Christian History: Liberation Theologies – Feminist Theology

For the most part, the Neo-Orthodox movement involves dodging the ultimate question of authority; critiques against them were waved away through avoidance of this question,
usually setting a deistic option in its place (Pannenberg notably excluded). Given the  loss of authority, the modern era brought about a new theology that, instead of trying to find an authority, simply embraced the lack of an authority. Many modern theological enterprises, having lost authority, distinctions, and all semblance of stable structure due to the advent of these new methodologies, have attempted a new project, one hewn out of the previous traditions as well as adding a new veneer of primacy in postmodernism.

In liberative theologies, all authority centers around the experience of specific individuals or groups, who represent a particular social status, gender, race, or any other number of different “classes” in society. Specifically, it is the problem of oppression of these particular groups by some other power, the desire to reverse this trend and place their experience as primary over and against anything else. In other words, it created a theological free-for-all that creates conflict and tension – once authority becomes “whatever you think”, and inconsistent criteria can be used with reckless abandon, this is what occurs.

To fill that authoritative “hole”, social justice and action becomes the primary problem for fear of inner reflection and recognition of sin. Feminist and Black theologies represent a typical explication of such thought which seeks a removal of starting points and restrictions. They would both reject the idea that we have, spiritually, become the heirs of Abraham’s promise as depicted in Galatians 3:

6 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

More than likely, Abraham turns into an oppressor. How does that work? Let’s find out!

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Feminist theology emphasizes the experiential element. As women’s experience is the measure, all problems stem from oppression of women. Thus, for example, the gendered nature of language is a patriarchal structuring mechanism to reinforce the subservient role of women in modern society. Religious stories that represent females as passive, weak, or merely caretakers serve as a method of oppression that utilizes religious authority to put women into their place, fearful that they might displace male dominance. As such, the methodology
of the feminist theologian starts with critiques of the past and its gendered assumptions, followed by the search for alternative Biblical and extra-biblical traditions that support Feminist ideas. It is in this search that they can revise Christian categories to support and emphasize the role of women.

Mary Daly, for example, sees androcentrism permeating modern Western society. Women’s low caste status has been masked by sex role segregation, derivative segregation, and ideologies. For the first, it is the delusion of men who imply that women are “equal, but differe”. For the second, women have a divided status because they are related with men, a subservient and dependent relationship. As Daly says, the identification of women as daughters and wives, derived from males, “divides us [women] against each other…” For the last, ideology bestows false, illusionary identities upon both men and women – Christianity, speci cally, has given these gender roles a “natural” character, being fit ted “according to the divine plan.”

Daly accuses the Church itself of anti-feminism from its very roots, infecting a variety of theologians and thinkers throughout the years. A masculine God, a male saving women in the form of Jesus, and the human relationship to God the Father reinforces these stereotypes. Christianity is not a religion; patriarchy is, in fact, its father and predecessor. As such, Daly sees no reconciliation with Christianity, seeing it as corrupted from its very ground. What is needed is a death of God the Father in the rising woman-consciousness and the consequent breakthrough to conscious, communal participation in God the Verb. Her theology is an entirely new creation, completely divided from Christianity in any way; what Christian would, for example, believe that women should rule over men, or argue against gender equality? Many have painted Daly as reactionary, but her total focus on women does not seem a fake or cynical response, but a new way of thought.

Rosemary Radford Ruether takes a more conservative approach, although one no less radical in a Christian perspective. Her project endeavors to affirm the humanity, and imago dei, of women without resorting to destroying the humanity of man – in other words, her project is conciliatory, rather than reactionary.145 As she says herself (which seems like an obvious nod to Daly),

Any principle of religion or society that marginalizes one group of persons as less than fully human diminishes us all.

Instead, she treats the goal as the removal of all chauvinism, all hierarchies, and all structures that either homogenize or negatively emphasize heterogeneity. The experience of all peoples needs integration into the Christian story of working against oppression. In her words,

God did not speak once upon a time to a privileged group of males in one part of the world, making us ever after dependent on the codification of their experience.

Thus, to arm this particular goal, “alternative traditions” must be used that affirm the humanity of women. These can include anything from Scripture to other traditions – exclusivism, for feminist theological reflection, cannot be anything but a dead end. Ruether’s  primary methodology starts with history. The symbol of “God” was never primarily a man, but a woman! If ancient Canaanite religion, for example, involves a vegetation king which arises from the renewal of the Goddess, so too does the Israelite cult of YHWH also center around divine female imagery. Even the “Wisdom” gure of Solomonic literature is almost identical with that of the Logos of Scripture. As such, what occurred in Christian theology was a preference for male symbols rather than female imagery – thus, a male-focused theology naturally develops.

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I realize bra burnings never actually happened, but this photo is hilarious!

This symbolism intentionally excludes women, and surrounds them with a symbol-system that socializes them into a certain role and task, not only in society but also affecting their relationship to the divine. As Ruether says,

Women have to suspect that the entire symbolic universe that surrounds them, which has socialized them to their roles, is deeply tainted by hostility to their humanity…An entire social and symbolic universe crumbles…The very grammar they have been taught to use to express themselves, the symbols they use to praise God…become bitter-tasting.

Ruether and Daly have a very similar mode of thought in that respect: women’s experience has been left out, and it must be brought back in, regardless of the tools and method used to achieve that end.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.