If feminist theology is primarily for and about women, does it have a place in the mainstream? Despite the stereotype of being angry man-eaters, feminists claim that their theology is broad. Ruether’s vision is of an inclusive humanity: inclusive of both genders, inclusive of all social groups and races, even rejecting ‘humanocentrism’ which makes humans the norm and “crown” of creation. Her argument is that feminist theology, like the second wing of a bird, leads to wholeness of the whole of humanity: it’s not just for women. This is an enticing possibility. Could feminist theology complete the theological landscape, adding what has been missing? Two case studies would suggest otherwise.
T Drorah Setel writes that the female sexual imagery in Hosea presents women in a negative light: human males are analogous to Yahweh while women are compared to the people of Israel, who, by definition are subservient to Yahweh’s will; Men belong to the spiritual, women to the material; men are positive, women are negative. I think what she does here is to read the imagery backwards. The point of the text is not that women are like the harlot Israel but that Israel is like a harlot woman. That harlot woman is not every woman either. Setel ends up generalising in a way that the text doesn’t. Interestingly, she doesn’t compare it with Proverbs 7-8 where harlotry is on view in Dame Folly in contrast to the (equally feminine) Lady Wisdom.
Similar is Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite’s work on bringing the Bible to battered women. There’s no denying that wife battering is an atrocity. Nor is there any point denying that many battered women are trapped in that relationship by religious reasons, either their own convictions or abusive teaching they have received. To use the Bible to strip women of self-esteem or to disempower them is an abomination. Certainly, women need to hear that they are given the status and honor of being disciples of Jesus, alongside men. However, poor teaching of the Bible that is patriarchal does not excuse poor teaching of the Bible by feminists. For example, Thistlethwaite’s suggestion of using Luke 9:5 as a resource for women in leaving their husbands rips the passage ludicrously out of context. Additionally, poor teaching of a passage does not exclude that passage from relevance. Just because Ephesians 5 or Genesis 2:21-24 have been used far too often to oppress women does not make their actual point any less valid.
The generalisations of Setel and Thistlethwaite border on the hysterical. Certainly they rightly feel very deeply for women who have been abused and oppressed but it is counter-productive to therefore reject wholesale strands that acknowledge the sinfulness of some women (in Setel’s case) or that leave room for men to be good to women (in Thistlethwaite’s). Being pro-women or protecting the rights of women instead ends up being anti-men. However, even an anti-patriarchal worldview needs to have a place for masculinist strands if it is to be truly inclusive and have a place in the mainstream.
Russell’s suggestion is that we need to reject the notion of authority as domination. This only results in a battle of the sexes with each grasping for the top position. Instead, she suggests authority as partnership where reality is interpreted in the form of a circle of interdependence, not unlike 1 Cor 11:11-12 (though she doesn’t use this text). She sees a community of consensus which is based on the shared story of Christ rather than on doctrinal specifics. It’s less about getting everyone to accept a priority system and more about building a community of human wholeness. She doesn’t address the question of how we conceive of God’s authority in such an egalitarian context and I wonder about whether she’s left space for gifting. While it sounds at first like everyone just gets to do their thing, it may exclude those with gifts of leadership, teaching or discernment. However Russell’s attitude seems to be on the right track. She wants to put a stop to the power play and instead ask what feminism has to offer without itself becoming the oppressor. I think this is a way forward for feminist theology.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.