Why All Feminists Should be Theologians

thContemporary Western feminism, it has been suggested, has allowed a divide to develop between secular and Christian feminists[1], and this has come as a bit of a shock to me having immersed myself in some gripping and theologically radical Second Wave writing.  Respected authors such as Mary Daly[2] and Rosemary Radford Reuther[3] had no problem with mingling feminist philosophy and theology during the 1970s in ways that powerfully served feminism’s goal of liberation from all manifestations of patriarchy (or however one would express this in post-modern parlance).  Some current commentators argue that Christian feminists are not articulating feminist theology with discussions in the wider feminist community – they are shy about bringing God into it.  Secular feminists are, in turn, a little cool (and sometimes downright hostile) towards those who attempt to maintain the two incompatible (as they see it) identities – feminist and Christian[4].  As well as general alignments to secularism, feminist critiques of Christianity have propelled many women to its margins or to abandon it altogether (who might be described as post-Christian[5]), so it is understandable there is some angst.

Though I write as a post-Christian feminist (a handy descriptor I picked up from the rather brilliant Daphne Hampson), I agree with authors who describe this divide as feminism’s ‘neglect’ of religion and its impact on women.  (I should point out I focus on Christianity here, though the principles might travel across other belief systems).  This lacuna – or missing piece – in current feminist discussions is doing us a disservice.  Whilst we no longer really talk about any grand causality of sexism, there is surely a need to retain some sense of aetiology – by that I mean asking where ideologies come from.  Why have women been, in many and varied ways, considered the second sex so ubiquitously and for so long?  Writers like Daly and Radford Ruether understood the enormous impact Christian symbols and myths, underwritten by patriarchal interests, have had on Western culture.  Until these symbols have been fully explored, and the underlying misogyny exposed and incapacitated, they still cause harm to women.  This has nothing to do with belief or iconoclasm.  You don’t need to believe in God to be subject to the effects of the cultural absorption of a religion’s myths and symbols.

I hope to participate in some bridge-building and push through this secular/spiritual divide, which I think is sometimes conflated with the rational/emotional dichotomy.  If secular and Christian feminists together explore the cultural manifestations of religious symbology, without any value judgements on spiritual belief, the common ground would become more obvious.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, a Bronze Age Hebrew text, is perhaps one of the clearest examples of religious symbol passing into cultural consciousness.  From the myth of Adam and Eve complementarity of the sexes is developed (which Mary Daly describes as ‘evil’), a notion which is for some feminists a way of maintaining woman as ‘other’ and as secondary.  Masculinity and femininity are constructed as having different God-given traits (for example, nurturing and caring are feminine and leadership and authority are masculine).  Social conditioning gives this idea life.  This duality is so old that it appears ‘natural’, and if we wish to explore its genealogy we need to understand inherited Christian thought.  The ‘cosmic hoax’ (Daly) of Eve being the instigator of the Fall – and guilty for all the world’s ills – has had a malignant effect on how femininity has been constructed.  This divine ordering of masculinity and femininity set Western culture on a trajectory of sex differentiation and without understanding the theology of this we can’t fully explain the witchcraze of the 16th and 17th centuries, or fully understand why and how women have been separated into the domestic realm, or why they have been seen as auxiliary to men’s achievements, or even why we are currently disneyfying our girl children in a tedious ocean of pink.  Christianity transmitted to the Western world, through its symbols and myths, a set of beliefs about the nature of women that has determined their spiritual, psychological and material status for two millennia.  Rejection of religion, I argue, should not mean the rejection of the understanding of religion.  If we don’t understand what has been embedded into our collective psyche how can we hope to change it?  And we haven’t even begun to talk about the maleness of God yet…..

[1] Llewellyn and Trzesiastowska (2013) Secular and Religious Feminisms: A Future of Disconnection?  Feminist Theology 21(3), pp. 244-258

[2] Mary Daly (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation

[3] Rosemary Radford Ruether (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation

[4] Zobair, J,  Messina-Dysert, G and Levin, A.  (2015). Why We Really Need to Stop Rejecting Religious Feminists from the Movement.  Everday Feminism [Online].  Available at  http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/rejecting-religious-feminists/

[5] For example, Daphne Hampson (1990)  Feminism and Theology

7 thoughts on “Why All Feminists Should be Theologians

  1. Jamie Carter

    I think the divide was helped by the tendency of spiritual non-feminists to speak about feminism from the pulpit as if it were the greatest evil to happen to Christianity in the last few decades. With the rise of complementarianism, there’s been a rise of setting up feminism as the enemy, a deception from the pit of Hell, etc. In as much as feminists were keen to shy away from religion, too many Christians were indoctrinating everyone to believe that feminism called for abortion which was wrong so it must be wrong – particularly in the last two or three decades.

    1. Sharon Jagger Post author

      I agree totally. This is the other side of the discussion. Indeed feminism has been vilified by the Church. Christian feminists are in a pretty isolated place and it’s not surprising some leave .

  2. Chris Jeynes

    Sharon, I demur when you say “feminism has been vilified by the Church”. Obviously this is partially true, but only partially – witness ordination of women bishops for goodness sake.

    Also, you speak of “… Christian symbols and myths, underwritten by patriarchal interests”. I really think you are missing something here too. Here is my position. I regard the Hebrew and Greek canonical texts as being entirely free of misogyny: moreover, I regard their view of woman as being very high. And I challenge you to give me a counter-example! Go slowly though, because what you count as “Christian” in your blog I would count as a sub-Christian consequence of Hellenistic syncretism from the second half of the second century and later. As a result of which you systematically misread the texts (along with most of the patristic tradition!). See in particular the re-reading of Paul in N.T.Wright’s seminal “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” (2013).

    My (currently) favourite example of this misreading is the apparently shockingly misogynistic text at Rev.14:4, “These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.” (ουτοι εισιν οι μετα γυναικων ουκ εμολυνθησαν παρθενοι). The giveaway is that “παρθενοι” is applied to MEN, a usage which would jar heavily to first century koine Greek hearers. It is a world-view issue, where the Hellenistic mindset is confronted with a Jewish one. This gender-inappropriate usage of παρθενοι is unknown in Hellenic and Hellenistic writings, although of course it is well known to Jews brought up with the LXX: see Jer.31:4,21 for two prominent examples in one of the pivotal passages in the prophets. The text is anti-misogynistic, turning the patristic (mis)readings on their head.

    1. Sharon Jagger Post author

      I will study what you’ve said there Chris (though to my shame I don’t read ancient Greek). These will provide some interesting examples. My only point in return is that I’m trying to tease out not what scripture actually says and could be interpreted as meaning, but rather how it has been used to set up complementarity of the sexes and the supporting of sexist practices and beliefs. I’ve no doubt, reading Phyllis Trible and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza that there are myriad mistaken ways that scripture has been interpreted against women, but my interest is in why that is so and how can it be changed, especially when doctrine is precious. My main example is of course the furore over women’s ordination and the ‘two integrities’ that the Church had to create to make it work. That came from certain theologies and traditions and Christian feminists have been trying to do as you do above – re-look at passages in a non-sexist way. Hope that makes sense. I may be rambling…

      1. Chris Jeynes

        Sorry Sharon, I tend to assume all humanities PhDs are polymaths … παρθενοι is “parthenoi” (as in “Parthenon” etc).

        I realise that you are interested in how doctrine is used rather than whether it is actually correct. And on this, have you read Marina Warner’s brilliant book “Alone of all her sex” (1976)? For your purposes this is indispensible I think.

        But unfortunately I fear you are confused. If you want to address current issues (ordination of women and same-sex “marriage”) you also have to understand the arguments. That means that you do have to dive into the arguments for the correctness (or otherwise) of the doctrines. (Actually, this is always the case.) Otherwise you are simply substituting your (unchallenged) ideas of what the doctrines are for a properly balanced assessment of them. And if you think that implies that there is no impartial history, you would be correct. All historians have an axe to grind, otherwise they could not be interesting, and everyone would ignore them!

        This confusion is betrayed by how you speak of my post, you say that I “re-look at passages in a non-sexist way”. This is an error! I look at passages with what I claim is a proper hermeneutic, and conclude that they are indeed not misogynistic. I do not assume at the outset that they are non-sexist, I am interested in whether in fact they are or not. This matters to me because if I became convinced that the Scripture was in fact sexist, I would no longer be persuaded by it (on the grounds that it was manifestly false).

        You see, this all links up. Helen King has made some interesting suggestions to you, and she has demonstrated that the Greek attitude to women was (from our point of view) shockingly deplorable. What I am saying is that from the second century, the Church absorbed these ideas and let them corrupt the (entirely different) Jewish attitude to women. The argument that won the day for the ordination of women in the CofE is that the first century Christian texts (which predated Hellenistic syncretism) give no grounds for the claim of male leadership, which claim can be demonstrated false from those same texts. And the argument that contradicts the American church on marriage is comparable: Christian marriage asserts the unity of the dissimilar and therefore same-sex “marriage” is an oxymoron. This is nothing to do with attitudes towards homosexuality, which is a different and separate issue.

        So, you say on your blog, “Genesis … a Bronze Age Hebrew text, is perhaps one of the clearest examples of religious symbol passing into cultural consciousness. ” This statement is of course correct. But what those symbols actually were (and are) is a matter of great contention! On this Korpel & de Moor’s recent book “Adam, Eve and the Devil” (2014) is of great interest (I have written an extended review of this, free on ResearchGate).

        My underlying point is that you must be aware of your own presuppositions if you wish to write anything of value. And you will not become properly aware until you actually grapple with the truth (or otherwise) of the doctrines you are considering. Until you grapple, you won’t properly understand the issues (this is a general truth, see Gen.32:24ff).

  3. Sharon Jagger Post author

    Will study this Chris. I stand by my title though – that this is exactly what feminists SHOULD be looking at, even if we need to work on our presuppositions! I’ll look at your other writing, I’m sure it will be helpful to me. Thanks for the comments. Appreciated.


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