of religious fundamentalism, my innocent identity here depends upon the ascription of a guilty identity to those who are not me. Some feminists thus persist in calling men 'the enemy', and it is still common to read remarks like the following: men belong to a social group 'whose main relation to women is through rape'.23 Similar ideas play themselves out in feminist theology in the idea that all theology done by men is deficient and misleading, whereas all theology which articulates women's experience is helpful, authentic and good. Women's desire to find a secure and good identity may, it seems, be bought at the price of denying men the same privilege.
Christianity and Women's Identity
So far I have tried to show that feminist theology relies on a belief in gender as primary identity which is problematic on its own (feminist) terms. I've been trying to suggest that there are good grounds for women qua women to reject it. In the remaining part of this talk I wish to consider feminist theology's insistence upon the primacy of gender identity from a wider Christian perspective and to suggest that there are equally important reasons why feminist theologians as Christians should be suspicious of this whole strategy. I am going to do this by reflecting on a few passages from scripture and tradition which seem to me particularly pertinent to this whole discussion of identity. These passages seem to me to have the power to move our thinking about identity forwards, and to force it beyond some of the dead-ends it often becomes trapped in contemporary discourse.
i. 'What do you have that you have not received?' (I Cor 4.7)
In his dispute with the 'puffed up' Corinthians, Paul chastises them by asking: 'What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?' As the context of his question makes clear, Paul is thinking here both of what is given to us by God and by other human beings. For Paul, as for traditional Jewish thought, human identity is not the creation of each individual, but is bestowed by God and by fellow-humans. Our existence is gift. It is gift of God and it is the gift of those who have shaped and formed us, both directly and through the texts and institutions they put in place.
In this insistence that all we have is gift, Biblical anthropology stands at odds with much modern thought about the self and self-identity -- including much feminist theological thought. As we have seen, the very language of 'self' suggests a self-contained, autonomous subject rather that a subject formed by relationship with God and others. Feminist theology often reinforces this picture. It suggests that my identity as a woman is given and that it is my natural or essential substance. It maintains that all knowledge must be tested at the bar of an experience which constitutes my personal, individual criterion of right and wrong, true and false. And it proposes that women's goal is liberation, the flinging off of dependence and all the ties that bind us. Thus the feminist theological hope is often articulated in terms of autonomy, freedom, independence, self-naming, and self-creation.
More recently, however, there have been voices within feminist theology which have begun to question this non-relational understanding of self I have spoken already of those feminist theologians who wish to speak of women's predisposition towards relationality. Equally, Mary McClintock Fulkerson's Changing the Subject develops this theme under the influence of post-structuralism by stressing human intersubjectivity: the way in which every aspect of human existence is socially, culturally and textually constructed. She criticises feminist theology for relying upon a notion of women's experience which is naive about these matters and which imagines such experience to be a sort of pre-cultural deliverance unique to each woman.
So there are some signs that, following the lead of secular feminism, feminist theology may at last be beginning to move away from belief in what Seyla Benhabib has called the 'unencumbered' self, the self viewed as asocial, acultural, wholly independent, self-determined, self-determining, self-possessed and autonomous.24 In doing so, feminist theology moves closer to a Christian understanding of the self, an understanding which asks, 'what do you have that you have not received?' Yet still there remains a crucial difference between the two understandings: when Paul asks this question he draws attention not just to what is received from other human beings, but what is received from God. Of course the two are often inseparable: God works through human beings and human culture, and particularly through Jesus Christ. But God is not reducible to the human, and God the Holy Spirit may also be directly present in His creation.
So in Biblical thought, as in traditional Christian and Jewish thought, to be human is not merely to be in relation with other human beings, but to be in relation with God. To be human is not to be a 'self' but a creature. It is to stand in relation to God as one's maker, and to the rest of the created order as a fellow-creature who has been granted dominion. So Genesis 1-2, for example, paints a picture of what it is to be human which stresses not only that it is to leave one's mother and father and cleave to a member of the opposite sex, but that it is to be made by God in God's image and placed by Him in a particular relation to the rest of the created order. Likewise, Psalm 8 answers the question it sets itself --'what is a human creature?' -- by saying that it is a being made by God and placed between God and other creatures: a little less than God, with dominion over what God has made. To be human is to be set within a network of relationships both with God and with fellow creatures, human and non-human. It is this which makes the person rather than any individual or autonomous substance. The human being is given by and with God and the rest of the created order.
ii.'Your life is hid with Christ in God'(Col 3.3)
Our contemporary anxiety about identity is unlikely to be assuaged by another theme in Christian thought bearing on identity: that the self is hidden. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, 'your life is hid with Christ in God'.
In the face of anxiety about who we are, our natural response is to seek an identity which is not hidden but clear, revealed, easy to grasp. It is this, I have suggested, which underlies feminist theology's eagerness to seek identity in gender, an identity which is immediate and apparent, easily recognised, written in our very flesh. Yet there is much in the Christian tradition which should make us wary of seizing hold of a graspable identity in this way. Remarks like the one just cited by Paul remind us of a powerful tradition within Christianity which stresses that we are always much more than we can ever know. Our identity in this life remains forever beyond our grasp. Our life is something which is hid with God, and which -- with God's help and the help of others -- we can never fully know in this life. Reflection upon the self in relation to God the Holy Trinity may help flesh out this idea.
First, as God the Father, God is the God who makes all things, including each human person. The Biblical assurance is that persons are not made by God in a moment of absent-mindedness, or in the fashion of identical objects on a factory conveyor-belt. Rather, each is shaped by a God who loves what He makes, who intends each creature to be as He makes it, and who gives to each its particular form. As Psalm 139 says,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works!
Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately in the depths of the earth.
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there were none of them...'(Ps 139.13-16)
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1.5)
Second, as God the Son, God is the God through whom all things were made. He is 'logos', the principle by which the whole creation is ordered, the 'order and coherence in which it is composed'.21 In the man Jesus Christ this order is embodied and made clearly visible to human beings. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, 'in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world' (Heb 1.1). All things exist for Christ. He is their telos, that for which all was created and towards which all tends. The creation is, as Karl Barth puts it, 'the external basis of the covenant'.26 The world was created in order that human beings might exist in covenant relationship with God, and they exist in such relationship through Christ, the telos of creation towards which all things move.
Human beings then are made by Christ and made for Christ. The Gospel of John says of Jesus Christ that he comes 'unto his own' (Jn 1. 11). He comes to a humankind created through him, whose life and conditions of life he has chosen to share. The Christian belief is that in coming to Christ, human beings come to their true selves. He is the pattern of true human existence and abundant human life, and thus He is also depicted in Christian tradition as the Judge who will reveal who we truly are. But as He reveals the criteria of judgement in His own being -- the Being in which we are offered incorporation -- Christ comes as Saviour as well as Judge. He comes to earth to bring humans to their true selves. He shows in His words and His deeds what full humanity means and what a truly human life looks like. And the 'good news' is that He is more than just teacher and exemplar; He does not remain external to us, an exemplary figure from the past, but by His death and resurrection gives us the gift of His Spirit, and by this gift comes to exist in us, incorporating the believer into His body, the church.
So third, as God the Holy Spirit, God is immediately present to His creation. He is not an aloof and distant God, but the God who stands at the door of each person's heart and knocks. In the Biblical understanding God is closer to each person than they are to themselves. He is the basis of our life, our inspiration, and of all that is authentic about us. The Spirit is not an 'optional extra' in human life, but the only possible ground of a truly human life. Such a life, in other words, comes from God and not from 'we ourselves'. The purely human is what Paul calls 'flesh', and its nature is sin. Without God humans are in sin. They are less than they should be, and less than God intended. But those who open their hearts to God and to neighbour are promised the gift of the Spirit and new life through the Spirit. They become a 'new creation', a creation which begins in this life, but which is completed only after this life, in resurrection. In this life therefore, the new creation remains partially hidden and the full revelation when God will be 'all in all' is still awaited. In the meanwhile we struggle, partly redeemed, and partly still in thrall to what is not of God.
By thinking through our relation to the Trinitarian God it is thus possible to see something of what is meant by the statement that our lives are hid with Christ in God. The source of our life comes ftom outside ourself and lies in the God who made us, redeemed us and sanctifies us. If we think that our identity is our own possession, something within our control and within our comprehension, we deny the true source of our life and become less that we should be. We are more than we can know or lay hold of. as Paul says, 'you are not your own' (I Cor 6.19). Only God knows what we really are, and this will only be fully revealed to us on the day of judgement.
Yet the insistence that our life is hid with Christ reminds us that it is not entirely hidden, not absolutely mysterious: we are not left completely without clues, for God is a God who has revealed Himself, most notably in Jesus Christ. We have had 'glimpses' of our true identity in Christ. Our lives must therefore be lived in conformity to Christ's, a conformity made possible by the gift of His Spirit. The Spirit unites Christians with one another and with Christ. They become more than they would otherwise be, and more than they can know. This does not mean that they cease to be the particular individual God created, a unique and irreplaceable human being. Nor does it mean that they become clones of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, it means that their individuality, their unique identity, can only be perfected in relation to Christ and to one another. 'Your life is hid with Christ in God. It is hid with Christ, not absorbed without remainder into Christ. It is your life, not someone else's.
It is at this point that some feminist theology becomes most suspicious of Christianity, for it views the Christian God not as the One who perfects humanity, but as the One who threatens to destroy it. Thus Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson, for example, reject belief in a transcendent personal God and in Christ as the Son of God, because they believe that to submit to them is to submit to heteronomy. Both Father and Son threaten the autonomy of the individual just as much as they threaten women's gender-identity. I do not doubt that this critique has bite, to the extent that women's identities have sometimes been cruelly constrained within the churches, and that the tradition has been used to prevent women from becoming what God intended them to be. I have tried to show, however, that it is a distortion of the tradition to view God as a wholly transcendent being set over against us. The Bible offers us again and again a picture of God and His people not in competition but in the most intimate relationship. We are led to see not that God endangers human freedom, but that it is only in relation to God and to other human beings that we can become what we are and achieve true freedom.
iii.'Put on the new nature...' (Eph 4.24)
As we have seen, some feminist theology offers to women an easily grasped identity which is innocent and good. Understandably, the offer is attractive. We all want to believe that we are good, and we would all like to think that we are more sinned against than sinning. Yet Christianity warns us against such hopes and desires and sees them as dangerous temptations. I have spoken above of how Christianity holds before us the hope of a new life lived in the Spirit, and speaks of our life hid in Christ as a 'new creation'. The corollary of this is that what may be called our 'natural' lives are neither good nor innocent, but less than they should be, less than human, less than what God intends. Our 'natural' life is a life in which we try to draw only on our own resources, or on diabolic sources of energy which transcend the individual. Such natural life stands in direct opposition to the life which God holds before us, a life energised by the Spirit. So Paul instructs the Ephesians: 'Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.'
Feminist theology has always been critical of Christianity's emphasis on human fallibility and sinfulness. Valerie Saiving's early critique of Niebuhr's identification of human sinfulness with pride as an analysis appropriate to men but not to women has proved extremely influential, and many feminists since Saiving have argued that if women are tainted by 'original sin' it is more likely to be the sin of faltering self-worth than of pride.27 Women need to develop a more positive image of themselves, not a more negative one, and insofar as it has instilled the latter, Christianity has been guilty of crippling many women psychologically and leaving them unable to live their lives to the full.
There is, I believe, much truth in this critique. The doctrine of original sin can certainly be used by people made confident by their positions of power to keep others in their place. Indeed the same illicit use may be made of this doctrine as may be made of gender identity: it can be used to limit and restrict a person's identity, to tell them that they are less than they actually are. To tell someone that they are completely corrupt and to say no more is a distortion of the gospel which results in human distortion. It is, moreover, a distortion with which we are all too ready to co-operate, for there is that in all of us which already whispers insidiously that we are not good enough, not the sort of person who can perform heroic tasks, not worthy to associate with other people or accept their affection, that we are bound to fail in what we attempt, and that we are likely to corrupt what we touch.28 But to believe such things is to refuse to believe the gospel: the good news that human beings are offered new life by and in God. It is to refuse to believe that our lives are hid with Christ in God, and it is to succumb to the desire to believe that our identities are entirely within our possession and knowledge and known to us in their entirety. It is to cling to the old nature and refuse to put on the new nature.
The attempt to grasp at an innocent gender-identity is thus no antidote to the distorting effects of a misuse of the doctrine of original sin, for it is but a mirror image of the same reductionist strategy. Both attempt to bind and fix human identity in an idolatrous way. Both exalt a part of human identity at the expense of the wider whole, and so reduce human beings to less than they really are. Human identity should not to be identified with a person's present identity, or with any identity which may be grasped hold of in its entirety. Any such 'fixed' identity must always come under judgement. Both those who believe they are all good and those who believe they are all bad are guilty of wanting a control and certainty about themselves which the gospel will not allow. The gospel tells us that our identity is not our own in this way, that it is always more then we think, always transcendent, because caught up with God in Christ by the Spirit.
At its best, the Christian doctrine of sin is one which, like Paul speaking to the Ephesians, speaks in the same breath of the old life which we must put away and of the new life which we must put on. It is a distortion to mention only the old life just as it is a distortion to mention only the new. Christianity has sometimes been guilty of the former distortion, but feminist theology is nearly always guilty of the latter. The belief that our natural identity is innocent and good is dangerous because it stands at such variance with the evidence, particularly the evidence of the modern age; it is a denial of the terrifying realities of human sin and evil. It is also dangerous in the particular form in which it appears in feminist theology because, as we have seen, women's innocence is often asserted in the same breath as men's guilt. The hiddenness of human identity provides a good reason for being highly suspicious of any such blanket evaluations of human worth. 'Judge not', Jesus commands, for no-one knows what lies hidden in the human heart. Human identity and human motivation are not open and accessible in this life, and judgement is always provisional.
iv.'A woman's sex is not a defect; it is natural… Thus He who established the two sexes will restore them both' (Augustine)29
I have been arguing that Christianity resists reducing identity to gender identity. It insists that identity is more than we can grasp, and that any grasping at identity cuts us off from our larger identity, that identity which is a new creation, hid with God in Christ. Yet it is not part of my argument to deny the reality and the importance of gender identity, as long as it is understood within the wider context of our God-given identity. Indeed I wish to argue that there is much in the Christian tradition which safeguards sexed identity and insists upon its importance -- indeed which goes further than feminist theology by viewing gender as part of the order of redemption.
The most quoted piece of scripture in the gender debate must surely be that from Paul's Letter to the Galatians: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal 3.28). In the days when feminist theology was very much under the influence of liberal feminism, this passage was taken to endorse the typically liberal insistence that there is one basic human nature shared by all God's creatures which ensures a perfect equality between them compared to which all differences including cultural, economic and sexual differences are relatively trivial. The passage was therefore interpreted as saying that women should be treated as the equals of men by the church. Now that liberal feminism is no longer so popular, however, the passage is sometimes viewed a little less favourably. The suspicion may be that it is advocating a sexless, spiritualised existence which renders women's reality invisible.
In fact, I think that the passage is doing something rather different from what both the liberal and post-liberal readings suggest. It is not speaking about some universal human nature which underlies all other differences and which is more real than those differences; it is speaking about the new life which is consequent upon incorporation into the body of Christ. It insists that this life is open to all comers. No-one is excluded on any ground whatsoever and no-one is any more or less a member than any other, As the preceding sentence says, 'For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ' (Gal.3.27). What this passage speaks of, in other words, is the new identity offered in Christ, an identity which is offered to all and which in that sense relativises our 'old' identities. It establishes our identity on a new foundation, it places its centre of gravity in Christ and fellow members of his body, the church, and it establishes our primary identity as children of God and heirs of the promise.
As we have seen above, putting on this new identity does indeed mean letting go of some aspects of our old identity. That in us which is corrupt will be exposed in the light of God, and should be renounced. But we are not all corruption, and we are not to be transformed out of recognition. There is also that in the 'old nature' which is 'natural' in the sense Augustine intends in the quotation above: part of what God has created, which must not be discarded but transformed and perfected. And our sex, according to the overwhelming (though not entire) weight of Christian tradition, falls into this category.30 This is why Augustine says, 'a woman's sex is not a defect; it is natural... Thus he who established the two sexes will restore them both'. This insistence is bound up with another: that the new creation, brought to completion only in the next age, is a creation in which bodies are not excluded. For Christianity insists that human beings are an inseparable unity of body and soul. Christianity goes further than feminist theology in this insistence, for it suggests that this unity is a God-given unity and will persist beyond death: the resurrection life is a life of renewed body as well as mind and soul. The entirety of the human person is gathered into the order of redemption: we continue as sexed and embodied persons rather than as the ethereal, sexless, sub-personal manifestations of Spirit which too much feminist spirituality envisages.31
This does not mean, however, that our sex will remain unchanged in the order of redemption any more than our bodies will. Augustine speculates that though women will retain their sex they will not indulge in sexual intercourse nor give birth, for he does not believe that such things belong to the order of redemption. Both he and Paul speculate on what our transformed bodies will be like: 'spiritual bodies' Paul calls them, and Augustine insists reassuringly that they will neither be too fat nor to thin, too short nor too tall, too old nor too young, and that physical defects will be removed.32 As there is so little evidence on which to base such remarks, this detailed speculation about the order of redemption may be interesting, and even theologically profound, but is probably not to be relied upon too heavily! Its importance lies only in the reminder that we do not really know what our redeemed gender-identities will be like, and that they certainly cannot therefore be simply equated with their current manifestations.
So important strands in the Christian tradition tell us that our gender identities are a real part of us, and that they will persist in the order of redemption. They insist that gendered identity has an eternal significance and must be transformed along with every part of us in order to conform to the image of God in which we are all made. But there is also a refusal to let our gendered identity become so important that it prevents us from taking on this new nature, or completely determines what this new nature is to be. Our gender identity is to be understood as part of our essential, God-given, nature, a nature which is both bodily and spiritual, natural and cultural. Christianity has little interest in the distinction between sex as natural and gender as constructed which has been so influential in feminist theory. For Christianity everything is constructed, and the question which matters is whether it is constructed by Godly or ungodly forces. The distinction which matters for Christianity is not that between nature and culture or body and spirit, but that between old creation and new, between that which belongs to the old order of corruption and that which belongs to the new order of redemption. For gender involves body and soul, nature and culture, and it is as gendered that we enter either into the realm of corruption or of redemption -- or into struggle between the two.
I have been arguing against what I see as feminist theology's unhelpful tendency to seek refuge from anxieties about identity in the security of a defined, delimited and innocent women's identity. I have suggested that such a strategy is idolatrous: it reduces my God-given reality to less than it really is; it leads me to supress some aspects of my identity and to cling uncritically to others; it restricts my freedom and ties me to an identity which reduces and restricts; it limits and pre-ordains the nature of my relationships both with the divine and with other human beings; and it forecloses on my relationships with members of the opposite sex. In doing all this it acts to keep all my relationships within bounds and under control and prevents that openness to God and to others in which alone I can grow and flourish.
It has been no part of my intention to suggest that Christianity has been wholly on the side of the angels where these issues of identity are concerned. I have tried to point out that the church has also been guilty of wishing to foreclose on human -- and gender -- identity. Likewise, much Christian theology and most Christian institutions continue to be spectacularly bad at accommodating our differently sexed identities. Despite Paul's remarks about the distinct and individual nature of the different members of the one body, the church has often tried to force men -- and more often women -- into very narrow, restrictive and reduced identities. It often fails to accept that all are equally members of Christ's body in their difference and not in spite of it.
Clearly then, Christianity has been as guilty as much feminist theology of wanting to prescribe and proscribe male and female identity in life-denying and impossibly restrictive ways. Like feminism too it has sometimes wanted to understand this controlled Christian identity as innocent, and to view those who will not accept it as sinful. Part of the very great value of feminist theology lies in its having opened our eyes to these sins, failing, and distortions.
My intention in this talk has not been to deny any of these criticisms of the Christian tradition, but to show that there are also powerful and constitutive elements of that tradition which stand in judgement on such manipulations of identity, and which remind us that by God's grace we are always more than any attempt we or others may make to seize hold of our identity. To cling to my identity as a woman, a homosexual, a Barthian, a person of colour -- or whatever -- is not just to reject God, but to reject our true selves. I do not deny that Christianity may often have been used to reinforce this grasping at identity. What I do deny is that this is all Christianity has to say about identity. I have tried to show how much more Christianity has to say, how it can speak to the contemporary situation, and how it can help set us free from our anxious quest for an identity which is self-contained, self-controlled autonomous, and entirely within my own control.
1 According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., Vol. XIV, pp. 906-907) it is first used thus by Thomas Traherne in 1674.
2 For a useful summary account of this position see Stuart Hall, David Held and Tony McGrew, Modernity and Its Futures. Oxford: Polity Press in association with the Open University, 1992, pp.274-316.
3 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton, 1978.
4 By even speaking of 'feminist theology' one lays oneself open to the charge that there is no such uniform of homogeneous body of discourse. I know this to be true, and in what follows I do not for a moment wish to suggest that my critique applies to all feminist theology.
5 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: towards a feminist theology. London: SCM, 1983, p. 13. Author's italics.
6 Ibid., p. 19.
7Carol P. Christ, 'Spiritual Quest and Women's Experience', in Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. Harper San Francisco, 1992, p.279.
8 Ibid, p.8. Authors' italics.
9 For example, Lisa Isherwood and Dorothea McEwan write of women's experience that, 'when it is authentic for the individual, [it] is normative... It may have very many different expressions; it might be the acceptance of the traditional understanding of women's bodily experiences, menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, menopause and illnesses connected with the female physiology or it might be the understanding of liberation in the spirit beyond those biological givens, and any combination on the spectrum that extends from the one to the other' (Introducing Feminist Theology. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, pp.81-82). Compare Linda Hogan's more nuanced study From Women's Experience to Feminist Theology. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, which, whilst makes a plea for a more pluralistic understanding of women's experience, continues to insist that the most fundamental aspect of this experience is the experience of oppression.
10 See, for example, the chapter entitled, 'The Bonds of Freedom: Sisterhood as Antichurch', in Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. London: Women's Press, 1986.
11 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet. Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. London: SCM 1994. See especially pp.50-57.
12 Felicity Edwards, 'Spirituality, Consciousness and Gender Identification: a neo-feminist Perspective', in Ursula King, ed., Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, pp. 189-190.
13 Again, Daly seems to have been pioneering in establishing this complex of ideas, a complex which is already present in Beyond God the Father.
14 Linda Woodhead, 'Spiritualising the Sacred: A Critique of Feminist Theology', Modern Theology, Vol. 13 No.2, April 1997, pp. 191-212.
15 Gilligan's conclusions about the differences between male and female moral development have not gone unchallenged. For an account of the debate see James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press, 1993, pp. 179-182.
16 William Wilberforce, A Practical New of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country, Compared with Real Christianity. London: Caddell and Davies, 1797, p.376. My attention was drawn to this and the following quotation by Helen Plant's unpublished MA essay, 'The Interaction of Gender and Class in Anglican Evangelical Social and Political Thought, c. 1790 -1820'. Lancaster University, 1996.
17 Hannah More, Considerations on Religion and Public Education. London, 1792. Reproduced in Augustan Reprint Society 262, 1990, p.238.
18 Indeed Luce Irigaray seems to me one of the most interesting and fruitful dialogue partner for Christians in relation to the whole debate about gender. Not only is she aware of the Christian tradition and in some ways sympathetic to it, she is critical of just those elements of feminism and feminist theology which seem to me the most antithetical to Christianity. A bibliography of Irigaray's works can be found in Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London: Routledge, 1991. See also Tina Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Rewriting of the Philosophers, London: Routledge, 1995. Irigaray engages directly with feminist theology in her critique of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: 'Equal to Whom?', in differences, i.2, pp. 59-67.
19 S. Wilkinson and C. Kitzinger, eds., Heterosexuality: a Feminism and Psychology Reader. London: Sage, 1993, p.22.
20 Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Changing the Subject: Women's Discourses and Feminist Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
21 Angela West offers a powerful critique of this cluster of ideas in her book Deadly Innocence.
22See Nancy Tatorn Ammerman, Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1987, pp.72-102.
23 Heterosexuality, p.76.
24 See Seyla Benhabib. Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
25 This phrase occurs in a slightly different context in Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline For Evangelical Ethics, Leicester, IVP, 1986, p31.
26 See, for example, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1,trs. G.W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958, pp 95-97.
27 Saiving's essay, originally published in The Journal of Religion, April 1960, is republished in C. Christ and J. Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising, pp. 25-42.
28 I owe this insight to Nicholas Peter Harvey, author of Death's gift: Chapters on Resurrection and Bereavement. London, Epworth Press, 1985 and The Morals of Jesus. London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1991.
29 City of God, Book XXII, Ch 17.
30 See Paul Ramsey's 'Human Sexuality in the History of Redemption', in Journal of Religious Ethics, 16, 1, Spring 1988, pp.56-86, where Ramsey shows the importance of Augustine's insistence that both sex and the body must be viewed within the context of the history of redemption.
31 As Rosemary Radford Ruether says of the afterlife, 'In effect our existence ceases as individuated ego/organism and dissolves back into the cosmic matrix of matter/energy.. It is this matrix, rather than our individuated centers of being, that is "everlasting"'. Sexism and God-Talk, p.257.
32 See, for example, City of God, Book XXII, Chsl5-20.