The Common Good
September-October 1994

When Body Meets Soul

by Julie Polter | September-October 1994

Feminist theology seeks unity in diversity

Woman was defined as body only, historically. Man was mind and soul, the "better" part. As body, woman was dangerous, the home of lust, the issuer of defiling blood; she was chaos—like the sea, she only answered to the moon. She was without conscience and mind enough to know the way of righteousness on her own.

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Yet women have always been mystics and preachers, prophets and teachers, servants and leaders, as well as whores, virgins, and mothers.

Women have talked about God—have sought, defied, laughed with, cursed, praised, wept for, and pondered God. But their knowledge has been divided up, boxed away, and ignored, except for glimmers in the story, in the tradition—the name of the house church leader, the writings of a mystic, the story of a girl raped and killed. And in that boxing up, creation itself has been divided, defiled. The full revelation of God has been packed away.

Feminist theology is, in part, the effort to reunite body and soul. It is the effort for women to reclaim the power of speech, the power to tell what they know about God, to question the tradition that tried to take away their God-given voice, to create new expressions of the life of faith. As with all passionate endeavors, it can be both controversial and a rich source of life and energy in the church.

Questions that are raised by feminist theology, even by women who fiercely claim the Christian tradition, can seem to strike at the very foundations of that faith. Alternative expressions of spirituality that emerge as women explore life with God on their own terms can seem too strange, new, different.

But we have to place theology in its proper context. It has never been an exact science or a world of once-and-for-all pronouncements. A theologian is always exploring the shifting places where revelation, tradition, his or her current circumstances, and mystery meet. Uncertainty is intrinsic to authentic theology; God cannot be caged.

In the same way, rituals aren’t equations to be completed in just the right way to catch God’s attention; they are hypotheses to be tested and adjusted, again and again. Deep, eternal truths will manifest themselves in changing circumstances, but some elements of tradition will fall away, take new forms, or return to their original intent. (In this way, the sinful church is called again and again to understand that the liberation of Exodus will always trump cultural justifications for slavery.)

FEMINIST THEOLOGY BRINGS feminist theory into the conversation about God. Just as there is not one "feminist position," there is not a single feminist theology, even if one focuses on the Christian faith. Rather, feminist theology is a stream of interpretations and emphases, welling up from some shared assumptions, but with different currents and streamlets, at many points feeding into or being fed by other traditions.

What insights does feminist theory offer? Feminism asserts that historically what has been called the human understanding of the world has more often than not been subsumed in men’s understanding of the world. Human nature and the cosmos have been defined from the point of view of men’s experience, and further, women’s experience and perspective have been suppressed. As Maria Riley has written (Sojourners, July 1987), "Patriarchy includes those symbols, language patterns, attitudes, structures, systems, and social and cultural mores that constantly impress upon all women their inferiority and dependency."

Feminism holds that women are, in contrast to the implications of patriarchy, fully human and fully equal. In light of this, women and men of conscience must name oppression, think about its sources, and claim their own understanding of reality. This counters the dualism that is dominant in much of human culture, which starts (consciously or not) from an assumption that authentic selfhood is male, with female being the "other," a deviant from the "norm."

Among the basic agreements and assumptions shared among feminist theologians is that most traditional theology is in fact patriarchal, created with men as its norm and men as its primary audience. (Although some women mystics and prophets in every age have been the exception to this patriarchal norm.)

Another commonly agreed upon understanding is that such theology is not only distorted and limiting of God’s creation in theory, but helps to shape worldviews, culture, and actions. Theology that denigrates women supports—even sacralizes—behavior, attitudes, and structures that do the same in society.

Finally, feminist theologians agree that women need to create theology. Women need to develop alternative interpretations of theological sources (such as scripture and tradition) that have been misused to oppress, and to seek other sources from the vantage point of women’s experience.

There is not a single feminist theological method. A given Christian feminist theology, like any other specific example of Christian theology, may draw more heavily from some sources than others, and may hold different parts of tradition as more authoritative than others. The church tradition of a feminist theologian will often influence whether she or he concentrates more on, for example, church teaching, scripture, or the authenticity of new revelation through the Holy Spirit.

MOST CHRISTIAN FEMINIST theologians fall within a broad range that has been called liberation feminism. Their primary interest is the liberation of women with the eventual goal of human liberation of all sorts. Such feminists may view scripture as their central authority or as just one of several (including tradition, other writings, and women’s experience).

Others take women’s experience as the primary norm for assessing theology: Is this theology credible to women’s experience? In other words, if it can be used to promote the interests of a small group over those of the whole, if in any way it can be used to deem women non-persons, it is not credible, no matter what place it has held in Christian tradition.

Theologians who claim a Christian identity fall within the "reform" approach of feminist theology. Individually they may claim any number of the above criteria for authority (scripture; combination of scripture, tradition, and experience; or women’s experience alone), but they have also made a primary affiliation or commitment to the Christian community of faith or the non-patriarchal vision demonstrated by Jesus. Other theologians have firmly decided that the Christian tradition can in no way be redeemed from patriarchy (what has been termed a "rejectionist" approach) and now would be termed post-Christian.

While acknowledging the ways the Bible has been used as justification for women’s subordination, some Christian feminists affirm that moving throughout scripture and proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus Christ is an egalitarian, mutual, all-inclusive vision of what God calls creation to become. This biblical feminism takes the Bible as both the source for theology and the primary authority or norm for its authenticity.

Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty wrote All We’re Meant to Be in the late 1970s, a landmark book based on an evangelical feminist, non-literal reading of the Bible. Using critical methods, research of tradition, and comparison of different passages, biblical feminists assess it holistically. Some verses are then held to be less authoritative for our times because they reflect specific cultural circumstances (such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, "Let a woman learn in silence in full submission..."), rather than universal doctrinal statements.

Letty Russell, a Presbyterian minister (based in Harlem for many years) and theologian, argues (as has Rosemary Radford Ruether) that a "liberating tradition" located in the Bible’s "‘prophetic-messianic’ message" serves as a self-critique of the Bible itself and critiques all structures of oppression. Russell emphasizes theology as action, relationship, and reflection—the shared work of communities (comprised of all different sorts of people) of struggle and faith. She sees the biblical story as "open-ended," being continued by those who struggle against oppression "in the light of hope in God’s promise."

Others explore theology and ritual through gatherings of primarily (although often not exclusively) women for alternative worship ceremonies that explore symbols from both inside and outside of Christian tradition that speak to women. These include the member groups of the predominantly Catholic "Women-church" network, and a multitude of independent groups, affiliated with churches and not, ecumenical and interfaith, clergywomen groups and lay.

These broad approaches can serve as markers in the flow or range of Christian feminist theology. It is best not to make idols of categories, however, for often a theological position is really a hybrid of different approaches. For example, Sojourners has maintained a feminist position that is deeply rooted in the central authority of scripture. And active, concrete pursuit of liberation for all peoples also has been intrinsic to Sojourners’ understanding of the Christian message.

OTHER APPROACHES TO feminist theological work arise to address the fact that the women’s experience cited as key to feminism and feminist theology has often meant white, middle-class women’s experience. White women feminists can be racist and classist (actively or passively). Feminists have not always been aware that both their diagnosis of oppression and definitions of liberation have drawn from a dominant culture that might not have the same truth in the experience of the African-American woman, the Latina woman, the Asian woman, the Appalachian woman, and so on.

But creating "hierarchies of suffering" isn’t especially helpful for anyone; neither is allowing those whose primary interest is the preservation of the status quo, not the elimination of sexism or racism, to pit women against one another. And as Susan Thistlethwaite, a theologian who also counsels domestic abuse victims, notes, patriarchy can kill racially and financially privileged women too.

Still, different experience draws forth different analysis and must claim different roots. Many black women have claimed the term "womanist" to describe themselves as black feminists, distinct from black males and white feminists. (For a review of three recent womanist works, see "Wading in the Water," by Cheryl J. Sanders, August 1994). Latina mujerista theologians such as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Korean theologian Chung Hyun Chung, Chinese theologian Kwok Pui-Lan, and many, many others create new expressions of Christian faith that are specific to their culture and place.

White feminism has often talked of a sort of universal "sisterhood." Womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant writes that "sisterhood" or "partnership" between black women and white might not be possible, since often it would be nothing more than reconciliation without liberation or repentance. But "coalition" might be the answer—"temporary alliance for some specific purpose." Various forms of oppression—racism, classism, sexism, and imperialism—are all interconnected, Grant contends. No one of them can be eliminated by challenging them separately. Black women cannot simply put aside two-thirds of their "triple burden" of race, sex, and class to engage in sisterhood.

These insights have been working their way throughout current feminist theology, with white theologians such as Thistlethwaite critiquing the lack of attention to difference in women’s experience within the dominant white feminist movement. While a case could be made that feminism and feminist theology have always made some interconnection between systems of oppression, such connections—and the need for autonomy and acknowledgment of conflict among different groups of women—are becoming both more intrinsic to all feminist theology and more concrete.

Elizabeth Bettenhausen notes that while the naming and active work of resistance to oppression is now often trivialized and dismissed, people of faith are no less called to do justice. Multiple aspects of human existence are marginalized and designated as inferior in the United States: "Sex, race, class, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, mental condition—even this is the short list," Bettenhausen asserts. All subjugation is what those who would call themselves feminist must work to actively resist.

This interconnection of work for justice, among women of very different backgrounds and theological self-definitions, may be one of the most exciting and much-needed ways that feminist theological work can feed the church as it goes into the next century. Deep connections have already been made between environmental concerns and feminist theology (as both work to reunite spiritual understandings with the body, whether the human body or the body of creation.)

Likewise, many feminist theologians are investigating (and working against) many edges of pain and brokenness in the world that have been neglected (and often implicitly sustained, via sexual repression and denial) by the church. Prostitution, the global sex trade, sexual abuse in the church, and child abuse are being treated seriously by theologians as places of deep pain and injustice that must be spiritually addressed, as places where God must be, and as places where previously unheard stories of faith and doubt, healing and crucifixion, are told.

FEMINIST THEOLOGY USUALLY evokes strong reactions, positive and negative, but often negative. An event like the November 1993 "Re-Imagining" conference, a gathering to explore women’s concepts of God, Jesus, church, sexuality, and family, is still drawing angry fire from many members of the sponsoring denominations 10 months later, and has resulted in the forced resignation of at least one national Presbyterian staff person because of the controversy. Some of the tension about Re-Imagining has arisen from isolated incidents being pulled out of context to characterize the whole event negatively, and conversely, from inadequate dialogue about feminist theology with people in the pews.

But lurking beneath much of the strong emotion, the fear that arises around an event like the Re-Imagining conference, is the primal belief that woman is indeed inherently "pagan" or even "demonic." Some women, whether post-Christian or of other faith origins, have in fact freely claimed "pagan" roots or God-dess worship. Some might, as human beings are wont to do, assume that they have found the only true path and reject women who maintain ties to patriarchal religious traditions.

But this is a long way from the assumption bandied about by many critics of feminist theology that all woman-centered spiritual exploration, organizing, analysis, and challenge is inherently outside of the Christian tradition, or leading people to the door. It is also a long way from assuming that most women who have chosen to consider themselves post-Christian maintain a goal of drawing other women "away from the faith."

Many women have freely chosen to claim deep roots in Christian tradition and scripture and a firm commitment to challenging pervasive male domination. There can be very real contradictions in doing so. There are those (both from a Christian perspective and from a feminist perspective) who say it is impossible. But there is no such thing as a life of faith, a meeting of human being and mystery, that does not have contradictions, paradoxes, and questions.

Such women do not lack human conscience with which to discern the authenticity of their path and their experience of Spirit and God. (It must also be made clear that women who choose other faith explorations or traditions or no faith at all also make their choices from full human conscience as well.) Women who claim feminism are not somehow more or less vulnerable to idolatry than the priest who thirsts for power, the literalist who puts faith in a translation rather than God, or the church committee that favors the building fund over feeding the poor.

The title of a just-released book, Defecting in Place, describes the situation of many women. They are seeking out groups within which to explore women’s spirituality, stretching their own creativity and skills, claiming responsibility for their spiritual lives and understandings—and remaining committed to their faith communities, congregations, and denominations, often in positions of lay or clerical leadership. While alienated in some ways from the church institutions, they are claiming church as the people of God, and challenging the institutions to follow.

People have, almost from the beginning, tried to make the Christian church concrete and unchanging. While the institutions of the church have their dynamic moments, the community of faith, the body of Christ, is where the Spirit truly makes its home. If we do not open our eyes to the whole body, male and female, who can say what Pentecostal fire we will miss?

Julie Polter is a senior associate editor for Sojourners.

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