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Ideal for classroom instruction, discussion groups, and personal study, this volume is an exceptional, user-friendly guide to contemporary feminist thought.
In the course of its development, Christian theology has undergone a number of shifts in perspective with regard to what theology is and what theologians talk about. The Enlightenment at the end of the seventeenth century put human beings and their experience on the intellectual agenda. With this, theology could no longer be understood as an abstract and "objective science," but had to take adequate account of its "subjective" dimension. One aspect of this can be seen in the emphasis that contemporary theology has placed upon context and the role of communal experience in theological reflection. For example, in the 1970s and 80s, the work of Black American and Latin American theologians made clear that there were indeed many different "worlds" within the one world. The realization that no single community could definitively address the theological task challenged the way theology had been done so far: doing theology had to take place where people lived, and advocate the issues that arose from their particular lives.
The challenge of liberation theology was not only to take into account the perspectives of those doing theology, but also to look more closely at the life and experience of marginalized and oppressed people. The change in perspective advocated by liberation theologians required us to ask how justice can be done through theology and through the life of the church. It was about this time that feminist theologians began to make themselves heard. They argued that something else was missing from the agenda of theology: theology had overlooked the existence and the lives of women. In addition, they made clear many of the ways that this sacred discipline had been used as an instrument to silence and oppress women. Not only was women's experience denigrated or excluded as a source of theological reflection, but women were forced to assume a "male" perspective if they wanted to be involved in the task of doing theology.
Introduction: What Is Feminist Theology?
So what is feminist theology? There are two dimensions to doing feminist theology: critical analysis and constructive re-reading and re-writing that involves a commitment to transformation. In this respect we say that feminist theology is
critical, contextual, constructive, creative.
Feminist theologians analyze the situation of women in church and society, past and present. This critical analysis is not restricted to those theological texts that deal explicitly with women or are written by women, but it is concerned with all texts, and in fact all aspects of life, as they create and shape the situation of women. This may be done either by speaking explicitly about women, or by denying the existence of women and the relevance of women's lives for doing theology.
As a second step, feminist theologians develop new ways of reading the history of the church and all theological texts from the perspective of women. In feminist theology, women assume their place as both readers and authors of theology. In so doing, feminist theologians re-frame the theological debate by expanding the range of areas that theologians study. Appropriate reflection should not be limited to academic texts, but should also take account of women's lives and experiences, as well as different types of women's spiritualities, both traditional and new. As we explore what this means, I propose the following working definition of feminist theology:
Feminist theology is the critical, contextual, constructive, and creative re-reading and re-writing of Christian theology. It regards women - and their bodies, perspectives, and experiences - as relevant to the agenda of Christian theologians and advocates them as subjects of theological discourses and as full citizens of the church.
It is important to realize from the outset that the goal of feminist theology is not merely the inclusion of some feminist ideas into otherwise unchanged structures, or the admission of women theologians to the arenas in which theology is done. Feminist theology does not seek to be one more voice represented at the table of patriarchy. Neither does it advocate the complete separation of women from men. Feminist theologians aim instead at the transformation of theological concepts, methods, language, and imagery into a more holistic theology as a means and an expression of the struggle for liberation. This involves an awareness of the ambivalence that many of the symbols and texts within the Christian tradition create for women. It implies the ability to respond to this ambivalence, not by discarding the key symbols of Christianity altogether, but by identifying dis-empowering readings of them and constructing and proposing new readings that advocate the full humanity of women.
Feminist theologians are in constant dialogue with the Christian tradition. This dialogue can take a variety of different forms. Some feminist theologians try to reconcile Christianity and feminism by arguing that Christianity, read in the right way, advocates equality and justice in the same way that feminism does. The American theologian Leonard Swidler, for example, argues that "Jesus was a feminist." Representatives of this particular form of Christian feminism may be found in the work of Denise Lardner Carmody, and in some of the early writings of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. The Christian tradition becomes a resource for feminists who find the values they advocate - the full humanity of women and their equality with men - inherent within the Christian tradition, but also distorted through patriarchal thinking. Feminist theology and the Christian tradition are therefore means of a mutual critique, enabling a more holistic form of doing theology for both women and men.
Other feminist theologians advocate a radically new reading of Christian theology. This new reading understands women's experiences and the full humanity of women as the criterion by which all theology has to be judged. Some texts within the Christian tradition are regarded as usable, while others are not. Therefore the search for such "usable texts" has to be extended beyond the boundaries of Christianity itself. The most prominent writers of this second group are Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Fiorenza, for example, argues that the Bible can no longer be understood as the authoritative source for women, as an archetype of Christian belief, but must rather be seen as a resource for women's struggle for liberation. In other words, as a text the Bible portrays a movement of equality, justice, and liberation that can be seen as a prototype and inspiration for women today.
Rosemary Radford Ruether identifies five areas of such "usable traditions." These are: Scripture, marginalized or "heretical" traditions within Christianity, the primary theological themes within the mainstream of Christian theology, non-Christian Near-Eastern and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy, and critical post-Christian worldviews such as liberalism, romanticism, or Marxism. The ultimate criterion by which any tradition or text is to be judged is whether or not it manages to promote the full humanity of women and thereby advocates women's struggle for liberation from male oppression. We can here distinguish between feminist theologies that advocate equality between women and men, and feminist theologies that focus specifically on women. Representatives of the latter group ask: Who are the women about whom feminist theology speaks?
It is important to remember that feminist theologians do not necessarily have to be women. In fact, there are a number of male theologians who have taken on board feminist concerns, for example, the British hymn writer and theologian Brian Wren and the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Moreover, not all female theologians are feminist theologians; some of them use methods of patriarchal scholarship uncritically. As the black feminist Audre Lorde has argued," the master's tools will not dismantle the master's house." Put another way, uncritical participation in oppressive structures leads to a perpetuation of those structures. In keeping with this perspective, some feminist theologians have given up fighting for the ordination of women. They view women being ordained to the priesthood in a patriarchal church as driving a division among women by sustaining the existing patriarchal structures rather than transforming the church into a liberated cohumanity.
Feminist Ways of Reading Scripture
Feminist theologians engage with the key sources of Christian theology such as Scripture, the history of Christian thought, and traditional approaches to doing theology. In this section we will consider feminist approaches to the most important text of Christianity, the Bible. The Bible is the key text for Christians, and one of our primary ways of knowing about God. However, over the centuries the Bible has been a source of ambivalent messages for women: some texts within the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament have been sources of hope and empowerment, while others, such as St. Paul's command for women to be silent in the church, have been used to exclude women from the main aspects of the church and to deny them their full citizenship in the life of the church. While some feminists have chosen to reject the Bible on the grounds of its history and potential for abuse, for most feminist theologians, the Bible remains a force to be reckoned with.
Feminist theology is concerned with reading and interpreting Scripture and the Christian tradition in the light of women's experiences. The aim of such a re-reading is to un-cover women's absences as well as to discover women's presences throughout the history of the Christian church and in those texts the Christian church considers relevant and normative. In this context, feminist biblical hermeneutics is the process of developing a critical and constructive reading of Scripture that advocates women as full members of the Christian church. However, the feminist theologians of the twentieth century were not the first women to read the scriptures of the Hebrew and the Christian Testaments in order to make sense of them for their own situations. A number of women could be mentioned, including St. Paula and St. Eustochium, who worked with St. Jerome on the translation of the scriptures into Latin. Medieval nuns were often literate and were both readers and interpreters of Scripture.
The Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century saw the "rediscovery of Scripture" as it proclaimed its sola scriptura (through Scripture alone) and advocated not only the distinction between Scripture and tradition, but also the reading of Scripture by lay people. Luther and his fellow Reformers advocated the importance of literacy and education, which for Luther also included the education of women. One of them was Argula von Grumbach, born in 1492 in Bavaria. From an early age, her family encouraged her, despite the warnings of some of their spiritual advisers, to read and study the Bible. A number of her male relatives, who looked after her when her parents died of the plague while Argula was still in her teens, were involved in the Reformation. She herself spent some time as a lady in waiting at the court in Munich. In 1516 or 1517, the year in which Luther hammered his ninety-five theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Argula married Friedrich von Grumbach with whom she had four children before he died in 1530. In Ingolstadt in southwest Germany, Argula von Grumbach first came in contact with some of the theological ideas of the Wittenberg Reformers.
Argula von Grumbach later corresponded with Luther and also encouraged the nobility of her native Bavaria to take on the ideas of the Reformers. Both Argula and her husband came under suspicion, and it was suggested that she should have two fingers amputated to stop her from writing. Von Grumbach tried to promote the cause of the Reformation both through the writing of pamphlets and through her extensive travels around southwest Germany. In doing that, Argula broke a number of taboos. She assumed a public role, which was unheard of for a woman of her time. It was more than a public role, it was that of a theological writer and exegete of Scripture. Von Grumbach read Scripture both as a "coherent, unitary and certain revelation of God's prevenient grace in Christ" and as a book of ordinances for all aspects of both ecclesial and social life.
The combination of the two suggests an original approach, which uses some of the ideas of the Reformers, yet takes them in a different direction. She argued strongly for the independence of the church from secular authority when it came to spiritual matters such as the understanding of the Eucharist. Scripture for Argula von Grumbach was furthermore a challenge to confession. It is God's living word that generates life out of chaos. The latter is linked with a strong apocalyptic dimension in von Grumbach's theology. Von Grumbach understood herself as called and led by the Spirit of God to read and understand the scriptures. Aware of the apostle Paul's advice for women not to speak or teach in public, von Grumbach understood herself as a prophetess. After the early death of her husband, who had not been entirely supportive, Argula remarried, but her second husband as well as three of her four children died relatively early. Only one of her sons would outlive her death in 1554.
A more recent key figure in the development of "feminist hermeneutics" was the Quaker Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the compiler of The Woman's Bible. Stanton's project comprised a proposed revision of those texts in the Bible that referred directly to women and their immediate concerns. Her collection of short commentaries was conceived as a means in the struggle for women's equality. Stanton and her cowriters saw the roots of women's inequality (as it was expressed, for example, in the denial of the vote to women and the fact that married women had no individual right to own property),as deeply rooted in a Western civilization that in turn was based on the Judeo-Christian tradition proposed in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Institutional Christianity, she argued, had created and supported the supposed inferiority of women, which was not in line with Jesus' message of equality. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been very involved in the movements for women's equality and liberation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Together with Lucretia Mott, a Quaker feminist, she was involved in the first convention for women's rights at Seneca Falls in 1848.
Excerpted from FEMINIST THEOLOGY by Natalie K. Watson Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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