Critique and Reconstruction

From the outset, the goal of liberating women had two aspects. First, feminists sought to identify the various forms of oppression that structured women's lives, and second, they imagined and sought to create an alternative future without oppression. What soon became apparent, however, was that oppression is not always easy to name. In fact, because oppression affects the very way one thinks about oneself and one's world, it is often quite difficult to even see, much less name. Oppression makes itself invisible, distorts vision, and twists thought. Similarly, it is hard to envision new ways of living when everything one experiences is rooted in old, oppressive, forms of knowing and acting. (Jones 2000: 3)

The process of protest and transformation is a recurrent thread within feminist theologies, and is characterized in a variety of ways. Sheila Briggs identifies three critical moments for feminist theological critique and reconstruction: the dismantling of patriarchal foundations; the recovery of women's past; and the transformation of present and future religious institutions. On the basis of such augmented tradition, feminist theology develops a revised alternative trajectory (Briggs 1997: 167; see also Miller and Grenz 1998; Chopp 1995). Similarly, Elisabeth Fiorenza argues for a hermeneutics of suspicion, remembrance, and transformation (1996c: 340), in which "suspicion" is directed towards the

"silences, inconsistencies, incoherences, and ideological mechanisms of androcentric records and scholarship" (Fiorenza 1996b: 172-3); "remembrance" involves the vital commission to insist on women's inclusion as autonomous subjects, even against the grain of their historical absence and invisibility: "Women are Church, and always have been Church, called and elected by God" (p. 172); and transformation rests on the recovery of the historical evidence of the ekklesia gynaikon, or "discipleship of equals," which serves to animate a new paradigm for authentic discipleship and praxis by standing as the normative pattern for continuing communities of inclusive faith and practice. Fiorenza's criterion for authentic sources and norms thus places less emphasis on correspondence with historical events - as archetype - so much as fidelity to the testimony of the past as a prototype upon which contemporary communities should model themselves.

The androcentric bias within "God-talk" has also emerged as another important theme, another example of the way in which feminist theologians insist on the politically charged nature of religious language. Dorothee Solle provides a useful example in her protest against the authoritarian ethic implicit in theological metaphors of lordship, power, and fatherhood. Such language sanctifies what she terms a "Culture of Obedience" in which Christians surrender their destiny to an almighty, other-worldly power, a denial of alternative, life-affirming values of human responsibility and self-worth (Solle 1996: 152-3). Another direct connection between religious language and politics - in its broadest sense - is drawn by Sallie McFague's reconstitution of philosophical theology, in which "metaphor" is used as both deconstructive and reconstructive device. If all language for God is a human construct -provisional and contingent - then it is inevitable that it will reflect, maybe even reify, particular social relations. Yet that awareness enables communities of faith both to reflect critically and to engage in constructive renewal; even to generate novel images that address contemporary issues such as nuclear threat and ecological crisis (McFague 1982).

McFague's model criticizes the idea of a neutral vantage point from which human beings gain an objective understanding of divine reality. In this respect, she is not unique among contemporary theologians: her work is similar to that of David Tracy and Gordon Kaufman, for example. But the political promptings of feminist and ecological sensibilities enable McFague to make compelling connections between theological metaphor and structures of power. The reconstitution of trinitarian imagery as "Mother, Lover, Friend" enables a shift to "a new imaginative picture of the relationship between God and the world" (McFague 1987: xiv) which is, for McFague, the precondition for transformative action.

Traditional Christologies, similarly, have also been criticized by feminist and womanist theologians for their implicit biases. The maleness of Jesus has been seen by many writers as an insuperable obstacle to the redemption of women (Daly 1973), although others argue that it is the suffering humanity of Jesus that forms the kernel of a liberative Christology, and in particular his identification within his own ministry with the marginal and excluded (Ruether 1983).

Jacquelyn Grant has challenged representations of Jesus as a white European by synthesizing Ruether's analysis with that of James Cone, to argue that black women "embody" the reality of the crucified and risen Christ by virtue of the multiple effects of racism, economic disadvantage, and sexism (Grant 1989).

Yet any retelling of history or reconstruction of core doctrines already raises questions about the norms by which renewal is to be guided, and in particular how an authentic, as opposed to androcentric, canon is to be defined. In one of the earliest collections of essays on women and religion, the editors posed the following question: "Do feminists need the past - and if so, what past do they need?" (Christ and Plaskow 1979: 9). This represented a recognition that to name women as theological agents, historically and contemporaneously, also necessarily involves adjusting the criteria for what counts as legitimate knowledge. The processes of critique and retrieval have already required womanist, Latina, and feminist scholars to ask fundamental questions about the very nature of theological knowledge - how it is constituted, communicated, and authenticated.

For example, Ursula King argues that what counts as "religion," what counts as historical evidence for religious activity, what textual and documentary sources we have, is thoroughly "gendered" (King 1995). Grace Jantzen contends that successive interpreters have chosen to construe "mysticism" within an androcentric paradigm, a reworking of mysticism as private and personal, via its associations with "the feminine", interiority, and domesticity (Jantzen 1995). Effectively, this constituted a "privatization" of religious experience, thereby restricting its sphere of influence and diminishing its "political" impact. Motifs of gender are therefore deployed to reconstruct categories of religious experience in a way which fundamentally misrepresents the historical evidence.

While such additions to the historical narrative, and to Christian doctrine itself, have proved powerful means of restoring women as actors and agents, and not merely objects, feminist scholars have also felt the need to develop more sophisticated hermeneutical models in order to account for the systematic exclusion of women from history, and in order to construct ways of reading androcentric sources and texts in such a way as to glimpse agency beyond and beneath the absences. But how would anyone judge what elements of formerly hidden and silenced evidence might legitimately be included? What are the criteria by which such a critical-reconstructive position attempts to renew the existing discipline?

Judith Plaskow, once more, crystallizes a hermeneutical principle enshrined by many other feminist, Latina, and womanist theologians - that of the "canon within the canon" that serves simultaneously as critical and transformative principle: "The female images that exist in the Bible and (particularly the mystical) tradition form an underground stream that reminds us of the inadequacy of our imagery without, however, transforming its overwhelmingly male nature" (Plaskow 1983: 227, emphasis added).

The motif of the "underground stream," eclipsed by the dominant tradition yet enduring in parallel to the official tradition, is echoed elsewhere. Rosemary

Ruether talks of the "usable tradition" (Ruether 1983: 21), comprising both mainstream and marginalized sources, which enables Christian theology better to realize the values of the full humanity of women. Although liberatory strands within the extant tradition can be extracted by applying certain hermeneutical criteria, these need to be augmented by additional elements, such as non-canonical sources from the past, which have been constructed as marginal or heretical tradition by hegemonic authorities; and by contemporary resources that are consistent with the emancipatory trajectory of authentic faith.

The range of sources upon which feminist, womanist, and Latina theologians draw reveals the extent to which conventional sources and norms are reconfigured. Katie Cannon and Delores Williams both emphasize the centrality of black women's authentic voices for the reconstruction of the womanist theological canon, a resource more likely to be accessible through literary and oral sources than enshrined within official tradition. This may be considered to constitute a kind of "theology in the vernacular," articulated in the "voices, actions, opinions, experience, and faith" of African American communities, and especially in the lives of black women. A typical example of such a preoccupation with the hiddenness of black women's genius, and the political imperative to work for its restoration, is the rehabilitation of the work of the African American writer Zora Neale Hurston by the novelist Alice Walker and the womanist theologian Katie Cannon. Walker's vivid account of her attempt to find Hurston's final resting-place, an unmarked grave in the small town where she died, provides a compelling metaphor for so much of the project to retrieve and re-evaluate those who died in obscurity but who are now considered definitive forerunners to womanist revisioning (Walker 1984). Katie Cannon draws on Hurston's nonconformist approach to moral reasoning and political agency to articulate a distinctive womanist ethical system grounded in what she terms "quiet grace as truth" (Cannon 1988: 125).

The Cuban theologian Ada-Maria Isasi-Diaz, now based in the United States, adopts an ethnographic approach to the problem of accessing "women's experience." The grassroots organizations of communidades ecclesial de base find their equivalent in her accounts of Hispanic American women. Once more, the everyday, "vernacular" quality of their narratives emerges as most striking, enabling Isasi-Diaz to argue that in the face of racism and sexism, Latina women draw on indigenous resources of popular religion and Hispanic culture to forge a distinctive ethic of self-esteem and moral agency (Isasi-Diaz 1993). Such an acknowledgment of the particular and autobiographical as a resource for the remaking of theological tradition is typical of Latina, feminist, and womanist thought, especially in its strong emphasis, once more, on the personal as political: narrative as revelatory of formerly unsung testimonies of oppression and resistance.

Yet to insist, as feminist, womanist, and Latina theologians do, on the enduring liberatory trajectory of some parts of the tradition while maintaining an oppositional stance toward much of its legacy, is in many ways an uncomfortable, even inconsistent, position. Those who continue to inhabit mainstream ecclesiastical institutions tread a fine line between hegemonic/patriarchal and subversive/feminist sources. This is in some respects a debate about the nature of "usable tradition" itself, and how its deployment actually effects positive change. There is a danger, as critics point out, that one will commit the error of eisegesis rather than exegesis, and remake the evidence according to one's own preferences (Woodhead 1997). Feminists would respond by arguing that no reading of tradition is objective or neutral, and that their central criterion of "usable tradition" enables them to maintain fidelity to the essentials of the past by means of a contemporary revisionist hermeneutic. Yet there is still some contradiction between those feminist theologians who locate real change in the transformation of consciousness via the power of metaphor and language - as in McFague's advocacy of new models of God, for example - and those who endorse what is effectively a form of orthopraxy: Christian doctrines and practices are deemed liberative, not by virtue of an inherent, essentialist meaning, but insofar as they are appropriated in pursuit of practical ends (Hogan 1995; Chopp 1995).

Rebecca Chopp argues that the old (patriarchal) distinction between theory (theology, philosophy, texts, doctrines) and practice (ethics, politics, community) must be erased, in favor of an understanding of theology as the critical discipline which articulates the ultimate values by which Christian obedience and transformation are guided (Chopp 1995). The struggle of women for material and social justice forms the fundamental reality for feminist critique and reconstruction. The adequacy of any theology for women is therefore measured by the extent to which it provides the values and visions for the struggle of women against injustice and towards liberation. "Authentic" tradition is understood not in terms of correspondence with propositional truth, but in the power of a text, doctrine, or practice to inspire faithful action and transformation. Rather than seeking the "canon within a canon," therefore, and identifying the authoritative sources and norms as existing in past origins, this approach regards all "tradition" as a system of symbolic resources in constant circulation, available for strategic deployment.

This alleviates the need for a return to origins, admits that no past time may have been entirely egalitarian, but enables elements of received canonical wisdom to be reappropriated. It also restores a necessary fluidity to the notion of tradition and acknowledges, with Michel Foucault, the ubiquity and interre-latedness of hegemony and resistance. Thus, for Kathryn Tanner, the task is less a total deconstruction of inherited patriarchal concepts, resources, and practices than their "realignment." The influence of poststructuralist theories is also evident here, for meanings are understood to be fluid and available for renegotiation. The question of "usable tradition" re-emerges, therefore, as one of political contestation and pragmatism, as cultural resources for the active construction and deployment of resistance. "Feminist theologians are not forced to produce a feminist discourse from the bottom up; they do not have to try to replace patriarchal theological discourse with another form of theological discourse having as little as possible to do with the first. That kind of enterprise would be quite difficult to maintain in its purity" (Tanner 1997: 188).

The question remains, however, where such communities of realignment and praxis might actually reside, and where the dominant focus of feminist libera-tionist Christianity should be. This may be due to the very pluralism and heterogeneity to which womanist, feminist, and Latina theologians point, not to mention their diversity of constituencies, which reflect the threefold loyalties of David Tracy's "three publics" of Christian theology - political, academic, and ecclesial contexts. Yet such multiplicity of focus may not be an advantage in terms of generating incisive debate about the future at a time when many other factors are also calling into question the coherence and future direction of second-wave feminism itself.

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  • eglantine
    Has African feminist theology been criticized?
    3 years ago

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