Volume 17 - Issue 3

Feminist theology as critique and renewal of theology

By A. Hauge

The background of feminist theology

It is impossible to separate Christian theology from the social context and nature of the church in any era in which the theology is produced. We need to recognize that while the Bible is our final and permanent authority, theology, like the church itself, is in constant need of reform and renewal. The church’s teaching on the relation between men and women could be argued to have historically owed more to the social nature of the church than to biblical revelation. It seems to many observers that traditional Christianity has taught the equality of souls for God and in the world to come, and the inequality of the sexes in this world and in the church. Throughout most of its history, the major part of the church has been a patriarchal institution based on an anthropology which defined the male as superior and ‘head’ and the female as inferior and subordinate. Through its sexually distinguished ‘doctrine of man’ it has for centuries legitimated laws and structures in society which secured male rule and demanded female obedience.1

Within the Christian church, however, there have been several women and men who have discovered the seeds of equality within the Bible and have perceived the equal status of man and woman as an idea intrinsic to the gospel. Many Christian women have experienced a discrepancy between the gospel from which they have drawn strength and inspiration and the male-dominated church which has restricted their life and ministry. In a sense, then, feminist theology has existed as long as there have been women who have reflected upon their Christian faith and their Bible in a way that differed from the dominant patriarchal tradition of interpretation. Very often, however, the egalitarian interpretations were ignored and forgotten or criticized and rejected and then sank into oblivion.

Modern feminist theology emerged in the USA at the end of the 1960s. It is rooted primarily in Christian women’s experience of living under the pressure of patriarchal ideology and structures claimed to be the eternal will of God. The modern feminist movement has provided a better climate than earlier times for the growth of feminist theology: the general consciousness-raising among women, the greater awareness of women’s issues in society and, not least, the experience that ‘sisterhood is powerful’ have been ideological and social factors giving women inspiration and courage to take on the hard task of critical reconsideration of church life and theology.

What is meant by ‘feminist theology’?

Feminist theology at present is both a critical voice within the church and a revolt against the church from women outside who are determined to develop religious alternatives. In the USA, where the major part of feminist theology has been published so far, ‘theology’ usually has a much wider meaning than in Europe. The notion comprises any systematic reflection upon questions of the foundation and meaning of life, whether connected to a religious tradition (Christianity, native American religion, etc.) or not. The boundaries between general philosophy of religion, religious studies and theology related to a particular religion are often indistinct.

There is no one feminist theology that can represent the whole, but rather a multitude of feminist theologies. They not only diverge in style and content but also conflict with each other with regard to the positions they hold, e.g. in their assessment of the Christian tradition.2 One should therefore abstain from making general judgments on feminist theology. In spite of the differences, however, it is possible to point out some distinct methodological tendencies and common feminist convictions.

I will define feminist theology as reflection on the content and meaning of religion with particular regard to women’s status and situation, which recognizes the use and misuse of religion in the past and the present for the oppression of women and has as its aim to contribute to the liberation of women. This is a descriptive definition which can apply to various feminist theologies, both within and outside Christianity. These various theologies have some basic feminist assumptions in common:

  1. Patriarchy is the big problem that has given rise to feminist movements that struggle for women’s liberation. ‘Patriarchal’ refers to institutions, social structures and ideologies that implicitly assume or explicitly claim the superior status of males and their ‘natural’ right to exercise authority and leadership in society, family and church. (Some prefer ‘sexism’ as characterization of the sexual hierarchy and gender ideology in contemporary societies where traditional patriarchal ideology and structures have waned.)
  2. Feminist theology, as feminism in general, is based on an egalitarian anthropology, claiming the full equality of male and female (equal dignity, equal and full humanity, entitled to equal rights, etc.).3
  3. The corollary of this anthropological stance is the commitment to social and political struggle against specific forms of oppression and for the liberation of women, in order to create a society with equality and freedom for all.

Some readers might be unfamiliar with the usage of the key concepts sex and gender in modern feminist literature: (i) Sex is a biological designation and corresponds to male and female as biological/sexual definitions. (ii) Gender is a social designation referring to sociocultural consequences or implications of sex, i.e. the particular cultural shape of sex (biological nature) into different roles, status and normative patterns of behaviour attributed to men and women in a given culture. (iii) Gender can also be distinguished as a symbolic, ideological category referring to sexual myths, ideas about female and male nature, polarized philosophical and ideological definitions of masculine and feminine; these provide the foundation for sociocultural inequality.

These distinctions of the notions ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are by and large shared by feminist writers. The main point is the claim that differences between men and women concerning attitudes, values, thinking, etc. are not naturally given, but predominantly determined by culture. This view is held by the majority of feminists.

Feminist critique of traditional theology

In Western societies (as in nearly all societies) the cultural hegemony has rested in the hands of men. The right to define and describe reality, including the ‘nature’ and ‘proper role’ of female and male, has been a prerogative of the sciences, philosophy and theology in which men held the authority positions. Feminist scholars in all fields seek to explore the implications of this fact.

First of all, feminists emphasize that theology has been developed not simply by males, but by males within a patriarchal culture and church. In mainstream theology this has not been recognized as a problem deserving consideration. Though contemporary philosophy and theology recognize the significance of a person’s preunderstanding in the process of interpretation, theology has paid little attention to the wider sociocultural context in which the interpreter’s preunderstanding has been shaped. Like other liberation theologies, feminist theology criticizes the predominant Western academic theology for its lack of awareness about the significance of socioeconomic context and social class for theological work. Consequently, according to feminists, theology has legitimated oppressive social structures or, at least, been insensitive to injustice and structural evil. Feminists add that male scholars take sexual hierarchy for granted, support it ideologically, or fail to discover the phemenon at all. In a patriarchal context the tacit preunderstanding of males (and often of females, too) is normally a patriarchal understanding of reality, except for individuals who somehow have developed a critical attitude toward the existing order. Furthermore, in a social system where sex has been (and still is, in part) the most basic criterion for the distribution of social roles and functions, the typical life experience of males and females respectively becomes very different. Nevertheless, most male scholars have not recognized the hermeneutical significance of gender and apparently assume that their perspective is universally human. Therefore they have not been able to discover or willing to accept women’s perspective, as a different approach from a different preunderstanding, as a legitimate and necessary perspective.

The critique raised by feminist theologians against the male-dominated theological traditions is paralleled by feminist critique of other academic studies. It can be summed up in the notion androcentrism (male-centredness): sociologically, men are at the centre of both the religious and the secular community, whereas women live on the periphery and are therefore often outside men’s scope. Women’s world, as well as the whole human world, has been described from men’s perspective and interpreted by means of men’s concepts and thoughts, if it has been seen at all. Often women and women’s issues are neglected, marginalized or blotted out altogether. This is a result of gender-biased presuppositions and androcentric answers to methodological questions: What is the object (or subject matter) of this discipline? What are the important issues and problems? Which sources are important, and which data are relevant in dealing with this problem? Very few, if any, would explicitly exclude women’s issues or gender issues when answering such questions. Nevertheless, the major part of male studies implicitly shows the impact of androcentric priorities. The prevalent silence in mainstream theology about sexism and patriarchalism in church and society, past and present, is striking evidence of the non-priority of issues which are crucial to women.4

And just here is the dividing line between feminist and non-feminist theologies: Is sexism a serious problem? And if so, is it a problem for which theology has some responsibility, a problem which should be on the theological agenda? Feminists say yes, pointing to the pervasive impact of a long patriarchal tradition on church life and on our culture in general. Feminist theologians agree that androcentrism is an adequate general characterization of traditional theology, but diverge in their assessment of the range and profundity of the distortions brought upon theology by an androcentric orientation and patriarchal assumptions. As a result of the long-term struggle of the women’s movement, clear-cut patriarchal ideology and power structures in society have waned and egalitarianism has made progress in the Western world. This has also had an impact on contemporary theology. In my opinion, one should not simply talk of mainstream theology as ‘patriarchal’ or ‘androcentric’, but discern between three levels of androcentrism in theology:

  1. Overtly patriarchal theologies, which are based on a conscious/explicit patriarchal ideology (defining male-female as respectively superior and subordinate/inferior) and explicitly legitimize a patriarchal ordering of society.
  2. Implicitly patriarchal theologies, which have a lot of subtle (perhaps unconscious) patriarchal assumptions without propagating patriarchal ideology; they function to support traditional attitudes.
  3. ‘Egalitarian’ theologies, which in principle recognize the equality of the sexes but have little insight into the androcentric presuppositions and priorities built into their methodologies and traditions. In practice they are unable to discover gender issues and deal adequately with them.

Feminist theology as methodological renewal

The feminist critique of traditional academic theology naturally leads to a reconsideration of methodological issues.5 However, often methodological reflections are scanty, perhaps lacking altogether. Nevertheless, there is always an implicit methodology which can be analysed. I will roughly indicate the methodological distinctiveness of feminist theology in a few points:

  1. Contrary to mainstream theology, which is assumed to be ‘gender neutral’, feminist theology claims to be developed out of women’s perspective or feminist perspective. Its scholarly ideal is not the ‘impartiality’ or ‘objectivity’ of established scholarship, but the conscious ‘advocacy stance’ of liberation theologies in favour of the oppressed. Feminist theology aims at providing a contribution to the liberation of women and other oppressed groups, seeing itself as a part of the wider feminist struggle for liberation.

The notions ‘women’s perspective’ and ‘feminist perspective’ need some clarification. ‘Women’s perspective’ seems to imply that women have a common perspective which males do not and cannot have. However, this biologically defined group comprises women adhering to traditional womanliness as defined by patriarchy (=femininity) as well as women revolting against it (=feminism). ‘Women’s perspective’ is therefore, in my opinion, an indistinct notion which easily blurs the existing ideological conflicts among women. ‘Feminist perspective’ is a more stringent notion, because it points to a feminist understanding of reality (i.e. patriarchy or sexual hierarchy as an unjust reality, legitimated by ideologies and religious beliefs, etc.). A feminist perspective conflicts naturally with a patriarchal perspective, which considers the sexual hierarchy the right and natural order of things. It also conflicts with any kind of perspective which lacks awareness of sexism as a problem in our culture.

  1. Many feminist theologians emphasize that feminist theology is not created by isolated individuals, but is developed in a community doing theology together in a communal process of reflection.
  2. Traditionally, the various theological disciplines (except pastoral theology) have mainly been concerned with the theoretical aspects of religion (like holy scriptures, dogmas, theological concepts, etc.), their traditioning, adaptation, and the mutual influence of religious and philosophical ideas throughout history. Feminist theology extends its field of interest beyond the ideas to the sociopolitical and psychological consequences of religious ideas and Christian practices. Their impact on laws, social structures, popular attitudes and beliefs has determined the framework of women’s (and men’s) lives and, hence, formed individual women’s experiences to a high degree. This broad scope makes a bridge from feminist theology to women’s studies in other fields, like history, sociology, psychology, social anthropology, etc. Theories and findings are adopted and employed to shed new light on various issues in theology.
  3. The most important and distinctive methodological novelty in feminist theology is the principal claim that women’s experience provides important data and insight for theological work.

‘Women’s experience’ is in itself an ambiguous concept and is rarely defined. Is there a common women’s experience across cultural, religious and political borders, or do we talk about experience related to a particular group, or some individual women’s experience? From the contents of numerous contributions one can infer that the concept comprises the totality of women’s experience in everyday life, in the private as well as in the public sphere, ‘secular’ experience as well as religious experience, or experiences related to religious institutions. In practice it is used with different contents or emphases by different writers. Many writers, perhaps a majority, emphasize women’s social experience (determined by sociocultural factors),6 while others primarily focus upon bodily experience (determined by biology).7

‘Women’s experience is the source and norm of feminist theology’ is a frequently used slogan in the US. What is really the status and function of women’s experience in doing theology? Is it the source not only of new questions and perspectives, but also of the new answers women are searching for? There is no consensus upon these fundamental issues. Radical feminist theology clearly tends to regard women’s experience as a normative ‘text’ and gives it status as an independent source of knowledge of the divine. Others give it mainly the status of context, from which new, existential questions emerge. Of course, this is a simplification of the various positions actually taken on a very complex issue.

In brief: Women’s various experience of oppression throughout history and in our time is the basic experiential impetus for doing theology from a feminist perspective. This implies usually both a critical analysis of the ways in which religious beliefs, institutions and practices have overtly legitimated oppression or in subtler ways supported sexism, and also the development of a viable alternative, a non-sexist theology. Since mainstream theology has ignored women’s experience and the questions and challenges emerging from it, feminists recognize the relevance of Mary Daly’s advice: women must ‘begin asking non-questions and start discovering, reporting, and analyzing non-data’.8

Feminist theology: reform or replacement of Christian theology?

The claim that women’s experience of oppression is a basic presupposition for feminist theology does not imply that all feminist theologians have strong experiences of being oppressed in their churches or in their social life. However, we have an important common ground in the knowledge and consciousness of women’s sufferings past and present in the name of God. Many women still suffer or protest because their churches promote patriarchal teachings which place women in a subordinate and restricted role because of their sex. Although many churches have abandoned theologies of women’s subordination and even ordain women, sexism is not abolished as an ideological and structural reality.

The undeniable link between Christianity and the patriarchal order of Western societies gives rise to a fundamental question: Is Christianity essentially oppressive to women, or has Christian faith been misused to legitimize patriarchal systems contrary to its intentions? Is it possible to reform or convert a patriarchally stamped theology into an egalitarian theology which is liberating to women? Or do convinced feminists have to reject this tradition and create a theology for women on quite another basis?

Feminist theologians give diverging answers to these essential questions. A frequently used typology employs two main categories of feminist theology: (i) the reformist one, wanting to cleanse Christian theology from patriarchalism and transform it into an egalitarian theology; and (ii) the revolutionary one, considering Christianity as inherently and essentially misogynous and therefore working to develop a new feminist theology on a different basis. Those belonging to the first category emphasize the egalitarian and liberating elements of the Christian tradition (primarily in the Bible). Patriarchy, in their view, is the historical and cultural framework which has impacted Christianity, but it is not an essential part of the gospel. The revolutionary feminist theologians consider it a waste of time to search for liberating pieces in a religion permeated by patriarchal ideology.9

However, this categorization is a bit too simple and inadequate to comprise the recent developments within feminist theology. Still taking the attitude to the Christian tradition as the basis for the typology, one should distinguish between at least three main categories, in my opinion:

  1. Moderate reformist feminist theology will criticize and replace patriarchal interpretations of biblical texts, dogmas, etc., and include issues related to women’s experience in the various theological disciplines. The Bible is the most basic source, but there are different views on the relation between revelation and Scripture, biblical authority, etc. The moderate reformists are apologetic, defending the relevance of the Christian tradition and its compatibility with crucial aspects of feminism. Such theologies can take the form of a feminist version of some existing theological direction, e.g. liberation theology, process theology, various confessional theologies.10
  2. Radical reformist feminist theology differs from the moderate one primarily on two basic issues. The radical reformists also find something usable in the Bible, but have a very critical stance to its central message (the biblical witness to the triune God, the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ). It is considered a collection of religious experiences of the past which in principle should not be bestowed with greater truthfulness and authority than other religious experiences. There is a clear tendency to syncretism, e.g. in making a selection of sources from the Christian tradition and from other religious traditions to meet the religious and psychological needs of feminists.11
  3. Revolutionary, radical feminist theology departs from the two former types in its total rejection of the Christian tradition and in its programme of developing an alternative feminist religion and theology (or thealogy, as some Goddess theorists put it). However, there is no one alternative, but rather a multitude of post-Christian and non-Christian feminist theologies founded on various theoretical bases and drawing upon diverse sources (in addition to ‘women’s experience’, of course): contemporary feminist philosophy and analysis of culture, religion and society, psychological theory in feminist reinterpretations, ancient religious traditions, e.g.Goddess religions and witchcraft, and living ‘primitive’ religions, e.g. shamanism.12

Evangelical feminist theology: no contradiction in terms

It is my firm conviction that an evangelical and biblically rooted feminist theology is not only possible but also necessary for the health of the Christian church and its life and mission in the world. In the following I will briefly give some reasons for this position. It should be understood, therefore, that in the remaining paragraphs of this article, I am discussing the role of a feminist theology that is based upon evangelical presuppositions.

  1. Like numerous other Christian feminists I hold the view that the egalitarian elements of the Bible have priority over the patriarchal ideas in terms of theological significance though not in terms of quantity. Space does not allow in-depth arguments for this view, only some brief suggestions. According to Genesis 1–3, male and female have equal status in creation; male dominion is a consequence of sin. (Most Christians have not perceived the judgment upon Adam as a prohibition against combating ‘weeds and thorns’ by means of agricultural technology, a position inconsistent with the claim that male dominion is the eternal law of God.) Jesus’ attitude to women was remarkably egalitarian and liberating. Redemption implies a freedom from the bondage caused by the fall; partly and anticipated in this era, fully in the era to come. Through salvation and baptism male and female have equal status (Gal. 3:28). The church has seen it as a corollary of the gospel to fight the social and ecclesiastical inequality between Jews and Gentiles (in Paul’s time) and later on the social inequality between slaves and free human beings; thus it is in accordance with the gospel to abolish the social inequality between men and women. Paul’s prescriptions of women’s subordination should primarily be understood as a consequence of his missionary principles: for the sake of the gospel, Christians should adapt to current customs when possible and avoid unnecessary stumbling blocks. (It is noteworthy that the domestic codes do not tell husbands to rule over their wives. Thus the patriarchalism of the NT is limited and toned down.) In brief, though the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture and reflects patriarchal customs and attitudes, it contains remarkable non-and anti-patriarchal elements connected with central aspects of its content.
  2. Protestant theology has some basic assumptions which provide a link to aspects of the feminist critique. The majority of Protestants agree upon the reality of sin also in reborn Christians and recognize human limitation in understanding God’s will (cf. also 1 Cor. 13:9–12). Hence, although theology has normative pretensions, one should admit that theology is always a partial and limited interpretation of the word, acts and intentions of God. As such it cannot be wholly untainted by human sinfulness and self-assertion. The combination of selfishness (of individuals and groups) and limited understanding (which often is claimed to be the full truth) can result in theologies that legitimate existing unjust power structures and the exploitation of the poor by the privileged ones.13 Christian theology should understand itself as a type of human intellectual enterprise which is always in need of selfcriticism as well as criticism from outside. An adequate response from the theological establishment to the feminist critique is not rejection or neglect, but rather the self-critical question: What truth does this feminist critique contain?
  3. Most Protestants hold the view that ‘the priesthood of all believers’, i.e. the community of faith, is assigned the ultimate responsibility for teaching and preaching the Word of God in the world. Therefore theology should be seen as the continual reflection of the whole people of God upon its faith and upon its witness to the gospel in words and deeds in the world, founded upon the biblical testimony of God’s revelation as its normative source of knowledge about God. The theological task requires not only the skills of theological experts. The particular perspectives, experiences, insights and concerns of Christians living in various cultural contexts and life situations are contributions needed to illuminate the situation in which the people of God live and bring their witness.
  4. The different experiential contexts of women and men provide a sufficient argument for a theology incorporating women’s experience. The reflection of God’s people upon their faith and witness is biased and partial when the majority of God’s people are practically excluded from it. The typical traditional women’s experience of childcare and housework as well as the ‘feminist’ experience of struggling against various kinds of oppression both provide significant insights that until recently have had no place in theology. However, a feminist theology should not be regarded as a completion of male-authored theology considered as basically right, though limited. An ‘equal but different’ (complementarity) model of men’s and women’s experience fails to address the problems of androcentrism and patriarchalism within predominant theology. A feminist theology must be critical, liberating and constructive. The pervasiveness of androcentric thought within the established theological tradition urges clearing up in the attic of theology. Feminist theology must explore critically the ramifications of androcentrism in theology and its effects in church and society.
  5. Feminist theology must not only demand for itself the right to deal with the problems of sexism and androcentrism. These problems need also to be taken seriously and put on the agenda of established male-dominated theology. As long as its silence about sexism continues, and as long as androcentric thought goes on unrecognized, the predominant theology will continually reproduce its inherent biases. It is not enough that women’s engagement in feminist theology is tolerated as a kind of special interest, or that feminist challenges to androcentric methodology and interpretations are accepted as interesting new viewpoints. Such responses are insufficient to bring about changes in the way mainstream theology is done by the theological establishment. Therefore it is an important task to analyse further the institutional conditions and the hindrances for doing feminist theology and for transforming androcentric theology into a truly inclusive theology.
  6. Feminist theology intends to bring about a renewal of theology, not only to criticize. Its constructive task is to reflect upon the whole of Christian faith and praxis from a feminist perspective. Taking women’s experience seriously and making women’s issues visible is an important dimension of this constructive work. It is an urgent task to develop a methodology for a feminist theology which is consciously and definitely Christianand feminist at the same time. This requires, in my opinion, both a fundamental commitment to the gospel and to Jesus Christ as the centre of faith, and a commitment to women’s liberation and to combating the evil of sexism as its particular centre of concern. The methodology of a biblically rooted feminist theology will share basic principles with traditional theology, while others will be challenged. 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. For the sake of its own insight, and for the sake of its tasks toward the church and the world, it must stay in a two-way critical and informative dialogue with non-feminist Christians as well as with non-Christian feminists. A Christian feminist theology must therefore live in a double context, the Christian church and the community of women.

1 Cf. Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson (eds.), Women and Religion. A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought (New York, 1977); George Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1973); Rosemary R. Ruether (ed.), Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions(New York, 1974); Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin (eds.), Women of Spirit. Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1979).

2 Cf. the anthology Womanspirit Rising (eds. Carol P. Christ and Judith Paskow, San Francisco, 1979), with contributions from Christian, Jewish and non-Christian feminist theologians.

3 It is disputable whether some of the radical feminist theologians hold a position of female superiority, e.g.Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (Boston, 1979).

4 As one of the exceptions can be mentioned Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids, 1978) and The Ordination of Women (Grand Rapids, 1980).

5 Rosemary Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk: Toward A Feminist Theology (Boston, 1983) has a lengthy methodological account. In addition, biblical scholars like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible also have extensive methodological contributions.

6 E.g. Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, Mary Daly (see notes 5, 8, 10–12).

7 E.g. Penelope Washbourn, Becoming Woman: The Quest for Wholeness in Female Experience (San Francisco, 1977).

8 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston, 1973), pp. 11–12.

9 Womanspirit Rising, pp. 9–11.

10 Some representatives of this position are: Letty M. Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective—A Theology (Philadelphia, 1974), The Future of Partnership (1979), Growth in Partnership (1981); Virginia R. Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible (Nashville, 1977), The Divine Feminine (New York, 1983); Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Faith, Feminism and the Christ (Philadelphia, 1983).

11 Ruether’s books Sexism and God-Talk and Womanguides: Readings Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, 1985) are typical representatives of this position.

12 Mary Daly’s later books (e.g. Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism, 1979, and Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy, 1984) represent the more philosophical orientation within this category. Starhawk is a well-known theorist of feminist witchcraft religion which includes elements of ancient Goddess religion and contemporary shamanism. She is the author of The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco, 1979), Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston, 1982), Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power. Authority and Mystery (San Francisco, 1987). Naomi Goldenberg represents a Goddess theology based on a feminist reinterpretation of Jungian psychology: Changing of the Gods. Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston, 1979).

13 Cf. W.S. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, 1983).

A. Hauge

A. Hauge is a researcher at the Norwegian Lutheran College and Hospital, Oslo, Norway.