In her chapter of Feminist Interpretation and the Bible, ‘Feminist Consciousness and the Interpretation of Scripture’, Margaret A Farley asks whether there’s any integrity to approaching the Bible with a feminist lens. Isn’t that taking a higher authority than scripture? Good question!
Her answer is double barrelled. First, she wants to remind the reader that none of us approach the Bible judgement free. We all have some kind of lens. We interpret the value of religion according to how well it meets our needs, like truth and justice. We want it to ring true on some level. The second thing she suggests is that feminist consciousness may come from the Bible itself. That sounds odd, partly because lots of feminists have come up with their feminist ideas quite apart from the Bible and partly because the Bible has often been read in patriarchal terms. But she suggests that by bringing women to the text and having them read it, they are able to see what others couldn’t. It’s not that they impose their framework on the text but that because of who they are, they experience the text differently.
Though there is diversity in feminist thought, Farley identifies two common strands that are generally accepted by all feminists: equality and mutuality. Thus:
Feminist consciousness stands as a corrective to a liberal philosophy that fails to understand human solidarity and the importance and need for mutuality. But it also stands as a corrective to theories of sociality that fail to incorporate a requirement for basic human equality; that fail to affirm the feature of autonomy along with the feature of relationality.
So a feminist theology sees embodiment as important: the women’s experience in her body and also the experience of knowing and being known within community.
According to Farley, these strands of equality and mutuality are the themes that emerge from a feminist reading of the Bible. However, she develops her argument from liberal philosophy rather than from showing a biblical framework for them. She justifies that by explaining that the Bible is rarely sufficient for the development of any ethic. (In medical ethics, you need more than the Bible – like medical knowledge, for example). While I thought her evidence for feminist themes in the Bible was a little thin on the ground, I suspect that those themes do sit very nicely within a biblical understanding of women and womanhood. If feminism can hold them in balance, as she suggests it does, I think that’s really useful.
The question that I had when I was reading Farley was what the revelatory object of the Bible is. Right at the start of her chapter, she suggests that “the Bible asks for something less like submission of the will and something more like the opening of the imagination.” Yet, the expansion of thought that she offered was curiously horizontal. She had suggestions about how to understand the scope of human experience and the relevance of the Bible for that, but much less to say about who God is: the vertical was missing from her consciousness. For Farley, it seemed that the Bible’s interest is in revealing who humans could be rather than in revealing who God is. There’s a flattening out in her thought that seems to leave little room for the paradoxes we see in Christ who became poor though he was rich, obedient though he was ruler, lowly though he had equality with God. I’ll be interested to see whether these themes get picked up elsewhere.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.