A library of one's own
WHEN VIRGINIA WOOLF WROTE A Room of One's Own she argued that any woman trying to find her voice as a writer required an income and a room. But in 1929 a Catholic woman who wanted to write about theology would have found neither a position nor a place to do so. Theologians then wore soutanes, not skirts, and nearly all of them were celibate males living and teaching in seminaries. Theology used male language and images to speak about a male God to a male-dominated church, and accepted Augustine's and Thomas Aquinas' views that women were mentally, ethically, and spiritually inferior to men.
Seven decades later women have not only joined the ranks of theologians, they have brought a new set of concerns and perspectives to God-talk (theo-logos). Adding the voices of women to the theological conversation is awakening the church to the experience, humanity, and holiness of half the human race and forcing us to reexamine and discard assumptions about God, the Bible, church, gender, and family. Feminist theologians are not just adding a new wing to the theological library. They are giving birth to a theological revolution in Christianity bigger than Saint Paul's opening of the church to the Gentiles.
Today even Catholics who don't think of themselves as "feminists" reject any talk of a "second" or "weaker" sex, believe that women are as holy, smart, and moral as men, and affirm that women are made in the image of God (not men) and called to full partnership in the Body of Christ. And every day fewer Catholics are comfortable with a church that clings to sexist language in its public worship or argues that males are better at representing Christ at the Eucharist. Feminist theology has not only helped women find their voices and recover their stories, it is calling the church to recover the feminine face of God.
The basic story and tenets of feminist theology are outlined in Anne Clifford's concise and wide-ranging Introducing Feminist Theology (Orbis). In a richly informative and thoroughly accessible text running just under 300 pages, Clifford sketches out the history, shape, and insights of feminist thought. Beginning with an explanation of what feminism is and a discussion of the feminist method, the Duquesne University professor offers a brief but illuminating survey of feminist thought and movements over the past two centuries. In succeeding chapters she examines feminist thought on the Bible and hermeneutics, unpacks feminist reflections on God and the language we use to describe God, discusses feminist positions on the role and place of women in the church, offers a survey of feminist approaches to spirituality, and describes the concerns and perspectives feminist writers bring to discussions about nature and the environment. Clifford's small volume gives plenty of room to African American, Hispanic, African, and Asian women and offers readers a shelf full of feminist thought.
As Clifford and others point out, feminist theology is more than women doing theology. It is theology fashioned from women's daily bread and salted with their tears. It is a leaven, a reforming and liberating theology that seeks to awaken and free women and men from sexism and patriarchy.
Feminist theology begins with three assumptions: First, women are human beings and sacraments of God with the same dignity, sanctity, and worth as men; second, at least half of what we know about God and humanity is revealed in the distinctive but overlooked and ignored experience and stories of women; and third, traditional theology has been distorted by sexist and patriarchal perspectives.
Doing feminist theology means uncovering the pervasive and unnoticed sexist bias that distorts our language, worship, and biblical stories of God and oppresses, marginalizes, and belittles half of humanity. And it means recovering the stories and experiences of women and discovering in the work, joy, suffering, and bodies of women fresh paths to the wisdom and holiness of God.
Feminist spirituality in particular has listened to women as they name and bless their own experience and visions, giving voice to the holy within themselves and finding women's language and rituals to speak about and to God. This spirituality, fashioned by and for women, is recovering women's wisdom about their own sacredness and about the "woman-ness" of God.
Readers interested in good books on feminist spirituality could turn to Joan Chittister. In A Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men (Eerdmans) the Benedictine theologian rejects the vision of God as a warrior king ruling over the world. Celebrating this vision of God as male lord and master of the household leads us to practice violence and oppression in our homes, church, and society, Chittister argues. In its place we need to recover a feminist spirituality that celebrates and honors nonviolence, mutuality, compassion, forgiveness, and humility. Such a spirituality echoes the vulnerability of Isaiah's suffering servant and practices the nonviolence and forgiveness Jesus calls us to.
Like other writers in this area, Chittister also seeks to help women name and honor the sacred in their own stories and lives. In The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman's Life (Eerdmans) Chittister uses the biblical tale of Ruth as a template to reflect on a dozen critical moments or turning points in the life and spiritual odyssey of every woman. And in The Friendship of Women: A Spiritual Tradition (Theological Book Service) Chittister explores the sacrament of friendship in the lives of several biblical women and shows how their friendship with one another and with God offers models of lives rich in grace and compassion.
One of the ways feminist theology has helped women discover and honor their own experience and voice has been to uncover the voices and stories of biblical and Christian women whose lives, labors, and ideas have been ignored or discounted by traditional theology. Women's stories and teachings offer contemporary women a host of guides and spiritual friends and uncover for all of us a church and heaven where women hold up (more than) half the dome.
In Women and Redemption: A Theological History (Fortress Press) Rosemary Radford Ruether answers the patriarchal theologies that dominated much of history with the voices and arguments of Christian women who gave witness to another vision. And in Women and Christianity: The First Thousand Years (Orbis) Mary Malone sketches the stories of women disciples, martyrs, deaconesses, widows, virgins, and abbesses, and argues that these oft- forgotten saints helped shape the church that treated them so ambiguously.
It would be tough to overstate the importance of this contribution of feminist theology, for one of the greatest sins of patriarchy has been forgetting and distorting the stories of women and offering our children a theology where women are wrapped in silence. The offense not only robs women of their theological heritage, but denies all of us the blessings and bounty of God who is mother as well as father.
Finally, feminist theology has concerned itself with unmasking and dismantling patriarchal notions of family, gender, and sexuality and with articulating a truly Christian and liberating understanding of these realities. In Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press) Ruether argues that an authentic biblical and Christian vision does not support traditional notions of a breadwinner/homemaker family. Rather, early Christianity challenged and questioned Greco-Roman models of a patriarchal family, and only later did a more established church begin to accept notions of family that reinforced male dominance and the subjugation of women.
Feminist theology has brought the church a long way in the past several decades. Let's pray the revolution continues to lead us to a mansion where women find many rooms in which to write theology that finds their reflection in the face of God.
Patrick McCormick is associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
McCormick's Quick takes: Feminist theology classics
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Crossroad). Nothing is as important or entrenched as the way we talk about God, and in a scholarly and spiritual masterpiece many consider the finest text to date in feminist theology, Johnson scours the archives of biblical and classical thought in search of God-talk that acknowledges and celebrates women's full humanity and holiness.
Unpacking and applying the story and language of Sophia (Wisdom) from Hebrew scripture, she arranges a marriage of the best of classical and feminist thought and offers her readers language to speak about and to pray to the feminine face of the triune God. 4 STARS
In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Crossroad). How has patriarchy distorted our memories of Jesus and the early church? In a dense and scholarly text demanding a close read and an open mind Schüssler Fiorenza argues that Jesus' preaching of the reign of God called forth a radically egalitarian community in which men and women led and served as co-disciples, teachers, prophets, and ministers. In time, however, a more established church capitulated to the larger patriarchal society and "forgot" its own liberating (and feminist) message. 4 STARS
Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, by Rosemary Radford Ruether (Beacon Press). Theology, or God-talk, is grounded in humanity's experience of the sacred, but, as Ruether argues so persuasively in this groundbreaking and sweeping work of feminist theology, traditional theology has only paid attention to the experience of males.
In listening to the distinctive voices and experiences of women, feminist theology offers a shattering and liberating critique of the sexism embedded in our language about God and our understandings of Christ, sin, the world, the church, and redemption. Opening our eyes to the ways patriarchal theology has ignored and distorted the dignity and sanctity of women, Ruether calls for God-talk that recognizes the divine in all our sisters. 4 STARS
The Church and the Second Sex, by Mary Daly (Beacon Press). It's not possible to speak about feminist theology without mentioning Mary Daly or her pioneering as well as controversial scholarship.
In this early work (originally published in 1968) then-radical-Catholic-feminist Daly took aim at the social sin of sexism rooted in her church. Daly, who has since moved on to a "post-Christian" position, argues that Christianity and Catholicism have contributed to misogyny and patriarchy by propagating an ambiguous idea of women and portraying them as a second and inferior sex. She then offers a set of proposals for genuine partnership within the church, some of which remain timely 34 years later. 3 1/2 STARS