INTRODUCING FEMINIST THEOLOGY (SECOND EDITION)Written by Lisa Isherwood and Dorothy McEwan Reviewed By Laura Nelson
The authors describe this Introduction as a ‘how to’ tool for getting to grips with feminist theologies, and it does that job quite well. The authors themselves are typical of feminist theologians in their reticence to assess or harmonise the views they describe, but they do refer to a broad and representative body of theologians, quoting from and summarising their contributions. They also touch on all of the important topics in contemporary feminist theology, e.g., ecofeminism, goddess worship, God language, lesbianism and various ethnic perspectives. The most helpful chapter is the chapter on method (ch. 4) as it begins with a summary of the two main roots of feminist theology: process thought and liberation theology. In this chapter the experience-based nature of feminist theology is described, and it seems that the authors are aware of some of the problems inherent in their method. The first problem they acknowledge is the difficulty of incorporating so many different perspectives now that the feminist project has mushroomed: ‘Women from Asia, Latin America, Africa, lesbian women, disabled women are all now claiming the right to define their own experience and therefore their own theological reality’ (95). Many of these perspectives clash, and I, as a woman, could add my own happy experience of a complementary view of the sexes. Are they going to incorporate my perspective too?
Later they acknowledge another problem: ‘If we begin with experience where do we draw the moral line?’ (106). The only answer they give is bemusingly self-contradictory: ‘We go so far but then we have to call a halt, there is still a “so far and no further” line in the sand for feminist theology—although we will all differ as to where it is’ (151). It is evident that on this fundamental methodological question they have no clear answers.
An area to learn from is their heavy criticism of the Roman Catholic church (e.g. on the celibate male priesthood (10, 13); women’s gifts (39–40); Mariolatry (67–68); rape and contraception (132)), in particular and of church history in general. Although their history is suspect at points, the section on ‘The Faith of our Fathers’ makes sad reading. Unlike the Catholics, who have enshrined various traditions as authoritative, we, as evangelicals, should be quick to distance ourselves from any views expressed in the past which are inconsistent with scriptural teaching on the equal value of women. We must communicate to disillusioned women that human prejudices and errors of the past are to be rejected; they need not dismiss Christ on the basis of historical sexism in the church.
This book is also a reminder that These debates are not irrelevant to church life. Isherwood and McEwan give many examples of the assault of feminist theologians on mainstream denominations (98–100) and suggest that recently there has been a sea-change in the church:
Theologians who toe the party line, who are rigorous in the exegesis of Holy Scripture and of church laws, find themselves no longer accepted as pastors and ministers. Compassionate theologians, on the other hand, who do not judge but attempt to understand and value the individual believer will be sought out by others (99).
Although doubtless an overstatement of the situation, there is cause for concern and one is reminded of some similar words:
‘For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim. 4:3)
If one reads it critically, Isherwood and McEwan’s Introduction is a useful overview of feminist theology. The biggest lesson for us is to keep going back to the Bible alone for answers to the very real questions these women are raising and to trust that the liberation it teaches is more satisfying than any of their apparent shortcuts.