The next stage of the OCR DCT A2 is a study of liberal feminist theology and their response to secular liberal feminism. You need to have some knowledge of the aims and methods of liberal feminist theology and know and understand what they teach about the role of women in the Bible.
Liberal feminist theologians attempt to demonstrate that Christianity is not inherently patriarchal and the Bible can actually be used to support liberal feminist aims. They would argue that the Bible shows that women can perform a wide variety of roles and that certain texts (the story of Deborah, Martha and Mary, Priscilla, Phoebe etc) are particularly important in demonstrating this.
You need to consider whether you think that their methods are valid.
Note: the terms 'liberal', 'reform/reconstructionist' and 'radical' are not necessarily very helpful. In many cases a theologian will have written some things that might broadly count as 'liberal' and others that tend more towards 'reconstructionist'.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in New York. Her father was a judge and she followed in his footsteps and read law. She married Henry Stanton (who was involved in the anti-slave movement) and they had three children together.
In 1851 Stanton met Susan B. Anthony and the two of them together campaigned for the vote for women in America.
In 1851 Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the Woman's Convocation. She argued that girls should be brought up 'to look forward to a life of self-reliance' (i.e. prepared to have a job and work. She condemned the traditional female tasks like sewing (she described a needle as 'that one-eyed deamon of destruction that...never makes us healthy, wealthy, or wise.') Furthermore, she called for women to reject the traditional beliefs about how a woman should behave. 'Teach the girl it is no part of her life to cater to the prejudices of those around her.' Such a re-education was to begin in early childhood. She was very confident that education could 'revolutionalise' the world. She said:
Once girls were educated to think differently, patriarchy would fall.
The similarities between Wollstonecraft, Taylor and Stanton should be apparent.
Stanton believed that one barrier to women's emancipation was the Bible. She argued that the Bible was used to fight against women's demands for equality. Women were told that God had created a specific role for them and they should stick to it. Whilst Stanton was herself resolutely liberal in her attitude towards the Bible (she said 'I do not believe any man ever saw or talked with God') she recognised her own reverence for it. She recounted feeling horrified when her mother had used a Bible as a cushion to make a chair higher for a small child 'it seemed such desecration...and this, too, long after my reason had repudiated its divine authority'.
Thus, Stanton felt that it was necessary to deal with the content of the Bible. She got together a committee of women to write a commentary to the Biblical texts. Many of her fellow women's rights campaigners were critical of her efforts (perhaps afraid that the resulting book would offend the conservatively minded and make them more likely to reject than support female emancipation).
Stanton responded to her critics who argued that the task of creating The Woman's Bible was 'a useless expenditure of force over a book that has lost its hold on the human mind' by arguing that it has not lost its hold. She recognised that Biblical teachings about the role of women did influence how people treated women and what they felt was suitable for them.
For her own part, Stanton felt that it was perfectly acceptable to reject the degrading teachings found in the Bible whilst upholding other examples as beneficial.
The Woman's Bible provided a commentary to Biblical stories concerning women. It contained a variety of different view points (as one would expect given the 20+ contributors). The women were not primarily biblical scholars but many had engaged with the work done by professional biblical historians. The following quotations are all taken from Stanton's own comments.
Stanton compared the Genesis 1 account with that found in Genesis 2.
She also suggested that even the account of the Fall could be reinterpreted in a more positive light.
Stanton pointed out that the story of Deborah is rarely held up to women as an example to follow. Women were usually told to emulate the women who are meek and obedient instead.
A stark contrast to the strength and leadership of Deborah is the submissiveness of Jephthah's daughter [though one could argue her response was courageous!]. Stanton rejected the way the story was often interpreted and hypothesised a better ending - one which involved Jephthah's daughter standing up for herself and rejecting her vow. In this section she also compared Jephthah's daughter to the type of woman who rejected the woman's rights movement.
Stanton commented on the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 in which Paul instructed women to cover their heads as a symbol of male authority. As with her commentary on the story of Jephthah's daughter she used the story as an opportunity to reflect on current practices.
Rosemary Radford Ruether was born in 1936 in Minnesota. She has degrees in Philosophy, Ancient History, and Classics. She received her doctorate in 1965 and is currently professor at Claremont School of Theology.
For many years Radford Ruether considered herself to be a Roman Catholic but opposed many of the Church's doctrines. She supports female ordination, contraception and is pro-choice in relation to abortion. Consequently, her views were judged heretical by many of the more conservative members of the clergy.
Her best known work is Sexism and God Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (1983, republished 2002) but she has written books on topics such as liberation theology and ecological issues as well.
She believed that the role of feminist hermeneutics is to find a way for women to reclaim central Christian principles from patriarchy. In other words, feminist theologians have to find methods of extricating the valuable core of Christianity from its misogynistic history.
In common with most liberal feminist theologians Ruether believed that:
Therefore, Ruether (like Cady Stanton and Trible) begins with a hermeneutic of suspicion, questioning both the text itself and the way it has traditionally been used.
Ruether was also willing to look beyond the Bible an consider the insights of non-Christian holy books and traditions. This contributed to her work on reforming language used about God. You can find out more about this on the reconstructionist page.
Ruether suggested that the Bible contains a 'golden thread', that is, a consistent theme that runs throughout the texts. This thread, she said, is the theme of liberation; a 'prophetic-liberating tradition'. It can be found in Old Testament stories like the Exodus in which God sided with the oppressed and liberated them. It is found again in Jesus' radical treatment of outcastes, his criticism of established religion and his message that people should treat others as they would like to be treated (the golden rule).
Ruether thought that this theme represented the genuine authentic word of God encapsulated within the Bible. Other aspects of the Bible are not the word of God; these come from human beings. Ruether was quite willing to admit that a lot of the Bible stories are misogynistic and she thought that many aspects of the Bible were irrefutably patriarchal
Once this central message has been identified, we can (according to Ruether) use it to evaluate the other Biblical stories. Those that do fit with this essential message can be viewed as authoritative. Those that do not can be rejected and assumed to derive from the reflections of the world view and prejudices of the writer.
Ruether also encouraged women to use their own experience to inform their interpretation of the Bible. In this respect, her approach of doing theology is very similar to Latin American liberation theology or black theology.
In Feminist Hermeneutics: A method of correlation she said that the '…critical principle of feminist theology is the affirmation and promotion of the full humanity of women.' In other words, texts that promote woman as autonomous human beings are judged authentic and those that do not are rejected.
So we can describe Ruether's hermeneutic in two ways:
Ruether's Christology (her beliefs about Jesus) would take her beyond liberal feminism and into the realm of reconstructionist theologies. However, her initial thoughts could be said to fall broadly within the liberal tradition and she explored the idea in detail in her essentially liberal book Sexism and God-Talk.
For feminists, Jesus' maleness is a problem because it has been used to reinforce the view that men are closer to God, superior to women and the 'normative' pattern for humanity. In the Summa Theologica Aquinas said that 'because the male excels the female sex, Christ assumed a man’s nature.' Thus maleness has been assumed to be part of the essence of Christ (and thus part of the essence of God). As Mary Daly wrote 'when God is male, then male is God'.
Ruether challenged this view and argued that maleness was accidental to Jesus. This would mean that God is not associated with maleness. We can relate this back to Ruether's previously stated criteria. To see maleness as being part of God's essence is not consistent with the 'golden thread' (as it would not lead to the liberation of women) and it does not promote 'the full humanity of woman' because it implies that she is less perfect than man. By saying that maleness is accidental to Jesus, Ruether was saying that God could become incarnate in either male or female form.
Ruether has argued that Christianity has always had within it a tradition of recognising that God does not literally have gender (gender is a physical thing and God is non-physical). There has a also been a (minority) tradition of referring to God using female terminology. Consequently, Ruether proposed that reconstructing the language that Christians use about God was both necessary and desirable (see notes on reconstructionist feminist theologies).
Ruether was aware that her approach left her open to criticism. She selected certain texts as authoritative over and above others. This is known as preaching a 'canon within a canon' - i.e. trying to identify a set of especially authoritative texts within an already authoritative text. Ruether did not deny that she did this, however she argued that this is what Christians have always done. The Bible has never been treated as though everything it said was equally authoritative. For example, historically the Genesis 2 creation story (in which woman is made out of man) has been treated as though it were more authoritative than Genesis 1 (in which man and woman are made together).
Mary Ann Tolbert (in a book called Defining the Problem) has challenged Ruether's view that the liberating-prophetic tradition found in the Old Testament and in Jesus' ministry can be used to support feminism. She points out that the Old Testament prophets do not themselves speak about the liberation of women. Ruether replied that the prophets themselves could not have spoken of the liberation of women because they were limited by their own world-view. However, is this response entirely convincing? If the prophets were speaking on God's behalf (which Ruether implied they were, given that their liberating message is the bit of the Bible that she thought was authentic) then surely they should not have been limited by their human world view.
Phyllis Trible was born in 1937 in Virginia. She studied theology at university and gained a PhD in 1963. Scince then she has held various teaching posts (she is currently dean of Wake Forest School of Divinity in North Carolina) and has written numerous books and articles. Two of her most well known books are God and the Rhetoric of Sex (1978) and the Texts of Terror (1984).
For feminists, Genesis 2-3 presents a problem.
Trible offered a possible feminist reading of the text which ignores the traditional exegesis of this story and returns to the text afresh.
She responds to each of the points made above as follows:
Daphne Hampson (in her book Theology and Feminism) has condemned Trible's reading of Genesis as unduly optimistic and argues that there is no reason to try to reinterpret obviously patriarchal texts. She points out that we do not try to find a more positive reading of the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. We just accept that the anti-semitic sentiments are a product of their time.
However, consider whether Hampson is correct to compare Shakespeare to the Bible. People believe that they should follow the teachings in the Bible, few people would argue that we should follow Shakespearian principles. Does this make a difference?
The 'texts of terror' refer to the Old Testament stories in which women are victims of violence and abuse.
Whilst some people might think that such texts are best dealt with by being ignored, Trible thought that it was important to remember the stories of the victims of violence. Her approach 'retells biblical stories of terror in memoriam, offering sympathetic readings of abused women.'
Of the story of Jephthah's daughter she wrote:
By remembering the victims in the Bible and by reading the stories from their perspective Trible hopes to ensure that they are not forgotten.
One of the stories set forth in the Texts of Terror is the story of the Levite's concubine. In this story a Levite (a member of the priestly tribe of Israel) and his concubine were staying as guests in a house when the townsmen demanded 'bring out the man that came to your house that we may know him'. The houseowner replied that the man was his guest but offered 'my daughter the virgin and his concubine' instead. The Levite pushed his concubine out of the house and the men 'and they raped her and tortured her all night until morning.' When dawn broke, the Levite found his concubine collapsed in the doorway and said 'arise and lets be going'. She gave no answer so he put her on the donkey. Later he cut her into twelve pieces and sent the parts out to the twelve tribes of Israel. Trible's commentary on the story says:
For Trible, by reading and remembering her story we can at least ensure that she has friends to mourn her.
However, Trible also encourages us to go beyond pure memorial and judge the action. Note Trible's choice of words in the last sentences of the above quotation. She has subverted Christian words from the Christian liturgy and from John's gospel. John 15 states 'Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends'. Like Jesus, her body is broken and handed out. Like Jesus she is sacrificed to human sinfulness.
Trible invites us to consider the relevance of the story today.
By remembering the story, by looking at the use and abuse of power within relationships we can use it to illuminate cases of abuse and inequality today. The Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana said that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' and Trible hopes that by remembering past sins we can repent and avoid them in future.
Criticism of liberal feminist theology tends to come from two opposing sides.
Conservative Christians from the Roman Catholic tradition might object to liberal feminisms rejection of tradition and its challenge to the traditional doctrine of 'equal but different'. They could argue that women reach their potential by fulfilling their God-given role (motherhood). They would reject liberal feminism's supposed marginalisation of motherhood and would defend it as an honourable task for women. They might argue that liberal feminist (both secular and religious) misrepresent the traditional view of marriage. It is true that Christianity has traditionally taught that wives should obey their husbands, but hand in hand with this goes the instruction for husbands to love their wives. If a husband truly loves his wife then he will not abuse the power that he is given in the relationship and he will take her opinions into account.
Conservative Christians from the fundamentalist-leaning Protestant evangelical stream might object to the way that liberal feminist theologians are selective in their use of the Bible. Protestants stress the authority of of the Bible (Catholics tend to also stress the authority of tradition) and fundamentalists see it as the inspired Word of God. As such it must be inerrant (because God is omniscient), timeless (because he is eternal) and useful (because he is omnibenevolent). To talk of a canon within a canon would make little sense to a fundamentalist as all the words in the Bible come from God. Consequently, a fundamentalist would not accept the view that certain teachings are merely a reflection of patriarchal world views and can be disregarded.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Post-Christians like Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson would consider the attempt to salvage Christianity doomed. Both considered it to be inherently Patriarchal and beyond recovery.
Others, like Pagels might consider something of Christianity to be kept but they would say that it needs radical reconstruction if it is to be of any use. Theologians need to go beyond identifying a core message of equality or pointing to specific examples of empowered women. Equally, Schussler Fiorenza's work suggests that it is not enough to just highlight the existence of patriarchy in the text. She used creative actualisation to try to recreate 'herstory' (as opposed to 'history') and recreate the stories of the women who had been written out of the Bible. Ruether herself went beyond purely liberal theology in her work on language about God.
Consider for yourself the following questions:
Extremely useful overview site with short summaries of the views of all the leading feminist theologians. Essential reading. Here.
The Cambridge Companion to feminist theology is all available online here (though only if you are accessing it from an institution that has paid for the subscription). Particularly useful for this section are chapters 1 and 6. (Also very useful - good wide reading).
To what extent is Christianity compatible with feminist aims?
'Liberal feminists failed to recognise that Christianity needs to be reconstructed if it is to be compatible with feminism.' To what extent do you agree?