Tag Archives: religious symbols

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