Tuesday, January 23, 2007

feminist & liberation theology examined

I'm reading Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's Bread Not Stone, which is about the Bible being bread for us, sustenance, rather than written on tablets of stone. (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is one of my heroes.) She talks about it being a "prototype" instead of an "archetype"--seeing it as a foundational document that allows us to live and interpret our faith as we need to today. If we see it as an archetype we end up acting like it's a rigid set of laws that are the same for all time, and this changes nothing from the legalistic attitudes Jesus spoke against.

I just read a chapter where she compares liberation and feminist theology. This was written in 1984, so it's a little outdated, but the basic stuff is still accurate. It seems like in the last 23 years liberation theology and other contextual theologies (such as feminism) have had more dialogue and moved to a place of relative solidarity, but at the time she was writing she was concerned about many people not taking either one seriously because they're written from a specific context and therefore can't be objective. People still have this concern, and think of contextual theologies as kind of supplemental theologies to the "real" theologies, the ones by those who follow the rules of white Western male theology.

The problem with this concern is that it fails to see that ALL theology is contextual. It's all written from someone's perspective, from their background and understanding, from their culture and in their language. Feminists, liberationists and others are just being honest about their political and social biases and situations, whereas "traditional" theologians have their own biases they just don't admit them.

Where feminist and liberation theologians differ is in perspective. It seems like Schussler Fiorenza was saying that liberationists are more optimistic--they see in the biblical record a theology of liberation, that Jesus was working toward releasing the oppressed, that his choice of society was an "option for the poor," and that through him we can see the Hebrew Scriptures in the same light. We see the prophets being a voice for the widow and the orphan, we see God liberating the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

This is excellent, Schussler Fiorenza says, except that then liberationists tend to ignore passages that do not liberate, especially regarding women. Feminists have been forced to have a less optimistic view of the Bible, because the Bible is inherently a patriarchal work, because it was written by men caught up in a patriarchal culture. Even when they were writing things fairly radically egalitarian for their time, there are still tinges of patriarchy evident. Women cannot afford to look at only the "liberating" passages, because there are so many passages that are oppressive to women.

At the time she wrote Bread Not Stone it sounds like liberation theologians were basically ignoring the issue of women's rights, and Schussler Fiorenza argues that women's rights is actually one of the main things liberation theology should be about, because a majority of the world's poor are women, and children who depend on them.

All this brings up further questions, like what is the point of theology anyway??? Why do we need a "right" theology, or a "systematic" theology that holds together completely in a nice little package? Is it only for our own peace of mind, so that we can logically understand the things we say we believe? Or is there a deeper reason? I think liberation and feminist theologies are on the right track--we have a theology in order to then act rightly, and this action should be (in my opinion) in ways that liberate the oppressed and refuse to cooperate with evil systems. Our theology is intended to enhance our praxis. And yet, most theology is abstract and philosophical, and it doesn't necessarily connect with "real life."

Even liberation and feminist theologies have been criticized because they intend to speak for ALL women, or ALL the oppressed, and this is just as oppressive to others as white middle-upper class Western men supposing they can speak for all people. Feminists are often middle class white women who have the time and the affluence to worry about language of God and not being given equal pay. Liberation theologians speak for the poor but often aren't poor themselves. So even their theologies have a tendency to become abstract and not be useful or accessible for the people they say they are speaking for.

I think that's why Quakers haven't really focused on theology too much--we're too busy acting on our beliefs and not siting around writing about them and worrying about whether our beliefs hang together in a complete system as long as we're doing what's "right." But at the same time, I think we tend to lose something in our inability to think through why we act in certain ways. We have a tendency to develop relatively legalistic systems where we just do something (i.e. peace activism) because we've always done it and it's part of being Quaker, rather than being founded on any basic belief or theological understanding.

So do we need to articulate our theology more completely? I think so, in many ways. I think it would help us to feel like we have a goal, we know where we're going, because we have foundational theology that we can point to as who we are. This isn't a legalistic system that holds us into a "stone tablet" theology, but it would be good for us as a Society to know where to look for the "Bread" that gives us sustenance.

1 comment:

Anna Dunford said...

Welcome to the world Espen! Much love to you all in this exciting new phase of life. We might not all be able to be there but the spirit travels well (carbon neutrally to boot!) and we can hold you in the light from a distance.

love, hugs and blessings
Anna xxx