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Authority or Idolatry? Feminine Theology and the Church

by Penelope Washbourn

Dr. Washbourn is assistant professor of religion at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 29, 1975 pp. 961-964. 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.


Just as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, challenged the structures of 18th century society, so does contemporary feminist theology call into question the structures of traditional Christian thought and practice. Wollstonecraft’s conviction that the position of women in society should be improved led her finally to a radical critique of the nature of Christian theology. Wollstonecraft’s thesis was influenced significantly by the ideals and aims of the French Revolution. The nature of power and authority became her overriding concern, and her discussion focused on the destructive aspects of power, both for those who are subject to it and for those who exercise it.

Questions about the role of women in the Christian church have raised similar issues for me. What is the nature of theological authority as it is bodied forth in tradition, church, persons and theological method? I find myself agreeing with Mary Wollstonecraft’s analysis of the structures of social power: any personal or corporate relationship that places some in the role of dependents on a supreme authority fundamentally dehumanizes the individuals involved -- whether husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, officer and soldier, king and subject, or imperial power and developing country.

Wollstonecraft’s analysis is also applicable to the Christian church today since most churches are still based, if not in governance at least in theology, on authoritarian relationships: God/people, pope/ church, bishop/priest, priest/laity, biblical revelation /natural theology, Christianity/other religions, tradition/modernity, theologians of the past/theologians of the present, etc. It is a system based on the presumed authority and power of the one and the dependent status of the other. Respect, obedience and love are the proper attributes of those in the dependent role. We are children of God; we are members of the flock. We must follow the example of Jesus; we must listen to the generations of Christian tradition.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s book was too radical to be accepted by the England of the 18th century. Feminist theology is likewise radical; it calls for an end not only to traditional theological language and imagery, but to a whole manner of reflecting theologically, an entire method and framework for perceiving the theological task and for understanding the nature of divine authority. It is the end, and those who feel threatened by the emergence of women in the church and in theology are in fact responding appropriately to the situation. The ecclesiastical trial of Father William Wendt in Washington, D.C., over the issue of women’s orders symbolized that once the nature of authority is challenged, even in church governance, the very basis of traditional Christian thought and practice crumbles.

The Language of Experience

Feminine theology is even more radical in its implications than those who articulate it have been able to see. Feminine theology, like other theological movements of the 20th century, raises questions concerning the use of language and symbols in a religious context and the worship of that which we call divine. Our imagery of God, whether derived from the ancient Hebrews or from Jesus, has been radically called into question as appropriate speech to express our relationship to the Holy. In that sense feminine theology shares Paul Tillich’s concern that theology must be a theology of correlation: the form in which questions of ultimate meaning are raised must be the form in which answers are articulated.

Feminine theology recognizes the symbolic import of language in religion. Since we have only one native tongue and thus only one structural framework within which we perceive reality, the "Good News" must be written in our language, if it is to address itself to our categories of understanding. The years spent in translating the Bible were an expression of this concern: each language reflects a perception of the order of reality, a form of personal and social self-understanding that is unique. However, a translation will always be inadequate since it represents an attempt to transform one framework into another.

Feminine theology claims that there is not only a language of nationality or tribe but a language of sex. There is a language of childhood and of adulthood and perhaps also a language that emerges from body structure. Feminine theologians suggest that women and men have different language based on distinctive physical, social and historical experience. The things that are holy to women must reflect their language, imagery and experience, and must be filled with their symbols.

It may appear a retrogressive step to admit distinctions in this age of finding unity between sexes and among races. Theologians often attempt to resolve the dilemma of divisions by speaking of the equality of all "persons" in the sight of God and by eschewing masculine or feminine imagery. Mary Daly represents such an attempt to get beyond patriarchal God-language by taking refuge in God-language about "Being." There are problems with making differentiations: if I say male, I must also say female; if I say black, then I must say white, red, brown, yellow. Nonsexist and nonracist language apparently solves this dilemma of divisions.

However, the fundamental error in using "person" language in religion, as in any institutional structure, is that it is unreal. I cannot become a "person." I am born a particular sex at a particular time in a particular place. My sexual, national and personal history radically affects my language, my accent and my perception of reality. My gender conditions my experience of myself and the world. I have common experiences with men, but there are certain words that reflect elements of my experience that a man can never express except "in translation." Some of those words are descriptions or names for exclusively female experiences: menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth. Other words, such as abortion and rape, mean something so different to women and to men that they may as well be using different words. The inability to achieve consensus on a legal level reflects the distinctive symbolic power that these words have for women and for men. My gender does alter my perception of reality and my language.

In attempting to communicate with persons from another culture, we strive to enter into their framework, learn their language, their slang, their symbolically powerful words. In this attempt to communicate, we delight in and respect the linguistic and, cultural framework of the other. Perhaps our problems between sexes and cultures arise when we presume to know what people mean.

The fallacy of "person-talk": Who is to say what a "person" or a "human" is? We are all limited in our perceptions of the "essentially" human and are unable to achieve a "transpersonal" perspective. We must relate to each other from within the context of our cultural, social and sexual predispositions and in so doing accept our limited perspective rather than believe that we have the universal blueprint for what it means to be human.

Feminine theology calls us to recognize our limited nature as human beings and as speakers of religious words. It suggests that we use the poor stuff of that which is closest to us -- our personal and social experience -- in order to express the meaning of our encounter with that which is holy. It calls us to recognize the limited nature of all Christian theology, all church structures, all theological imagery, all doctrinal statements.

The Judgment of Relativism

The Hebrew religious tradition, the imagery used by Jesus, Pauline theology, Aquinas, Luther, Barth, Tillich, contemporary women theologians, I myself stand under judgment -- the judgment of relativism. There is no absolute authority, no inspired word safe from the limitations of being conditioned by a human perspective. Each theologian, including Jesus, reflects the thought patterns of a time and expresses the meaning of the divine within the conceptual, spatial and temporal framework available to him or her. Feminine theology need not ask Christian theologians of the past to justify today’s changes in theology or church structure and practice. It does not matter whether Paul was a chauvinist or a liberationist. It is not our business to ask the past to see what we see now, to understand what we understand now. The revelation of truth is not limited to a particular time in history or to particular individuals.

We may accept the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Barth -- and indeed, the Bible itself -- as the expressions of limited human beings attempting to articulate for their own time and in their own terms their experience of ultimate truth. Their genius and their "inspiration" lie in the very fact of their relativity. To be limited is to be concrete, to see some things clearly and to be blind to others. That we are selective in our vision, our words and our perception is both the promise of truth and the assurance of failure.

The danger of every word, but particularly theological statement or church law, is that it claims too much. Because we are attempting to speak of that which is ultimate, we think that our theology, our symbols and our institutions are themselves ultimate. We try as theologians, as ministers and priests, as popes and philosophers, to speak the truth for all time. We attempt to speak for all mankind or all women, or for all Lutherans, all believers, all Christians, or even for reason itself.

This is for me the meaning of "original sin": the making of limited things into that which is universal. We take leaders, images, books, customs, words, theologians, teachers, structures of governance, institutions and laws and turn them into that which is. We accuse people of being heretics, of having broken laws of God and of church. We declare that you may not ordain women, or that now you may ordain women according to law. We define actions as sinful or just, we excommunicate people, proclaim them to be chauvinists or liberationists. When we treat that which is human and limited as that which is ultimate, we create hatred and discrimination.

The church has for 20 centuries been full of division precisely for this reason. In speaking of the divine, we assume divine authority for our words and our practices. We appeal to a divine authority in the form of someone or something we respect, to justify our actions and statements.

To write theologically is, in academic circles, a matter of appealing to the right authority -- "right," that is, for the audience one has in mind. For some that authority is a biblical text: I can buttress my argument by an appeal to the words of a man called Jesus that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." If I cite it in Greek, some may be more impressed by my point. If I say that I am speaking of something that Paul Tillich named as "idolatry" or that Reinhold Niebuhr called "acculturated religion," will my point be accepted more readily? I would not have people believe what I am saying because I cite some "authority" but because they see that what I am saying makes sense. I speak on my own authority, and that is limited. Writing and speaking theologically and naming the divine seem to me a most dangerous activity, for though we are quick to see the limitations of other religious groups or theologians, we fail to recognize our own limitations. Can we ever escape the fundamental tendency of all theology and church structure to claim ultimacy for itself or to be regarded by later generations as absolute authority or law?

The Idolatrous Word ‘God’

The problem of theology begins with the word "God." To use the word "God" is to imply that we have a referent in mind -- an Object, a Being, a Person and most probably, on the subconscious level, an image of a divine Father in the sky who guides, protects and punishes us. All Christian language in a biblical and in a theological context suggests such a referent. The word God "objectifies" the experience of holiness or transcendent power, and to that extent the word itself becomes idolatrous. We now worship the image and the concept implied by the word. We call upon God’s name or curse God. We speak of God’s "doing" this or that and in so speaking we have already limited ultimacy to a particular series of characteristics and conceptual categories. It is the danger of "objectification" that we make our religious images, even the word "God," into a fixed reality, an exclusive concept. God is good and not evil; God is rather than is not.

This tendency to look for fixed meanings, authoritative images, sacred words, divine revelation, ultimate moral norms, the truth, is finally the expression of our own insecurity with human relativity and a symbol of our desperate need for security. We need to know who God is, that God is and that there is a divine revelation in Jesus. We need to know that our beliefs are true, that our actions can be justified by an appeal to the Bible or church tradition or to inspiration or to the proper, theological authority.

Reverence for tradition, respect for the biblical word, and reliance on the authority of the church embodied in its priests and scholars are finally idolatrous because we look to a human word or institution to express ultimate meaning for all time. To call Jesus the "Christ" was to do him great disservice. We objectified him and his words, we worshiped him and the book that emerged from his followers, we held as holy the people who preached his word, we treated as sacred the laws and buildings and ecclesiastical customs -- and it was all idolatry.

It is of no value to say that "God" was in the man Jesus if we do not perceive in our own lives, in our own experience of personal and social relationships the dimension of existence for which the word "sacred" or "holy" or the term "God" might be appropriate. I feel that the term God itself is no longer useful; it has lost its power for contemporary people, or perhaps just for me, to express that element of ultimate meaning in existence. The word God in its supernatural context has become a block to the very reality it expresses since we believe "in" God rather than discover within our own historical context the experience of transcendence.

Experience as the Context of Faith

What, then, is left for us if the implication of feminine theology, among other movements in contemporary theology, is that our theological language, our churches and our conceptual imagery are always limited and unable to claim absolute authority? What is left is an acceptance of our own relativity and that of others and an attempt to discover within the context of our limited existence, bound by sex and culture and time, the reality to which people give the term trust or faith. There must be a time of silence in which to listen to ourselves. Perhaps it will be a time of tentative words or descriptions of experience.

Faith may be recognized as something having little to do with traditional Christian conceptuality or with the church. Faith may be experienced as a perspective on the meaning of the whole of existence. Faith may be experienced as an ability to trust life in the face of death, to see pain and evil and yet to affirm life and wonder. Faith may be having a trust in oneself and an acceptance of oneself despite all the limitations, and an affirmation of the meaningfulness of life and its goodness, though we die. Faith may be the ability to live without gods, without absolute truth and fixed authorities. Faith may mean having a loving attitude toward oneself and others, not being confused by an image of oneself as absolutely good or as ultimately sinful, but knowing one’s own tendency toward blindness and that of others as part of reality.

The "good news" in this context might be a realization that life itself seems to have a "healing" dimension, a wonder that seems to create unity and renewal between peoples where logically there should be none. Maybe this faith will be discovered in an ability to trust that the meaning of life is not identical with my success, my health, my survival or the "rightness" of my ideas. There is but a short time between birth and death, and from the very limited nature of my particular historical and social context I can discover, like every human being, a sense of the ultimate worth of it all. The things that define my life, my body, my relationships, the historical events and changes will be the opportunities I have for being reminded at some unique and particular times of an aspect of existence that I may call "sacred."

An End to Authoritarian Models

Feminine theology for me is therefore a threat to all traditional Christian theology and church structures. It is not an attempt to "justify" the position of woman in the church and add her to the traditional Christian framework. Feminine theology is more radical than that. It calls for an end to all authoritarian models of truth, including, in my mind, the model of the ordained minister or priest, who inevitably stands in the same relationship to the laity as does the divine image of God in Jesus to the followers of God. "Ordination" means accepting the authority of the traditional Christian framework and being licensed to carry on that tradition. I suppose that is why the ordination of women is finally, for me, an, inadequate expression of the essence of feminine theology, just as obtaining the vote in patriarchal societies proved illusory in terms of granting women civil liberties at the beginning of the century.

In the late 8th century Mary Wollstonecraft perceived that raising questions about the role of women in society raised the issue of the nature of structural relationships as a whole and the destructiveness of authoritarian models of social order. In the same manner feminine theology raises for me questions concerning the structural model of all Christian thought and patterns of institutional order. For me, feminine theology calls an end to the traditional Christian framework and asks us to return to the basis for all theologizing: the experience of the demonic and the holy within the context of our particular, limited existence. This is the ground from which all religious language, all symbols and all theology eventually arise. We can now only stutter and struggle to express to one another in incomplete words how we experience a dimension of life that we call graceful or loving, demonic or tragic, what we mean when we speak of the healing quality of life or our fears and hopes, what we mean when we describe how we can trust in life and trust in the death that awaits us.

Beginning Where We Find Ourselves

Perhaps one day we can read the writings of the religious thinkers of all times and in all cultures and appreciate how they too struggled to express within their language and personal and historical circumstances the life-and-death questions and the meaning of that which they called holy. We will not look to them for authority or for divine truth nor become angry over their limitations. We will read them and appreciate them as we do one another, as women and men deriving meaning from short lives and sharing with one another our visions of the value of life. Maybe the religious thinkers we will like best are those who speak clearly out of the concreteness of their own experience and who at the same time accept the limitation of their own framework. These people will be easy to engage in dialogue, since they will not claim ultimate authority for themselves nor fear to admit their own limitations.

Feminine theology then has marked the end of a traditional approach to theology and has offered the suggestion that we should begin where we find ourselves. In my case as a woman, it means taking seriously the experience and language that emerge from my female humanness as a necessary element in my attempt to articulate my experience of the sacred element of life. In any event, each of us must speak of faith out of the racial, sexual, personal and historical context in which we experience the ongoing process of life.


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