This is what a feminist theology looks like


Is this really what a feminist looks like? A feminist politician, perhaps. The men in particular feel compelled to humour this particular cause of equality, and so they don a tacky T-shirt sporting a crass slogan and, hey presto, their affirmation of the sisterhood is manifest; their unswerving dedication to women’s lib is undeniable. Great things, sloganeering T-shirts. Much better than swearing on the Bible.

But not David Cameron, of course. When asked if he would be so kind as to jump on the latest identity-asserting bandwagon, he demurred, thereby assuring the publicity stunt of even greater publicity and poking the embers of Bullingdon misogyny: that nasty Mr Cameron doesn’t like women.  And those even nastier Tories who do like women clearly don’t believe they could possibly be equal. They can’t do: they won’t wear even wear the T-shirt.

The cause of feminism is deeper than all this pressure-group piffle. If there is no longer any male-female distinction in God’s plan of salvation (and there isn’t [Gal 3:28]), there is spiritual parity and eternal equality. Christians don’t need to wear a T-shirt to proclaim the righteousness of feminism: Christ has clothed the female Gentile slave in the redemptive robes of the freeborn male Jew. We are all one in Jesus.

Out of this revolutionary declaration springs a feminist theology, or, if you prefer, a feminist theo-sociology or feminist socio-theology. And, to be honest, the Church hasn’t been very good at expressing it or living it. While Christianity has traditionally taught the eschatological equality of souls for Christ and in the world to come, it has manifestly perpetuated an inequality of the sexes in the Church and the present world. Throughout most of its history, the Church has been a dogmatically patriarchal institution based on an anthropology in which man is the “head” and woman subordinate. Augustine of Hippo asserted: “Woman does not possess the image of God herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head.” That sort of attitude doesn’t go down very well today.

The Church has for centuries legitimised laws and structures in society which secured male dominion. Feminist theology has sought to challenge this and has, in a sense, existed as long as there have been women who have reflected upon their faith in a way that differed from the patriarchal tradition of interpretation. Barth observes: “Different ages, peoples and cultures have had very different ideas of what is concretely appropriate, salutary and necessary in man and woman.” So, before you dismiss the whole notion of a ‘feminist theology’, it is important to consider a bit of history and agree terminological definitions.

The feminist critique of society and the Christian tradition has its roots in the emancipatory ideas of the Enlightenment. While the liberal tradition has been concerned with an equality of liberties and opportunities, Marxist feminism has been more radical in its identification and elimination of the prevalent “androcentric fallacy” – a phrase which encapsulates the two fundamental credal feminist affirmations: firstly, that men and women do not only differ physiologically, but also in their experience, perception and appropriation of reality; and secondly, that this difference has been masked because the normative representation of humanity in Western culture has been the experiences, values and conceptual constructs of males. In this worldview, men possess all dignity, virtue, and power, in contrast to women who are seen as inferior, defective, less than fully human. Therefore the female contribution to society has been either ignored or repressed.

In relation to the Christian faith, there have been four principal omissions:

i) The failure to find femininity in God
ii) The belief that woman is derivative from and hence secondary to man
iii) The assumption that woman is characterised by passivity
iv) The tendency to identify woman with bodiliness as opposed to transcendent mind

Feminist theology is both a critical voice within the Church and a revolt against the Church from (mainly) women outside who are determined to develop religious alternatives. There is no single feminist theology that can represent the whole, but rather a multitude of feminist theologies which both diverge in style and content and also conflict with each other. This is inevitable given that feminist theologians seek to incorporate women’s experience into theological inquiry without ever defining precisely what such experience is. In practice, the term it is used with different emphases: some focus on women’s social experience determined by socio-cultural factors, while others primarily focus upon bodily experience determined by biology. Since Christian tradition and Scripture contain codified collective human experiences, it is reasonable to assert that how we experience reality must dictate how we make theology. Feminist theology informs itself not only from Scripture and tradition, but also from social theory, psychology and political theory. And with that realisation, many Christians turn off, asserting that feminism is just another temporal obsession – another equality-mania of the age – quite at variance with the revealed Word of God and contrary to natural law and the created order.

But it is concerned with oppression and liberation. It is a righteous cause that restores sight and frees the captives. Since feminist theology is developed out of women’s perspective, its scholarly ideal is not the objectivity of established scholarship, but the conscious advocacy stance of liberation theologies in favour of the oppressed. There are three hermeneutic procedures central to its cause:

i) The recovery of the dangerous memory of women’s oppression by the male patriarchal culture and the Church
ii) The seeking of alternative biblical and extra-biblical traditions that support women’s personhood; her equality in the image of God; her equal redeemability; and her participation in prophecy, teaching and leadership
iii) That feminists set forth their own unique method of theology, which includes the revisioning of Christian categories

It is not difficult to find examples of sexism, patriarchy and androcenticism in Scripture (eg Gen 19:8; Judg 11:29-40; 2Sam 13). It is therefore unsurprising that feminist exegetes emphasise scriptures which contain an explicit critique of patriarchy, in particular the portrayals of God in a traditionally female role (eg Ps 22:9f). God is presented as a father, husband, king, warrior; yet He is also a pregnant woman, mother, midwife and mistress. But because biblical and theological scholarship has historically been male-dominated, it has been a little blind to the oppression: only a feminist interpretative model is seen to do justice to the historical reality of women’s leadership in the Early Church. Mary may have been the Theotokos, but God became incarnate as a man, and that man chose all-male disciples.

In the Christian expression of feminism, there are those who hold to evangelical theology and argue for a non-hierarchical relation of full equality and reciprocity between man and woman. And there are those who work from a commitment to the Christian Faith, however they understand it. And then there are those who do not identify with Christianity at all, but whose beliefs nevertheless include a religious worldview. While acknowledging these differing outlooks and multiple variations within them, they all have in common a direct challenge to patriarchal institutions, social structures and ideologies. They are dedicated to the full equality of male and female, and committed to social and political struggle for the liberation of women.

Christian feminism is essentially concerned with the themes of justice, creativity, work, service, and family. But there is a fundamental christological disagreement among feminist theologians, with some presenting Jesus as “the true Mother of our nature”, while others see Jesus as both fully male and female – a fusion of the feminine Jesus-Sophia with the masculine Jesus-Logos. But the christological question “Who do you say that I am?” receives a response with a profound dimension when answered from the experience of a believing woman. The traditional doctrine of sin as largely based on testosterone-induced self-assertion and self-aggrandisement demands a reconsideration which includes a woman’s experience of loss and the negation of self. The Church of England has recognised the validity of this critique:

If women had been allowed to play a fuller part in the development of the concept of sin, might they not have wished to place a greater emphasis on sin as the failure to assert and take responsibility for oneself? If that is so, then while it might be very appropriate to exalt the virtues of gentleness and sacrificial vulnerability when you have a male audience in mind, to describe sin in that way to women might simply compound their negative self-image and encourage them to collude in a position of abiding weakness (The Mystery of Salvation [Doctrine Commission of the Church of England General Synod, Church House Publishing, 1995]).

In light of the feminist theologian’s concern for liberation, it is not surprising that there is a Feminist Christology based on the liberating praxis of the historical Jesus, particularly the subversive memory which contains an explicit critique of all systems of oppression. In the proclamation of the kingdom, in Luke’s Gospel in particular, it is women and the poor who are given pride of place. It is not the women who hastily desert or deny Jesus: they are first to witness the Resurrection. Significantly, they were also the first to receive the Apostolic Commission to go and tell others. From this, it isn’t ecclesiologically unreasonable (though many may sincerely demur) to argue for women ministers – deacons, priests, pastors, presbyters, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and even popes.

Of key significance to many feminist theologians is the recovery of Sophia Christology from the Old Testament female personification of God. The androcentric Logos was perpetuated by a Christian emperor with a Christian bishop at his right hand, who became the Vicar of Christ on earth, governing the Christian State of the new redeemed order of history. In this vision, patriarchy, hierarchy, slavery and Graeco-Roman imperialism have all been appropriated and baptised by the Church.

And we can go further. Since Chalcedon, humanity has been deceived by ‘Christolatry’: it is undeniable that it is feminist christological inquiry that has permitted African and Asian women to discover Jesus as liberator from colonialism, poverty and an overarching patriarchy. The ethical message is integral to the new humanity that Jesus represents: He is the representative of liberated humanity and the liberating Word of God, manifesting the kenosis of patriarchy; the announcement of the new humanity through a lifestyle that discards hierarchical caste privilege and speaks on behalf of the lowly.

If Christian feminists were simply making the epistemological observation that we are not neutral observers, and that the gender of the theologian or biblical reader may well affect the interpretation, there would be little objection. But many are saying more than this. The advocacy stance, instead of being a tool of interpretation, has become a master. In its explicit gynocentrism, Christian feminist hermeneutics is open to the criticisms leveled at the anthropocentrism of the post-Enlightenment period. The feminist critical principle expounded by many clearly renders the feminist theologian and the feminist community the sole judge of truth, and where the interpreter and the community become the highest judges, there is a danger of idolatry.

The Bible is not against the feminist: there is no need of a new textual base or a new Christology simply because Christ is male. A male Christ does not distance women from full representation in the new humanity: He affirmed and affirms womanhood. The Christian Faith has been warped, misused and abused to legitimise patriarchal systems contrary to its intentions, and it is possible to reform (and necessary to convert) an oppressive patriarchal theology into an egalitarian theology which is liberating to women.

Using the methods and praxis of liberation theology has enabled women to work for justice in their lives. Their experience and understanding of the causes of injustice is the legitimate tool that has enabled a breakthrough in understanding that the limitations placed upon them are not because God orders them, but because man has made them. There can be no doubt that the Christian feminist can and should speak out on matters theologically and spiritually more relevant to women because if God is active in our history, this must include the history of women.

A feminist theology that intends to bring about a renewal of theology must reflect upon the whole of Christianity – both faith and praxis. Jesus was not an effete dreamer: He was a macho realist who deployed His divine testosterone on numerous occasions. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” is another Jesus; a false notion of the Messiah. Christian compassion and love aren’t all about breast-feeding, coffee-drinking, chats and warm hugs. There is an intrinsic toughness, but it is not always best expressed through assertions of masculinity, though it may be. Taking women’s experience seriously and making women’s issues visible are important dimensions of a constructive missiology of engagement. The methodology of a biblically-rooted feminist theology will share basic principles with traditional theology, while others will be challenged, and still others held ‘in tension’. The concern for women’s liberation calls for a creative transformation of methodology which can enable theology to integrate insights from women’s experience and feminist scholarship.

However, for the sake of its own insight, and for the sake of its tasks toward the Church and the world, the cause of liberation must stay in a two-way critical and informative dialogue with non-feminist Christians as well as with non-Christian feminists, for not all women are feminists, and not all feminists are women. And not all feminists are militant or Marxist, from which conforming oppression the aggressive demand for politicians to wear feminist T-shirts springs.

If feminism is not itself to become an oppressive ideology, it must submit and listen in the way that it expects patriarchy and machismo to do so. In such mutual submission is the essence of civility and community, and the antithesis of assertions of power. Christians must understand that identity politics is not the same as Applied Theology: Jesus did not pray “Our Mother who art in heaven”. In that socio-historical reality is an assertion of an immutable theology. In Fatherhood, God reveals something of Himself. And we don’t need a T-shirt to proclaim it.