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Christianity and New Feminist Religions

by Patricia Wilson-Kastner

Dr. Wilson-Kastner is associate professor of historical and constructive theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. New Brighton, Minnesota. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 9, 1981 p. 864-868. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One week during our usual Thursday chapel hour at United Theological Seminary, the women’s caucus organized and led a well-constructed and skillfully enacted worship service for the seminary community. Most of the imagery, the visual symbols and the language expressed the spooking, sparking and spinning which Mary Daly in her recent book Gyn/Ecology proposes to women as the way to true liberation. Following Daly’s model, language addressed to the Deity either spoke of the divine as the Goddess or used nonpersonal terms. Afterward, almost every man and woman present spoke enthusiastically about the excellence of the service, and some of the possibilities it displayed for the use of nonsexist language. At the same time, several voiced uneasiness that no traditional Judeo-Christian language had been employed and that Christ was not mentioned. They wondered what this model signaled for women and men who are feminists but also identify themselves as Christians.

Although one must be careful not to magnify the significance of any one event, that chapel service focused, for many of the seminary community, some basic questions about the relationship between feminism and Christianity. In addition, many people began to rethink the relationship between Mary Daly’s style of feminism and their own religious commitments.

A New Religion

For me, the service crystallized a need to come to terms with the intention of such radical feminists as Daly to reject traditional patriarchal religion and substitute something new. They propose a new religion, one that has emerged from their feminism and from their rejection of their traditions. Because of the close identification of Mary Daly and other theologians with feminism, their new religion appeals to many of the women students in the seminary, as well as to some of the men. Thus we find ourselves occupied with the continuing question of to what extent and for what reason Christianity and contemporary feminism are compatible and even in need of each other.

"The entire conceptual systems of theology and ethics, developed under the conditions of patriarchy, have been the products of males and tend to serve the interests of sexist society." So wrote Mary Daly in 1973 in Beyond God the Father. She concluded that women should leave behind the patriarchal past and its institutions, and begin a new period of sisterhood that will create its own forms and its own religion. Ever since Daly and other feminist writers formulated the challenge, many feminists have been acutely aware of some fundamental issues feminism raises about Christianity. Is its foundation so sexist that it must be rejected, or is there some hope of reconstruction and reappropriation?

Growing in importance among feminists is the response to the Judeo-Christian tradition which Rosemary Ruether calls "countercultural feminist theology," and Carol Christ terms "revolutionary feminist theology." The feminists who adopt these responses regard Christianity as so hopelessly corrupt that it should be rejected by any woman who hopes to achieve her own integrity. In place of oppressive patriarchal religion, they are constructing a new religion, one they intend to be authentically feminist and liberating.

Some of these revolutionary feminists embrace the notion of full participation of men and women in their new religion or spirituality; others exclude men from the circle, either temporarily until women regain their sense of true selfhood, or permanently. Goddess worship is characteristic of most; some -- Naomi Goldenberg, for example -- regard the force inside women as the appropriate power for them to venerate and cherish. Regardless of variations, one fundamental, obvious and significant conclusion is to be drawn, These women must all be taken seriously as the founding mothers of a genuinely new religion. Rosemary Ruether and other sympathetic but critical scholars have noted this point as observers of such groups; Goldenberg, Christ and Daly have made the claim from within their movement.

Looking at the Differences

As Ruether and others have observed, whatever may be said of the goddess worship of antiquity, or medieval witchcraft, contemporary revolutionary feminist religion has, by its own admission, created itself as a new entity. Christian women of a reformist orientation -- who regard themselves as feminists and yet claim the Christian tradition as bearer of a liberating truth, capable of reform in a more humanizing direction -- find themselves addressing sisters who share some fundamental positions but who reject some that are to the reformers at least of equal importance.

When addressing a revolutionary feminist sister, the Christian feminist encounters a relative who has chosen to leave the family and establish a separate household. Because of shared background, certain patterns and activities will be similar, and the division lines will not always be clear, even to one who has left the family. Nonetheless, it will be of great help for both to realize that they are in dialogue in a fashion analogous to the Jew and the Christian, or the Christian and the Muslim. In order to understand each other, they must, recognize their similarities, but must be equally honest about their differences.

In Womanspirit Rising Carol Christ set forth some of the major characteristics of revolutionary feminist religion, and Rosemary Ruether critiqued some of these in a Christian Century article ("Goddesses and Witches: Liberation and Counter-cultural Feminism," September 10-17, 1980). Revolutionary feminists assume that men and women are fundamentally different because of their bodies, which are shapers and receivers of experience. Some theorists underline the commonness of humanity as well as the differences, while others emphasize the distinctions, but all agree on a separateness of males and females that has some specific consequences.

For these religionists, female humanity is normative. Either explicitly or implicitly males are regarded as in some way inferior to the female norm. Quite frequently this assumption of inferiority depends on acceptance of the 19th century romantic notion that women are more intuitive and affective than men, These qualities are exalted over rationality and logic, the province of males. Revolutionary feminists generally accept this vision of each sex’s characteristics, turning on its head the scientific age’s glorification of "male" empirical reasoning, and making that age’s notion of feminine nature the dominant and superior ideal.

Some other assumptions aid in constructing a new religion. Revolutionary feminists employ a variation of the Marxist use of history as an agent of change in the revolution; they assert that history is a means for transformation of the feminine self-image, so that women may increase their self-esteem and actualize themselves fully rather than be suppressed as during patriarchal history. History as a tool for self-development is substituted for the modern scientific notion of history. The revolutionary feminist religious person does not seek to understand the historic past, or to extract from it cautionary tales or encouragement for the present or the future. The goal is to construct a history as it ought to have been to authenticate women’s aspirations and sense of self.

‘The Divine You’

Religion itself is understood as a means for women’s self-fulfillment and is constructed as such. Goldenberg asserts that theology ought to be understood as psychology, that we should stop theorizing about a God "Out there," and reflect on the forces and values within us. Some of the rituals of Dianic witchcraft demonstrate this viewpoint quite clearly. For instance, Zsuzsanna E. Budapest’s self-blessing ritual articulates this notion; she asserts that self-blessing is to affirm "the divine you." Religion controls the inner self; the goddess is a symbol of the "divine within women and all that is female in the universe." Such theorists as Mary Daly appear to employ goddess imagery as a symbolizing of the Verb which is divine power within us and sustaining the universe, but increasingly, revolutionary feminism insists that religion is both an expression of the self and the means by which we control the inner self.

Related to this idea is a denial of transcendence, not only in the extreme form which opposes itself to immanence and the realm of daily experience, but in any sense. Ruether has aptly observed that revolutionary feminism or countercultural religion an immanentist religion. The vast majority of revolutionary feminists deny any reality that may be analogous to the Ultimate, the Absolute, God, Goddess, or even to process theology’s primordial or consequent natures of God. What you see is what you get, and the ultimate is found either within women as individuals or as groups in union with natural forces. Some persons and groups place their emphasis on individual women, whereas most focus on women in community with nature; but the vision assumes that all energy and good are present within nature now, and that ‘women must learn to unite themselves to it in order to experience their own wholeness.

Experience is claimed by revolutionary feminists as the norm for truth and discernment of spirits. Carol Christ sees women’s experience, the spiritual quest, as the key to discovering reality and clarifying the vision of the powers that truly are. Budapest, at the opening of her self-blessing ritual, introduces the rite as coming from the oral tradition of witches throughout the ages; her justification is that it "feels very ancient." Regardless of the particular emphasis in various groups, the experience of women, individually or as a community, is the determiner of truth and, as we have seen, the force that determines how history is to be interpreted or remade. Sometimes explicitly, at other times implicitly, women’s experience as norm is understood as replacing the previous domination of patriarchy and male interpretation.

These various characteristics intertwine and are present in varying degrees in different revolutionary feminist groups. They form the ideology of a new religion, and make up a relatively complete and internally, consistent explanation of humanity, the world, and human destiny, asserting that this vision is true and others are, at best, less true. Increasingly, as Ruether has observed, these religious believers have become more and more intolerant toward others who have rejected the new faith or who depart from it.

It would be most interesting to draw a religious map of revolutionary feminist religion, showing the range from those who regard men as equals (though benighted), to those who would separate from men and from women who have anything to do with men; from those who reject Christianity and Judaism to worship the divine under female form to those who value the symbolism of the goddess because of its beneficent effect on women. Such a picture would clarify the variety among revolutionary feminists, including the growing numbers of radical separatists, and underscore the need to appreciate the diversity as well as the common elements.

The Reformist’s Response

But what is to be the response of the Christian feminist? On the one hand, she or he recognizes the revolutionary as struggling against the same bonds of patriarchy as the Christian. Both have experienced oppression, heard offensive and exclusive language, and experienced the effects of discrimination in the religious establishment. But the Christian feminist is by definition a reformist, regarded with suspicion by males and, alas, females who cling to an outmoded patriarchy, and at the same time labeled as a "moron" by such separatists as Mary Daly. Such wrath is merited in the revolutionaries’ eyes. The Christian reformist rejects patriarchy; but she asserts that while the social context for Christianity is indeed patriarchal, its fundamental meaning is not to be identified with its patriarchal context. The reformist feminist claims that ultimately Christianity still witnesses to a divine reality who is both incomprehensibly transcendent and immanently present to human beings created in the divine image.

A Christian feminist cannot accept all of the assumptions that are at the base of the new feminist religion. She or he refuses to assume that Christianity, simply because its structure and history are in great measure interpreted by men, is inherently irredeemable and useless. The Christian feminist has observed the power of Christianity, despite patriarchy, to free and give life and meaning to persons both male and female. Jesus Christ is not perceived as a useless remnant of patriarchy but as a human being who offers a hope and vision of God that is not sex-linked. Much work needs to be done to incorporate women’s experience into Christian tradition and its theology, but Christian feminists regard the core of Christianity and at least some elements of its tradition as being life-giving for women. The Christian feminist knows the power of Christianity, is conscious of how this religion has worked to the detriment of women, but also knows of the good it has done, and of the good it could do if its liberating message were heard.

Feminist religions define women as being in some sense fundamentally different from males. Such a dichotomizing of the human race is unacceptable to the Christian feminist. One basic assumption of Christianity is that men and women are equally human and essentially the same. Because of their equality both males and females can be baptized and share in the Eucharist, and must be treated as equally responsible children of God.

The feminist reformist recognizes that that ideal is not fully achieved, and that there were times when male Christians refused to accept the full humanity of women, but they consider those failures as expressions of inadequacy and human perversion of the gospel. To assert an essential difference between women and men appears to turn the oppression of women on its head and to accept an oppressor’s romantic definition of women. Instead of upholding the fundamental kinship between women and men, such a separatist definition inevitably divides human beings, and invites new variations on the old sorts of oppression. While Christian feminists willingly admit that women and men have often been differently socialized, and that there may even be some differences in human capabilities between the sexes, that is no more fundamentally constitutive of humanity than place of birth or color of skin. Sex is one of many variable factors which combine in humans, not a definitive dividing line between two species of persons.

Feminist religions are focused on the self, assuming that not only is the self good, but that esteem and care for the self and for one’s own experience are primary. Religion is a means either for giving and nurturing a good self-concept, as in Goldenberg, or for connecting the self with the immanent but unrealized power within the self or within the community in harmony with nature. But the Christian feminist, though sympathetic to the rejection of an oppressive ideal for self-giving that had worked against women’s self-actualization, rejects this equally distorted notion of the human. Morally, as Ruether has noted, the individual is ambivalent, fundamentally good but capable of great evil; consequently, a feminist critique must keep hold of a judging as well as an affirming dimension if it is truly to respond to the human condition. Human beings find themselves in self-transcendence as well as in self-realization in the human community, and in friendship with the divine within, who is also the awesome and incomprehensible One. To establish the self as the center of a religion is to ignore our global interdependence and truncate our notion of self.

Taking the New Religion Seriously

Though rejecting some of the fundamental assumptions of the new feminist religions, the reformist Christian takes these religions seriously. After all, their members are sisters and brothers, and without doubt, the forms and language of the new religions depend very heavily in either negative or positive ways on the historic Judaism and Christianity which they repudiate. Never must one of these new religions be laughed at or dismissed easily; rather it must be understood on its own terms and as a serious response to some fundamental issues raised by the women’s movement. One would be foolish to overlook the appeal it has for women and men offended by the real sexism in the churches’ theories and practice.

Christian feminists must continue their contact and dialogue with practitioners of the new feminist religions because they are asking crucial questions about the meaning of religion. As a friend observed, perhaps the greatest importance of the feminist movement to the church is that it makes the church ask itself questions it ought to have been asking all along. That may be why, by and large, neither theologians nor ecclesiastical hierarchs have taken seriously the challenge of reformist feminism within the church or radical feminist religion without. Feminist Christian thought acknowledges that it shares many of the questions which revolutionary feminism raises. The Christian asserts that responses to these serious inquiries are more adequately constructed within the Christian tradition than outside it.

Feminists within the church, listening to the radical feminists who have formed new religious structures, are challenging the church to reform itself. For instance, feminism has again posed some of the perennial questions about the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of Christ. How much of Christ’s redemptive activity is tied to maleness, to Jewishness, to a particular time and place? How can one conceive of the relationship between Christ and the church and the world without using sexist images of dominance? How in this context does one rethink and reformulate some of the understandings of God as the "Father of Jesus Christ" as feminist theology reinterprets the relationship of the divine and the human in and through Christ? If a new Christology is articulated, how will the Christian life as imitatio Christi be rethought?

Meeting the Challenge

Unquestionably the issues raised are of far more fundamental theological and religious importance than cleaning up sexist language and electing women bishops, important as those achievements are. Basic changes in Christianity’s self-understanding and its very being are required because of its encounter with the feminist movement. From the point of view of the Christian tradition itself, such a renovation is not merely a capitulation to one more cultural expression, ‘but a new stage in the ongoing shaping of the gospel in different times and contexts. Repentance, renewal and transformation have always been at the core of the Christian faith. Radical or countercultural feminist religion offers a rejection of biblical faith and the creation of a new faith to respond to a vision of the equality of men and women; Christianity could offer an even more comprehensive and profound vision. Will Christianity have the strength and courage for such a challenge?


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