Read an Excerpt
The Essential Challenge:
Does Theology SpeakTo Women's Experience?
In 1895, toward the end of a long and distinguished feminist career, Elizabeth Cady Stanton set about writing and editing The Woman's Bible, a series of commentaries on biblical passages pertaining to women. The project was a product of Stanton's firm conviction that the political and economic subordination of women has deep ideological and religious roots. The degradation of women is basic to the biblical view of creation and redemption, she felt. Therefore the emancipation of women is finally impossible unless the Bible is understood from a feminist perspective and repudiated as revelation. While Stanton thus saw a feminist biblical commentary as urgently necessary, her sister feminists did not share her estimate of its importance. In 1896, the twenty-eighth annual convention of the National American Women Suffrage Association, which Stanton had cofounded, officially repudiated any connection with The Woman's Bible. It faded into oblivion, to be rediscovered by feminist scholars of religion in the last decade.
What must strike us today about The Woman's Bible is the depth and pertinence of the issues Stanton raises. Stanton was asking what feminists and religion scholars call "nonquestions." She was questioning such deeply held convictions as to the order of things that it was difficult for others even to hear her. It must have taken tremendous courage for her to see and proclaim the biblical roots of sexism when so few people shared her vision.
The three articles in this sectionare products of this same "courage to see." Reading or rereading them, one becomes aware of how recently it is that Stanton's nonquestions concerning the role of religion in perpetuating sexism have been squarely confronted. These essays raise the fundamental theological issues in women and religion: the importance of women's experience, the tenacity of dualistic thinking, the dangers of male God language. They raised them before the area had acquired any legitimacy, and yet two of them Ruether's and Daly's were written only in 1971.
Saiving's essay, a landmark in feminist theology, was ten years ahead of its time. Published in 1960 before the second wave of the women's movement, its author seems to have been aware of her own audacity in criticizing theology from the perspective of "feminine experience." "I am a student of theology," Saiving begins her article, "I am also a woman. Perhaps it strikes you as curious that I put these two assertions beside each other." Curious; it was revolutionary! In putting the two statements together, Saiving set forth what was to become the basic premise of all feminist theology: that the vision of the theologian is affected by the particularities of his or her experience as male or female.
Saiving develops this point in relation to the theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Anders Nygren. She argues that, in defining sin as pride and grace as sacrificial love, they not only fail to illumine women's experience, but they also reinforce what might be considered "women's sin" of self-forgetfulness and selfnegation. She thus questions the claim of two major theologians to have established a universal definition of sin and grace. Their supposedly generic doctrines of "man" turn out on closer examination to be doctrines of male experience. She suggests that the sex of the theologian matters and from this all later feminist work follows. She opened the door both to fuller criticism of "male" theology and to thorough exploration of theology from the perspective of women's experience.
While Saiving raised a fundamental issue for feminist thought, her work was not immediately followed by a burst of feminist writing. Her article was reprinted once, and then, like The Woman's Bible, was forgotten. For most of the 1960s there was little writing on women and religion. When we began graduate work in theology at Yale in the late 1960s, we were taught nothing about feminist or even feminine theology. When Rosemary Ruether came to speak at Yale in the spring of 1970, her presence seemed almost miraculous. We had read Saiving's essay and knew from our own experience that the material in our courses left out and belittled our experience as women. But we had never heard an articulate woman set out the problems that a purely male perspective had visited on Western theology and culture. That night Ruether outlined her important theory, also developed in her essay in this volume, that sexism is rooted in the dualistic world view that grew out of the dramatic religious changes that swept classical civilization in the first millenium B.C.E. The breakdown of tribal culture in that period led to the disruption of the holistic perspective that characterized early human societies. Woman and man, nature and culture, body and spirit, Goddess and God, once bound together in a total vision of world renewal, became split off from each other and ordered hierarchically. When male culture-creating groups appropriated the positive side of each of these dualisms for themselves, the age-old male-female polarity was given a newly oppressive significance. Women were identified with nature, body, the material realm, all of which were considered distinctly inferior to transcendent male spirit. A new language of female subordination was forged, a language that eventually was applied to other oppressed groups such as the carnal Jew and the sexual Negro and that was also used to justify exploitation of despised nature.
Ruether's argument at once specifies and broadens Saiving's claim that theology is a product of male experience, for it describes the nature of sexism and shows that it has deep roots in the Christian tradition. This analysis has profound implications for feminist thought. It suggests that the liberation of women is finally contingent on overcoming those dualisms that have for centuries molded Western consciousness. It links the women's movement with the movement for ecological sanity. It suggests that women because their oppression is a model for the oppression of others have a special role to play in the struggle for planetary liberation. And it implies that one key to the construction of a new holistic and world-affirming ethic may be the uplifting and reevaluation of those qualities dispised in women.
Although some of these implications have been amplified and explored by Ruether herself, aspects of her thought have been seized on by others and developed in new and original ways. While Ruether believes the Christian tradition has a liberating core that can be used to transform oppressive dualisms, Mary Daly used Ruether's analysis of hierarchal dualism to launch a full-scale attack on the Christian tradition. Daly entered the feminist theological arena in 1968 with the publication of her first major work in women and religion, The Church and the Second Sex. This book, a product of Daly's early and brief reformist period, described the history and nature of women's exclusion from full participation in the Catholic Church. Its thesis was that such exclusion, although real and deep seated, represented a distortion of the church's essential affirmation of the worth of every human being. The book was written in the hope that Catholicism would shuck off its sexist trappings and, in the spirit of modernization that began at Vatican II, move toward a future in which all persons could become whole.