Volume 14 - Issue 1

Women and the kingdom of God: three recent books

By Sally Alsford

Beginning with the assumption that those already convinced of the need for discussion of feminist issues within Christian theology (or those at least interested in the question) will need no persuasion to read this article, will begin by addressing those who are not so convinced, or even interested. The main emphasis of this article, which arises out of the 3 books reviewed, is an emphasis on the breadth and seriousness of the issues raised by feminist theology. Feminist theology—or the concern for women’s interests and problems and for the elimination of any injustices—is not concerned only with the debate over the ordination of women and the interpretation of the passages in Genesis, and in the NT—although this is where evangelical debate often begins and ends. To be sure, these are important questions, but they are not the only, or even the most important ones. A concern with women and their interests involves a whole range of issues and debates which reach into the heart of our gospel of redemption and out in practical ways into every area of our society. As such, these issues and debates are not of relevance only to women or only to those who might be labelled as ‘too liberal’ or ‘too radical’ really to merit our attention. Although they are issues which raise strong feelings on both sides, conservative and evangelical theologians should take account of the full extent of the debate and respond to it.

The three books which are the basis of this review article appear at first sight to be a rather heterogeneous and arbitrary selection. However on a more careful examination, there are some interesting and important connections, and together they provide a good introduction to feminist issues within Christian theology, raising some of the dominant questions, and indicating the range of the discussion. What the books do, taken together, is to present the case for feminism to be taken seriously by everyone who is concerned with understanding and living in accordance with the Christian message. They demonstrate that the question of the status and role of women and women’s experience is not a side-issue for Christian theology and the church, but that it raises questions which are central to our faith, and which have implications extending into just about every area of life.

Where the three books are most obviously disparate is in their authorship and in the level of audience they are pitched at. Men, Women and God (MWG) is a collection of short chapters by a wide range of evangelical authors, from backgrounds and work situations as varied as the subjects of the chapters, covering the role of women in Scripture and in the church, the roles of men and women in society (considering education, work, politics, racism and the media), and finally ‘biological’ questions about women (family and breadwinning roles, singleness, rape and lesbianism). This book also has the broadest audience in view, being on the whole (though see below) very readable and accessible to non-theologically trained Christians, although this is not at the cost of its content which merits attention also from those who have training and interest to explore the issues in greater depth and at a more academic level.

Searching for Lost Coins (SLC) is written by Ann Loades, a senior lecturer in philosophy of religion and ethics at Durham University, and is also fairly accessible. Its style, and the range of material which is drawn on, particularly literary sources, make it very enjoyable, and it would be an interesting and stimulating read for those with little or no theological background. Its argument is, however, rather elusive or understated, and a careful reading together with greater awareness of the issues are necessary in order to draw out the significance of what Ann Loades is saying, and the conclusions she comes to.

Women in Early Christianity (WEC) is the most academic of the three, not so much in its style as in its content, and is written by a Professor of Theology in the University of Vienna. It is concerned with a particular aspect of feminist theology—its methodology and use of historical sources—and it considers this complex subject in some detail. Susanne Heine explores issues which are very important for Christian theology as such, not only for feminist theology, and this book will probably be most useful to those with some academic theological competence.

Although this is certainly not all they do, MWG and SLC serve, in rather different ways, as a good introduction to Christian feminism. Ann Loades’ book is a series of lectures and does not give a history or chronological account, but she does indicate some of the background to the present debate on feminism, looking first at some of the features of feminism in its connections with Christianity, as it began to be articulated in the nineteenth century in growing demands for civil rights, social and educational reform. Her brief sketch highlights how much change there has been in the situation of women in formal terms—in terms of changes in legislation and in economic and intellectual spheres—but it also raises the question as to how much the situation of women has changed materially, in practice, as the attitudes which lay behind the outdated legislation are not by any means unknown to us in the 1980s. (Professor Heine also makes this point.) Part of the reason for this is, of course; that an understanding of women as naturally or ideally inferior or subordinate is often now, as in the past, based on particular interpretations of Scripture. Although this is not the central concern of Ann Loades’ book (she looks briefly at some of the biblical questions in Chapter 4), she identifies this question—the question of the interpretation of biblical texts—as the present-day agenda. This is based on the ‘working assumption’ that we are still concerned about Christian feminism—I’ll refer to post-Christian feminism later.

The interpretation of biblical texts is where Men, Women and God begins, being concerned with specifically Christian and evangelical views of feminism. There are three chapters particularly looking at the texts by Elaine Storkey, Andrew Kirk and Faith and Roger Forster. These present a good summary of the main arguments. However they are very condensed, and I would think that someone not already familiar with the discussion might find these chapters rather hard to digest. In this first section of MWG there is also chapter by Dave Tomlinson entitled ‘A Masculine Confession’. This chapter is particularly valuable because it highlights the question indicated above about the extent to which assumptions and attitudes to women have failed to change with legislation. It is also valuable because it makes it very clear that feminism is not only an issue for women—Dave Tomlinson talks not only of the responsibility of men to make changes in their lives and thinking, but also of the ‘crippling’ effects sexual inequality also has on many men.

Part II of MWG provides further demonstration of the prevalence of the last century’s attitudes to male and female roles in our society. These attitudes are still at work in the enormous inequalities in education and at work, in the running and policies of government and in the media, and of course there is a vicious circle particularly in the case of the media (this is a very good chapter) which reinforces the very values and assumptions on which it relies for its effectiveness, such as the idea of man as the ‘natural’ breadwinner (Chapter 13).

Given this evidence of the problems and injustices which still exist for many women, Part III considers ‘biological’ questions—questions of relationships and roles, the breakdown of the family, the place of singleness, rape and lesbianism I was disappointed that this section included nothing about abortion, which is a key issue in ‘secular’ feminism, because many Christians are all too ready to pronounce upon the subject as an ethical debate without relating at all to the real problems and human suffering involved. However the other chapters are certainly to be welcomed. The most valuable thing about the book is that it clearly shows that Christian feminism is concerned about practical involvement in every area of life, and not solely with questions over hermeneutics and ordination. It also demonstrates the urgency of the situation, showing up the extent of real injustice and suffering, and showing up the inconsistency between the claims of Christianity of justice and liberation for all, and the practice of the church and society. It is very important that feminism is seen not as a concern with sexism alone, but as part of a greater concern for justice, and this is brought out by the chapter on women and racism. As a whole, this book should prove a very good resource and will hopefully raise the level of awareness of the issues among Christians who are often neither very well informed nor very concerned. It presents us with, the need for the church—men and women working together—to get involved actively in working for change and promoting justice.

Whereas MWG indicates the breadth of the debate about feminist issues in practical terms, the other two books we are concerned with indicate the breadth of the discussion in theological terms. Their concerns are much broader than the usual conservative evangelical debate, which tends to concentrate on the interpretation of texts and questions of church policy, dismissing much of the wider academic discussion as too liberal or radical to be of value. Whatever our conclusions about feminist theology we must, however, be involved in the discussion and these books merit attention not least because they indicate the scope of that discussion, including not only issues of interpretation and methodology, but also our understanding of the nature of God and of redemption, our understanding of history, the relationship between theory/belief and praxis, the significance of traditions about Mary and the use of non-biblical sources.

Both Susanne Heine and Ann Loades are concerned to explore what the history of Christianity can offer to feminist debate—whether it can be used to justify, to illuminate or to provide a prototype, good or bad. Susanne Heine’s work will be of most interest to those concerned to look at some depth into what is happening in feminist theology and its implications and significance for theology as such. She is concerned particularly about the negativity and prejudice within feminism, which often leads not only to a negative rejection of masculinity but also to the rejection of the supposedly ‘male’ objective scientific method in our appropriation of history. This can result in a subjective approach to history, which is not only reinterpreted but sometimes also reconstructed, and to the invention of a ‘new’ history for women.

Her concern with history leads Heine to argue for what seems to be a ‘post-critical’ approach, incorporating the insights of Polanyi and Lonergan (she does not refer to them herself) and Karl Mannheim. This approach acknowledges at the outset the unavoidability of our own subjective interest, our own tradition and selection of the material. History, she argues, can neither legitimate nor disqualify a particular point of view. Either side of the debate can use history to form their own ‘chain of legitimation’ and history is thus an ambiguous resource. There is a necessary and inseparable dialectic between the historical ‘object’ and the present, and interested, ‘subject’. This insight is not by any means new, but certainly needs to be emphasized again and again, because it is only just beginning to affect the way in which theology is done. Indeed, I am not sure that Susanne Heine has succeeded herself in taking full account of this dialectic as she claims that we should make use of ‘the exact reading which is in accordance with texts and authors’ (p. 37). She fails to relate her insistence on the unavoidability and necessity of personal interest, in our selection and interpretation, to her call for this ‘exact reading’, which involves ‘reflective and theorizing detachment’, leaving aside one’s own interest. However despite this confusion Heine does highlight very important questions about theology, not just about feminist theology, and we can learn much from what she says about understanding the complexity of the history within which we stand, the ‘many-sidedness of human reality and conditioning’, and the complex relationship between this horizon and our interpretation of history which is itself a complex of effects and interests. Her call for awareness of our own interests and willingness to put ourselves in question by the results obtained from looking at the tradition—to be part of a hermeneutical circle or spiral—is also well-timed in the context of feminist debate.

More specifically Susanne Heine is concerned with distortions of history produced by overly determinative feminist interests which argue that Christianity was/is responsible for hostility to women. She looks at some of the historical examples—such as Genesis, Paul, Tertullian and Cement—and shows that the human reality behind these interpretations is more complex than some scholars would have us believe. She is also particularly concerned to re-evaluate the tradition of gnosticism, claimed by Elaine Pagels in her influential book The Gnostic Gospels as a Christian heresy which supplemented and corrected false developments in Christianity in its understanding of God as Mother and Father and in giving greater prominence to women. Heine argues cogently that Pagels’ method is ‘reflective-historical’; that is, her own feminist interest predominates to the extent of offending against historical honesty. Heine argues rather that gnosticism accorded no great value to femininity but rather to asceticism. Sexuality as part of the fallen, material world is seen as something hostile to God, and to be overcome, and the gnostic God was not so much Mother and Father as an androgynous being.

Susanne Heine’s own interpretation of Christian history, acknowledging her feminist interest but aiming at historical honesty rather than a search for legitimation, is illuminating and is the most accessible part of the book. She attempts not a historical reconstruction of a feminist Jesus but a depiction of Jesus, in the context of sociological analysis, as the criterion for assessment and correction of our contemporary situation. Although she does see Jesus as departing from the social conditioning of his time, reversing customary values by the inclusive nature of his group, she argues that this radical shift was possible because it was combined with a radical ethos, a subversive practice and a basic ascetical attitude. With the development of the community life of the church there was a change from this radical exodus-type existence to a more settled existence within the home (where the woman was wife and mother) as the centre of Christian praxis, and so tensions arose between Christian theory/faith—summed up in the ‘all one’ of Galatians 3:28—and praxis, and it is this tension which is seen in the conflicts in Paul’s writing. Heine thus gives a sociological explanation for the development of hierarchicalism and indicates something of the depth of the problem which cannot be simply explained or dismissed as misogynism or patriarchalism.

Heine’s sequel, Christianity and the Goddess (SCM, 1988), which has only just arrived on my desk, is subtitled ‘Systematic criticism of a feminist theology’. She pursues the concerns of the first book in more detail, with a critical survey of feminist theories about God as Mother, the goddess myth, matriarchy, Jesa Christa, and the question of a ‘feminine science’. Although very critical, Heine shares the motivation and concerns of the feminists she critiques, and for those interested in feminist theology at greater depth, this book is well worth consideration.

This problem of the relationship between theory and praxis is central to the problem of interpreting the NT and drawing from it criteria for our lives today. It is part of the same discussion as that which speaks of the culturally relative elements of the NT, in distinction from the principles which are valid cross-culturally, a discussion Elaine Storkey and Andrew Kirk indicate in MWG.

Another extremely important point which Susanne Heine is concerned with, and which evangelicals are too ready to dismiss, is the question of what women do, when faced with conflict or with monolithically subordinationist positions which are hard to relate to convictions about God’s justice and about the way Christ calls and commissions his people. Ann Loades is also concerned with the problem of how women react to these problems. She refers, like Heine, to the uneasy transition of the original Christian communities into clearly defined, institutional organizations, and notes that one way in which women in early Christianity escaped male domination (as well as the perils of childbirth) was by retreat into chastity and asceticism, and sometimes into scholarship as a kind of intellectual asceticism. She explores the strange relationship between the idealistic exaltation of women and misogyny and fear of women’s sexuality and demonstrates how although sexual asceticism could lead to a measure of freedom for women, it could also lead to asexuality and very bizarre behaviour. This tradition was particularly harmful when it developed into a morbid over-identification with Christ as a suffering victim, although it offered a way of being ‘in Christ’ to which gender is irrelevant. The effects of this kind of spirituality, frequently combined with anorexia as in the case of Simone Weil, are alarmingly depicted, and equally alarming are the corresponding images of God and God’s dealings with human beings. Ann Loades considers further our understanding of God in the light of feminist debate, looking also at ‘Mary’ traditions and symbolism. Her conclusion is that it is vital for our theology and our understanding of God in particular to express co-inherence and mutuality between women and men, that we need both female and male metaphors to ‘indicate divine wholeness’ whilst wanting to avoid slipping into the tradition of the all-sufficient male who embodies femininity only in an all-competent androgyny.

Having considered the effects on women in history of subordination in the church, Ann Loades ends where Susanne Heine also ends, with the position of women in the church today—which is also, of course, the central concern of MWG. Heine concluded, on gnosticism, that although femininity as such was not held in particularly high esteem, women did in practice hold positions of prominence and authority which they were, by that time, not allowed within Christianity, and that this practice was mirrored in many heretical movements. She argues that ‘Heresies do not emerge by chance; they are also provoked. Feminist theology today is a clear warning signal’. That is, where our churches do not integrate the theory of Galatians 3:28 with the practices of their community life, they are laying the foundations for the next exodus of heretics. Ann Loades similarly talks of the need for reconstruction within Christian theology, and notes that for some this will result in the abandonment of Christianity in the development of post-Christian feminism. All three books thus present a sobering picture of the situation where, just as women left Christianity in favour of heretical movements in the past, today there is a danger of the same thing happening. Many women find help and support elsewhere than within Christian churches (MWG highlights this in practical terms) and the church is often either negative or indifferent to the problems and issues involved. Those concerned with conservative and evangelical theology should be aware of the way in which they are seen by others within the broader spectrum of theological debate, and should be aware that women are abandoning Christianity because of its failure to respond adequately to their concerns.

This is not to say that Christian theology and the Christian church should respond by being all things to all people, but it should be concerned to remain true to its own faith, to struggle for consistency between its practical community life, and its claims of redemption and oneness for all in Christ, the mutuality of all—of whatever sex, class, background, race and so on—as equally and together bearers of God’s image. These books highlight also the fact of human fallibility, the fallibility of human thought and life, and this in turn highlights the need for us to be self-critical, to hold ourselves accountable to one another, in the light of Christ, in our theology as well as in our relationships, putting into practice our proclamation of the justice and inclusiveness of the kingdom of God.

Sally Alsford

London Bible College