From its beginnings, feminist theology addressed itself to perceived biases in the construction of core theological doctrines. Valerie Saiving's 1960 article posed the question of whether Christian understandings of sin and virtue were at root, "gendered": whether, far from sharing a common human condition in this respect, women and men inhabited radically different moral universes. In dialogue with the theological ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr, Saiving claims that conventional renderings of sin as "pride" and self-sufficiency, rather than creaturely dependence on God, reflect experiences which may hold true for men, for whom the establishment of autonomous personal identity is ingrained from early childhood with the boy's need to separate himself from the maternal relationship. (Saiving draws on psychoanalytical theory, albeit unattributed; but she was also articulating a critique of the view still current in liberal feminism that "morality has no sex".)
While typically masculine characteristics are "'pride' and 'will-to-power'", the cultural construction of femininity prizes 'triviality, distractibility, and dif-fuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one's own self-definition . . . sentimentality; gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason - in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self' (Saiving 1979: 37). As a result, Christian moral teaching commends sacrifice and service as a corrective to pride; but for women, these merely serve to reinforce cultural expectations of self-abnegation and servitude. Sin for women is actually a failure to affirm their own independence and uniqueness; and to overcome these barriers requires a degree of self-love and self-assertion - pride, self-esteem, and dignity - which upbringing and culture have previously denied them.
Saiving set a pattern for much subsequent feminist theology, in her exposure of the inherent androcentricism of the tradition; but her perspective has continued within theological ethics too. Womanist theological reflection on evil and suffering, for example, suggests the dual dynamic of racism and sexism under which black women labor. "Sin" is not a matter solely of personal morality, therefore, but is enmeshed in political and economic structures of dehumaniza-tion and discrimination (Townes 1993).
Yet the objective of feminist, womanist, or Latina theologies cannot simply be one of being inducted into the extant tradition. While equality of access to ordained ministry, church leadership, and academic study are desirable goals, it is also clear that such activities have themselves been shaped within androcentric conventions, and that the very structures of theological anthropology themselves have radically excluded or misrepresented women's experience. Lasting change thus demands no less than "an intellectual paradigm shift from an androcentric world-view and theology to a feminist conceptualization of the world, human life, and Christian religion" (Fiorenza 1996b: 167).
Feminist theologians see a fundamental connection, therefore, between systems of patriarchal power in church and society and the deep symbolic structures of Western religion itself. An early articulation of this integral link between the symbolic and the material, between representation and reality, comes from the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow. She has argued strongly for the pervasive influence of religion as a source of cultural symbols. Adopting Simone de Beauvoir's analysis that women have been characterized as "Other" within a male-centered tradition, she observes that to be human has been equated with being male. More fundamentally, however, God is also named through that perspective - as privileging and sanctifying the qualities of hegemonic masculinity:
Obvious and innocuous as male God-language has come to seem, metaphors matter - on both an individual and social level. Though long usage may inure us to the implications of our imagery, religious symbols are neither arbitrary nor inert. . . . The male imagery Jews use in speaking to and about God emerges out of and maintain a religious system in which men are normative Jews and women are perceived as Other. (Plaskow 1980: 125)
It is not enough, Plaskow argues, to engage in feminist deconstruction of Jewish legal prohibitions against women. Nor is it adequate to promote a progressive but nonreligious form of Judaism, because these strategies do nothing to address the deep symbolic underpinning of Western culture. At the root is the naming of ultimate reality, which sacralizes a patriarchal worldview and perpetuates the characterization of women as misbegotten, not to mention preventing them from identifying themselves as made in the divine image. In other words, "the right question is theological" (Plaskow 1983) - and the root question is one of tracing the invisibility and exclusion of women from cultural, religious, and political systems back to their effacement from the very language used to name the divine. Language is thus regarded as a vital political device, by virtue of the pervasive influence of symbolic systems to sanction particular regimes of gender.
At its source, this claim draws upon the sociology of knowledge, identifying much of the theological tradition as the product of partial and ideological interests. Most crucial, of course, is the extent to which official tradition has failed to embrace the lives, achievements, and perspectives of women. As Rosemary Ruether has famously argued:
The use of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use of women's experience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past. The use of women's experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology, including its codified traditions, as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience. (Ruether 1983: 13)
This enables theologians to argue that the tradition as historically and institutionally experienced is but one representation of the truth, not ultimate reality itself. As the product of human agency, a social and historical construction rather than an ontological given, it can also be contested and transformed (Ruether 1983: 19-20). Thus, such woman-centered theologies are not only disciplines of protest; there is acceptance, too, of the imperative to transform as well as to challenge. This is prompted not only by the need to expose the patriarchal biases of Christian tradition, however, but by the conviction that these very same revelations of faith have real potential for human liberation. This dialectic of "critique" and "reconstruction" represents possibly the most significant, creative - and problematic - contribution of feminist theological scholarship.
Was this article helpful?