Thursday, July 02, 2009

intro part 3

I'm finally getting to the last post of the introduction to my summer project going here--I read this material fairly quickly, but then getting time to sit down and write about it has proved more challenging. We'll see if this "summer project" actually gets done in the summer!

Anyway, the final book I am reading as part of this project is Freeing Theology, a collection of essays on the various Christian doctrines by Catholic feminist theologians. It may be surprising to some that one can be both a Catholic and a feminist, but actually a good portion of the most renowned feminist theologians are Catholic. Perhaps this is because they have more to fight against, and the academy is their only choice since they cannot go into official parish ministry. At any rate, this book was written in 1993, but I think it is still useful in seeing how these doctrines can be explicated from a feminist perspective. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna, the editor of this book and the author of the short introduction, says, "This is not a book about feminism or about the Christian tradition but an example of doing theology from a new perspective" (LaCugna, ed., 1993, 1). This book was also written to be used in a classroom such as the one for which I originally read it. It doesn't include all the traditional doctrines, so I'll have to use other sources for a couple of the topics, but it gives a sampling of the way feminists look at these doctrines, staying firmly in the Christian tradition while questioning the "androcentrism" we have inherited.

(Androcentrism is a term coined by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, I believe, in her wonderful book In Memory of Her: a feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins. I don't have that book with me right now so I won't give you the exact citation. Anyway, it means that Christianity assumes the male experience to be normative and central, while the female experience deviates from that norm. She counters this with historical and biblical evidence that Christ's intentions were not thus, and that even the first couple of generations of Christ-follwers did not live this way. As the community became more formal and norms of belief and leadership became established, the egalitarian impulses of Christ's message were suppressed, though never completely eradicated.)

The first chapter of this book is called "The New Vision of Feminist Theology: Method," and is written by Anne E. Carr. She writes about the method of doing theology from a feminist perspective. Part of this method is reminding us that we all come from a particular context with our own assumptions which inform the conclusions we reach. While theologians of the past have not called themselves "contextual," their theologies have yet been shaped by (and shaped) their particular context. They think and write as they do because of the culture and the time period in which they were born. The questions they ask are shaped partially by that context, and the issues at hand in their generation. Since the Enlightenment, many people have tried to get rid of that "contextual," subjective part of theology, attempting to look at theology rationally and objectively. The problem with this, feminists say, is that no matter what, we are all shaped by our context. Feminists and other "contextual theologians" simply state their assumptions and context and see it as an asset as they look at theological questions from their particular vantage point. Rather than becoming discouraged because we cannot get an "objective" view of God or decide based on replicable evidence whether or not a particular faith claim is "true," we recognize that we can each see a different angle, and because of the particular place in which we are located, we can help inform the whole.

Carr highlights the work of two important feminist theologians, and the way they talk about the method of theology from a feminist perspective. She discusses Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, two of my heroes (heroines?)! In her work Sexism & God-Talk Ruether says: "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive" (qtd. in LaCugna, ed., 1993, 13). Therefore, the goal of feminist theology is not really to promote any major, unfounded agenda or to negate the humanity and worth of men. Instead it simply seeks to remind the Christian communities that women are human being, also created in the image of God, and equally capable of connecting with and interpreting revelation from God.

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's work focuses on the early church. She is a biblical scholar who sees in the biblical text traces of the egalitarian community that attempted to exist, and the debate that began very early in the life of the church regarding the role of women in leadership and interpretation of revelation. She even calls into question whether things that we take to be anti-women were in fact meant thus, or whether through tradition we have learned to understand them so. I won't go into all that, because it would take forever, but she makes excellent points regarding many difficult passages in In Memory of Her.

I think it's important to include a feminist voice in my little study here, because a) it's important to me, and b) there was no such thing as "feminism" during Barclay's time, and I think in many ways feminism goes along with Quakerism very nicely, but adds an extra element that early Friends just weren't thinking about yet. Like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, early Friends apparently looked back to the early Christian community as one of relative equality, regardless of race, gender or social class. They pre-empted feminism in many ways, although traditional roles were still in effect to some degree in households and such.

I think at times Barclay was too much under the sway of Enlightenment thought and did not give adequate thought to context, either his or anyone else's, so having a theology that emphasizes the context of the individual is helpful.

I also think that feminist theologians pick up on a theme similar to Quakers when they emphasize the personal experience of the one doing the theology. For Friends, we emphasize that everyone is able to hear and respond to God. Feminists give us a helpful insight when they remind the church that we sometimes block our collective understanding of revelation when we say it must occur within certain boundaries, which have traditionally excluded huge populations of people from the process of listening to and interpreting what we hear from God. This caution is still important for us as Friends, although we in theory believe God can speak to and through anyone. It is important for us to continue listening to "that of God in everyone," in whatever way God wants to speak. As we listen to the experiences of those around us we test them against history, the biblical record, our community, and our own understanding of God, but we allow new voices to come in and soften the barriers we put up around what "counts" as revelatory experience and what is "acceptable" theology. We stand for something, yes, but within that there is incredible freedom to explore the mystery of the intimate, incarnate, transcendent God who is simultaneously within and beyond.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful entry, Cherice. It's interesting how we believe that women and men are absolutely equal, but have to make allowance sometimes for the culture. For example, it's pretty obvious why God didn't create Jesus as a woman.

Gr. Ralph

Hystery said...

This is good stuff and you did an excellent job summing up one of the most critical differences between feminist thea/ology and androcentric theology--although Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza can't get credit for the term as Gilman was using it some seventy years earlier. Fiorenza, I think, can be credited with the term "kyriocentrism." (a very cool word)

And speaking of context, all these scholars are shaped by their position in a dialogue not merely between themselves and kyriocentric theologians but also between themselves and the gynocentric thealogians like Carol Christ (with whom Rosemary Radford Ruether has been engaged in often contentious debate for decades!)