Changing the Paradigms

by Elisabeth S. Fiorenza

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is Stendahl Professor of Dividity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century magazine September 5-12, 1990, pp. 796-800, one in a series on "How My Mind Has Changed.&quot. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


How is it possible to alter the discourse centering on male theological authorities in such a fashion that women’s intellectual participation in it can matter? Although patriarchy as a complete sociopolitical system has been modified in the course of history, the classical politics of patriarchal domination has decisively shaped — and still does so today — modern Euro-American forms of democracy.

The invitation to write about "how my mind has changed" is at once challenging and troubling. It challenges one to construct a narrative that can capture change that has not only private but also public significance. Yet a woman writer lacks narrative models for recording the public significance of her thought and work. This lack is doubly troubling for the woman writer who is a feminist, because feminism as a movement for transforming patriarchal structures and relations of domination understands change in a quite different way from that of the individualistic biographic tradition presupposed by the question of how one's "mind has changed."

The feminist theologian approaching this question faces an additional dilemma insofar as the religious narrative of the Western introspective confessional tradition grounds identity in culturally "feminine" terms. Women's spiritual autobiography, as Carolyn Heilbrun has observed, does not admit claims to achievement, independence and autonomy or allow for the recognition of one's accomplishments as due to something other than luck or grace. Biographies of outstanding women conforming to the traditional narrative of womanliness or to the spiritual narrative of service cannot tell the stories of women's achievements as paradigmatic but only as exceptions to the rule, made possible by mere chance, inscrutable destiny or divine grace. Therefore, as Heilbrun argues in Writing a Woman's Life, we must reclaim for women an "impulse to power as opposed to the erotic impulse which alone is supposed to impel women. We know, we are without a text and must discover one." She insists, "women need to learn how publicly to declare their right to public power.... Power is the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter."

If a woman who is a feminist theologian is to enter into the public introspective discourse shaping the story of important men in such a way that her insights matter, this discourse must change. This is especially true for public theological discourse, from which Christian women were excluded by law and custom for centuries. How is it possible to alter the discourse centering on male theological authorities in such a fashion that women's intellectual participation in it can matter? The search and struggle for recovering the theological voice of women by changing the discursive frameworks of theology in general and biblical studies in particular has absorbed my own thought and work in the past decade. Yet, as Nancy Miller has observed in a different context, women's quest for our own voices, stories and intellectual powers, for the ability to construct the world and the self in a different way, is fraught with danger. It is vulnerable because it lacks "plausibility" in a culture that defines women's identity and story in terms of love and attraction rather than power, thought and accomplishment.

I wanted to become many things when I was young: a hairdresser like my friend Rita, a poet like Goethe, an architect, a missionary and even a pope. Yet just as in the 1950s I could not imagine typing this article on a word processor, so could I not conceive of a woman as a theological scholar and authority in her own right. Although I fought for and achieved admission as the first woman to take the full program of theological studies that was reserved for priesthood candidates, I could not imagine as my male colleagues did that I could become a theologian like Karl Rahner, Rudolf Bultmann or Rudolf Schnackenburg -- decisively determining theological questions and exegetical discussions. Every time a student comes up to me and asks with whom I studied feminist theology or a younger colleague says she was inspired to become a theologian or biblical scholar after hearing me lecture years ago, I realize how much the situation has changed.

If I were to divide my theological career into periods in terms of "how my mind has changed," these periods would roughly correspond to the past three decades. Although at the time I neither could conceive of myself as a theologian nor was I aware of the intellectual history of women's emancipation, the roots of my feminist theological work nevertheless go back to the 1960s. Recently a request for biographical information led me to look again at my first book on the practice and theology of women's ministries in the church, Der vergessene Partner (The Forgotten Partner), published in 1964. I recalled that the last time I looked at the book, more than ten years ago, I felt embarrassed by the naïveté and piety of the young writer who sought to authorize her insights and proposals by quoting numerous theological, psychological and sociological authorities. This time around I had a different reaction. I marveled at the chutzpah of the young theological student who set out to write a thesis showing that the progressive theology articulated by such giants as Rahner or Yves Congar was inadequate, for it did not do justice to the pastoral praxis of women in the German Roman Catholic Church and in other Christian churches.

According to the publisher, some bishops considered the book too radical because it suggested that women should be involved in the spiritual formation of future priests. Moreover, I argued on theological grounds that women should demand ordination as bishops rather than just as deacons and priests. After this book was published I wrote an exegetical dissertation on priesthood in the New Testament which challenged me to rethink this proposal theologically. I argued (in a paper prepared in the late '60s for a conference held by St. Joan's Alliance) that women's incorporation into hierarchical-patriarchal structures can only lead to further clericalizing of the church -- not to changing it. Since the sponsoring group advocated the ordination of women even to the lowest ranks of the patriarchal hierarchy, it refused to publish the paper.

Although my first book did not question hierarchical structures and theoretical frameworks, it had important methodological implications that I could not have articulated at the time. Anticipating feminist and liberation theologies, it assumed that the experience of women and the praxis of church and ministry should be primary for articulating ecclesiology and spirituality. Most important, though lacking theoretical self-consciousness, I nevertheless acted as a theological subject attempting to rethink theological constructions from the marginal location of a "lay" woman engaged in the study of theology. I became painfully aware of this marginalization when I applied for one of the two doctoral scholarships available for New Testament students. Although I had completed two advanced theological degrees summa cum laude and published a book, my Doktor-vater refused to obtain a scholarship for me, explaining that he did not want to waste the opportunity on a student who as a woman had no future in the academy.

The decade of the '70s was marked by my move to the U.S., the establishment of my teaching career, my experience of ecumenical collaboration and especially my encounter with the women's liberation movement in society, academy and church. Moving to the U.S., I abandoned my goal to integrate my training in New Testament exegesis with my interest in practical theology in a professional teaching career because the religious situation and ecclesial contexts in the U.S. are quite different from those in Germany. Instead I focused on New Testament scholarship, specializing in the interpretation of the Apocalypse. This was a fortuitous change of mind because practical or applied theology is still deemed less scholarly and the field of religious education still regarded as a woman’s domain.

I was fortunate to begin my teaching career with a full-time graduate level position after completing my dissertation in Germany. Writing my first book and absorbing the emerging feminist literature to prepare for its translation into English had sensitized me to academic discrimination, especially against married women. Many institutions still had a written or unwritten nepotism rule that prevented the employment of couples. They also maintained policies that restricted married women to part-time positions. Therefore, I insisted that I would come to the U.S. only if I could obtain a full-time graduate level appointment. When I attended my first meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in 1971, I saw how unusual such an appointment was. This meeting brought together women members of academic societies in religion to initiate the Women's Caucus: Religious Studies. At this meeting I realized that most of the other married women present did not have full-time positions, even though in the '60s many departments were searching for qualified faculty.

It was most fortunate that I came to this country at a point when the women's movement in religion and the first attempts at articulating feminist theology began to emerge. Together with Carol Christ I became the first co-chair of the Women's Caucus: Religious Studies, which allowed me to get in touch with the ecumenical and intellectual development of this movement. Only later did I become involved with Roman Catholic groups such as the Women's Ordination Conference or the National Assembly of Religious Women, which contacted me because of my position at Notre Dame. Especially important was a sabbatical year at Union Theological Seminary (1974-75) when I participated regularly in the discussions of the New York Feminist Scholars in Religion launched by Carol Christ.

Together with my immersion in an interdenominational and interreligious academic dialogue, this ecumenical feminist discourse was extremely significant for the articulation of my own feminist theological perspective. It allowed me to move away from a certain theological parochialism characteristic of German theology departments and American Catholic universities. To elaborate a feminist theological analysis with women who brought to this discourse quite different religious experiences and institutional analyses proved crucial for articulating the theological paradigm shift in which we were engaged. The roots of the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion which Judith Plaskow and I cofounded ten years later go back to this time.

Yet because of my previous research focus on women in the church and my acquaintance with political theology and critical theory (Francis Schüssler Fiorenza was a student of J. B. Metz and edited an issue of Continuum on Jürgen Habermas during the late '60s), I felt uneasy about two trends within the emerging feminist theological discourse. The first, an anti-intellectual posture, tended to foster gender-typing and assertions of feminine essentialism and did not allow for critical discussion and intellectual differences. Scholarship, research, academic theology, differentiated language, intellectual leadership and disciplined study were termed "male" and therefore rejected. Even today, feminist students will occasionally accuse me of "male scholarship" because my book In Memory of Her is full of footnotes and written in a "logical-linear" style. Although I can understand such a sentiment, given the bad experiences women have had in academic institutions, I could never share this view. It tends to replicate the cultural stereotype that restricts logical thinking and disciplined intellectual work to men and thereby prohibits women from producing knowledge and from defining the world.

A second worrying trend was that feminist theory, though it criticized binary oppositions and asymmetric dualisms, nevertheless tended to sustain such dualisms by conceptualizing patriarchy in terms of gender antagonism and male-female oppression rather than in terms of the complex interstructuring of sexism, racism, class-exploitation and colonialism in women's lives. Since many feminists accepted the premise that biblical religion forms the bedrock of Western patriarchy, feminist studies in religion developed a dualistic strategy with respect to organized religion. Feminist theology was typed as either reformist or revolutionary. This "either-or" option was often expressed theologically with the biblical symbol of "Exodus." Plaskow reflected on this split at the first national Jewish Women's Conference in 1973, delivering a paper titled "The Jewish Feminist: Conflict in Identities." In it she "explored both the sexism of the Jewish tradition" and the contradictions she felt at the time "between Judaism and feminism as alternative communities."

Although I fully shared the trenchant feminist critique of the Christian tradition, I never felt such an irreconcilable contradiction between my Christian and my feminist identity. In my experience some Christian teachings had offered a religious resource for resisting the demands of cultural feminine roles. Moreover, I grew up with the notion that all the baptized are the church and are responsible for its praxis. This ecclesial self-understanding had been theoretically validated during my doctoral studies. At the end of my sabbatical at Union I wrote two articles. One attempted to articulate my own feminist theological perspective as a "critical theology of liberation." The other used insights from the emerging scholarship on the social world of early Christianity to delineate the role of women in the early Christian movement. Both articles contained in embryonic form the major epistemological and theological issues that occupied my thinking in the 1980s. Together with my response at the first Women's Ordination Conference in 1975 they also caused professional-political difficulties after my return as a tenured professor from my sabbatical at Union.

In the past decade, most decisive for me has been not so much a change of mind as a change of academic-geographical location. When I accepted the invitation to join the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge I had two compelling reasons: Aware of the Vatican's repression and removal of creative theologians in West German universities, I anticipated a similar development in the U.S. I made therefore a conscious decision not to remain in an academic situation where I would have to spend the rest of my career fighting ecclesiastical backlash. More important, EDS would allow me not only to develop my feminist theological interests in the context of the Boston Theological Institute and its rich theological and feminist resources, but also to focus on the theological education of women, since it provided the opportunity of developing a D.Min. program in feminist liberation theology and ministry. My move to Harvard Divinity School enhanced these opportunities. My theoretical explorations must be seen, however, not only in this context of theological education, but also in the context of my increasing involvement in feminist theological dialogue on a national and international level through lectures and workshops.

In the face of a growing religious right-wing backlash against civil rights movements, reactionary Christians and radical feminists alike have advocated a choice: either accept Christian teaching or become liberated and leave the bondage of patriarchal religion behind. This either-or position had political implications insofar as it neglected organized religion as a site for liberation struggles. It raised for me pressing theological questions: How could women reclaim the authority and resources of religion in the struggle to end patriarchal relations of subordination and exploitation? How could we cease to collaborate with our own religious oppression and at the same time claim our Christian birthright? How could we become religious agents and theological subjects in a patriarchal institution built on the silence and denial of women? How could we claim our theological voice and ritual power without being co-opted into becoming honorary churchmen? How could we articulate a different theology and praxis without becoming sectarian?

In order to address these questions I advocated the theological notion of "partial identification" and "spiritual resistance" at the Second Roman Catholic Women's Ordination Conference in 1978. At the same time I was searching for a positive alternative to the Exodus image that could articulate a Christian feminist identity. The biblical symbol of Exodus with its historical roots in American feminism has great currency among feminists in biblical religions. It was dramatized by Mary Daly, theologized by Rosemary Radford Ruether and advocated by liberation theology. Nonetheless, this image tends to engender the illusion that women can move out of the bondage of patriarchy into a "promised land" or feminist "other world." Yet no space exists -- not even in our own minds -- that is a "liberated zone" to which we could move. Whereas some privileged women could move out of patriarchal institutions, most of us could not.

Rather than engage in the illusion of Exodus, feminist theology had to find a symbol that encouraged women in biblical religions to choose how and where to attack the many-headed dragon of patriarchy. Those of us who are privileged in terms of race, class and education, I argued, have to do so in solidarity with those women who must struggle daily against multiple forms of patriarchal oppression and dehumanization in order to survive. Not Exodus but struggle is the common ground for women.

To choose organized religion as a site of struggle for liberation presupposes a sense of ecclesial ownership as well as repentance of complicity with patriarchal religion. Such a feminist strategy needs to abandon both the dualistic conceptualization of women as mere victims of patriarchal religion and the submissive collaboration of women in patriarchal religion and church. Only when women understand ourselves as church and not just as passive bystanders in the church can we reclaim the church as the ekklesia of women.

Ekklesia, the Greek word for church, describes the democratic assembly of full citizens responsible for the welfare of the city-state. To link ekklesia or church with women makes explicit that women are church and always have been church. It asserts that women have shaped biblical religion and have the authority to do so. It insists on the understanding and vision of church as the discipleship of equals. Thus women-church is not to be understood in exclusive, sectarian terms. Rather, it is a hermeneutical feminist perspective and linguistic consciousness-raising tool that seeks to define theologically what church is all about. As a movement it claims the center of biblical religion and refuses to relinquish its inheritance. Such an attempt to displace the feminist theological Exodus alternative requires a concept of patriarchy that can take into account women's different social locations.

Women of color have always insisted that white feminist theory must relinquish its dualistic conceptualization of patriarchy as the supremacy of all men and the equal victimization of all women and develop a feminist analysis that could uncover the interstructuring of sexism, racism, colonialism and class-exploitation in women's lives. They pointed to the invisibility of doubly oppressed women in the dualistic framework of feminist Euro-American theology. The appearance of Susan Moller Okin's study of Western political philosophy, Women in Political Thought, helped me to address theoretically this challenge of "Third World" women by developing a feminist systemic analysis that can distinguish between androcentric dualism and patriarchy. Patriarchy as a sociopolitical graduated male pyramid of systemic dominations and subordinations found its classical articulation in Aristotelian philosophy, which restricts full citizenship to Greek propertied, freeborn, male heads of households. The order of the patriarchal household becomes the model for the order of the state. It excludes freeborn women, slaves and barbarians -- women and men -- from citizenship and public leadership because their "natures" do not make them fit to "rule."

Patriarchy, which in its various mutations has persisted in antiquity and throughout recorded history, I argue, did not originate with Christianity but has been mediated by it. Although patriarchy as a complete sociopolitical system has been modified in the course of history, the classical politics of patriarchal domination has decisively shaped -- and still does so today -- modern Euro-American forms of democracy. At the heart of Western society resides the contradiction between patriarchal structures and democratic aspirations. This contradiction has produced ideological justifications for the political and intellectual exclusion of all but elite propertied men.

Modern civil rights and liberation movements thus can be understood as struggles against patriarchal deformations of democracy. The feminist movement in society and biblical religion prevails at the center of these struggles. Such a political reconceptualization of patriarchy allows one to distinguish between patriarchy and gender dualism, patriarchy and sexism. It helps one to conceptualize women's struggles for "civil rights" in the church and for our theological authority to shape Christian faith and community as an important part of women's liberation struggles around the globe.

This political reconceptualization of patriarchy and women's struggle had three important implications for my work as a biblical scholar. It allowed me to reconceptualize the study of "women in the Bible," by moving from what men have said about women to a feminist historical reconstruction of early Christian origins as well as by articulating a feminist critical process for reading and evaluating androcentric biblical texts. Such a critical feminist reconceptualization challenges the androcentric frameworks of the discipline as a whole.

First: The historical-political analysis of patriarchy and the struggles for democracy provided a reconstructive model that could make the agency and struggles of women historically visible. In Memory of Her does not seek to recover a feminist "golden age" in the beginnings of Christianity. Rather, it attempts to trace and make historically visible the visions and struggles of early Christian women and men in a patriarchal world. It seeks to reconstruct the points of tension between Christian vision and community and the patriarchal Greco-Roman society. It seeks to unmask historically and theologically how and why both the discipleship of equals and the patriarchal male pyramid of subordination have become constitutive of Christian identity throughout the centuries. Such a feminist reconstruction of Christian origins requires a disciplined historical imagination that can make women visible not only as victims but also as agents.

Second: Insofar as the Bible encodes both the "democratic" vision of equality in the Spirit as well as the injunctions to patriarchal submission as the "Word of God," its interpretation must begin with a hermeneutics of suspicion that can unravel the patriarchal politics inscribed in the biblical text. Since the Bible is written in androcentric, grammatically masculine language that can function as generic inclusive or as patriarchal exclusive language, feminist interpretation must develop a hermeneutics of critical evaluation for proclamation that is able to assess theologically whether scriptural texts function to inculcate patriarchal values, or whether they must be read against their linguistic "androcentric grain" in order to set free their liberating vision for today and for the future. Such a feminist hermeneutics of liberation reconceptualizes the understanding of Scripture as nourishing bread rather than as unchanging sacred word engraved in stone.

Third: The development of a feminist reconstructive-historical model as well as of a critical hermeneutics for liberation would not have been possible without the theoretical contributions of feminist historians, literary critics and political philosophers. Yet feminist scholarship, despite the increase of feminist theory in all academic disciplines in the past decade, continues to be marginalized under the heading "woman" as peripheral to biblical and theological discourse. Therefore those of us who sought to initiate a feminist theological paradigm shift in the early 1970s must now concentrate on changing the disciplinary discourses of academic religious scholarship and of Christian theologies. In my SBL presidential address and in my convocation address when beginning my tenure at Harvard Divinity School, I argued that theological disciplines and institutions must explicitly reflect on their rhetorical, public, sociopolitical functions. Only when religious and biblical studies decenter their stance of objectivist positivism and scientific value-detachment and become "engaged" scholarship can feminist and other liberation theologies participate in defining the center of the discipline. Not the posture of value-detachment and apolitical objectivism but the articulation of one's social location, interpretive strategies and theoretical frameworks are appropriate in such a rhetorical paradigm of theological studies. In the course of graduate theological education students need to acquire not only methodological but also hermeneutical sophistication fitting to such a rhetorical paradigm.

Whereas in the '70s my "public image" was marked by scholarly bifurcation -- among scholars I was known as an "expert" on the Apocalypse and among women as an emerging feminist theologian -- this perception has changed dramatically in the '80s. While some regret the "ideological deviation" tarnishing my scholarly reputation, many take pride in and draw courage from my theological work. As Dorothy L. Sayers puts it: "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force." It is gratifying not to have been tamed.