3. Rewriting theology
We now turn to ‘phase two’ of the feminist movement – redefining theology. In the 1970s the rise of Women’s Studies affected almost all academic disciplines. Books and courses were written on feminist approaches to law, history (‘herstory’), literature and so on. Having redefined herself, the feminist wanted to use women’s experience as a reference point for all areas of life. This was called woman-centred analysis.
Feminist theologians set about a radical overhaul of all areas of doctrine to suit their agenda. A feminist’s spiritual authority lay not in the Scriptures or the church but in her own experience and her need for liberation.
The title for the series of essays called
Swallowing a fishbone(ed. Daphne Hampson) comes from this idea. If you want to swallow a fish whole you first need to remove all the bones in case they stick in your throat and choke you. So to ‘swallow’ the Christian faith, women needed to remove anything that might ‘stick in their throat’.
At this point, many feminists ditched Christianity altogether, considering it irredeemably patriarchal and therefore incapable of being swallowed at all! But some pressed on, armed with the tools of a new feminist hermeneutic (interpretation) for tackling the traditional texts of Christianity.
Bread or a stone?
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza has been prominent in developing this feminist hermeneutic, but her work is really more of a theological defence of what feminists actually
doto the texts of Scripture. Far from carefully applying a new set of hermeneutical rules to the texts, they show no respect for the texts whatsoever.
In her book
Bread not stoneshe argues that we should view Scripture not as ‘archetype’ (a normative and unchanging paradigm — ‘stone’ in her metaphor) but as ‘prototype’ (an open-ended formative model which energises and sustains — ‘bread’). Which parts of Scripture are valid, she maintains, can only be defined by women’s experience as they struggle against patriarchy.
Thus feminist theologians attacked all areas of Christian doctrine. For example, in eschatology feminists looked forward to an earthly utopian society brought about by the liberation of women. But this belief that women’s liberation might be the key to solving all the world’s problems betrays something deeper — a growing trend to view women not just as equal to men but as superior.
Some feminists began to call for a matriarchy to replace the patriarchy, and writers such as Elizabeth Gould Davis argued that men were actually deficient versions of women! The natural next step was to redefine God himself, the standard and source of perfection.
In ‘phase three’, therefore, feminism reaches its logical conclusion — an attempt to feminise God. Some feminists arrived at a female deity by identifying womanhood with ‘mother earth’ — the embodiment of the life-giving, nurturing force within each woman. A by-product of this thinking is the association of feminism with ecology (see, for example, Radford Ruether, R.
Women healing earth; SCM, London, 1996).
Other feminists started with the Christian God but sought to rename him in female, neutral or bisexual terms. Their rationale is best expressed in Mary Daly’s slogan, ‘As long as God is male, man is God’.
However, to rename God is idolatrous. It either sexualises God or (in the case of neuter names) depersonalises him. Furthermore, it deconstructs the Trinity by destroying the relationship between the Father and the Son.
As we have already seen, God created gender to teach us about relationships — firstly, the relationships
withinhis triune being and, secondly, that between himself and his redeemed people. He uses gender-language in revealing himself to us precisely because of this relational analogy.
Let us now draw conclusions. Firstly, feminist theology begins with false, unbiblical assumptions and ends in false worship, as its protagonists seek to remake God in their own image. It has a single uniting principle — namely, that each woman is her own authority and must proclaim whatever she finds liberating.
However this very -subjectivity means that feminist theology is expressed in many and diverse ways. The outline I have tried to give, therefore, is only a general one. Nevertheless, the fundamental cleavage between evangelical and feminist theology is apparent — the root difference, from which every other problem flows, relates to the authority and interpretation of the Bible.
Some feminists reject the Bible altogether as irredeemably patriarchal. But where does that leave them with respect to authority? If their experience is their authority, then what is the judge of their experience? If there is no independent revelation there can be no objective knowledge of God. And that means no Christianity — just human imagination fashioning imaginary and powerless idols.
Subjective ideas about God and my relationship to him can be of no use to me if they are untrue. They may bolster my sense of self-worth for a time, but are useless in helping me relate to God. It is objective truth that matters, not whether I think an idea ‘helps’ me.
Other feminists appear to show some measure of respect for the Bible, but they still treat it in a way that strips it of any real authority. At the hermeneutical level they prejudge what the Bible should and should not say and so effectively make it say what they want it to say.
Using the Bible is not the same as believing it and submitting to it. We cannot serve two authorities and for many feminists it is clear that their philosophy comes first. They critique the Bible in the light of their theology rather than the reverse (an error to which others are also prone!).
If we sit in judgement on Scripture we render it ineffective. It can have no power over us or in us. It becomes a ventriloquist’s dummy — saying only what we ourselves make it say.
So the authority of Scripture is the key issue. Will we trust our feminist ideals and rob the Bible of its authority? Or will we trust the God who loved us enough to send his Son to die for us? As we trust and search the Scriptures, genuinely submitting our ideas to his, we will discover true liberation — we shall know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:32).
Here is genuine liberation — a value and dignity beyond anything that the feminist dream can offer. It is a liberty that comes from putting God, not ourselves, at the centre of our lives. For the gospel irony is that in denying myself and losing my life, I find life (Mark 8:34-35).
These articles originally appeared in
From Athens to Jerusalem(Summer 2003) and have been reproduced by kind permission of the UCCF.
The author studied theology at St John’s, Oxford, and did postgraduate study at Oak Hill. She now works in Paris with the French national CU movement.