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What is Feminist Theology?

I didn’t really set out to become a feminist theologian, but with a feminist mother, coming out as a gay man, and an interest in theology, that’s kind of what ended up being the focal point of my CV.

Feminist theology arose out of religious reflection on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.  Crossing institutional religious divides, it interprets religious traditions with emphasis on women’s experience, integration of mind and body, and a “this-worldly” understanding of spirituality.  This is a re-posting, with some revisions, of a diary on the subject I posted a couple of years ago over at the Orange place.  It has many links to both full-length books (in italics) and shorter essays to explore.

Basic Introductory Texts

Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow co-edited Womanspirit Rising in the late 1970s.  This anthology has held up remarkably well and covers the basic starting points for feminist theology.  A follow-up volume, Weaving the Visions, is significantly stronger in terms of ethnic and religious inclusivity, but relies more on excerpts of texts that make it, to my mind, a less satisfactory anthology.

Laurel Schneiders’s Re-Imagining the Divine is not only an excellent introduction to themes and issues in feminist theology, but also to the best and clearest account of the relation of social scientific analysis of religion to theology I have seen yet.  It disgusts me to see that this book is out of print.

For those who want to explore the questions within an orthodox Christian framework, Serene Jones’s Feminist Theory and Christian Theology handles a wide range of feminist positions.  Jones is a scholar of Calvin and works largely in a Calvinist-Barthian theological framework.  (More on Karl Barth, who is generally unpopular among feminists.)

Relation to Religious Traditions  

In the seventies, the most explosive and divisive issue among feminist theologians was the question of whether or not traditional religions were redeemable for women.  The organization of Womanspirit Rising reflects this divide, with essays on reclaiming traditions preceding another body of essays on moving out of traditions, often into Paganism.

The most uncompromising figure in terms of jettisoning conventional religions in the name of feminism is Mary Daly, whose writings shocked me into the study of theology.  Through the mid-1980s, her work was consistently at the cutting edge of feminist theological work, though she eventually chose to drop the label “theology” in favor of “philosophy.”   Her autobiography, Outercourse, charts her departure from the Roman Catholic church into increasingly radical feminist positions; I must confess that she lost me when she described jumping over the moon – and denied she meant it as a metaphor.  Her radicalism finds justification in her compelling cross-cultural account of violence against women and the academic protocols that justify or trivialize said violence, Gyn/Ecology.  Daly is also controversial for her embrace of lesbian separatism, which she posits as the healthiest alternative to patriarchal control.  She insists on women being able to explore their needs without having to go through the laborious process of “explaining themselves” to men, which she sees as holding women back in their attempts to forge their own spiritual journeys.  Yet in Outercourse she does recount experiences with several individual men in a positive light.  While most feminist theologians do not share Daly’s separatist tendencies, her pioneering work has forced them to wrestle hard with their relations to traditional religions.  

Daly’s early work was squarely in the Roman Catholic Thomist theological tradition, with a dissertation on the philosopher Jacques Maritain.  Daly published her first book on women in the Roman Catholic Church in 1968.  The Church and the Second Sex was an answer to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, defending the importance of spiritual quest against de Beauvoir’s materialist existentialism.   In this early work, then, feminist theology clearly distinguished itself from secular expressions of feminism.  She re-issued the book in 1985 with an introduction in the form of an engaging dialogue between her Christian and Post-Christian selves – that opening dialogue would be the one thing I would recommend people read if they’re only going to read one thing by her.  Among Daly’s unique contributions are an insistence that God is properly understood as a verb, not a noun, to the point that she drops the term God in favor of Be-ing.  This latter term relates to a highly experimental use of language with neologism and puns, many of which were collected in the Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language.

Daly’s approach is largely being carried on by the religious philosopher and musicologist, Jennifer Rycenga, who combines an interest in Plotinus, religious pluralism, and  radical feminism.

For a radically different perspective on feminist theology in its formative times, I’ll turn to the Baptist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible.  Trible recalled at a talk I heard her give in the mid-nineties how she would listen to other feminists, including Mary Daly, in the 1970s telling her that she shouldn’t like the Genesis creation stories because they were sexist.  “But I liked them,” was her simple reply.  Rather than move away from biblical traditions in the name of feminism, she dug deeper into her training as a biblical scholar, and produced an account of the Hebrew Bible that stripped away centuries of male-dominated interpretation to reveal surprising insights in the text.  For example, her attention to Hebrew semantics shows the story of Adam and Eve not to be the story of woman being a secondary derivation from man, but a story of an undifferentiated earth creature broken into a male half and a female half.  Thus, according to Trible, both of the creation stories in Genesis show an original equality between the sexes.  Her main work, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality was a sustained effort to use such literary readings to “depatriarchalize the Bible.”  Daly quipped in response, “It might be interesting to speculate upon the probable length of a ‘depatriarchalized Bible.’  Perhaps there would be enough salvageable material to comprise an interesting pamphlet.”  But Trible did not only seek to retrieve positive elements of the Bible – she also turned her literary skills to the horrific passages of violence against women in Texts of Terror, a book that like Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, forces readers to confront the presence of misogyny and violence at the heart of religious texts.  See her short essay Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Studies for a flavor of her work.

Between an ex-Roman Catholic who left the church to spin into ever more radical directions and a Baptist biblical scholar, there are a range of positions that feminist theologians take up.  One figure who sees her tradition as more problematic than Trible does, but as more redeemable than Daly does, is the Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow.  In Standing Again at Sinai, she engages Judaism from a feminist perspective, showing several key concepts to be amenable to transformation in feminist terms.  Plaskow recounts a story a rabbi told to draw a line in the sand between feminism and Judaism.  During World War II in the Bialystok Ghetto, female Jewish resistance fighters turned over their weapons after a brief rebellion in which the women could have joined the partisans because, “as Jews first and women second,” they stayed in solidarity with their men.  But Plaskow refuses the opposition the story implies, noting

The women of the Bialystok Ghetto were acting as Jews, but they understood the meaning of Jewish action differently from the men.  Had they held to their position, the story would have had a different ending – but still a Jewish one.  Perhaps some of the inhabitants of the Ghetto might have survived instead of all of them being destroyed…  When we refuse to sever or choose between different aspects of our identity, we create a new situation.

As feminist theologians engaged in further dialogue, the terms of debate shifted so that the relation to tradition is no longer the primary way they articulate their differences.  However, some institutional tensions between Christian and post-Christian feminist theologians persist.  Furthermore, some feminist theologians have not rejected traditions, but have moved from one tradition to another.  An important example of the latter is Rita Gross, who first converted from Lutheranism to Judaism, and then to Buddhism, and went on to write a feminist history of Buddhism, Buddhism after Patriarchy.  It is also important to note that although feminist theologians come from a variety of religious backgrounds, most are either Christian or post-Christian because theology has a centrality in Christian thought that is less prominent in other traditions.  Two examples of traditions that weigh other aspects more than theology are Judaism and Islam: Jewish feminists often foreground ritual and Islamic feminists often turn to legal reasoning as opposed to theology as ways of thinking in continuity with the shape of their respective traditions.

Another important impetus in the development of rethinking tradition was the resurgence of Paganism in the later twentieth century – a standard account of this movement is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon.  Wicca is the best-known, but hardly the only, variant of modern Paganism, and finds an eloquent voice in Starhawk.

God?  Goddess?

One of the questions that early feminists agreed on was that women must have access to female images and metaphors for the divine.  In an essay written on the cusp of her departure from Christianity, After the Death of God the Father, Mary Daly made an early attempt to account for how Women’s Liberation challenged not only a male deity, but an image of deity as a static being.  On the flip side of that argument,  Carol Christ made the case for the necessity of the Goddess most clearly in her influential essay Why Women Need the Goddess.  The implications of this position was one of the reasons the question of fidelity to or apostasy from traditions was so divisive for a long time.  Those who wished to think mainly about the Goddess termed their work thealogy, as for example in Melissa Raphael’s Thealogy and Embodiment.

But hand-in-hand with an insistence on female images of the divine is an insistence that the divine can not be reduced to a single anthropomorphic image.  Often drawing on apophatic theology, a theological approach that insists that all language of the divine can only name what God is not, feminist theologians aver that drawing on a limited set of metaphors to describe the divine creates a situation in which the symbol is confused for the divine reality it is meant to signify.  Thus, in one of the best-selling works of feminist theology, She Who Is, the Roman Catholic nun Elizabeth Johnson explores the interface of feminist concerns with the assertion that God’s mystery is ultimately unknowable.  Rosemary Radford Ruether, in Sexism and God-talk, connects this sense of confusing the symbol with the reality to the biblical condemnation of idolatry, noting how locking into male symbols makes an idol of male power.  In an interesting twist, Ruether has recently examined female images of the divine from pre-history to the present in Goddesses and the Divine Feminine.  She found that many female symbols or images of the divine were forged by men in a manner that did not necessarily advance women’s interests – riffing on Carol Christ’s essay, she asks, “Why Do Men Need the Goddess?”

Furthermore, feminist theologians are not in agreement as to what “Goddess” or “God” means in relation to the real.  Some, such as Naomi Goldenberg, author of Changing of the Gods, are perfectly content to rest with a projection theory of religion as originally formulated by Ludwig Feuerbach, in which religion articulates deep desires but does not reflect anything outside of those desires.  The Quaker Grace Jantzen argues in her probing work Becoming Divine against justifying beliefs in favor of the pursuit of human flourishing, which she understands to encompass a fullness of experience found in mysticism, but also a demand to extend conditions of human flourishing to oppressed communities in the Third World.  Sharon Welch, on the other hand, forges an adjectival understanding of God in A Feminist Ethic of Risk (my review), in which God is an quality of existence that emerges from and sustains struggles for justice and solidarity, rather than a supernatural entity.  I have already mentioned Daly’s understanding of the divine as a verb.  Carol Christ, in She Who Changes, and Marjorie Suchocki, in God, Christ, Church, connect feminism to the process metaphysics of Charles Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead, respectively.  

Others, drawing on the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, among other sources such as the definition of God as love in the First Epistle of John, define the reality of God as a relation, not an entity.  The lesbian Episcopal priest and theologian Carter Heyward defines God simply as “our power in mutual relation” in Touching Our Strength.  She uses this definition to explore new ways of thinking about sexual ethics and to follow liberation theologians in exploring religious demands for democratic socialism.  More detailed musings can be found in my diary about her.

Women’s Experience

Experience is the category with which feminist theology actually starts.  In large part, the feminist insistence on experience as a crucial starting point rests on an established theological tradition of treating experience as foundational in religious reflection.  Although significant precedents existed in Augustine’s Confessions, Quakerism, and Methodism, experience as an explicit formative method of theological inquiry was a product of post-Enlightenment theology. In the early nineteenth-century, the founder of liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, defined religion as the results of contemplation, rather than as a set of supernaturally imposed dictates, in his On Religion.  Feminist theology changes the terms of this theological method by combining experiences of ultimacy with women’s experiences of oppression as a starting point for reflection.  An especially important early essay along these lines was Valerie Saiving’s 1960 essay, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” reprinted in Womanspirit Rising, in which she criticized notions of sin as aggrandizement of self.  Rather, she asserted, women needed to develop stronger senses of self-worth in the face of temptation to “triviality, distractability, and diffuseness.”  For an example of how such an attention to experience does not mean a narrow and solipsistic attention to the self, see Rosemary Radford Ruether’s essay, Asking the Existential Questions.  Going back to Heyward’s understanding of God as relation, it becomes clear that when feminist theologians turn to experience as authoritative, it is not individual experience, but the experience of the self in relation to others that is crucial.

One way feminist theologians have probed the nature of women’s experience is by turning to women’s literature as a supplement to traditional theological treatises as a source for normative texts.  Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was a widely-used example.  Carol Christ was one of the first writers to take this approach in Diving Deep and Surfacing.  Katie Geneva Cannon treats the work of theologian Howard Thurman and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston as equivalent sources for ethical reflection in Black Womanist Ethics.  Kathleen Sands also turns to women’s literature in her construction of a feminist theological explanation of tragedy and evil.  Her book Escape from Paradise shows particularly well how feminist theologians can think through theological themes in such a way that bypasses the question of fidelity to established traditions as her starting point is an equal pairing of post-Christian thealogian Carol Christ and the Roman Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether.

But it can not be stressed strongly enough that feminist theology’s use of experience differs from the role of experience in thinkers like Schleiermacher or William James insofar as the experience in question must include the social, historical, and political struggle of women for equality and well-being for it to be feminist theology, rather than simply “theology written by women.”  In this respect, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s reconstruction of early Christian origins as a history of women’s struggle in In Memory of Her radically redefines the sense of fidelity to tradition, not as adherence to a belief system, but as solidarity with the sufferings and struggles of one’s forbears.  She describes her intellectual journey in Changing the Paradigms.  An important repercussion of her feminist account of Christian origins is to see Jesus not as a moral exemplar, but as a member of a Jewish renewal community – it is in the empowerment this community experienced, rather than in a supernatural infusion into Jesus’s person, that Schüssler Fiorenza locates the divine.  She examines the egalitarian impulse both of the community immediately surrounding Jesus and the House Churches to which Paul preached, and charts the struggle between this egalitarian approach and the patriarchal forces to which Christian institutions quickly accommodated.  An almost identical approach, charting gender struggles and tensions between equality and hierarchy at the outset of a religious tradition, can be found in Fatima Mernissi’s investigation of gender dynamics at the outset of Islam, The Veil and the Male Elite.  Although Schüssler Fiorenza clearly writes as a Christian, she and the non-religious semiotician Mieke Bal, author of a study of women in the book of Judges, Death and Dissymmetry, favorably judge each other’s work to be part of the same project of writing women back into history.  

In one of the more ironic twists in feminist theology, by the late 1980s  sometimes vehement critique emerged from African-American and Latin American theologians, often accurately accusing feminist theologians of taking white, middle-class experience to be normative in the same way male theologians had taken male experience to be normative for all people.  The irony in this development lies in the fact that several feminist theologians, including Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, and Sheila Collins, had been primed to challenge conventional theological paradigms through immersion in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

To redress the dominance of white voices, African-American and Latina women began to produce a rich work of Womanist and Mujerista theology.  A particularly tense moment in this development was the correspondence between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly.  Lorde took Daly to task for not acknowledging African sources of female empowerment and spirituality.  Although the correspondence was initially private, Lorde responded with an open letter, published in Sister Outsider, in which she claimed that Daly had never responded to her, though Daly’s reply was found among Lorde’s papers after her death.  Other womanists wrote their own constructive proposals. Jacqueline Grant, in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus retrieved Jesus in light of his importance in African-American churches after feminist theologians had deconstructed traditional doctrines of Christ.  Dolores S. Williams explores the story of Hagar as a root model for the experience of African-American women in Sisters in the Wilderness.  Like other feminists, she has little patience for substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus died for our sins, using the figure of the black “Mammy” to explicate problems in the idea of standing in for another person.  Her essay Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Voices is an excellent overview of womanist thought.  Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s En la Lucha/In the Struggle lays out the central themes of mujerista thought.  Though not strictly speaking a theologian, Gloria Anzaldua’s incorporation of Aztec mythology into her articulation of mestiza identity in Borderlands/La Frontera has proven to be an important contribution to feminist theology.


Another strand of feminist theology that emerged very early is an emphasis on valuing the body.  Feminists noted a persistent tendency in Western thought to link women with the body, and to claim a superior rationality for men.  While classical liberal feminism aimed to leave the category of rationality unchanged and simply show that women could be as rational as men, feminist theologians often took a Western denial of the body as a sign of spiritual pathology.  An early essay by Penelope Washbourne showed that women’s experience of bodily changes, exemplified in menstruation and menopause, made process theology, which understands God to undergo change, more amenable to feminism than classical theism.  In an anthropological study, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture,” published in Woman, Culture, and Society, Sherry Ortner observes a world-wide tendency of people to place women “closer to nature” than men.  In Sexism and God-talk, Rosemary Radford Ruether used this theory to critically interrogate every aspect of traditional theology.

Because of this emphasis on valuing the body, feminist theology has often merged its concerns with those of environmentalists, resulting in a rich body of ecofeminist theology, the most comprehensive anthology of which is Ecofeminism and the Sacred, which collects perspectives from a variety of religious traditions.  Sallie McFague has been particularly persistent in this regard, writing such books as The Body of God.  A shorter summary can be found in An Earthly Theological Agenda.  Rosemary Radford Ruether has been very helpful in  drawing attention to the fact that environmentalism is not something only privileged white women care about, drawing ecofeminist voices from around the world together in Women Healing Earth.  Ivone Gebarra is a Brazilian feminist who has also developed these themes more deeply in Longing for Running Water.

Directly related to the valuing of embodiment is a distinctive critique of a concern for the afterlife.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman had already anticipated this trend in feminist theology in her 1923 volume His Religion and Hers, in which she asks what the basic orientation in pre-industrial societies of men and women would be.  As hunters and warriors, men would be concerned with death, whereas as mothers, women’s immediate concerns would be with sustaining the life of another.  Thus, for Gilman, a concern with personal immortality is simply a matter of egoism.  Later, both Carol Christ and Rosemary Ruether would explicitly state that religious reflection must turn away from a concern with life after death, treating the matter with agnosticism.  Ruether points to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the vast majority of ancient Israelite religious expressions as evidence of worldviews in which the acceptance of deities does not imply a reward in the hereafter.  Ruether maintains that the biblical prophetic tradition, which sees salvation in terms of social justice rather than personal immortality, allows for Christians to accept human finitude without displacing hopes into another world.  In this respect, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has argued for a return to the “Empty Tomb” traditions, exemplified in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, which ends with women finding an empty tomb, and does not contain accounts of a physical resurrection of Jesus.  She sees the empty tomb as a metaphor for an absence that opens room for creative action in the present.  Thus Christian feminists have found ways to reconcile an affirmation of human mortality with the earliest Christian witness.  However, different traditions pose different challenges to this idea, and for the Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, author of Qur’an and Woman, the Qur’anic promise of equality in the hereafter is an integral part of her argument that Islam fundamentally asserts the equality of women and men.

If in the unlikely event that you still haven’t had enough, check out Nancy Frankenberry’s excellent overview of a closely related field, Feminist Philosophy of Religion.

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