In the following postings I will explore the difference between radical feminist theology and biblical faith. Because feminist theology is based on women’s experience it is fragmenting into many experiences, thus many theologies. In order to study and understand what radical feminists believe one ought to own a library of feminist books. I do! But I will in many cases, in this section use Dictionary of Feminist Theologies1 Since the articles are written by mostly radical feminists, and the publisher is Westminster John Knox Press, a Reformed press, it seems to me, to be the best example of what defines radical feminist theology. But I will also make use of other material especially if it is written by those claiming to be in the Reformed tradition. If I am using Dictionary of Feminist Theologies I will simply put the page number in parenthesis within my text.
In the eighties, as a member of a ministry called Apologetics Resource Center, I went, at request, with a Christian woman to visit her friend who was being taught by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. We sat talking about what it means to be a Christian. I explained what Christians mean when they talk about the Trinity; a belief Jehovah’s Witnesses do not hold since they reject the deity of Jesus Christ and see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force.
At one point the woman I came with simply exploded with a joyful witness of her own past conversion experience. Her face and smile, glowing with God’s love, was used by God to move her friend away from the false teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The woman used her experience to lead another to Christ. So how is that different from radical feminists who interpret Scripture from women’s experience?
Both have an experience that shape their religious faith but they are polar lengths apart. The woman who led her friend to Jesus talked about her conversion experience but that conversion came from Scripture, was based on Scripture, and supported Scripture. It was not theologically or experientially different than the confessions, creeds and Scriptures of the church. Her experience was centered in the word of God.
Radical feminists begin their theology using women’s experience as a starting point. Both Christian theology and Scripture are reinterpreted using women’s experience. Cynthia Campbell in her booklet, Theologies Written from Feminist Perspectives: an Introductory Study explains that “feminist theologians urge that the experience of women must now influence thought about God and human condition.” Campbell gives three reasons for the use of experience when doing theology. She writes:
First, feminists assert the experience of being female is significantly different from the experience of being male. Second, they argue that the experience of women is basic to a full understanding of what it means to be human. Third, feminists suggest that the record of this experience has been lost (some would say censored or removed) from Christian tradition and must be recovered so that a full view of that tradition can be obtained.2Along side of a theology of experience is the feminist’s emphasis on patriarchal systems of rule in society, home and particularly in the text of the Scripture. Some feminists believe the Bible is simply a book composed by humans and believe that men have erased or lessened the role of women in the text. Others believe the Bible carries within it words that can be used by God to form theology but also texts which are so flawed, because of patriarchy, that they must be ignored or changed in some manner.
For instance in the 2006-7 Horizons Bible Study, “In The Beginning: Perspectives on Genesis,” the author makes this statement, “The study recognizes that there are stories embedded within larger stories, that there are characters whom have been ignored, and there are voices in the text that are muted, if not outright silenced.”3
Seeking a theology which bypasses what is perceived as oppressive in the Scriptures and wishing to find what is believed lost, that is, an alternative theology based on a feminine deity, radical feminists make use of various texts and movements to do theology. After listing a few of the images and concepts acceptable in the
Bible, Elizabeth A. Johnson goes on to list other outside sources:
In ancient paganism, as well as in countercultural movements in Christian history such as Gnosticism or Shakerism, feminist theologians find glimpses of alternatives suppressed by Western patriarchal religion: female deity or women’s messianic equality. (129)Radical feminist theologians are not timid about placing outside sources on a par with or above Scripture. Therefore, looking at many of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith I will note how radical feminists use experience in interpretation and how their constant battle with what they perceive to be the over-riding sin of humanity, oppression of women by men, influences their theology. And the question will be asked “Is radical feminist theology Christian?”
The Being of God: In orthodox Christianity, God is understood to be both transcendent and immanent. That is, God is both other than creation (transcendent) but involved at a personal level with creation (immanent). For instance, Isaiah 40 not only pictures God as a shepherd who tends his flock and carries the lambs “in his bosom,” but he is also seen as one whose “understanding is inscrutable.”
Biblically, God, in his self, is beyond human understanding unless he reveals himself through revelation. The final revelation is, of course, his Son Jesus Christ. “All things have been handed over to me [Jesus Christ] by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27)”
Radical Feminist theologians choose between pantheism, (Everything is God) or panentheism (Creation is God but God is more than creation). Panentheism, the most prevalent view among feminist theologians, is understood by seeing creation as God’s body and God as the head of the body. In panentheism creation influences God as much as God influences creation. In a sense, this means that God is really only immanent. For instance, Sallie Mcfague writes, “While the Holy Spirit has often been seen as the immanent side of God, feminists see God as basically and radically immanent and the Holy Spirit as a central, if not the primary, ‘name’ for God. (147)”
In the same context the Holy Spirit is also seen as a force, power or energy and is often referred to as ‘it.’ God’s sovereignty and personal-ness is lost. Sometimes an attempt is made to keep God’s transcendence by redefining the term. Transcendence becomes a subset of immanence. Fredrica Harris Thompsett mentions several feminists and their redefinitions. For instance, she paraphrases Carter Heyward and Beverly Harrison who redefine transcendence to mean, “a power shaped through religious intuition and spiritual resourcefulness, a power that overcomes alienation from others, affirming mutual relation as creative and redemptive. (302)”
Notice that the definition, besides being obscure, is still impersonal, human centered and based on experience. The important point to note here is that for radical feminists God is never seen as other. God is not that which one bows to in reverence, fear and awe.
The Trinity: The biblical foundation for Christianity lies in the understanding that God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or to put it another way God is One, subsisting of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The persons in the Godhead are co-eternal and co-equal. They are also in relation to each other. Their distinction lies in the fact that they are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is who God is in his very being. One may not talk about the relationships within the Trinity without the distinctions that are the reason for the relationship, that is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One may not talk about the distinctions within the Trinity without the revelation the Father gives of those distinctions through his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke of himself, his Father and the Holy Spirit as One, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about me. (John 15:26)”
Radical Feminists either deny the Trinity or redefine the Trinity in an attempt to lift up women in opposition to what they understand to be a male bias with regard to the names of the Trinity. They often bypass all that Jesus says about the Father or all that the Father says about his Son. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki states that, “A major challenge to feminist theologians is to extricate male terms from the Christian naming of God as Trinity. (304.)” She then goes on to explain how many feminists reject the male names but make use of the understanding of relationality in their reformulations of the Trinity.
Among those who emphasize relationality, many, like Elizabeth Johnson, seeing all names as metaphors, replace Father, Son and Holy Spirit with such names as “spirit, wisdom and mother. (305)” Going even further some radical feminists replace the biblical God altogether with a gendered female deity who is modeled after women.
For instance, one book listed under “Recommended Reading,” on page 25 of July/August 2005 Horizons, the Presbyterian Women’s magazine, is A God Who Looks Like Me. The author of the book, after affirming the importance of a wise old crone goddess who changes as women change, several pages later writes in a liturgical piece, “For Mother-God so loved the world that she sent into its midst The Divine Girl-Child. Whosoever believes in her goodness, listens to her wisdom, and celebrates her power will be awakened to the abundance of gifts within them. (Adapted from John 3:16)”4
Once again, as above, the unchanging God, who deserves the reverence of Christian believers, is mocked by the use of idolatrous images of the divine, and God’s holy word is changed to say what it does not say.
In my next posting I will look at Christology, sin and the atonement from both the orthodox view and the radical feminist view.
1 Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, Letty M. Russell & J. Shannon Clarkson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1996).
2 Cynthia Campbell, Theologies Written From Feminist Perspectives: An Introduction Study, (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 1987), 17.
3 Celia Brewer Sinclair, 2006-2007 Horizons Bible Study, “In the Beginning: Perspectives on Genesis,” 2.
4 Patricia Lynn Reilly, A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering a Woman-Affirming Spirituality, (New York: Ballantine 1995), 273, 282.