Sources Of Religious Knowledge

Christian theologians have traditionally based the possibility of religious knowledge on three main sources: revelation, tradition, and reason, to which might be added religious experience. Differences between theologians and ecclesiastical divisions have occurred over which of these is to have priority. Philosophers of religion have spent much energy debating the arguments for and against each of these as sources of religious knowledge: the question of proofs or evidence for the existence of God looms large in any standard course or textbook in the philosophy of religion. Feminists, however, have pointed out the deeply gendered and indeed oppressive assumptions within each of these strands: to what sort of God would such methods of argument lead? Biblical scholars have done much to show the patriarchal nature of alleged revelation (Trible 1978; Fiorenza 1983); feminist historians have developed an awareness of the ubiquitous oppression of women in Christian history and theological tradition (Bynum 1987; Miles 1989); and feminist philosophers, especially socialist and post-modernist philosophers, are engaged in deconstruction of patriarchal modes of reasoning, as discussed above (Irigaray 1985). Accordingly, feminist philosophers of religion are on the whole not particularly interested in debating the issues of proof or evidence for the existence of God. To do so would be to accept some of the basic platforms of masculinist thinking in the philosophy of religion which feminists wish to challenge. There have, however, been notable efforts to find in the Bible (Trible 1978) and in tradition (Grey 1993:38-52) liberating resources for a religious knowledge which will be true to the experience of women.

The feminist movement as a whole is deeply grounded in women's experience: both the experience of oppression, and the experience of possibilities of liberation arising out of a sense of sisterhood or community among women working together for change. Although there has been little systematic analysis of it specific to the philosophy of religion, it can be seen that this dual experience of oppression and liberating sisterhood is also taken by feminists as the primary source of religious knowledge. I have already indicated the way in which the experience of oppression functions as a basis for questioning the standard sources of religious knowledge. The positive experience, also, has been of major significance. For many women connected with the feminist movement, the experience of being heard, affirmed, and valued in women's groups was a novel and life-changing experience, contrasting sharply with the marginalizing and disrespect which they had encountered in other academic, ecclesiastical and domestic settings. So powerful was this experience of solidarity and sisterhood that it has itself been seen as revelatory, not just of new insights, but even of the divine. As Sheila Daveney puts it, 'It has become axiomatic within North American [and British] feminist theological circles that women's experience is both the source for theological reflection and the norm for evaluating the adequacy of any theological framework' (1987:32). Obviously, what is meant by 'the divine', if this is a primary source of knowledge regarding it, will be very different from what has been meant in traditional Christian theology and Western philosophy of religion, as will be seen more fully below.

How, precisely, should such experience of an 'epiphany of sisterhood' be understood as a source for religious knowledge? No systematic account has yet been undertaken; but several possibilities present themselves. One of these emerges in the works of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (1984:43-63) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1983:12-46). According to these writers, it is essential to recognize the social character of theological norms, and therefore the fact that whereas current theological systems often present themselves as objective, they are in fact derived from male experience and reflect male interests. The experiences of women who have committed themselves to struggle against all forms of oppression, however, are experiences which are grounded in the liberating presence of God, since God is the cosmic reality on the side of liberation (Fiorenza) as can be seen from the alliance of Jesus with the powerless (Ruether). Hence, while women's experiences are as culturally bound as are those of men, the experiences of God of those who struggle for liberation are more valid than the experiences of those bound to the 'false and alienated' world of patriarchy: here can be seen an application of the socialist feminist standpoint theory epistemology described above.

Such a position can, however, be subjected to several criticisms. In the first place, one can see that whereas the overt appeal is to the primacy of women's experience, there is an obvious appeal, also, to the Bible and tradition as sources for an understanding of God as liberator, or of Jesus on the side of the powerless. At best, therefore, women's experience serves as a principle of selection from these sources; it does not do away with them. While neither Ruether nor Schussler Fiorenza would deny this, it does considerably qualify their claim that women's experiences are paradigmatically sources of religious knowledge. Furthermore, as Sheila Daveney has pointed out, if human experience and hence human knowledge are grounded in its social and historical context, then this is as true of women's experience as it is of men's. Yet in Ruether and Schussler Fiorenza there is 'the implicit, sometimes explicit assumption that there is a perspective from which we can perceive the way things really are and that feminist experience provides such a privileged location' (Daveney 1987:42). Daveney's preferred response is to argue against the possibility of 'one true story', and affirm instead a multiplicity of 'knowledges' based on one's position in specific communities, and an effort of struggling within them for what counts as desirable consequences. While she is prepared to accept the relativism of her position, however, other feminists are less willing to adopt such a stance, since it would then follow that the advocacy by a community of sexism, racism, the extermination of Jews or homosexuals, or the like, could not be named as (unqualified) evil.

Another approach which uses the idea of socially based knowledge and community while trying to avoid relativistic consequences can be found in the work of Sharon Welch (1990:160-2), who contrasts the traditional idea of the kingdom of God with a new idea of 'beloved community'.

The kingdom of God implies conquest, control, and final victory over the elements of nature as well as over the structures of injustice. The 'beloved community' names the matrix within which life is celebrated, love is worshipped, and partial victories over injustice lay the groundwork for further acts of criticism and courageous defiance.

This love, celebration and resistance to oppression Welch speaks of as the divine; and it is within the context of the 'beloved community' that encounter with the divine is possible. There are, here, echoes of traditional theologies of encounter; but the divine that is encountered is not in any straightforward sense 'a person', let alone the Father God or the (male) Christ of Christian tradition (both of whom are in any case deeply suspect from a feminist perspective). While Welch plays on resonances of Christian vocabulary of the divine, it is not part of her project to claim her theological understanding as Christian, in the way that Ruether and Schussler Fiorenza wish to do: what she is suggesting is that the experience of the 'beloved community' should be the basis for development of a theology radically different from the oppressive theologies of Christendom. It is to be hoped that in a future book she will develop these tantalizing hints further, and show how this 'beloved community' should be constituted and what would be the basis of the claims that it would make: in particular, why should they be considered religious? It would appear that Welch is suggesting not only a new source of religious knowledge, but a new understanding of what religion consists in, or at least an understanding different from that which has characterized much of the theology of Christendom.

Such new sources, and with them a new understanding of religion, are explicitly sought by Luce Irigaray. In conjunction with her project of constructing a new God or gods from women's self-understanding, she utilizes theories drawn from Feuerbach, which see the traditional attributes of God as human projections, and points out that they are gender-specific. Men have needed to see themselves in relation to an infinite, bodiless God whose primary attributes are omnipotence and omniscience, because these are the attributes which men, alienated from their bodies and struggling against their finitude, most crave for themselves. Thus God is for men a form of self-completion. Irigaray says:

Man can exist because God helps him to define his genre, to situate himself as a finite being in relation to the infinite...To set up a genre, a God is needed. Man did not let himself be determined by another genre: feminine. His only God was to correspond to the human type which we know is not neutral as far as the difference of sex goes.

(Irigaray 1993:61)

Thus, if women are to accept the project of self-definition, part of that project will include formulating a God or gods of our own, developing an understanding of divinity which will represent 'the possibility of a perfection, an ideal, goal and trajectory of the subject' (Grosz 1989:160). Such a God or gods can arise only out of women's self-knowledge; yet it is also true that women can only achieve such self-knowledge in relation to God as the ideal of our perfection. Irigaray represents this as reciprocal movement, with women's self-knowledge and knowledge of God nourishing one another.

Only a God in the feminine can look after and hold for us this margin of liberty and power which would allow us to grow more, to affirm ourselves and to come to self-realisation for each of us and in community. This is our other still to be realised, beyond and above life, powers, imagination, creation, our possibility of a present and a future.

(Irigaray cited in Grosz 1989:162)

There may be echoes here of a Kantian regulative idea, but any notion of a God objectively existing in the heavens has disappeared together with the correspondence theory of truth and the patriarchal understanding of religious knowledge.

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