Feminist Theology And Spirituality

Feminist theology is not a homogeneous entity: like theology as a whole, it comes in a variety of forms, some of them extremely conservative and conformist. I exclude from this account those forms of theology which call themselves feminist but which in fact merely offer a 'feminine dimension' to dominant theological assumptions, or which seek to modify language without questioning relations of power and domination. Modern feminism began as a critique of patriarchy and male domination within Western capitalism, and its theological forms have developed important critiques of Christian spirituality at a number of levels.

First, feminists have attacked the separation of two hemispheres of the brain—rationality (seen as male) and intuition (seen as female), with all the ideological baggage which goes with this separation. While some feminist theorists have tended towards a form of female essentialism, offering female ways of knowing and acting as being essentially different from, and perhaps superior to, male ways, the general thrust of feminist theory has been against this approach. Writers such as Lynne Segal have been critical of the apocalyptic feminism in which a 'Manichean struggle' occurs and where the female is represented exclusively in such symbols as motherhood, nurturing, and 'nature' (Segal 1987: ix). Feminism is to be sharply distinguished from the 'cult of the feminine' which exalts 'femininity' in a 'pedestalist' way.

Again, while some types of feminist spirituality have led to an increased privatization and have moved towards a sentimental nature mysticism of 'womanspirit', there has also been a great deal of emphasis on the need to combat sexism at the heart of Christian culture. This kind of feminist theology is thus a form of liberation theology which seeks to unmask illusion and ideology. In its liturgical expression, such feminism shows a strong emphasis on the demands of justice and the need for liberation (Morley 1988, 1992).

A third feature of feminist spirituality is its insistence on the concrete origins of reflection and of prayer. It begins with experience within history, often with such specific and painful experiences as rape, violence and abortion. There is a stress on the body in relationship. The critique of atomized individualism is central to feminist spirituality and ethics (Fox-Genovese 1991) and this emphasis is clear in the cooperative style of feminist scholarship itself.

Fourth, feminism is critical of male understandings of sin as self-assertion which tend to lead women to positions of dependence and self-negation. It seeks to reclaim neglected emotions such as anger and pride within a framework of love. Fifth, feminist theology rejects the mistrust of sexuality and the view of women as the source of sexual temptation, which have often been the main representations of sex in Christian tradition. Devotional manuals only seem to notice sex as a distraction. Recognizing the 'threadbare inadequacy of the Christian tradition on these issues' (Miles 1988:159-60), feminist writers see sexuality as that which deepens and shapes personal beings in their most intense interaction with the world. So they reject the tradition deriving from Augustine for whom sex was 'an abiding unhealed fissure in the soul' (Brown 1989:418). In Augustine's work there is no integration: sex is a punishment, not a foretaste. Feminist theology thus challenges Christians on their attitude to sex and the body. Sexual justice is recognized as 'the most trivialised, feared and postponed dimension of social justice in western society and possibly in the world' (Heyward 1989:4).

Finally, in its approach to political struggle, feminism demands 'much more exacting inner standards' (Rowbotham et al. 1979:42) than is common in most political movements. The personal becomes political, and friendship is seen as a major element in both spirituality and political struggle (Raymond 1986). It is not surprising that much of the recent writing on spiritual direction has come from a feminist perspective (Fischer 1989).

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