Feminist Theology: Christian Feminist Theology

views updated


Christianity's encounter with feminism might be one of the most significant revolutions ever to happen within the Christian tradition, rivaling the impact of the early councils or the reformation in its implications for the future of Christian belief and practice. Although feminism continues to be marginalized, ignored, or condemned by many Christians, its effects are felt across the whole spectrum of contemporary Christianity.

Feminist theology emerged in the United States during the 1960s when so-called second wave feminism was making an impact on academic ideas as well as on western politics and culture. European feminists have made their own distinctive contribution. In the last forty years, feminist theology has become a global movement representing a wide range of cultural, political, and religious perspectives. The Ecumenical Association of Third-World Theologians (EATWOT) has provided a significant forum for the development of feminist theologies in engagement with a wide range of women's concerns and experiences from all five continents.

However, it is also true that women have been doing theology since the early church, and the task of feminist theologians is as much about retrieving the neglected voices of women of the past as it is about formulating new theological symbols and values for the present and the future. The Woman's Bible, a critique of Christianity produced in the 1890s by American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902), is regarded as an important founding moment in Christian feminism. Today, feminist theological reflection includes academic scholarship as well as literature, music, liturgy, and a range of insights drawn from the exploration of women's experiences in many different contexts. Although feminist theology is not simply another form of liberation theology, its challenge to the oppression and exploitation of women gives it a strongly liberationist perspective.

The publication of Valerie Saiving's article in 1960, "The Human Situation: A Feminine View" (Saiving, 1992), has with hindsight been recognized as a key event in the contemporary development of feminist theology. Saiving asked the extent to which Christian concepts of sin (pride, ambition, self-centeredness) are influenced by masculine perspectives so that they do not reflect feminine sins (self-denigration, triviality, lack of focus). Feminist theology thus began to question much of what had gone before, not only in terms of women's place in the church, but more generally in terms of the gendering of theological ideas and in the implicit and explicit privileging of the masculine over the feminine at every level of Christian doctrine and practice.

The encounter between feminism and theology was given added impetus by the Second Vatican Council (19621965), which encouraged Roman Catholics to enter into a positive engagement with the non-Catholic world. Pioneers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Johnson were Catholics working in the initially optimistic climate that followed the council. Daly's 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, offered a hard-hitting feminist critique of Christian misogyny, but still expressed hope that the church could be transformed. Later editions include disclaimers in which Daly makes clear her subsequent rejection of Christianity as irredeemably patriarchal (Daly, 1985). Daphne Hampson has come to the same conclusion about the impossibility of reconciliation between feminism and the Christian tradition (Hampson, 1996).

Nevertheless, feminist theology brings together academics, activists, and believers from all denominations, men as well as women, who believe that the Christian faith, however problematic, can be transformed and continues to offer a message of hope for the world. While it is impossible to do justice to the full range of feminist theological reflection in a short survey, this is an overview of general trends and significant developments in a field of study that is constantly evolving as new perspectives emerge.

Women's Experience

In 1983, Ruether defined "the critical principle of feminist theology" as "the promotion of the full humanity of women" (Ruether, 1992, p. 18). This definition has inspired a process of theological reflection that begins with women's experience, in recognition of the fact that theology has been almost exclusively informed by the experiences of men. Although theology as a discipline is concerned with reflection upon the nature of God as revealed in scripture, the natural law, and the prayerful use of human reason (described by St. Anselm as "faith seeking understanding"), feminists point out the extent to which theological knowledge is shaped by the cultural context and bodily specificity of the theologian, including his or her gendered embodiment. Strictly speaking, therefore, the appeal to women's experience need not be seen as an attempt to construct a theory of God from the starting point of woman but rather as a corrective to the androcentrism of existing theological discourse. If Christianity recognizes the ultimate mystery and unspeakability of God, it also believes that it can and, indeed, must speak of God in the language and concepts of human embodiment because it believes that God is supremely and (for some) uniquely and exclusively revealed in the human person of Jesus Christ and in the Bible. If male and female are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), then the human understanding of God requires the theological participation of both sexes. To bring women's perspectives into theology is not simply to "add women and stir," but to introduce a catalyst capable of initiating radical transformation.

Nevertheless, the appeal to women's experience has been criticized by some feminists and by some antagonistic to feminism. An early and significant critique came from those who argued that the work of theologians such as Ruether and Daly was premised on the experience of white Western women, and that the category of "woman" did not reflect the plurality and diversity of women's experiences in different contexts. As a result, feminist theology now embraces a wide range of perspectives and methods. In seeking to express both a relationship to and a distance from Western feminism, these diverse theologies use a variety of names, including, among others, womanist theology (arising out of the experiences of black North American women), dalit women's theology (which explores the situation of low-caste Christian women in India), concerned African women's theology (primarily focusing on the encounter between African culture, Christianity, and feminism), minjung feminist theology (Korean women's theology from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized), and mujerista theology (informed by the experiences of Hispanic-American women) (King, 1994). This plurality means that methods and sources extend far beyond those regarded as theological in the strictly academic sense, including, among others, oral traditions, literature, art, biography, and autobiography.

While these theologies are often based on a liberal or liberationist approach, since the early 1990s a growing number of feminist theologians have adopted a postmodernist perspective informed by the deconstructive and poststructuralist approaches of secular feminist theory, and by the work of critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva (Chopp and Davaney, 1997; Kim, St. Ville, and Simonaitis, 1993). From this perspective, the appeal to women's experience is problematized by the recognition that all experience is socially constructed and linguistically mediated, and it is argued that feminist theology needs to concern itself with the analysis of theological language and symbolism. Although this approach has gained some currency, there has been considerable debate over the extent to which political concerns for justice become marginalized if feminist theology aligns itself too closely with theory at the expense of practice. As Janet Martin Soskice notes, "Feminism in theology may lack the theoretical framework of some of its sister subjects, but its prospect for reaching millions of lives, including those of the world's poorest women, is immense" (Soskice in Soskice and Lipton, 2003, p. 8).

Another critique of the appeal to experience comes from those who argue that theological reflection cannot begin with the individual subject but must take the form of a prayerful encounter with the revelation of God. From this perspective, while it is right to criticize excessive androcentrism as a failing in the theological tradition, the corrective is not to introduce another foundational form of gendered subjectivity but to rediscover the importance of doing theology in a space of communication between human awareness and divine revelation within the context of the Christian community (Martin, 1994). Feminists such as Linda Woodhead and Susan Parsons have raised similar concerns, arguing that feminist theology risks the sacrifice of a vital transcendent perspective of faith and hope in favor of a more modernist and individualistic rhetoric of women's liberation (Woodhead, 1997; Parsons, 2000).

Theological Language

Potentially the most challenging aspect of feminist theology is its questioning of Christian concepts of God. At one level, this involves the recognition that theological language is almost exclusively masculine, with God being referred to in concepts associated with fatherhood and maleness, and never with images that evoke maternal feminine characteristics. Although the idea of referring to God as "mother" or "she" is anathema to many modern Christians, theological language was in the past much more fluid in terms of gender, frequently referring to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit in maternal metaphors and symbols. Feminist theologians whose work is informed by critical theory reject the appeal to inclusive language as masking rather than resolving the problem of androcentrism. They would argue that symbols and language must be deconstructed in order to identify the dynamics of power, dissimulation, and ideological manipulation that are encoded within the structures, values, and relationships of theological narratives.

The critique of masculine theological language also challenges the privileging of the Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus Christ, and the representation of the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity, perceived as masculine. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, in God for Us, argues that western theology constructed its doctrine of the Trinity around a hierarchy of relationships that in turn lends justification to social hierarchies based on submission to patriarchal authority figures. She seeks the reclamation of a more interpersonal understanding of the Trinity through an appeal to pre-Nicene theology, particularly that of the Cappadocians, arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity is practical and has radical social implications (LaCugna, 1992). Elizabeth Johnson, in her influential book She Who Is, argues that the mystery of God as Trinity can only be expressed through a rich plurality of images and associations, including both male and female terms (Johnson 1992).

While these constitute feminist refigurations of, rather than departures from, traditional theology, some radical feminist theologians (sometimes referred to in the feminized form as thealogians) would associate the Judeo-Christian tradition with the triumph of patriarchal monotheism over the more matriarchal goddess religions. They would advocate the reclamation of goddess worship and symbolism as a resource for women's spirituality. While for some this entails the transformation rather than the rejection of Christianity, including the reclamation of the Virgin Mary as the goddess of the Christian tradition, others would see it as a form of post-Christian feminist spirituality that liberates women from the constraints of patriarchal religion (Baring and Cashford, 1991).

The Bible

Feminist biblical criticism has in its short history exhibited a dynamic and innovative capacity for scriptural interpretation, discovering in the biblical narratives a multifaceted resource for the critique of patriarchy and for the reclamation of women's stories of redemption. Feminist hermeneutics entail the recognition that the meaning of a text depends both upon the context in which it was written and the context in which it is interpreted. To consciously read the Bible as a woman and to resist dominant, androcentric readings is to discover previously unrecognized challenges and meanings. This also involves the acknowledgment that the authors of scripture were male and that the Bible, like every other text, is situated within particular cultural and historical contexts that reflect the perspectives of its authors. The quest for revelation thus becomes a struggle with the text, and a resistance to authoritative readings that justify the subordination or oppression of women. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza pioneered a hermeneutical approach that seeks to reclaim the lives of the women around Jesus and in the early church, arguing that the first Christian communities were radically egalitarian and that women shared roles of discipleship and leadership with their male counterparts (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1994a and 1994b). No less influential is the rhetorical criticism and exegesis of Phyllis Trible, whose readings of the Hebrew scriptures challenge existing orthodoxies, particularly with regard to the construction of sexual hierarchies through an appeal to the story of Genesis 23 (Trible, 1978).

The participation of women from many different cultural perspectives also brings rich new insights to biblical interpretation (King, 1994, pp. 183242). The Womanist theologian, Delores Williams, proposes a reading of the story of Hagar in Genesis 16-21 as one in which Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman persecuted and sexually exploited in the patriarchal household of Abraham, reflects the experiences of black women in the United States (Williams, 1993). The women disciples of Jesus and those who feature in the Pauline letters have been the focus of extensive feminist study, as have the Pauline injunctions on marriage and on women's behavior in church.

While all feminist biblical criticism is to some extent deconstructive, in recent years there has been a significant shift in some feminist approaches to the Bible, through the adoption of a more theoretical linguistic approach to the study of texts. This includes asking to what extent women in ancient literature are in fact ciphers employed by male writers rather than reliable historical accounts. From this perspective, the attempt to reconstruct women's histories from biblical and early Christian texts becomes a more challenging task than has previously been recognized (Clark, 1998).

Embodiment, Sexuality, and Nature

The position of the female body in Christian worship, language, and ethics is a central concern of feminist theology (Isherwood and Stuart 1998). Again, the ways in which this is addressed vary widely according to different theological perspectives and contexts. For some, the belief that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ raises a fundamental question about the place of the female body in the doctrine of salvation, summarized in Ruether's question, "Can a male savior save women?" (Ruether, 1992). For Ruether, the answer is dependent upon the recognition that Christ's maleness is a contingency of his humanity, and does not have doctrinal significance. Sarah Coakley analyzes the representation of sexuality and the body in Christian texts to show the ambiguity and inherent instability of theological concepts of gender (Coakley, 2002). Others explore the significance of the Virgin Mary as one who bodily participated in the incarnation in a way that has redemptive significance for the female body (Beattie, 2002).

Related to questions about the masculinity of Christ are questions about the role of the female body in relation to Christian symbols and sacraments. Given the relationship between the shedding of Christ's blood, the doctrine of salvation, and the doctrine of the Eucharist, some women theologians ask what symbolic associations might be discovered between the body of Christ and the body of women in terms of their capacity to nurture, to bleed, and to give new life. From an anthropological perspective, Nancy Jay's work has been influential in exploring the relationship between religious concepts of sacrifice and taboos against women priests associated with fears of menstruation and childbirth (Jay, 1992). Bynum has shown that there was a close association between female embodiment and the body of Christ in medieval women's devotions, based on the belief that the divinity of Christ derived from God the Father, but his humanity derived from the female flesh of his mother (Bynum, 1992).

Another area of widespread concern to feminist theologians is the question of female sexuality, which has almost universally been portrayed in negative terms in Christian writings. While obedient and chaste women modeled on the Virgin Mary have been seen as worthy exemplars of Christian womanhood, female sexuality associated with Eve, temptation, sin, and death has been viewed with fear and condemnation. Christian feminists seek the celebration of sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular as a God-given dimension of human embodiment. For some, this includes the affirmation of lesbian sexuality and its capacity to express Christian love and friendship between women (Stuart, 1995). For others, the primary concern is the extent to which women and children continue to be victims of sexual violence and abuse, both with regard to the ongoing problem of domestic violence and to the burgeoning problem of the global sex trade (King, 1994, pp. 10579).

Questions about the theological significance of the female body open into wider concerns regarding Christian attitudes toward nature, given the long-standing association between female embodiment and nature. Women's theologies are thus often deeply influenced by the arguments and ideas of eco-feminism, seeking a way beyond modern attitudes of domination and exploitation in order to rediscover a sense of the goodness of creation and the interdependence of the relationship between humankind and the natural world (McFague, 1993).

At a time when many secular academics regard the whole pursuit of theology as moribund or anachronistic, it is in the field of feminist studies that this discipline continues to develop with vitality and intellectual vigor, exposing the extent to which the practices and methods of Christian scholarship have been intellectually limited by the unacknowledged biases of patriarchy and androcentrism. To say this is not to dismiss the legitimate criticisms that have been made of some feminist arguments, nor is it to deny that feminists too bring their own ideological presuppositions and cultural assumptions to their task. Feminist theologians face complex challenges, not least in accommodating the perspectives of those women who resist some or all of their claims because they still find in traditional forms of Christianity a deep source of meaning and inspiration. The challenge is to sustain a sense of the Christian community as inclusive, interactive, and mutually responsible for the creation of a materially significant culture of redemptive hope, while continuing to work for the transformation of a tradition that is also associated with a long and tragic history of violence, sexual oppression, and abusive power relations, which have been both sanctioned and challenged by the Christian understanding of God.

See Also

Androcentrism; Biblical Exegesis, article on Christian Views; Ecology and Religion; Feminine Sacrality; Feminism, article on French Feminists on Religion; Gaia; Gender and Religion, overview article, articles on Gender and Christianity, History of Study; Gender Roles; God; Goddess Worship; Gynocentrism; Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Gender; Liberation Theology; Mary; Patriarchy and Matriarchy; Priesthood; Sexuality; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Thealogy; Virgin Goddess; Women's Studies in Religion.


Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, 1991. The authors offer an in-depth study of goddess myths and religions that they argue have been repressed or annihilated by Judeo-Christian patriarchal monotheism.

Beattie, Tina. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation. London and New York, 2002. Beattie reads the texts of the early church and recent Catholic theology in engagement with Luce Irigaray and other critical theorists, to argue for the symbolic reclamation of Eve and Mary in the Christian story.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York, 1992. Bynum's study of medieval attitudes towards gender and the body in the writings of Christian mystics, saints, and theologians has proved an enduring resource for feminist scholarship.

Chopp, Rebecca S., and Sheila Greeve Davaney, eds. Horizons in Feminist Theology: Identity, Tradition, and Norms. Minneapolis, 1997. Chopp and Davaney bring together a range of feminist theologians in essays that explore the significance of feminist theory for feminist theology. For a debate concerning the relevance and the limitations of this approach, see also Emily R. Neil et al., "Roundtable Discussion: From Generation to Generation. Horizons in Feminist Theology or Reinventing the Wheel?" in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15, no. 1 (1999): 102138.

Clark, Elizabeth A. "The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the 'Linguistic Turn'" Church History 67, no. 1 (1998): 131. Clark's article is informative for those seeking to understand the problematic relationship between poststructuralist and deconstructive approaches to language, and the feminist retrievals of early Christian women's histories.

Coakley, Sarah. Powers and Submission: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender. Oxford, and Malden, Mass., 2002. Coakley brings a finely honed feminist sensibility to her reading of the Christian tradition in these wide-ranging essays analyzing western philosophy and theology.

Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. Boston, 1985. First published in 1968, reissued in 1975 with an autobiographical preface and feminist postchristian introduction, and in 1985 with a new archaic afterword; the various versions of this book offer an insight into one woman's journey from radical Catholic theologian to controversial post-Christian feminist.

Hampson, Daphne. After Christianity. London, 1996. Hampson argues that Christianity is neither true nor moral and must be rejected as a false patriarchal myth to allow for new ways of conceptualizing God that more truthfully reflect the experiences and spiritual ideals of people today.

Isherwood, Lisa, and Elizabeth Stuart. Introducing Body Theology. Sheffield, U.K., 1998. This book provides a good survey of feminist concerns regarding the theological representation of the relationship between the body, sexuality, and spirituality.

Jay, Nancy. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago, 1992. Jay's interdisciplinary study of sacrifice leads her to argue that blood sacrifice is a means of establishing and sustaining patriarchal social structures that allow paternal lineage to transcend the maternal relationship established by childbirth and motherhood.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, 1992. Johnson offers a feminist re-evaluation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in a careful reading of the Catholic tradition and its influential thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Karl Rahner.

Kim, C.W. Maggie, Susan M. St. Ville, and Susan M. Simonaitis, eds. Transfigurations: Theology & The French Feminists. Minneapolis, 1993. This edited collection of essays offers a critical engagement with feminist theology from the perspective of French feminism.

King, Ursula, ed. Feminist Theology from the Third World: A Reader. London and Maryknoll, N.Y., 1994. King's selection of feminist theological writings from around the world gives a sense of the range of hopes and struggles that informs Christian women in their engagement with feminism and of the methods and perspectives that shape their work.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, 1992. LaCugna interprets the doctrine of the Trinity as having far-reaching practical implications for human relationships, through the ways in which theology understands the action of God in the world.

Martin, Francis. The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition. (Edinburgh, 1994). While Martin acknowledges the importance of feminist theology, he is critical of its foundationalism in appealing to the individual experiencing subject as the source of theological knowledge.

McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis, 1993. Using the idea of the universe as a metaphor for the body of God, McFague seeks the transformation of Christian attitudes to the body and creation. Although her work has been criticized by some scholars for its misreading of the Christian tradition, she remains an influential resource for feminist environmental theology.

Parsons, Susan Frank. "Accounting for Hope: Feminist Theology as Fundamental Theology" in Challenging Women's Orthodoxies in the Context of Faith. Aldershot, U.K., 2003. Parsons criticizes the work of some feminist theologians, particularly Ruether and Fiorenza, for a nihilistic tendency in which the hope of the Christian faith in God is negated in favor of a politicized approach that fails to recognize its own collusion in perpetuating modern forms of power and control.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology. London, 1992; first published, 1983. One of the pioneering books of feminist theology, Ruether's work, although sometimes criticized for its liberal orientation, remains highly influential for a new generation of feminist scholars.

Saiving, Valerie. "The Human Situation: A Feminine View," first published 1960. In Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. San Francisco, 1992. Saiving's essay is widely recognized as a pioneering analysis of the gendering of sin in the Christian tradition.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, second edition, first published 1983. London, 1994a. Although her historical interpretation of women in the early Church has been criticized, Schüssler Fiorenza's work remains an important resource for feminist biblical hermeneutics.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, ed. Searching the Scriptures, Volumes 1 and 2. New York and London, 1994b. This two-volume edited collection provides an excellent insight into the methods, approaches, and concerns of feminist biblical scholars.

Soskice, Janet Martin and Diana Lipton, eds. Feminism & Theology. Oxford, 2003. This anthology of writings by Jewish and Christian women reflects the ways in which the encounter between feminism and theology is explored in literature, historical studies, theological reflection, and biblical studies.

Stuart, Elizabeth. Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships. London, 1995. Stuart asks what it would mean for the church to accept gays and lesbians as equal in the eyes of God, and what heterosexuals might learn from this acceptance.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Minneapolis, 1978. Trible's acclaimed study of the Hebrew scriptures, including her vastly influential re-reading of the story of Genesis 13, continues to be an important resource for feminist biblical criticism.

Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. London and Minneapolis, 2003; first published 1984. Trible analyzes some of the most problematic texts of the Hebrew scriptures in their representation of violence against women and shows how they can be read as a divine protest against rather than an endorsement of such violence.

Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993. Williams presents a Womanist theology in which she examines the doctrines and values of Christianity from the perspective of black American women's experiences, including their history of slavery and sexual and economic exploitation.

Woodhead, Linda. "Spiritualising the Sacred: A Critique of Feminist Theology." In Modern Theology 13, no. 2. (April 1997). Woodhead offers a critique of feminist theology for failing to represent the true interests of women through its conformity to modern individualistic ideas of spirituality and its neglect of traditional theological methods materially rooted in communal practices of faithfulness and prayer.

Tina Beattie (2005)

About this article

Feminist Theology: Christian Feminist Theology

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article