Cross Talk: A Feminist Appreciation of Luther’s Theology

The following article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Volume 34, Number 1, June 2002, page, 41-58. Bangalore Theological Forum is published by The United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Used by permission. This lecture was delivered at the United Theological College, Bangalore, on July 3rd, 2001. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In our contemporary context, church reform as understood in historic Lutheranism is less urgent than the reform of political, social, and economic systems of domination, which today is exacerbated greatly by the economic globalization.

Reflections on another view of Luther

Tracing one’s intellectual or theological ancestry is a worthwhile and honorable pastime. But there are hazards. Chief among them is that, as much as we may come to understand the world within which our historical forbears functioned, we must make all our judgments about them and about the past in the present.

All that we are able to learn about the objects of our study, those now defunct great men (or less commonly, great women) of theology, we learn in terms provided by contemporary reality, a reality that would be utterly foreign to the one from whom we want to claim our inheritance. The foundations for our judgments and explanations may be in centuries past, but however timelessly truthful we are convinced they are, we are irremediably inhabitants of a postmodern, 21st-century world.

Now all of this would be too obvious to mention -- even though its particular consequences hardly ever are -- if we bothered to think about it. Even when we are intellectually honest enough to concede that our "situation" might shape our perception, we seldom have the nerve to find out how. We decline to engage in critical dialogue with others who know both theology and life from another angle. We talk instead with others whose differences from us are not the kind that could ever or would ever correct our errors of vision, theological or other.

There are good theological reasons to make an issue of all this. For people whose faith claims rest as resolutely on incarnation as Christian claims do, the impact our own peculiarly incarnated lives have on the way we do theology -- and therefore on the sort of theology we do -- ought to fascinate us. Convicted of the power of the Holy Spirit to work miracles, even through the most mundane things, and of the creating, recreating power of the Word of God in its multiform instances, we ought to be a good deal less worried that we generally are about preserving and protecting the tradition. It is not a penalty, but a gift, that the Spirit speaks both newly and truly.

Luther’s descendants are people of the Book, and of books -- of tradition, doctrine, language, dispute. We Lutherans take the way we do theology seriously, sometimes more seriously than we take the way we live. We are usually terribly serious about getting our theology right, and very hard on those we believe are wrong. Adamant about the centrality of justification by faith through grace, we sometimes verge on a perverse kind of theological works-righteousness. Outside the theological arena, we suddenly become reticent, shy about noticing the practical, political consequences of our theology on the world we live in.

Across the range of Lutheran activities and attitudes, Martin Luther has generally counted as a principal authority. In serious theological disputes among Luther -- is there any other kind? -- Luther is often quoted or cited more frequently and with greater emphasis than St. Paul or even Jesus.

Almost all Lutheran theological writing has been generated in European or North American academies -- in part, the legacy of Luther’s own concern for learning and education -- and it has been done almost exclusively by European or (more recently) North American men among whom differences of race, economic and social class, and level of education are even less remarkable than their theological differences. It is still very unlikely to occur to most Euro-American Lutheran theologians to consult anyone outside this relatively comfortable, homogeneous coterie on matters of theological moment. The Spirit may blow when and where it will, but on the whole -- it seems to them -- it is more likely to blow (probably in German or English) through the studies and seminars of learned men of the North, than to blow elsewhere or otherwise.

Simmering under all of this is, of course, the volatile question of what purpose our theologizing, Lutheran or otherwise serves, anyway. In The Liberation of Theology, Juan Luis Segundo writes, ‘"A human being who is content with the world will not have the least interest in unmasking the mechanisms that conceal the authentic reality.’" A theologian who is content with the world is unlikely to use the tools of the theological trade to analyze, much less try to fix, what is not perceived to be broken. A theologian who perceives the world to be broken may draw no connection -- ideological, political, or spiritual -- between the theological trade and the state of the world; between who the church thinks it is and how it acts, on the one hand, and the lay of the land where the church resides, on the other. A theologian who laments the brokenness of the world may be persuaded that, in the face of human bondage to sin, there is little point in engaging theology in the struggle toward the reign of God. And, if the truth be told, there are some theologians who, in the face of the reality of suffering, would just rather do theology for its own sake.

Martin Luther is not, and ought not to be, very pleasant company for any of these theologians. To the degree that he has become easy academic company, one could concur with Brazilian Lutheran theologian Walter Altmann that "much of Luther’s liberating and revolutionary impact has been lost."2 In Luther and Liberation. A Latin American Perspective, the first book about Martin Luther by a Latin American, Altmann writes that

Luther himself was quite . . . unconcerned with the preservation of traditions, concerned rather to proclaim the gospel without fear, always challenging new situations. For this reason, the study of Luther is especially -- and perhaps only -- relevant to the extent that it asks what help (or impediment) Luther offers for evangelical witness and life in the face of the challenges that Christians must confront in the present.3

Luther lived and worked during a time of historical upheaval; he both fomented and responded to the dramatic events unfolding in Europe in the 16th century. As theologian and as historical figure, this passionate, difficult, brilliant German monk and his highly unsystematic theology had an incalculable impact on his own time. In order to appropriate what Luther said and wrote for our time, it seems to me, we must keep his 16th-century context in mind. We must also be reading the political, economic, and social signs of our own times. Critical, historical self-awareness is not simply a matter of being "politically correct" in a postmodern world. It is an essential part of intellectual honesty, ethical integrity, and theological rigorousness.

In his time, Luther’s articulation of justification by faith took account of widespread longing for authentic personal faith well as for the reform of the church, sometimes coupled with nationalist protests against Rome. In our contemporary context, I would suggest, church reform is less urgent than the reform of political, social, and economic systems of domination, today exacerbated greatly by the phenomenon of economic globalization.

I am convinced that today, as in the 16th century, Luther’s theology can be a resource for genuine liberation. It is because of this conviction that I undertook the project I would like to share with you today, a project that draws together two quite unlikely conversation partners for the sake of a world that needs to be known and responded to.

The question that moves the project

The question that moves the project is this. What sorts and sources of knowing should we consider compelling as we seek to live faithful lives; in other words, Where do we need to look to learn what we need to know so that we may do what we ought to do? The reflections that follow do not answer these questions, but I hope they may provide some guidance.

Traditional theories of knowledge, called "epistemologies," have focused chiefly on whether we can know anything and, if so, on what grounds we can say we do. Little significance has been attached to questions like, "Who qualifies as a ‘knower,’ and who doesn’t, and why?" Or, "What is ‘real’ knowledge, and who decides what belongs in that category and what doesn’t?" Or, "What is knowledge for?" These are questions that point to the ethical dimensions of knowing.

Feminist philosophers who have written about knowing argue that theories about whether, how, and what we can know function in unavoidably ethical ways. These theories act as lenses, drawing us to notice some things and excluding others from view. Knowing and not-knowing have profound consequences for what we do and don’t do, and for how we justify what we do or don’t do.

Now, of the people with whom one might expect feminist thinkers of this sort to be in conversation, Martin Luther might be one of the last. Remarkably, however, Luther’s theology of the cross offers a solid basis for just such a conversation. Luther’s theology of the cross, sketched out in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 -- and it was never really more than sketched anywhere in his work4 -- sets the stage for its contribution to the dialogue in three important ways:

(1) First, it critiques "official" theology -- what Luther calls the "theology of glory" -- and human pretensions to know;

(2) second, it announces God’s solidarity with humankind and the value of embodied experience, especially through the incarnation and suffering and death of Jesus the Christ; and

(3) third, it aims to equip humans to live in the real world not least of all by "calling the thing what it actually is" to use Luther’s words in the Heidelberg Disputation.

The framework for knowing that I will propose -- what I call an "epistemology of the cross" -- emerges from a conversation between secular feminist philosophers of knowing and Luther’s theology of the cross. This framework raises and responds to essential questions of power, experience, objectivity, and accountability; in doing so, it aims to help focus our attention on what should govern our knowing, and where we must look to learn it, as we seek to live faithful, responsive lives.

Beginning with Luther

At the heart of Luther’s theology of the cross is a profoundly epistemological question: the question about knowledge of God. For Luther, knowledge of God comes into being at what is by all human standards the least likely place, namely, the cross of Christ. Equally central to Luther’s approach is his conviction that theological reflection occurs only in the light of what transpires between God and humans, humans and God.

On the other hand, salvation is not a question of knowing; justification, or coming to trust God utterly, does not depend on what a person knows theologically or any other way. Moreover, Luther’s own lived experience made it clear to him over and over again that even good theology is imperfect, a human attempt to describe and interpret what God reveals to and through faith in the daily living of it. What "makes" a theologian is his or her daily, creaturely living, not intense study of the "things of God."5 It may be of interest to note, incidentally, that Luther is far more concerned to describe a theologian, than a theology, of the cross.

Faith, too, is existential; it pervades the dailiness of life, makes the living of life possible. In this sense, the knowledge of God born of and borne by faith is for Luther intimately related to knowledge of the world -- call it "ordinary knowledge." Theology that tries to describe faith’s knowledge of God is also intimately related to all other kinds of knowing -- of things, persons, or what we might call "truths." For Luther these realms of knowing are related in several ways and for several reasons.

(1) In one sense, "knowledge of God" and "ordinary knowledge" (including theological knowledge -- I use these clumsy concepts here mainly to distinguish them and so to argue their relatedness) are related because they set each other off; they help define one another by spelling out what each is not.

(2) They also make each other possible, in the sense that each has its proper bailiwick. In other words, faith’s knowledge of God both "frames" other knowing and "frees" the justified knower to know all kinds of "ordinary" things.

(3) Finally, because faith’s knowing functions in these two ways, it also requires and enables accountability. Human knowers must and can act responsibly in the world, in relation to others.

Once we know, with Luther, what we cannot and do not know -- for example: God directly; or anything that contributes to our own justification or salvation -- then what must we know to live our lives as faithful people? The answer to this question is not defined by its content. Rather, the answer is a series of other questions -- I would call them "epistemological" questions, or questions about knowing -- that have to do with the sources and purposes of our knowing. Here, I believe, what I will call an "epistemology of the cross" can help us.

My motives clarified

Before I spell out the elements of this framework, however, let me clarify my motives.

I believe my task as a theologian is to theologize responsibly, not for the marginalized or the "convertible," but rather for those who, like me, want to know "what time it is" and, in the face of that reality, how we can live most faithfully. I am white, North American, and in socio-economic terms, compared to most of the world’s people, extraordinarily privileged. I take seriously my co-responsibility -- moral, political, and intellectual -- for causing and tolerating the oppressive consequences of systems and ideologies from which I benefit much more, and much more often, than I suffer. Such systems and ideologies thrive on ubiquitous discrimination against persons based on their color, their sex, their sexual orientation -- might I be permitted here to add their caste to the list -- and on the gross maldistribution of economic resources and political power within nations and across international boundaries in all directions. I also take quite to heart the ways in which the religious tradition lam part of has fomented, exacerbated, and then walked past much of the suffering caused by people and institutions that have claimed to be the very messengers of God.

I do not plead innocence.

And yet the cause of human liberation deserves and needs more than a guilty plea by those conscious of their relative privilege. It is better served, it seems to me, by the sort of metanoia, or turning-around, that involves rigorous self-examination leading to course corrections. In turn, this requires me to solicit the collaboration of others like me -- Christians or no -- who are in any case committed to being and bearing "good news" to those who most need it.

Elements of an epistemology of the cross

Just a word about the relation between Luther’s theology of the cross and the contemporary proposal that lam calling an "epistemology of the cross." My chief concern here is not to repristinate Luther’s 16th-century work for the 21st century, but rather to appropriate it -- fairly and responsibly -- in order to respond more faithfully to some of the urgent problems facing our societies and our world. I believe that -- in principle at any rate -- Luther would approve. He certainly did not shrink from responding theologically to the world around him.

I will proceed now to describe what I think are key elements of the proposed framework (Recall that it is designed to help us respond to the question, "What sorts and sources of knowing should we consider compelling as we seek to live faithful lives?") Considerations of power, experience, objectivity, and accountability are central. A description of how an epistemology of the cross responds to each of these considerations suggests the sort of "disposition" one would expect this framework to foster.


To examine what an epistemology of the cross has to say about power is principally to underscore the critical element at its center.

Power in epistemological garb affords itself many of the same luxuries it indulges in elsewhere. Insulated by the wealth of possibilities the privileges of power confer, powerful knowers can ignore limits and resolve ambiguities. When they experience limits and ambiguities -- and which of us as human persons does not, from time to time? -- power-knowers read these as humiliations rather than as features of the daily human landscape that should require only sobriety, not courage, to acknowledge.

An epistemology of power -- Luther might call it an "epistemology of glory" -- has all the answers, or thinks it can get them -- if not now, then eventually. If necessary, it takes the liberty of refraining the most difficult questions themselves into more manageable terms. There is a neat partnership between epistemological hubris and the quasi-religious belief in progress. Both want to banish even the thought of human limits. There is a kind of never-look-back, don’t-look-down single-mindedness at work here: reality is what power-knowers say it is.

An epistemology of the cross, by contrast, refuses to ignore or underestimate the infrastructure of knowers, knowledge-generating projects, and "items" of knowledge required to sustain power-knowers’ conviction that there is really only one true story, whether in science, philosophy, or religion. Rather, an epistemology of the cross engages power-epistemology critically. It harbors an intrinsic suspicion of power imaged and experienced in its most common format: domination, or power-over. Fueled by this suspicion, it questions the legitimacy of the powerful as knowers and their right to decide who is and is not "one of them." It scrutinizes whose interests and what causes are served when knowledge is generated in real life. It suspects that there might be a direct relationship between "accepted definitions of ‘reality’ and socially legitimated power."6

The critique emerges not from a neutral space, but from a perspective learned with and from those relegated to the margins of what might be called the "dominant meaning system."7 It challenges the definition of power as domination and insists on the partialness of what can be known by any of its knowers and/or by all of us together. It refuses to recognize or share the global claims power-knowers make; instead it lives -- often uncomfortably -- with ambiguity and doubt.

Power as it is being discussed here is played out in "politics" -- in personal relationships, in institutions like government, family, schools, and religious communities, in international arenas that are as often economic as political. Politics has a great deal to do with decisions about what constitutes legitimate knowledge, who may claim it, and what it is for. Much is at stake. If an epistemology of the cross were about no other task, its contribution to the critique of power-as-domination would justify its existence.


For an epistemology of the cross, lived experience is the locale and the medium of all knowing. Among the implications this has are the following:

(1) Knowing about people, propositions, even God, occurs in, with, and under the material realities of knowers’ everyday lives. There are certainly other ways of speaking about the daily realities within which knowers come to know; but their concreteness, their "embodied-ness," must never be lost sight of -- something that happens when "experience" sounds more like a concept than an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Korean feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung writes eloquently of a framework for knowing inscribed by Asian women’s experience of suffering:

The power of [the women’s] story telling lies in its embodied truth. [They] talk about their concrete, historical life experience and not about abstract, metaphysical concepts. Women’s truth [is] generated by their epistemology of the broken body. . . Their bodies record what has happened to their lives. Their bodies remember what it is like to be no-body and what it is like to be a some-body.

(2) Such a framework of knowing emphasizes the "given-ness" of the creaturely life that lived experience articulates. To recognize this "given-ness" does not mean to accept the political or economic status quo, as if it reflected presumed orders of nature; it is rather to acknowledge that limits in knowing, as elsewhere, accompany our (common) existence as human beings.

(3) Partly in view of its critique of power-or privilege-based knowing, and partly because of its acknowledgment of creaturely limits, this cross-based framework recognizes that experience is always interpreted and that any interpretation is likely to be both partial and contested. For example, knowing based simply on "having had X experience" can be problematic.8 There are no guarantees that unreflected experiences, whether from the center or from the margins, will yield up liberatory insights. The experience of marginalization does not guarantee by itself the overcoming of prejudices that some may associate more commonly with the privileged. The authority of lived experience must be subscribed to carefully as well as constantly.

(4) Finally, experiences are lived by particular knowers and, in that sense, have a "tailor-made" quality that invites attentiveness and resists generalization. It is difficult to "collect" experiences into any sort of category that can be said to be true of everyone’s living -- except in a way that loses both its explanatory power, as it departs from each one’s actual living, and its moral value, in accounting for that valuable person, and that one, and that one.

At the same time, a framework of knowing oriented by the cross grants prima facie value to the sort of knowing that comes from the lived experience of struggle at the margins. These are "limit-experiences," places that usually test the integrity and purpose of knowers and the durability and responsiveness of their knowing. Luther interpreted his many personal experiences of suffering in terms as existential as they were theological. He called them evidence of God’s "alien work," which brought Luther the human being to his limits; he believed that only there, in experiencing those limits, could he be convinced to throw himself into the arms of the One he otherwise refused to trust. Only then, he believed, could and did he experience God’s "proper work" -- the grace that was life and made his experience of every day possible. This could happen, Luther said, because of the realized mystery of sinners’ participation in the cross of Jesus Christ, which was itself the participation of the self-revealing God in the cross of human brokenness, the "state of the art" of human living.

What is the epistemological point? Just this: knowing that ignores or papers over our individual and corporate human experiences of the cross is of little value and even less use in a world that testifies daily to the reality of such experiences. An epistemology of the cross takes these "experiences of the cross" as its "permanent standing ground. . . [and the cross as] a symbol of the reality in which [we] participate . . . and into which [we] must again and again be initiated."9

To know truly on the basis of lived experience is to know from the margins -- of life, of sanity, of dignity, of power. Coming to know in this way is possible because and by means of the incarnated mystery of solidarity.

This dimension of an epistemology of the cross shares with feminists a conviction that special value attaches to knowing that emerges from those personal and collective quarters where resistance to injustice and suffering begins with the "knowing" of them.


Traditional science prizes what it calls "objectivity," that perspective from which (it seems to those who prize it) what one sees -- one’s "perception" -- and what is there -- "reality" -- coincide. To be "objective" is, in a real sense, to exercise control, at least the kind measurement and prediction promise. Feminist theories of knowing claim, in contrast, that prevailing cultural and political forces have much to do with what is defined as "objective" and that objectivity is a problematic context-dependent notion in any case.

An epistemology oriented by the cross shares feminists’ skepticism about traditional science ‘s claims about objectivity. But it also has a distinctive epistemological starting point: the foot of the cross. To stand there is not to claim or even to seek the objectivity positive science treasures, nor is it to content itself with the necessary relativization of objectivity as science has defined it. Instead, an epistemology of the cross seeks "to be with the victims.4where it becomes possible to come to know, as theologian William Rankin wryly observes] that it is not the poor who are a problem to the rich but the rich who are a problem to the poor."10

"To come to know" in this way in this sense is to experience what liberation theologians call an "epistemological break."11 By means of a process or an event (it is difficult to define it precisely), one who by all odds could otherwise claim epistemological privilege becomes aware of a complete reversal of the notion of "privilege" finds that an extraordinary kind of truthfulness (which is not "objectivity") attaches to the "partial" perspective glimpsed from the vantage of the struggle of the poor, the discriminated-against, the forgotten-about. the thrown-away. It is "partial" both in its frank partisanship and in its equally frank lack of concern about the "larger picture" whose purported completeness requires including the perspective of the rich, the discriminator, the forgetter, the one who throws away.12

Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino describes this "phenomenon" -- which he has both experienced himself and witnessed, as countless European and North American visitors have passed through his San Salvador parish

From the poor [we] receive in a way hardly expected new eyes for seeing the ultimate truth of things and new energies for exploring unknown and dangerous paths. At the very moment of giving [we] find ourselves expressing gratitude for something new and better that [we] have been given. . . Whether this gratuitousness is explicitly referred back to God or remains unidentified, it is clear that in aiding the poor one receives back from them meaning for one’s life.13

As a result of such an "epistemological break," the power of objectivity and the "objectivity" of the powerful must be judged according to new and somehow more stringent standards.

Whether the subjugated have an epistemological prior claim on "truth" is no more at issue than whether they are closer to God or spiritually more developed than those who are not subjugated. But an epistemology of the cross shares with feminist epistemologies the conviction that the place of the least favored -- at the foot of the cross, in all its contemporary forms -- is a better place to start knowing than any place of domination could be. There is much that simply cannot be seen or known -- about how things really are -- without being there.

And yet there are significant difficulties in our getting to that epistemological "there." Feminist philosopher Sandra Harding believes that relatively privileged people can "choose to become ‘marginalized,’ and in so doing can gain a more critical clearer view of themselves as knowers and doers deeply implicated in the fact of others’ marginalization and responsible to collaborate in the transformation that calls for." Those of us who are privileged, she writes, "can learn to think and act not out of the ‘spontaneous consciousness’ of the social locations that history has bestowed on us but out of the traitorous ones we choose. . . ." 14 This initiative -- Harding calls it "reinventing ourselves as ‘other"’15 -- depends on the possibility that we may be capable of embracing, within our individual selves and among us as groups of selves, the "other/s," or marginalized ones. These knowers occupy epistemological standpoints that are salutary precisely because of, and almost in direct relation to. their capacity to subvert dominant knowledge projects.

An epistemology of the cross can offer theologically informed support for this project. To begin with, an epistemology of the cross cannot be used by knowers whose claims to objectivity are predicated on domination, for it harbors a deep suspicion of power-based knowledge claims and those who make them. This cross-based framework for knowing draws our attention and concern toward unexpected places and moments of coming to know. Generally, they are those in which what Douglas John Hall calls "the experience of negation" occurs, ". . . in human suffering and degradation, in poverty and hunger, among the two thirds who starve. . ." 16

We may even discover such places as we look in the mirror and see selves stitched together of some identities that are privileged and of some that are stigmatized. We may discover such places, too, in our ambivalences about the "categories" of persons with whom we share, happily or unhappily, race, nation, religion, gender, caste, sexual orientation, class, and so forth. We may also discover them in the interstices among these individual and corporate identities, where we must often come to terms with dilemmas that seem to pit us against ourselves and one another.

There is no innocent place.

Philosopher Donna Haraway suggests that our strategy must be to "negotiate the very fine line between appropriation of another’s (never innocent) experience and the delicate construction of the just-barely-possible . . . connections that might actually make a difference. . . ."17 Power-brokered objectivity has no role here; humility and a capacity to take risks do. And none of it can be done without hope; one might even call it hope against hope.

In the end, is there any point to discussing objectivity in the context of an epistemology of the cross? If objectivity is defined as what underpins the "one true story position often taken by science or theology, then the answer is No. It is a truism not often honored in science or theology that there is always more than one version of any story. While the speaker with the most expensive sound truck may have something worthwhile to say, one must always consider the source.

An epistemology of the cross would be more comfortable with the kind of "objectivity" described by philosopher Sandra Harding. She calls it "strong objectivity," and its particular strength rests of the participation of many knowers, beginning with the least favored, and requires a commitment to critical examination of the causes of beliefs, especially those that pass for "objective truths."18 Or with Donna Haraway’s understanding of objectivity, which (she argues) is not about transcendent knowing, but about answerability, "not about dis-engagement, but about mutual and usually unequal structuring, about taking risks in a world where ‘we’ are permanently mortal, that is, not in ‘final’ control. . . ."19


The theology of the cross on which this epistemological proposal relies in part was and is profoundly relational. For Luther, the relationship of God and humans was the basic framework for meaning, for theology, for humans’ ultimate destiny -- and for every dimension of daily living as individuals and in company with one another. We are, Luther believed, always living "before" or "in the presence of" God (coram Deo). At the same time, we also live "before" or "in the presence of" the world of nature and other humans (coram mundo), a state of things made possible and encompassed by our relationship with God. Our living is never just a private matter.

Accountability within a framework for knowing oriented by the cross emerges from this background. I will describe briefly the several roles it plays.

(1) Earlier I quoted theologian Juan Luis Segundo: "A human being who is content with the world will not have the least interest in unmasking the mechanisms that conceal authentic reality." As a lens on the world around us, an epistemology may be one way to maintain, if not create, contentment with the world -- insofar as it functions to conceal the realities of exclusion and injustice. In its critique of ways of knowing based on power and privilege, an epistemology oriented to the cross expresses the insistence that accountability entails taking steps to become aware of such realities. In this sense it is itself a demand for accountability.

Among the most important dimensions of this critique is its insistence that knower and "knowee" are, in relation to one another and before God, both subjects and objects. To envision the knowing relationship as a non-reciprocal, "subject over against object" one, is not only scientifically faulty but morally irresponsible. An epistemology of the cross exercises a critique that is, in the first instance, a call for this sort of accountability.

(2) By the same token, this critique announces that an epistemology of the cross also requires accountability of itself. This is understood as acknowledgment of implication in and co-responsibility for the reality that privilege-based epistemologies conspire to conceal, intentionally or not. Repeatedly, feminist epistemologies remind us that accountability is the epistemological value we must most passionately uphold -- and (nearly in the same breath) that neither we as knowers, nor descriptions (as knowledge), nor the practices of knowledge-producing (like research) or knowledge-acquiring (like formal education), are "innocent."

To acknowledge our individual and collective, and collaborative, lack of "innocence" means to confess, at the very least, that we have seen/that we do know, and, at the very most, that we have done something. Of course the object -- what we have seen/what we know/what we have done -- makes an enormous difference. Ethically, among other things, it may matter in terms of what we or others judge we must then do. But at the core of the matter is the plain fact that to name and recognize our lack of innocence is to describe ourselves as accountable for who we are and for what we know. An epistemology of the cross shares with feminist epistemologies a deep conviction that we are accountable "non-innocents."

(3) ". . . [T]he liberating function of theological understanding," Jon Sobrino observes, "does not consist in explaining or giving meaning to an existing reality or to the faith as threatened by a particular situation, but in transforming a reality so that it may take on meaning, and the lost or threatened meaning of the faith may thereby also be recovered."20 Theology, in other words, cannot be separated from the ethical and the practical -- not only in its implications but also in its sources and resources. If Sobrino is right as he alludes to Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach, then those who do theology are accountable, not to judge or bless what Sobrino calls "the wretched state of the real world," but to change it.

An epistemology of the cross plays a key role in facilitating this transformational accountability -- not only theologians’ accountability, but that of others committed to the struggle for human dignity. Feminists began their critical work in response to insults and injustices generated -- to paraphrase Sobrino -- by scientific and philosophical understandings that "explained" and "gave meaning to existing realities" of exclusion, especially of women. The tasks of "contestation" to and "deconstruction" of these understandings continue, but they have been augmented by what might be called "passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing."21 Accountability involves both critical and creative, transformational work. If critical accountability’s project is the unmasking, then creative accountability’s project is proposing visions and gathering the handiworkers to discuss, revise, and attempt to realize them.

An epistemology of the cross owes its view of the created world to faith’s conviction of the transformative solidarity of God with the world. In enabling a clearer view of reality, in helping us to recognize our implication in that reality, and in equipping us to act on behalf of human dignity within that reality, this framework expresses and sustains its essential accountability.

Concluding words

I am deeply in your debt for the opportunity share with you some of my work on Luther.

I believe most passionately that we are part of "living traditions," whatever our faith community -- traditions that are like the great life-giving rivers that have sustained human communities for thousands of years. I hope that my contribution has generated some light . . . and perhaps even some heat, and that it may fuel further thought and conversation of matters much too important to leave to others.


End Notes

1 Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans, John Drury (Marykooll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1976), p. 10.

2 Walter Altmann, Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective, trans. Mary M, Solberg (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. ix.

3 op. cit. pp. 134-35.

4 According to Joseph E. Vercruysse, Luther himself used the expressions theologia_crucis and theologus crucis (theologian of the cross) in only five texts: "Four of them were written in the spring of 1518, namely the Asterisci Lutheri adversus Obeliscos Eckii, the Lectures on Hebrews, the Resolutiones disputationum deindulgentiarun virtute and finally the famous Heidelberg Disputation. The fifth one is in the Operationes in Psalmos. Luther’s second course on the Psalms. held from 1519 to 1521." The first four were probably written between February and April. 1518, just before the meeting in Heidelberg. See Vercruysse’s article, "Luther’s Theology of the Cross at the Time of the Heidelberg Disputation." Gregoriarnum 57 (1976):532-548.

5. According to Luther. "Experience alone makes a theologian. . . . It is by living -- no, rather it is by dying and being damned that a theologian is made, not by understanding, reading, or speculating." The first part of the quotation -- "Experience . . . theologian" -- is from LW 54,7 (part of the famous Table Talk compendium): the second part -- "It is by living or speculating" -- is found in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger. 1883-) 5,163,28. Cited hereafter as WA. The combination of the two quotes seems both fair and mutually illuminating.

6. Sandra Harding, ‘The Instability of Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory." Signs II, no.4 (l986): 647.

7. Elizabeth Kammarck Minnich. Transforming Knowledge (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). p. 5.

8. Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives (Ithaca. N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 199l), p. 311.

9. Douglas John Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), P. 116.

10. "The Moral Use of Knowledge: Part 2," Plumbline II, no. I (April 1983): 10-11.

11. See, for example, Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. 1984), pp. 24ff.

12. During my time in El Salvador, Central America (1983-86), I was always thunderstruck when, after a group of U.S. visitors had spent a couple of hours listening to the stories of the Mothers of the Disappeared or to officials of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission, at least one earnest soul would take me aside to ask whether "we’re going to get a chance to hear the other side of the story."

13. Jon Sobrino and Juan Hernandez Pico, Theology of Christian Solidarity, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985), p. II

14. Harding, Whose Science?, p. 295.

15. Ibid., pp. 268ff.

16. Hall. p. 151.

17. Simians,. Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. II 3.

18. Whose Science?, pp. 147, 149.

19. op cit., p. 201.

20. op. cit., p. 15.

21. Haraway, op. cit., 191.