Feminist Hermeneutics

views updated


Broadly speaking, feminist hermeneutics is the theory, art and practice of interpretation in the interest of women. It addresses a broad realm of things, ranging from the Bible and other theological texts to human acts and products, endeavoring to challenge and correct the effects of patriarchy on them. Feminist hermeneutics makes women's many varied experiences the major resource for the hermeneutic process, no matter what expression of human life is the focus. From a theological standpoint, feminist hermeneutics enables women to engage in the critical construction of religious meaning in ways that attend to the complex whole of women's experiences, especially experiences of struggle against dehumanization due to patriarchy. Where texts are concerned, feminist hermeneutics, like most forms of contemporary hermeneutics, holds that the meaning perceived in a text depends on the social setting in which it was produced as well as the social setting in which it is received and handed on. This "double hermeneutic" is evident in the strategies of interpretation employed by feminist theologians. Among the most common strategies used in the construction of religious meaning by feminist scholars are hermeneutics of suspicion, of remembrance and of proclamation.

A feminist hermeneutics of suspicion is first and foremost a consciousness-raising activity that requires one to take into account the influence of culturally determined gender roles and attitudes on whatever is being examined. It is concerned with bringing to consciousness the effects of male bias and ideology on understandings of the wider whole of meaning. A feminist hermeneutics of suspicion is concerned not only with critical engagement about what is said about women that may diminish their full human dignity, but also with the silences that presume women's secondary status by ignoring their experiences of the divine.

In the case of Christian feminist theology, the primary application of a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion has been focused on the Bible. The strategy is to interpret a biblical text and its Christian receptions, mindful that both have been largely shaped by male perspectives without attention to those of women. For example, when a biblical text is interpreted one begins by assuming that the text was affected by how the community for whom it was written was structured. Attention to the effects of patriarchal structures on biblical texts does not rule out God's self-communication through the biblical word and its interpretation, but it does explicitly recognize that God speaks to human beings in human fashion. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that in patriarchal societies androcentricism which neglects women's perspectives affects not only how texts are written but also what is both emphasized and neglected in them. For example, texts like Paul's letters to the Corinthians cannot be understood merely from the dictionary definitions of the ancient Greek words and the mastery of the rules of grammar that he used. Statements such as "women should keep silent in the churches" (1 Cor 14:34) must be understood in relationship to the lives and cultural situation of the author and his audience. In the process the interpreter must also attend to the unique "givenenss" of her (his) hermeneutical situation that is affected by a tradition of reception that may transmit patriarchal presuppositions that are both overt and subtle.

On the positive side, a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion prepares the way for a feminist hermeneutics of remembrance that reconstructs historical texts from women's perspectives, restoring women to Christian history and women's religious history to Christianity. In some cases a hermeneutics of remembrance takes the form of the woman who diligently searched for the "sacred coin," which in this case is a "lost" tradition whose liberating potential for women has never been realized. In such cases not only biblical but also extra-biblical ancient texts are used. In other cases a hermeneutics of remembrance reclaims the suffering of women of the past and of all persons subjugated through enslavement, exile, and persecution, and recognizes them to be "dangerous memories" subversive to the status quo. Such memories are subversive because even in the midst of crises, women found in their relationship with God and/or Jesus Christ reasons for hope and motivation to be agents for liberation from oppressive sociopolitical establishments and religious institutions. These memories invite corrections to sexist perspectives while preserving the freeing truth of the "Good-news." They also challenge to solidarity with all persons past and present who struggle for human dignity. In short, a hermeneutics of remembrance neither negates the dehumanizing effects of patriarchy on biblical and Christian history nor does it give them the final word. The Bible and many extra-biblical sources, both ancient and modern, provide rich resources for constructing feminist theologies for our time that heal suffering, liberate from struggle and end economic exploitation.

By the end of the 20th century, feminist hermeneutical scholarship of suspicion and remembrance gained acceptance in the academy and in some grassroots Christian groups. Many Christian feminists recognize that the rich insights resulting from the application of a feminist hermeneutics of remembrance can easily be regarded to be mere theory unless a feminist hermeneutics of proclamation is used to enact these insights in the Christian community. A performative language, feminist hermeneutics of proclamation gives expression to religious meaning in ways oriented to praxis. Christian feminists recognize that liturgy (conceived here as any form of communal worship) is important to the faith life of Christians. Grounded in the conviction that the interaction and integration of the Bible and worship is the backbone of Christian experience and formation, a hermeneutics of proclamation promotes personal and communal participation, biblical imagination and emancipatory action. Integrating interpretations made possible by the application of feminist hermeneutics of suspicion and remembrance, a feminist hermeneutics of proclamation seeks to give the reconstructed divine Word flesh in liturgical ritual, storytelling, Bible-centered drama, dance, song, preaching and action in ways that are genuinely inclusive of the experiences of women. Whatever the form of the proclamation, the goal is to keep alive the freeing truth of the "Goodnews" of the full human dignity of all persons, especially women, and of the intrinsic value of all of creation.

Bibliography: c. camp, "Feminist Theological Hermeneutics," in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction, ed., e. schÜssler fiorenza (New York 1993) 154171. a. m. clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 2001). e. schÜssler fiorenza, Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Scholarship (Boston 1984); But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston 1992).

[a. clifford]

About this article

Feminist Hermeneutics

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article