Beyond the Feminist Critique: A Shaking of the Foundations

by Harold H. Oliver

Dr. Oliver is professor of New Testament and theology at Boston University School of Theology.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 1, 1985, pp. 446-447. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


By facing feminism’s challenge to tradition, the church stands to gain much more than it conceivably could lose. Feminism opens the door for the most serious and radical rethinking of the nature of religious experience that the West has known since the inception of Christianity.

Feminism may well be the most radical challenge ever to arise within the church. For while previous challenges pronounced judgment upon doctrines or practices by recourse to the original tradition, many feminists pronounce judgment upon the tradition itself. Many in the modern church find this radical posture institutionally and personally threatening.

Psychological and sociological criteria alone indicate that this sense of threat felt by many in the church is normal. Their reaction is grounded in the belief that feminism poses the threat of greater potential loss to Christianity than any conceivable gain. If that is truly the case, these reactionaries would be fully warranted in resisting changes.

However, by facing feminism’s challenge to the tradition, the church, I believe, stands to gain much more than it conceivably could lose. For feminism opens the door for the most serious and radical rethinking of the nature of religious experience that the West has known since the inception of Christianity. This radical mandate comes closer to the intensity and comprehensiveness of primitive Christianity itself than has any subsequent phenomenon in Western history. Rather than provoking Christians to alarm, this "shaking of the foundations" should be welcomed as an opportunity to re-examine every aspect of the church’s life and faith -- indeed, even of the nature of the religious life itself.

If there is one truth at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity, it is that no representation of the divine -- either visual or verbal -- is finally adequate, and that failure to accept this judgment leads to idolatry. This is the central message of the tradition. But to exempt the tradition from this judgment would in essence be to deny the central message itself. This may seem a hard truth -- one that finally reduces religion to a relativism. But it is

a truth fully appreciated in many historic segments of Christianity that have chosen to live with the fragility of this truth, rather than with the certainty -- and presumed finality -- of magisterial truth. Their position does not, however, succumb to subjectivism, for the sanctorum communio is no private, single vision, but a living testimony to a living tradition. Its "life’’ is manifested not in a self-protective obscurantism, but in the act of "breathing life" into whatever is worthy in a given time and place.

In one sense (and one sense only), the tradition is judgmental: it judges all "traditions’’ growing out of itself. But this fact does not resolve the issue as to which of the "traditions" best represents "the tradition" -- assuming that this issue is crucial. Rather, the judgment essentially says that none of the traditions ever finally measures up to the tradition, just as no criticism or critical interpretation of a work of art ever equals the original itself.

Pronouncing judgment on the tradition is not, in itself, anti-traditional. Rather it is fully consonant with the tradition’s spirit of judging all claims to religious finality. It follows that the tradition is not threatened by any well-intentioned and informed critiques of representations of religious reality. That is perhaps the heart of the truth that the tradition is "living."

What, we may now ask, are the implications of feminism’s deep reconsideration of the nature and function of religious language?

What would be the consequence of accepting the feminist proposal but extending its scope? If the names "Father" and "Lord" are woefully inadequate, do they become more nearly adequate when supplemented with or replaced by other nouns/names? The problem is not -- as the feminists often say -- one of the inadequacy of certain nouns/names, but of the inadequacy of any naming of the deity. It is no accident that the closest analogue to religious language is profanity; for without naming the deity, neither religious nor antireligious sentiment can be expressed. In fact, as Judaism learned early on, it may be impossible to pronounce the name of the deity without profaning it. Western Christianity, however, has exhibited a Promethean attitude about the adequacy of its verbal representations of the divine. Viewed purely ecumenically, the issues raised by feminism may lead the West into a greater appreciation of the apophatic tradition, like that found in Eastern Orthodoxy.

From a transcultural standpoint, the feminist challenge opens the West to what is perhaps an even wider perspective. To illustrate. I shall attempt to drawn same lessons from Hinduism. In Hinduism, theology is ancillary to metaphysical truth. The most persistent idea in the Vedas and the Upanishads is the claim that Brahman is above "name and form" (namarupa). All things named and nameable -- even the gods -- are creatures. This essential teaching of original Hinduism constitutes a fundamental difference from both Judaism and Christianity, and it may prove to be a hard but necessary truth for the West to accept. The language of theology is filled with the rich diversity of namarupa, but Brahman stands as the final judgment over whether any name or form is adequate to represent reality.

This insight allows the problem of evil to be resolved without resorting to theodicy, as the West must, since its theology (language of the divine) is intrinsically metaphysical. And because of the nature of their theology, Judaism and Christianity easily fall prey to the self-indulgence of "paying metaphysical compliments to the Deity" (Whitehead). Such a practice as not some anomaly an our religious tradition; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the fact that for Judaism and Christianity, religious language functions as the language of ultimacy; i.e., it functions metaphysically. The importance of monotheism in Western culture is a consequence of the metaphysical intentionality of its theological language.

Lest it seem as though I would subordinate religious to metaphysical language, thereby reinforcing the Western rationalistic critique of religion, I hasten to point out that in Hinduism, philosophy never developed in opposition to religion; the philosophical critique of energy that never ceases to preoccupy Western culture could not arise in a culture like Hinduism, where the language about the gods -- what we call mythology -- was never denied its rightful place in the scheme of things.

Feminism’s dissatisfaction with some pronouns could be interpreted as a mandate to dispense with pronouns altogether. Given the implications of the feminists’ attack on nouns, replacing third-person masculine pronouns with their feminine counterparts seems only to point to the final inadequacy of any pronouns used in referring to deity.

But pronouns may prove to be a different matter altogether. One need not probe fully the reasons why third-person pronouns in the West were made gender-specific, while first-and second- were not, in order to know that such an exploration could lead us more deeply into the heart of religiosity. To the extent that prayer is distinctive of religious experience, we should inspect the function of pronouns in this modality.

Martin Buber may be our best modern teacher on this subject. Without anticipating the later issue of the gender of third-person pronouns, he wisely located what is fundamental about reality, human and divine, in the word-pair I-Thou. Buber represented the loss of this reality by employing the neuter third-person pronoun "It"

Buber expressed his great insight into the nature of true spirituality in the contrast between talking to God (first- and second-person pronouns) and talking about God (third-person pronouns). His famous -- though not universally well-received -- statement is something of a confession: "If to believe in God means to be able to talk about him, then I do not believe. But if to believe in God means to be able to talk to him, then I believe" (Meetings. Open Court [1973], p. 44). Talking "about" God requires only third-person pronouns; whereas talking "to" God requires only the first and second: "I and Thou."

If the feminists’ assault on the tradition awakens us to this essential character of the deepest and most intimate spirituality, the overall gain shall exceed whatever may have to be given up along the way. But the journey toward these deeper insights may prove to be arduous, and all must commit themselves to it, abandoning what may appear now to be defensive postures and special interests.

It may be objected that what I have stated to be the gain serves only general spirituality, not historical Christianity. However, Christianity is never finally threatened by any increase of insight into true spirituality. Rather, it is enriched by it.