Feminist Theology

views updated May 21 2018


Feminist theology examines the meaning and implications of Christian faith from the perspective of a commitment to justice for females. An intellectual development with profound spiritual, psychological, and political implications, it shares with Christian theology in general the classic aim of "faith seeking understanding," but is distinguished by two additional features. The first is the assumption that standard theology has been skewed by longstanding sexism in the tradition. According to this analysis, both social arrangements (patriarchy) and ideological biases (androcentrism) have privileged males and failed to do justice to females; thus an intellectually and morally adequate theology requires significant correction of previous work in all theological disciplines. The second distinguishing feature of feminist theology is a methodological commitment to emphasizing women's experience, in all its complexity and diversity, while conducting the tasks of theological reflection. These tasks generally involve three things: critique of sexist interpretations and practices; retrieval of women's past contributions to ecclesial life and theological reflection; and, construction of more just and accurate interpretations and practices.

There are many definitions and types of feminism, and much controversy about the meanings and implications of the various types (see feminism). Some definitions emphasize the participation of women as subjects of their own liberative process against the injustice of sexism, while others emphasize that human beings of both sexes are capable of recognizing and opposing this evil. These two types may be designated respectively as "woman-centered feminism" and "inclusive feminism." They are different, but each captures true aspects of the movement and has useful practical applications. Feminism is understood here inclusively as a position that involves a solid conviction of the equality of women and men, and a commitment to reform society and to reform the thought systems that legitimate the present social order. Those who espouse feminism, however, differ widely in their analyses of injustice, levels of commitment to liberating action, degrees of explicitness of commitment, and opinions regarding specific problems and their solutions.

This presentation first sketches the main lines of the historical development of feminist theology, and then describes some of its substantive contributions to various fields and topics traditionally explored by theologians. Although the emphasis is on U.S. Roman Catholicism, it is important to recognize that feminist theology has an inherently ecumenical dimension and has engaged the energies of many Catholic and Protestant (and some Orthodox) scholars throughout the world. It has an interfaith dimension as well, sharing concerns with analogous movements among feminist thinkers from Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and other traditions. From the beginning, Catholic women in the United States have played a leading role in the development of feminist theology, thanks to the insight and dedication of pioneering laywomen and vowed women religious, and to the intellectual heritage of Catholic women's colleges. These colleges prepared a climate for the practice and reception of feminist theology by establishing a tradition of women's higher learning and leadership unparalleled elsewhere. The exclusion of women from the sacrament of orders has also influenced some women to pursue academic theology, since female leadership has been possible in academic settings, whereas it has been limited in institutional and pastoral settings.

Launching a Movement: 196075. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, theology had functioned mainly to educate future priests, who studied Latin texts in classes that were often isolated from wider social and intellectual currents. Some lay persons took courses in neoscholastic philosophy and theology in Catholic colleges and universities, and religious sisters and brothers read some works related to their vocation, but only the clergy had access to doctoral programs that would prepare them for research and teaching at advanced levels in the field. An early exception to this rule was the graduate program inaugurated at St. Mary's College in Indiana by Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, CSC, in 1944. Only in the 1960s did wider access to theological studies become available to women in the United States. At that time a "second wave" of feminism was underway, and papal and conciliar documents were beginning to affirm women's basic equality and political rights in ways that would have astonished those who decades earlier had campaigned for women's suffrage in the face of opposition from the hierarchy.

Several provisions of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, or GS ) were particularly influential in inspiring Catholic women to look critically at their own tradition and undertake theological studies in view of advancing the reforms initiated by the council. The first was the recognition that because of the essential equality of all persons (homines in the original Latin, a term that includes females in a manner that "men" does not), "any kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design" (#29). Furthermore, the council also affirmed a more dynamic, historically conscious understanding of God's will for humanity than had previously held sway, with all that this implies in terms of openness to the genuinely new: "In each nation and social group there is a growing number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the architects and molders of their community's culture. All over the world the sense of autonomy and responsibility increases with effects of the greatest importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of humankind" (#55). Although GS itself retains much of the androcentrism of its time, and hardly anticipates the effects its ideas would have on feminist readers, passages such as the above marked a significant change and opened new vistas for progressive women and men.

Women were not specified in the crucial paragraph (#62), which voices the hope that "more of the laity will receive adequate theological formation and that some among them will dedicate themselves professionally to these studies and contribute to their advancement." The language does not rule out women's participation, and it was soon interpreted inclusively by various Catholic universities and seminaries. Moreover, by affirming intellectual freedom in theology, the final sentence of this paragraph states a principle that contributed both to male support of women's involvement in the discipline and also to the development of feminist positions by theologians: "But for the proper exercise of this role [of theologian], the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, of thought, and of expression, tempered by humility and courage in whatever branch of study they have specialized."

A number of Catholic women had anticipated this conciliar invitation and begun theological studies earlier in the United States or Europe, among whom Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Ruether have been particularly influential. Schüssler Fiorenza's Der vergessene Partner, a pioneering study of possibilities for women in ministry, was published in 1964. Daly's highly influential The Church and the Second Sex appeared in 1968. Drawing on insights of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Daly raised critical questions regarding Catholic doctrine and practice and offered some "modest proposals" for reform. Within several years Daly moved to a "postchristian" religious stance, and in 1973 she leveled a sustained critique of classical theology in Beyond God the Father. Meanwhile, many other Catholic women were moving through doctoral studies in various theological disciplines and beginning to publish early examples of feminist theology. These thinkers were influenced by biblical themes and traditional theology as well as by secular feminism and the works of "critical" and liberation theologians such as Jürgen Habermas, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and James Cone. By 1975, which had been declared International Women's Year by the United Nations, Ruether and Schüssler Fiorenza had published works that began to enlarge the feminist theological agenda by making connections with concerns about racism, anti-Semitism, colonialism, economic injustice, and ecological wellbeing; all of which they argued were the effects of patriarchy. The early phase in the U.S. feminist theological movement culminated in two historic events that took place in 1975. First, in late November more than 1,200 persons gathered in Detroit for the first national meeting of the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC), where for the first time a significant number of female theologians joined with male colleagues to probe a question of vital importance to the Church. After this historic meeting WOC sponsored a series of national events, including one to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary in Milwaukee in 2000, and helped to plan an international conference on women's ordination, Women's Ordination Worldwide, held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2001. Second, in December 1975, the Jesuit journal, Theological Studies, published a special issue on "Women: New Dimensions," which carried articles by women who would later contribute major works of feminist theology (reprinted in Burghardt1977).

Gaining Ground: 197590. Organizational activities and feminist theological scholarship intensified in the second stage of the movement. North American and European women gained institutional power in colleges, universities, and seminaries, as well as in professional organizations and academic societies. Meanwhile women elsewhere began to claim a voice within the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), which had been founded in 1976. During an EATWOT meeting in Geneva in 1983, attended also by some theologians from Europe and the United States, feminists established a Women's Commission to address the issues of sexism in male liberation theology and racism in the white women's movement. In 1986 the European Society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR) was established; it meets biennially. Since 1993 ESWTR has published a yearbook of research and reviews; its first issue provided historical information on European feminist theology, including attention to the contributions of such leading scholars as Kari Børresen (Norway), Catharina Halkes (Netherlands), and Mary Grey (Britain).

Increasingly, feminist theologians were contributing full-length books. In 1983 Ruether published the first "systematic" work of feminist theology, Sexism and God-Talk, which probed topics ranging from method to eschatology, and Schüssler Fiorenza published a feminist theological reconstruction of early Christianity, In Memory of Her. Both authors were among a number of feminist theologians who spoke at the first of three national "women-church" gatherings organized by Catholic groups that took place first in Chicago (1983), to be followed by assemblies in Cincinnati (1987) and Albuquerque (1993). These gatherings were notable for efforts to provide program information in Spanish as well as English. The first bilingual work of feminist theology appeared in 1988, Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango's Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church.

Meanwhile, feminist theologians were being tenured in colleges and universities and elected to leadership in professional societies. Courses in women's history and feminist theology entered the curriculum, and in 1985 the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion was launched, coedited by Schüssler Fiorenza and Jewish scholar Judith Plaskow. That year Schüssler Fiorenza also coedited, with Mary Collins, the first issue of what became a regular series of the international journal Concilium devoted to feminist theology. Subsequent volumes have been coedited by Anne E. Carr, M. Shawn Copeland, and Mary John Mananzan, with articles from these journals collected in The Power of Naming (Schüssler Fiorenza 1996). Carr's volume, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Experience, probed doctrines of God and Christ as well as questions of theological method, women's ordination, and spirituality. In 1990 the establishment of a women's seminar in constructive theology as a regular part of the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America marked the solid gains achieved by feminist theologians in North America. Although still overwhelmingly a movement of white women, feminist theology had deepened its recognition of the interstructured nature of oppression, acknowledged the problem of false generalizations about women's experience, and enlarged the critique of patriarchy to include heterosexism as well as sexism, racism, classism, and mistreatment of the environment.

Development and Diversification: Feminist Theologies since 1990. The last decade of the 20th century saw the publication of many influential books and articles in feminist theology, often focused and constructive efforts to advance discussion in particular fields of theological inquiry. In a number of instances white women exhibited a more intense self-critique and greater attention to diversity within the movement, while theology published by women of color voiced concerns of cultural, racial, economic, and gender injustice with a new urgency and power.

Copeland, the first African American woman to give a plenary paper at a national meeting of theologians, set a new agenda in her address to the College Theology Society in 1994. "Mere rhetoric" of solidarity is insufficient, she argued; effective solidarity requires a deep-seated conversion, which involves different things for women from different social locations. Although white feminist theologians had acknowledged the links between racism, classism, and sexism for years, they had often written of "women" at a level of generality that glossed over significant differences, and had failed to attend to the voices of black, red, yellow, and brown women. By the 1990s some theologians of color had developed particular designations for their writings in order to distinguish them from white feminist theology: womanist (African American), Latina/mujerista, and minjung (Korean). Other theologians of color retained the designation "feminist" and at the same time drew explicitly on their own heritages. The influence of the writings of both groups of women of color on the works of white feminists gives promise of a future when preoccupation with discussions of diversity will give way to sustained and effective collaboration on matters of concern to all (see latina theology; womanist theology).

Contributions of Feminist Theologies to Theological Disciplines. By definition feminist theologies seek to overcome injustice, and thus there is an ethical dimension prominent in all of this work. Women theologians with specialized training in other traditional fields of theological studies have made notable contributions to the following areas.

Theological Method. Ruether (1983), Carr (1988), Isasi-Díaz (1988, 1992), and Copeland (1996, 1998) are among those who deal extensively with questions of theological method, and they all regard attention to women's diverse experiences and the employment of sources beyond classical Christian texts as important for progress in the discipline. Isasi-Díaz is distinctive in her efforts to bring the voices of U.S. Latinas from various cultural background directly into theological discussions, employing substantial quotations from these "grass roots" Christians in her writings. Concerning the norm for judging the adequacy of theological work, there has been some movement beyond a general insistence that good theology must promote women's human dignity to a more precise claim that good theology leads to the "flourishing of poor women of color in violent situations" (Johnson 1993). The overall task of Christian feminist theologies has been aptly described as that of correlating "the central and liberating themes of biblical and Christian tradition with the experience of women in the contemporary situation" (Carr 1988).

Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics, and History. Classical Christian texts are of crucial importance to scholars seeking justice for women in the tradition, and considerable work has been done to bring out the liberating potential buried beneath patriarchal records and interpretations of revelation. Whether this involves retrieving lost images and stories, probing possibilities of women's authorship and leadership, criticizing oppressive material, or reading between the lines to discover glimpses of equality in earlier societies, the project of feminist biblical criticism is both technically specialized and wide-ranging in its implications. Likewise, important historical work has been done to correct the record of women's activities, ideas, and influence in the centuries since biblical times, which casts new light on the development of doctrine as well as that of church law and practices. Scholars have made available newly interpreted writings of women from "patristic" and medieval times, and have invited reconsideration of the significance of female mystics and monastic movements such as the Beguines, and various other expressions of female creativity and leadership (Schmitt and Kulzer 1996, Kirk 1998, Madigan 1998). They have likewise documented and probed the causes of misogyny and patriarchal efforts to control womenwhether by doctrine, law, or violenceand challenged contemporary Christians to overcome these longstanding tendencies to sin. This critical revisionist history carries implications for all areas of Church doctrine and practice, and is particularly powerful when conducted by scholars who attend to the combined effects of racism, colonialism, and sexism. (see feminist hermeneutics; women in the bible.)

Doctrine of God. At the heart of theology is the mystery of God, which transcends the human capacity for symbolizing and yet requires symbolic expression. Because the symbol of God functions either to oppress or to liberate, feminist theologians have done extensive work to critique the unjust and idolatrous tendency to think that God is male. Strategies for calling attention to the problem, which is so ingrained that most Christians require some reminder that all speech about God is analogous and incapable of conveying the Mystery, have included referring to the Deity as "God/ess" (Ruether 1983), "G*d," (Schüssler Fiorenza 1994), and "God She" (Johnson 1993). Strategies for expanding the metaphors beyond the overused "Father" have involved personal images (for example, "Mother," "Lover," "Friend"), the biblical "Sophia" (Divine Wisdom), and other terms such as "Matrix," "Creator," "Liberator," and "Source of All Being," as well as such biblical images as "rock," "fountain," "midwife," and "coin seeker." Johnson's comprehensive study, She Who Is (1983) considers each person of the Trinity in light of the female-associated term "Sophia," and probes how these "dense symbols" convey Her relational, living, and compassionate nature.

Doctrine of Creation and Eschatology. Feminist theologies have stressed the goodness of creation and sought to overcome false dualisms that would value spirit at the expense of matter. They have also placed great emphasis on ecology (see ecofeminism and ecofeminist theology). The central theme of Jesus' teaching, the Reign of God, has been understood as a reality affecting the present world, summoning and empowering human efforts to bring about a future of right relationships among all creatures of Earth. Various ways of overcoming patriarchal associations with traditional imagery of "Kingdom" have been suggested, including the mujerista neologism "Kin-dom" (Isasi-Díaz 1996). While characterized by a strong ecological and political emphasis, feminist eschatology also recognizes a transcendent, mysterious dimension to the ultimate future (Ruether 1992). Hope for divine healing of the broken bones of history's victims, especially poor women of color, should impel Christians to the praxis of solidarity in the here-and-now (Copeland 1998).

Theological Anthropology. A faulty understanding of human nature is basic to the racism and sexism that feminist theologies seek to overcome. Although mainstream modern theology has rejected classical notions that males from dominant groups enjoy a higher degree of rationality, and are thus created more closely in the "image of God" than females and subordinated males, vestiges of racism and misogyny continue to cause great harm. White feminists initially laid most stress on overcoming stereotypes responsible for sexist attitudes and practices, such as the notions that women are "property," "temptresses," "irrational," of a different and lesser nature thanmen. Instead of blaming Eve for "original sin," they named patriarchy as a primordial sinful system, and argued about how best to articulate an anthropology that did justice to the equality of females and males while also respecting human embodiment and diversity of experience. There has been widespread agreement that notions of "gender complementarity," which tend to idealize females while assigning them "special" roles, actually function to limit women to men's ideas of their worth and purpose and fail to respect their essential autonomy and dignity. Contributions by theologians of color have sharpened the critique in recent years, and led to further theorizing on the theological significance of difference and the complexity of women's experience (Graff 1996). "La vida cotidiana " ("everyday life") is a newly recognized resource for understanding and praxis (Isasi-Díaz 1996, Aquino 1998), and countering systemic violence against women and children must become the focal purpose of anthropological reflection (Copeland 1998).

Christology. The significance of Christ and the meaning of salvation have been addressed in various ways by feminist scholars. Recognizing that much previous Christology has contributed to injustice to women, and yet disagreeing with Daly's view that male dominance and "Christolatry" are essential to the tradition, white theologians have emphasized the prophetic role taken by Jesus in his day (Schüssler Fiorenza 1994) and investigated the ways that gender and redemption have been related in Christian history (Ruether 1998). They have insisted that although the maleness of Jesus is a historical fact, this particularity is transcended in the identity of the Christ and has neither theological nor normative status (Schneiders 1986, Johnson 1992). Christologies by feminists of color have sought to liberate Jesus from the racism and imperialism of dominant theologies and stressed the identification of the historical Jesus with the poor and marginalized (Copeland 1996).

Ecclesiology, Mariology, and Sacraments. While criticizing the oppressive ways in which church structures have functioned, feminist theologians have maintained that Christianity began as a "discipleship of equals" (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983); since a "spirit-filled community" has long existed in tension with the patriarchal historical institution, the contemporary "women-church" movement should seek its ideals without being ultimately separatist (Ruether 1985). Emphasis on an inclusive solidarity that affirms difference within the community as it struggles for justice (Isasi-Díaz 1993) is widely shared in feminist ecclesiologies. Work on embodiment and sacraments has deepened thought on marriage, ministry, Eucharist, and worship, and kept the issue of women's ordination under discussion (Hilkert 1997, Byrne 1998, Ross 1998, Walton 2000). Feminist scholars have also developed new interpretations of Mary (Gebara and Bingemer 1989, Rodriguez 1994, Cunneen 1996) and the saints (Johnson 1998).

Ethics and Moral Theology. The implications of feminist theologies for the way Christians should live have been pondered in many works of feminist ethics, which are now influencing discussions of moral theology more generally (Curran et al. 1996). Among topics of particular concern have been agency (Isasi-Díaz 1993), commitment (Farley 1986), conscience and authority (Patrick 1996), ecology (Ruether 1992, Gebara 1999), economics and work (Andolsen 1989, 1998, Guider 1995), family (Cahill 2000), friendship (Hunt 1991), natural law (Traina 1999), power (Hinze 1995), sexuality and gender (Gudorf 1994, Cahill 1996, Jung 2001), and struggle and violence (Isasi-Díaz 1993, Mananzan 1996). Feminist theologians have brought their commitment to justice for females to many other topics in biomedical and social ethics, ranging from concerns about reproductive issues (Ryan 2001) to matters of war and peace (Cahill 1994).

Spirituality. Because all feminist theologies invite believers to a deep process of conversion, there has been considerable attention to topics in spirituality, which is a concept of wide appeal both within and beyond the churches today. Joann Wolski Conn has dealt with psychological aspects of spiritual growth (1989) and Shawn Madigan (1998) has gathered historically important spiritual writings by women. The lecture series sponsored by St. Mary's College in honor of Sister Madeleva Wolff has resulted in the publication of a new title in women's spirituality annually since 1985; recent overviews from African American, U.S. Latina, and European American perspectives have been contributed by Hayes (1995), Rodriguez (1996), and Schneiders (2000).

That feminist theology as a discipline has come of age is now evident. There is a substantial number of scholarly books by recognized theologians, as well as many introductory texts designed for classroom use. The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion has been published in the United States since 1985, and Feminist Theology in Great Britain since 1992. That a dictionary conveying the complexity of feminist theologies (Russell and Clarkson 1996) contains extensive entries under headings that include African, Asian, European, Latin American, North American, Pacific Island, and South Asian, testifies to the global extent of this movement. The challenge now is for theologians from diverse backgrounds to carry forward their critical and constructive work, gain a wider hearing beyond the academic community, and develop an effective solidarity among themselves and among believers more generally, for the sake of building a just and ecologically responsible society.

Bibliography: b. andolsen, Daughters of Jefferson, Daughters of Bookblacks: Racism and American Feminism (Macon, Ga.1986). m. p. aquino, Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993); "Latin American Feminist Theology," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14 (1998) 89107. w. burghardt, ed., Woman: New Dimensions (New York 1977). l. byrne, Woman at the Altar (New York 1998). l. s. cahill, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics (Cambridge 1996); Family: A Christian Social Perspective (Minneapolis 2000). d. l. carmody, Christian Feminist Theology (Oxford 1995). a. e. carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Experience (San Francisco 1988). a. clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 2001). r. coll, Christianity and Feminism in Conversation (Mystic, Conn. 1994). j. w. conn, Spirituality and Personal Maturity (New York 1989). m. s. copeland, "The New Anthropological Subject at the Heart of the Mystical Body of Christ," Catholic Theological Society of America. Proceedings 53 (1998) 2547; "Theologies, Contemporary," in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, ed. l. russell and j. s. clarkson (Louisville1996) 283287. s. cunneen, In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (New York 1996). m. daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston 1973). v. fabella and m. a. oduyoye, eds., With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1988). v. fabella and s. park, eds., We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1990). v. fabella and r. s. sugirtharajah, eds., Dictionary of Third World Theologies (Maryknoll, N.Y. 2000). a. m. gardiner, ed., Women and Catholic Priesthood (New York 1976). i. gebara and m. c. bingemer, Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1989). a. graff, ed., In the Embrace of God: Feminist Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995). c. gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland 1994). m. guider, Daughters of Rahab (Minneapolis 1995). d. hayes, Hagar's Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World (New York 1995). m. a. hinsdale and p. kaminiski, eds., Women and Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995). c.f. hinze, Comprehending Power in Christian Social Ethics (New York 1995). m. hunt, Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (New York 1991). a. m. isasi-dÍaz, En la Lucha: A Hispanic Women's Liberation Theology (Minneapolis 1993); Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1996). a. m. isasi-dÍaz and y. tarango, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church (San Francisco 1988). u. king, ed., Feminist Theology from the Third World (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1994). p. kirk, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (New York 1998). e. johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York 1992). p. b. jung, with j. a. coray, eds., Sexual Diversity and Catholicism (Collegeville, Minn. 2001). c. lacugna, ed., Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (San Francisco 1993). s. madigan, ed., Mystics, Visionaries, and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women's Spiritual Writings (Minneapolis 1998). m. j. mananzan et al., eds., Women Struggling against Violence: A Spirituality for Life (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1996). a. e. patrick, Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology (New York 1996); "Feminist Ethics in the New Millennium," in Ethical Dilemmas in the New Millennium, ed. f. eigo, v. 1 (Villanova, Pa. 2000). s. ross, Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (New York 1998). l. russell and j. s. clarkson, eds., Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Louisville 1996). r. r. ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston 1983); Women-Church (San Francisco 1985); Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco 1992); Women and Redemption: A Theological History (Minneapolis1998). s. schneiders, Women and the Word (New York 1986); Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church (New York 1991); With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism, and the Future (New York 2000). e. schÜssler fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York 1983); Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-Logy of Liberation (New York 1993); Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet (New York 1994). c. l. h. traina, Feminist Ethics and Natural Law (Washington, D.C. 1999). j. walton, Feminist Liturgy: A Matter of Justice (Collegeville, Minn. 2000).

[a. e. patrick]

Feminist Theology

views updated May 14 2018

Feminist Theology

Feminist theology emerged from the notion that Christian theology and the institutional embodiment of Christianity not only excluded women's voices and experiences, but also developed practices that are sexist, patriarchal, and androcentric. Contemporary feminist theology finds its historical roots with those who question authors of sacred texts and those who challenge theologians who defined what it meant to be a human being from the perspective of patriarchal, male experience. For centuries, male experience was the standard by which the worth and contribution of women was judged. In the 1960s, contemporary feminist theologians began to challenge and protest these fundamental doctrines and practices of institutional Christianity.

Feminist theology is not limited to the Christian tradition. Jewish and Islamic feminist theologians also examine the patriarchal assumptions that support the subordination and oppression of women. Judith Plaskow, for example, calls for a retrieval and redefinition of the past in order for women to reform Torah; Jewish women must rewrite texts, author new liturgies, and disclose voices from the past. Islamic feminist theologians, such as Riffat Hassan, speak not only about patriarchy, but also about mixing modernization and Westernization with Islam. These are two examples of the growing diversity of feminist voices in theology. While feminist theologians come from diverse cultural and religious traditions, they share similar hopes and common interests.

Methodologies and types

Feminist theologians employ similar methodological strategies that result in substantive, constructive changes within Christian theology and practice. Three important steps must follow. First, feminist theologians reflect critically on the patriarchal and androcentric nature of the churches' practices and theological doctrines. This critical step challenges the values and theological paradigms that support patriarchy. For example, Sallie McFague (b. 1933), a European-American ecofeminist theologian, challenges the patriarchal model of God and the world as one that sanctions and supports an understanding of divine power and human power that dominates and excludes women. Second, feminist theologians return to the tradition to delve deeper and discover voices that have been previously ignored and discarded. These acts of retrieval expand and deepen the liberatory voices already within the tradition. Third, many feminist theologians begin the process of reconstructing theological doctrines with new paradigms. McFague utilizes the metaphor of the body of God to reconstruct the relationship between God and the world. This paradigmatic shift emphasizes mutual and reciprocal relationships between God and the world instead of hierarchical and dominating ones.

Generally, three types of feminist theology have developed in their relationship to Christianity. First, some feminist theologians seek modest changes in the traditions from within Christianity. For the most part, these theologians are less critical of the structure of Christianity. Other feminist theologians, while still working from within a Christian framework, seek not only to critique the theology, but also to reimagine and reconstruct new models of thinking about and practicing Christianity. Radical transformation of both doctrines and the institutional practices of Christianity is sought. Another category of revolutionary feminist theologians find the nature of Christianity so thoroughly patriarchal, that their only way to remain committed to feminist concerns is to leave Christianity. These voices can be described as post-Christian.

The first phase of feminist theology concentrated primarily on issues related to gender. Later, the development of feminist theology from a white, privileged standpoint began to embrace and connect with other women's voices and experiences. In fact, the category of women's experience, while embraced early on in feminist theology, has become problematic since it so often only seemed to describe the experience of one voice: that of privileged, white women. Feminist theologians were primarily white, privileged women working within the confines of the academy. As feminist theologians linked their projects to other liberation movements, the challenge was to examine their own bias of class and race. Feminist theologians began to question the category of "women's experience." There is no monolithic experience, no single way of being women. Feminist theology consequently linked the voices and experiences of those excluded because of race, class, sexual orientation, disability, age, and gender. Consequently, feminist theologians are now a worldwide company of voices, having expanded from American white feminists to Asian feminists, Womanists, Mujerista theologians, and many others. Feminist theology continues to expand upon and celebrate the variety of voices and experiences. Tensions and dissonances that reside in these differences are opportunities for creative new theological explorations.

Links with science and ethics

Feminist theology is also linked to other feminist projects in fields like science and bioethics. For example, in religion and science, feminists are critical of the patriarchal systems in which both disciplines are embedded. Science, like religion, is a sociallysituated institution that has excluded women from its theory and practice. Contemporary feminist philosophers of science are linked to feminist theologians in their common critique of the Enlightenment ways of knowing the world (epistemologies) and their institutional embodiment, which support patriarchal and androcentric viewpoints. Feminists are critical of the convergence of modern science with the modern or Enlightenment world-view because it excludes women as valuable knowers and participants in the scientific process. Feminist philosophers of science criticize the Enlightenment epistemology that sees those "in the know" as impartial, detached, impersonal, value-free, and dispassionate.

Similarly, feminist philosophers of science have different ways of critiquing science. Sandra Harding examines three different kinds of feminist scientists. First, feminist empiricists uncover sexist and androcentric biases in the sciences. The addition of more women in the institution of science might be enough of a corrective. Feminist empiricists, like the reformist feminist theologians, don't directly link science to politics. Both groups are less critical of the institutions themselves. Second, feminist standpoint theorists claim that knowledge grounded in the perspectives and experiences of women's lives is actually a more comprehensive, objective way of knowing. They criticize the dominant standpoint of patriarchal science. Much like the revisionist theologians, they insist that research and data collection must begin with voices that have been systematically excluded. Finally, feminist postmodernists reject the foundationalism of modern epistemologies and sciences, calling for a new science. This position is similar to the post-Christian feminist theologians who reject Christianity itself and call for new ways of expressing spirituality. Both feminist theology and feminist philosophers of science require narratives of those who have been marginalized. They both require beginning the research, data collecting, and questions from the perspectives of the voices of "the other."

In both religion and science, feminists insist that epistemology and ethics are inextricably linked together: People are accountable for what they do with what they know. Substance and praxis follow together. Feminist research develops postmodern epistemologies that value multidimensional perspectives to expand and widen the definition of reason, begins research with the excluded voices, and constructs the subject/object relationship on the same epistemological plane. Feminist research becomes a model for research and living: Multiple voices are used for research, and conversational praxis is the methodological means of including voices of those formerly excluded. In the field of religion and science, the research program of Anne Foerst in artificial intelligence and theology constructs an embodied theology and epistemology that redefines what it means to be human. The theology of Nancy Howell explores how the subjugation of women and nature is interconnected. Her ecofeminist theology offers new ways of constructing models of God and the world. These are two examples of the constructive feminist engagement between religion and science.

See also Ecofeminism; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecotheology; Epistemology; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Liberation theology; Postfoundationalism; Postmodernism; Womanist Theology


foerst, anne. "cog: a humanoid robot, and the question of the image of god." zygon 33 (1998): 91-111.

harding, sandra. whose science? whose knowledge? thinking from women's lives. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1991.

hassan, riffat. "challenging the stereotypes of fundamentalism: an islamic feminist perspective." the muslim world 91, nos. 1/2 (2001): 55-69.

howell, nancy r. a feminist cosmology: ecology, solidarity, and metaphysics. amherst, n.y.: humanity books/prometheus books, 2000.

johnson, elizabeth. women, earth and creator spirit. new york: paulist press, 1993.

lacugna, catherine, ed. freeing theology: the essentials of theology in feminist perspective. san francisco: harper, 1993.

mcfague, sallie. metaphorical theology. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1997.

pederson, ann. where in the world is god? variations on a theme. st. louis, mo.: chalice press, 1998.

plaskow, judith. standing against sinai: judaism from a feminist perspective. san francisco: harper, 1991.

ann pederson

Feminist Theology

views updated Jun 08 2018

Feminist Theology

Feminist theology examines the history, beliefs, and practices of religious traditions from feminist perspectives. More accurately termed "feminist theologies," the field encompasses a wide array of theoretical and experiential approaches to issues of sex and gender, as well as age, class, identity, and race. Feminist theologians have pioneered theories and methods in comparative religion, ethics, the history of religion, liturgy, religious philosophy, ritual, the sociology of religion, and textual interpretation.

Contemporary American feminist theologies are rooted in the nineteenth-century "first wave" of feminism, which sought both political and social equality for women. While much of this early feminist movement focused on emancipation and social welfare, a number of its leaders recognized that religious beliefs and practices also played a significant role in determining the status of women. They criticized the androcentrism (male focus) of biblical interpretation, religious leadership, and theological arguments used to justify the subordination of women.

This critique of religious androcentrism was taken up with the emergence of "second-wave" feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and provided a foundation for the new field of feminist theological inquiry. Pioneering feminist theologians exposed sexism in existing religious constructs. As with many other areas of feminist scholarship, this critical work was given expression in both academic and community settings. An important purpose of the work was (and continues to be) both to challenge and reconstruct intellectual paradigms and to effect feminist transformation of religious institutions.

In addition to the critical perspectives involved in seeking to eliminate androcentrism, early feminist theologians laid the groundwork for religious reforms and renewal that continue to the present. On a philosophical level, feminist theologies concerned with women's experience questioned and proposed new constructions of traditional views of divinity, human nature, revelation, salvation, and other religious categories. They sought to develop methodologies that valued feminine qualities of inclusivity and relationship. The reality and significance of lesbianism became a category of both inquiry and activism. New rituals and liturgy were created, rooted in distinctive female life-cycle events, such as menstruation and childbirth, as well as previously hidden areas, such as battering, incest, rape, and sexual abuse.

At the same time the work of other feminist theologians was based on a rejection of separate female and male human nature or spirituality. These theologians sought to transform religion by fully integrating women's teachings and experience into a common, egalitarian spiritual practice for women and men.

Feminist theological innovations also occurred within existing schools of contemporary religious thought, especially within liberation theology, a movement based on compatible values of the integration of theory and activism as well as an overriding concern with liberating social transformation. Feminist theologians were influenced by scholarship in other fields as they created new methods of textual analysis and historical interpretation.

Concurrent with attempts to integrate feminism into existing dominant traditions was a strain of feminist theology—or more accurately, thealogy (goddess study)—that rejected those institutions altogether in favor of new and re-created goddess-centered traditions. These thealogians emphasized an unbreakable link between the self- and social esteem of women and explicitly female images of the divine. They were also responsible for the growth of research into suppressed goddess imagery and traditions within andro-centric religions.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, American minority groups were asserting their voices within the field of religious studies, demanding greater recognition as distinctive groups whose historical, spiritual, and communal experiences remained unexpressed in the feminist theologies of the academy. These groups challenged others to incorporate a greater awareness of racism, classism, heterosexism, and anti-Semitism into their work as feminist theologians. Such concerns regarding diversity reflected discussion in the larger feminist movements of the time and had an impact on feminist theologies in several ways.

One effect was the development of distinct strands of feminist theology based on differences of identity. By the early 1980s African-American feminists began to refer to themselves as "womanists," reclaiming and reinterpreting a distinctive cultural language to name a simultaneous female and black identity. Soon afterwards, Latina feminists coined the term mujerista to express a commitment to a perspective fully inclusive of their identities as both women and members of diverse Hispanic communities. In a similar manner, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, and Muslim Americans have developed feminist theologies in which feminism is understood as interwoven in, rather than opposed to, their specific cultural identities.

A second direction brought about by an increased awareness of difference and diversity among women was that these issues themselves became the subject of feminist theological inquiry. As the 1980s progressed, the influence of deconstructionism, a movement critical of the notion of stable or singular identities, led to a questioning of whether there should or even could be any coherent explication of "female" experience. This critique demanded a more sophisticated analysis of the interplay among multiple, evolving, and competing forms of individual and group identities. It called into question the significance of work that assumed any fixed perspectives, including sex, race, and class. Early feminist theorists distinguished what they understood to be biologically determined sex (female or male) from socially constructed gender (femininity or masculinity). Now feminist theologians began to examine the fluidity of all these categories and develop an analysis of "gendered" power relations among men as well as women in religious contexts. Influenced by queer studies, feminist theologies have also challenged normative, static categories of sexuality and brought to light supressed homoeroticism within religious traditions.

No longer able to generalize about all women, feminist theologians have increasingly focused their work on specific women, historical and contemporary, and the particularities of their experience. This abandonment of the attempt to formulate a singular voice has allowed a renewed unity of purpose in which feminist theologies speak not for but with each other in a common enterprise.

See alsoEcofeminism; Goddess; Inclusive Language; Latino Traditions; Lesbianand Gay Rights Movement; Liberation Theology; Masculine Spirituality; Religious Studies; Sexuality; Womanist Theology; Women's Studies.


Chopp, Rebecca S., and Sheila Greeve Davaney, eds. Horizons in Feminist Theology: Identity, Tradition, andNorms. 1997.

Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. WomanspiritRising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. 1979.

Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. 1996.

Isasi-Díaz, Ada María. Mujerista Theology. 1996.

Sanders, Cheryl J., ed. Living the Intersection: Womanismand Afrocentrism in Theology. 1995.

Drorah O'Donnell Setel

Feminist theology

views updated May 29 2018

Feminist theology. Theological reflection which acknowledges from the outset that the greater part of theology so far in human history has been male-dominated, has been an expression of patriarchy, and has been saturated with masculine imagery, relegating feminine imagery to the edges. In relation to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, G. Lerner calls this male domination ‘the androcentric fallacy’, which distorts the whole structure and life of the Church—though the same would be true, mutatis mutandis, of other theistic religions. The androcentric fallacy draws attention to the extreme distortions which result in life and imagination when only, or predominantly, masculine language and images are used. This cannot be corrected by using non-sexist language, or by adding ‘sisters’ to ‘brothers’ and ‘mothers’ to ‘fathers’.

Feminist theology recognizes the cultural relativity of the biblical period, in which the incarnation did not obliterate circumstances, but set humans to the task of changing the world in the direction of love: the maintenance of patriarchy in Church or in society is then seen as precisely that demonic condition which has resulted from the Fall, and from which Jesus has died to set humans free.

Feminist Theology

views updated May 29 2018


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