Radical Feminist Theology

The OCR RS Developments in Christian Theology specification requires that you know about radical feminist theology as well as secular radical feminism. Specifically, you are expected to know about post Christian theology as typified by Mary Daly as well as alternative Christian theology in the work of Pagels Elaine Pagels.

What is radical theology?

Radical theology goes beyond the revisionist/reform work of people like Ruether, Schussler Fiorenza and Pagels. Many radical theologians reject Christianity entirely and are consequently names 'post-Christian' (Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson would be included in this category). Others consider themselves to be part of the tradition of Christian theology but their use of non-canonical material or material from other religious traditions means that they too are considered 'radical' (Elaine Pagels would be an example of this, as would proponents of goddess thealogy).


Mary Daly:

Mary Daly was born in 1928 into what she described as the 'Catholic ghetto' of an Irish American family. She gained a PhD in Religious Studies in 1953 and then continued her studies in Switzerland. During the 1960s she taught theology at Boston college Massachusetts. She retired in 2001 following a controversy caused by her refusal to admit male students to one of her courses (she argued that male presence would inhibit the free discussion among the women). 

Daly's thought moves through distinct phases from the (comparatively) liberal Church and the Second Sex (1968) to her much more radical philosophy found in later books like Gyn/Ecology (1978).

The Church and the Second Sex (1968)

The title pays homage to Simone de Beauvoir's book.

The Church and the Second Sex, Daly's first book, was a critique of the Roman Catholic Church detailing the ways in which it had oppressed women. However, it was not a radical book and compared to her later work seems very tame. 

Daly argued that Christianity presents an illusion of equality and idealises theoretical women but not actual women. She said that Christianity 'pretends to put woman on a pedestal but which in reality prevents her from genuine self-fulfillment and from active, adult-sized participation in society'. The values expected of the ideal woman include submission and passivity; the virtues held by the ideal female role model - the Virgin Mary. These values do not help women lead authentic lives as autonomous beings.

Daly was aware that she could be accused of using the Biblical texts selectively, but she argued that the Church has also used the Bible selectively and has used these ones to keep women in their place.

Daly detailed the misogynistic teachings in the Bible to show that Christianity was anti-women. She used examples from Genesis 2-3 and 1 Corinthians 14 among others.

Part of the problem for Daly is that 'God's representatives on earth: the pope, the bishop, the priest who says Mass, he who preaches, he before whom one kneels in the secrecy of the confessional-all these are men'. Given the Church's attitude towards women she suggested that  'A woman's asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person's demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan.' 

However, Daly optimistically wrote that:

'Hopefully, Church leaders will profit from the mistakes of the past, and not continue to repeat them.'

Thus at this stage her thought was not post-Christian but reformist.  That said, many of the themes that she developed in her later work were already present here.

Read the complete book here (or look up chapters for clarification).

Beyond God the Father (1973)

Don't Panic!

There is more detail than you need here. I got carried away (as I am sure Daly would want). After all, too much is better than too little.

Beyond God the Father was subtitled Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation represents a significantly more radical approach than that found in The Church and the Second Sex.  

Daly began (after setting out her aims and methodology) by explaining the problem:

'If God in "his" heaven is a father ruling "his" people, then it is in the "nature" of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.

Beliefs become reflected in the way people live and when 'God is male the male is God'. Daly acknowledged that 'sophisticated thinkers' have not taken the image literally, but she suggested that even people who intellectually accept that God is not actually male subconsciously view 'him' as such. 

Daly wrote of 'castrating God'.  This can be done through language (e.g. by referring to God as 'she') but Daly thought that 'the most basic change has to take place in women - in our being and self-imagine'. She goes on to suggest that people should have the courage to reject the idea of God as a being and see God as Be-ing instead. I.e. abandon God the noun and embrace God the verb. God becomes something that people do rather than something they believe in.

'The story of the Fall was an attempt to cope with the confusion experienced by human beings trying to make sense of the tragedy and absurdity of the human condition. Unfortunately as an exclusively male effort in a male-dominated society, it succeeded primarily in reflecting the defective social arrangements of the time.'

In the second chapter of the book Daly examined the story of the Fall. She recounted the way in which the story has entered the human consciousness and shaped views about women. She suggested that women have contributed to their own oppression by accepting feelings of guilt and subordination and she says that the first stage of salvation comes when women recognise this. Once women have realised they have to abolish the feeling that they are 'the other'. They have to reject false humility which prevents them from aiming high or from challenging men. They should engage in non-conformity and reject patriarchal stereotypes and present alternative model of being instead. Daly embraced an Nietzschean view of morality (see page on secular radicals for further explanation) and wrote that:

'The beginning of liberation comes when women refuse to be "good" and/or "healthy" by prevailing standards. To be female is to be deviant by definition in the prevailing culture. To be female and defiant is to be intolerably deviant. This means going beyond the imposed definitions of "bad woman" and "good woman," beyond the categories of prostitute and wife. This is equivalent to assuming the role of witch and madwoman.'

Note: she does not yet advocate separatism.

Daly compared this back to the idea of the Fall. Women should fall from the way men want them to be, away from taught morality and into moral independence and freedom. She said that the Fall stands for 'women reach for knowledge and, finding it, share it with men so that together we can leave the delusory paradise of false consciousness and alienation.' With this interpretation the Fall becomes, she argued, 'positive and healing'.

'The underlying - and often explicit - assumption in the minds of theologians down through the centuries is that the deity could not have dained to "become incarnate" in the "inferior sex,".'

In chapter three Daly turned her attention to the incarnation. Like many feminist theologians she finds Jesus' maleness problematic: 'The idea of a uniquely male saviour may be seen as one more legitimisation of male superiority.' Like the story of the Fall, the incarnation continues to have a hold over people's minds long after they have failed to believe in the literal truth of the doctrine.

The question of whether Jesus himself was a feminist Daly thinks is ultimately irrelevant ('Fine, wonderful. But even if he wasn't, I am.'). She argues that women today should not have to look to the past to legitimise their views.

Furthermore, the idea of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin glorifies what Daly calls 'scapegoat psychology'. Christianity idealises the qualities of a victim [as Nietzsche argued]. People in general, and - according to Daly - women in particular, are encouraged to be passive, self-sacrificing, meek etc.

She explored specific ethical issues like abortion pointing out that 100% of the bishops who voted against abortion are men while 100% of the people who have abortions are women.

It is worth reading her exploration of abortion for its synoptic links to ethics. P106-114.

In her fourth chapter (which Daly called the 'transvaluation of values') she focused on the question of morality. She suggested that morality is constructed and constructed by men. Women need to say 'no' to the 'morality of victimisation' and resist the role that men have created for them. Daly anticipated a 'female ethic' which was 'yet to be developed because women have yet to be free enough to think out our own experience'.

Daly suggested that what she calls the 'unholy trinity' of rape, genocide and war naturally exist in a world in which 'phallocentric power' is celebrated. The sense of male entitlement leads to men doing whatever they want to get what they like. Christianity has failed because Christianity has generally reinforced rather than opposed male superiority.

Chapter five begins with Daly's argument that women have been 'wiped out of history'. Women have not realised their existence as a 'sexual caste' because they have been divided by things like religion. 'Protestants are persuaded that they do not have the same problems as Catholic women.' Daly advocates women uniting in a sisterhood together. She calls this an antichurch and defines it further as follows:

'...we have to learn now to live in the future that we are fighting for, rather than compromising in the vain hope of a future that is always deferred, always unreal.'

This antichurch stands in opposition to the traditional church as the 'bride of Christ' (i.e. an obedient woman in relation to a dominant man).

'...a feminist liturgy could change nothing for the "form was theirs". It was the "form" that counted, no matter what the "content". The form was a dead shell, and the growth of the consciousness of women is an attempt to live without such shells....Feminist liturgy is a contradiction in terms...It is an attempt to put new wine, women's awareness, into old skins of forms that kill womens self-affirmations.'

Daly considered, and rejected, the idea that women could restore Christianity through the creation of new forms, for example, feminist liturgies. She concluded that all attempts were futile because they were still done from within the patriarchal tradition and therefore, still contained aspects of it. Daly returned to a point she made earlier, feminism should not have to look to the past to legitimise itself. It has no need for vehicles of patriarchy such as Christianity (and the other patriarchal faiths). She suggests that women should explore instead what she terms the 'Old Religion', the ideas associated with goddesses and witches (an idea she developed further in her next book Gyn/Ecology.

Daly finished the chapter with the observation that 'it cannot be denied that many people, women and men, have achieved with the help of religion a kind of autonomy, charity and peace'. However, she thinks that women have been failed by institutional religion and whilst individuals might have been helped by religion, patriarchal religions are not necessary for self-development.

Her penultimate chapter ('Sisterhood, the Cosmic Covenant') sets out the ways in which the feminist sisterhood fulfils some of the traditional functions of religion.

  • It provides women with sacred space (individual freedom) into which to escape from Patriarchy.

'Charismatic' i.e. Spirit-led. St Paul described the gifts of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Corinthian church. With the power of the Spirit the church can heal the sick, prophesy with authority, speak in new languages etc.

  • It is a charismatic community in which a form of healing takes place. It is prophetic in that it challenges the status quo and heralds new ways of being. It provides ethical guidance. The gift of tongues exists as new ways of speaking.
  • Communication. The sisterhood has a task to fulfil that can be compared to the traditional idea of mission. However, the term mission is dominant and phallocentric (all about dominating others and forcing your views onto them). Hence the term communication is used instead.

'It is evident that the covenant is discoverable not only by women but also by men who have been able to hear women's new words and accept them as an invitation to break out of the archetypal circle...'

Daly suggested that men can be liberated too (but warned that many men are interested in dialogue with feminists for the wrong reasons). Men who 'are "graceful" enough to have fallen into a new space and found themselves in agreement are in fact part of the covenant'. These men need to reject the old ways which Daly describes as:

'...has meant feeding on the bodies and minds of women, sapping energy at the expense of female death...The priests of patriarchy have eaten the body and have drunk the blood of the Sacrificial Victim in their Mass...The insatiable lust of males for female blood has resulted in a perpetual transfusion throughout the millennia.'

Daly called for an end to this one way parasitic process which must be replaced by a two-way process instead. However, given that historically men have exploited women, she thinks that an 'immediate "give and take"' is inappropriate. Women need restitution - compensation - for what has gone before. She argued:

 'it is not yet time for a "dialogue" with those who have stolen the power of speech...rather it is time for men to learn at last to listen'. 

Male liberation is possible, but it is to happen on female terms!

Daly begins her final chapter with reference to Aristotle and an brief overview of the way different theologians have used or developed the idea of the final cause. For Daly, the final cause - the reason or purpose for existence - cannot be a fixed static idea. It certainly cannot be the Patriarchal God with the patriarchal concept of goodness. Rather, the final cause is Be-ing 'a qualitative leap of courage in the face of patriarchy'. It is a radical challenge to static ways of thinking.

Woolf, A Room of One's Own.

Daly referred to Virginia Woolf who wrote that throughout history 'Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.' This, Daly thought, had happened with in the church as the priesthood clais for itself superior versions of all the things that women have traditionally done.

'Graciously they lifted from women the onerous power of childbirth, christened it “baptism.” Thus they brought the lowly material function of birth incompetently and even grudgingly performed by females, to a higher and more spiritual level. Recognizing the ineptitude of females in performing even the humble “feminine” tasks assigned to them by the Divine Plan, the Looking Glass priests raised these functions to the supernatural level in which they alone had competence. Feeding was elevated to become Holy Communion, Washing achieved dignity in Baptism and Penance. Strengthening became known as Confirmation, and the function of consolation, which the unstable nature of females caused them to perform so inadequately, was raised to a spiritual level and called Extreme Unction. In order to stress the obvious fact that all females are innately disqualified from joining the Sacred Men’s Club.'

Daly completes her case by ridiculing the way priests (the 'Sacred Men's club) imitate female clothing. 

'The Looking Glass priests made it a rule that their members should wear skirts. To make the point clearer, they reserved special occasions when additional Men’s Club attire should be worn. These necessary accoutrements included delicate white lace tops and millinery of prescribed shapes and colours. The leaders were required to wear silk hose, pointed hats, crimson dresses and ermine capes, thereby stressing detachment from lowly material things and dedication to the exercise of spiritual talent.'

With continued sarcasm she outlined the traditional Christian attitude towards women:

'These anointed Male Mothers, who naturally are called Fathers, felt maternal concern for the women entrusted to their pastoral care. Although females obviously are by nature incomplete and prone to mental and emotional confusion, they are required by the Divine Plan as vessels to contain the seed of men so that men can be born and then supernaturally (correctly) reborn as citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom. Therefore, in charity the priests encouraged women to throw themselves gratefully into their unique role as containers for the sons of the sons of the Son of God. Sincerely moved by the fervour of their own words, the priests educated women to accept this privilege with awestruck humility.’

This way of thinking has, Daly argued, become second nature in society. Women continue to be the 'other' who reflect and accentuates men. Daly wanted women to stop reflecting and embrace Be-ing. Once this happens, Daly thinks that men will need to think things for themselves and they will become aware of all the other inequalities in the world. Racism, homophobia, classism and inequality would all be laid bare and would no longer be accepted as just a part of the way the world is. Inequality will no longer be justified by some sense of God--given entitlement.

In her closing paragraphs Daly called for society to 'fall out of Eden' (i.e. commit the sin of gaining knowledge!) reject God the Father ruling all in favour of embracing the self-communicating Be-ing in ourselves.

To summarise:

  • De Beauvoir was right, women are treated as 'the other'. Christianity has contributed significantly to this view of women.
  • God = male. Thus power is thought of a being a male thing. Reinforces male superiority.
  • Jesus = male. Only maleness is fit for the incarnation of God. A male body represents both men and women. 
  • The Fall has been used to keep women in their place.
  • Even when these doctrines and stories are not literally believed they retain a hold over the way people view things.
  • Morality is constructed not discovered. Prevalent moral views have been constructed by men. For women, morality is one of victimisation.
  • Women need to abandon/challenge the moral views that they have been taught.
  • The Church cannot be reformed (it is inherently patriarchal). It should be abandoned. The sisterhood of feminism can fulfil some of the functions of religion.
  • Men are not entirely excluded but it is time for them to take a back seat and listen to what women have to say.

Read Gyn/Ecology here.

Gyn/Ecology (1978)

Gyn/Ecology was Daly's third book and was significantly more radical than Beyond God the Father.

Daly described Gyn/Ecology as an 'anti male' book but added the qualifier that all feminist writing was considered anti-male.

In Gyn/Ecology Daly argued that 'Patriarchy perpetuates its deception through myth.' She thought that the Christian myth was particularly dangerous to women. Every aspect of Christianity - the Trinity ('the closed system of eyeball-to-eyeball self-congratulatory communion among the fathers and sons'), the virgin birth ('Total Rape Victim'), Eucharist/communion ('cannibalistic/necrophagous ritual'), the incarnate Jesus ('a unisex model, whose sex is male') - all harm, repress or attack women.

The Triple Goddess as maiden (young girl), mother and crone (old lady) is worshipped within modern Wicca.

Daly's thesis was that the Christian myths are subverted versions of older Goddess stories.  She claims that 'the ancient world knew no gods. Fatherhood was not honored' and points to various Triple Goddess figures for the precursor of the Christian Trinity.  According to Daly, history abounds with examples triple goddesses with examples existing in Hellenistic, Celtic and African religions. She draws further parallels between Christian doctrine and pre-Christian myths. She suggested that the cross reinterprets the idea of the fertile tree of life which traditionally was associated with the Goddess.

'The transformations in the Tree of Life symbolism unveil the fact that in christian myth Christ assimilates/devours the Goddess. Whereas the Goddess had been the Tree of Life, Christ becomes this. Moreover, as the “life at work” in the tree, he becomes its juice/sap. When we consider that the tree had been the body of the Goddess, the violence of this assimilation becomes more perceivable. The “gentle Jesus” who offers the faithful his body to eat and his blood to drink is playing Mother Goddess. And of course the fetal-identified male behind this Mother Mask is really saying: “Let me eat and drink you alive.” This is no mere crude cannibalism but veiled vampirism.'

Daly rejects Biblical realism (the idea that the Biblical stories are true).

'Christian myth obviously did not spring out of nowhere. This idea is believable only to those who deny that it is a myth, that is, part of the procession of patriarchal myths. My purpose here is not only to point out some cruder parallels/sources in chronologically antecedent androcratic myth, but also to uncover clues to Crone-logically antecedent myths and symbols, which have been stolen and reversed, contorted and distorted, by the misogynist Mix-Masters.'

The Christian Jesus claims the role of the life-giving mother goddess for himself but twists and perverts it so that life comes from death. Furthermore, by representing HUMANITY yet being male Jesus demonstrates the conquest of women - and the theft of their ancient power! Daly describes the process by which Christianity has reinterpreted supposedly older traditions as the 'rape of the goddess'.

Christian rituals are also reinterpreted as being indebted to goddess religions. The communion chalice is, she thinks, a stolen reinterpretation of the cauldron associated women. In a return to a point made in Beyond God the Father Daly argued that the communion service involves the 'priest is playing priestess. Hiding behind her symbol, he attempts to change wine into “sacred” blood – the christian version of Male Menstruation'.

Daly describes Christianity as having 'ripped off, reduced, reversed, reveiled' female traditions (which is why she has described herself as a pirate, setting out to steal back what had previously been stolen from women). 

Given that some traditionalist Christians argue that Mary represents an empowering figure for women it is worth considering what Daly had to say about the annunciation and the virgin birth

'It should not be imagined that Mary had any real role in this conception and birth. Although some christians like to call the “virgin birth” a paradigm of parthenogenesis, it is not that. As Helen Diner points out, it is really the opposite of parthenogenesis, for in the myth of the Virgin Birth, Mary does nothing, whereas in parthenogenesis the female accomplishes everything herself. Of the christian myth she writes: “Thus the Virgin, in the extreme spiritual religion called Christianity, means only the vessel waiting in purity for the bearing of the Savior”. Commenting upon the “Virgin Birth”, Anne Dellenbaugh points out that this myth stripped all women of their integrity, for the female was transformed into little more than a hollow eggshell, a void waiting to be made by the male.'

'The catholic Mary is not the Goddess creating parthenogenetically on her own, but rather she is portrayed as Total Rape Victim – a pale derivative symbol disguising the conquered Goddess. Because of this mythic deception, parthenogenesis, but not “normal” impregnation, is illogically linked with victimization. The rape of the Goddess in all of her aspects is an almost universal theme in patriarchal myth.... In the charming story of “the Annunciation” the angel Gabriel appears to the terrified young girl, announcing that she has been chosen to become the mother of god. Her response to this sudden proposal from the godfather is totaled nonresistance: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word”. Physical rape is not necessary when the mind/will/spirit has already been invaded. In refined religious rapism, the victim is impregnated with the Supreme Seminal Idea, who becomes “the Word made flesh”. Within the rapist christian myth of the Virgin Birth the role of Mary is utterly minimal; yet she is “there”. She gives her unqualified “consent”. She bears the Son who pre-existed her and then she adores him.'

In other words, Mary is weak and exploited. She has no power of her own but is merely the means by which a male achieves his goals.

She is equally scathing of any suggestion that the Holy Spirit could be identified as the female part of God.

'To the timid objections voiced by christian women, the classic answer has been: “You're included under the Holy Spirit. He's feminine.” The point is, of course, that male made-up femininity has nothing to do with women. Drag queens, whether divine or human, belong to the Men's Association'

Daly wrote about the following examples:

Indian custom of suttee (wives sacrificing their own lives on their husband's funeral pyre). Done to show devotion/loyalty.

Child brides. Done to be pure and virginal. 

Chinese foot binding. Done to make feet small and desirable.

Female genital mutilation. Done to ensure the women were pure/virgins.

Witch burning. Done out of fear of powerful women.

In the middle part of Gyn/Ecology Daly outlined the patriarchal oppression of women in various cultures around the world to try to demonstrate that oppression is the universal condition of women and oppression is the natural inclination of men.

She argued that women, dominated by men, have been tricked into participating in their own oppression. The wife committing suttee thinks she is behaving with great honour. The mother circumcising (mutilating) her daughter believes that purity is essential.

Whilst Daly does not argue that Christianity is responsible for all these things, she does say that:

'women in various cultures – which are merely multi-manifestations of the overall culture of androcracy – have often been lulled/lobotomized by the myths and habits of their particular social context. Drugged by the prevailing local dogmas and disabled physically, they have not always seen the intent behind the vicious circle of maiming and murder of mothers and daughters.'. 

For Daly, Christianity is one of the ways that men use to control women and, as such, it must be utterly rejected.

Like Beyond God the Father, Gyn/Ecology ends with a call to women to form a sisterhood and challenge the stereotypes about what it means to be female. She instructs women to refuse self-sacrifice, to become confident Hags and Crones, seeking self-actualisation instead. Women should seek out relationships with other women as 'honest Amazon bonding'.

Daphne Hampson:

Daphne Hampson is not specifically named in the OCR DCT A2 specification so you would not get a question specifically about her (whereas you could potentially get one about Daly). However, it is useful to know why she too rejected Christianity.

Like Daly, Hampson began by trying to reform Christianity from within. She was a vocal advocate of female ordination (as a teenager she had wanted to be ordained) but during the 1980s came to regard Christianity as a 'harmful myth' and abandoned it. Her books include Theology and Feminism (1990) and After Christianity (1996). She is currently Prof Emeritus of Divinity at St Andrews.

In an interview Hampson said:

'Well, either there was a resurrection and something extraordinary, or there wasn't.'' She has no time for cut-and-paste Christians, those who want to ditch the bad bits and define Christianity in a way that is compatible with modern knowledge. "We should be clear that the Christian claim has always been, and must be, that such a uniqueness has occurred in history. To think that Jesus was a fine teacher (and nothing more) is compatible with being an atheist. To hold that he was singularly in tune with God is a theistic position, but not necessarily Christian.'

Found here. (The interview is worth reading - it is a good overview of her key ideas).

Hanson's belief is that Christianity is an inherently historical religion. It is based on the idea that God was revealed at a historical point in time. Consequently, it cannot shed it's historic past. However, as it emerged from a patriarchal world it must also be inherently patriarchal. Thus Hampson believes that Christianity is intrinsically and irrevocably patriarchal and cannot be updated or reformed in the way that the reformers would like it to be.

She rejects the idea that a 'liberal' approach to Christianity works - she thinks it is incoherent - and argues against a 'pick and mix' attitude to belief. She is also very wary of reading the Bible through modern eyes. For her, there is 'not a shred of evidence' that Jesus was a feminist or had a particular concern for women. She wrote (in Theology and Feminism'He was in no ways concerned with those issues which must concern us'

Synopsis of After Christianity here.

A synopsis of After Christianity can be found on Hampson's own website (one paragraph summaries of each chapter). Thus if you want to flesh out this (extremely brief) overview, follow the link to the right.

Summary of After Christianity:

Chapter 1: Christianity cannot be considered literally true anymore. For example, there is no good evidence for the resurrection.

Chapter 2: Christianity is rooted in scripture, which is rooted in the past. No Christian can ignore this. The values of the past are often incompatible with modern feminist values.

Chapter 3:Overview of feminist ethics.

Chapter 4:Christianity is inherently incompatible with feminist ethical values. It is based on the idea of an unbalanced power relationship with God. Humans worship God (I-Thou relationship. Slave/Master). Feminism is about equality. The fact that God is described as a Father (male patriarch) makes the relationship even more problematic.

Chapter 5: Christianity views women in several ways:

  • the ideal woman put on a pedestal (Mary), 
  • or as a slut,
  • or as the 'compliment' to man.

Chapter 6: Discusses how God should be viewed in the future. Anthropomorphisms must be rejected and theology has to be true to experience.

Chapter 7: Spirituality remains important, even after the Christian myth has been rejected.

Hampson is not radical in the way that Daly was radical. She does not advocate separation in society. Nor is she as theologically radical. She does not abandon all belief in a higher being and she does not encourage women to engage in a Nietzschean reevaluation of moral values. However, like Daly she believes that Christianity is incompatible with feminism. It is important to stress that it is not just the portrayal of God in masculine terms and the misogynistic sentiments of some Biblical passages that make Christianity unfeminist (although they obviously contribute to it). The problem lies deeper than that in the hierarchical nature of religion. In After Christianity Hampson wrote:

'The point to note here is that a transcendent monotheism, by its very nature, creates that which is “other” than itself. Monotheism makes for hierarchical structures, in which what is God and what is not God are understood by contrast with what the other is.'

In other words, monotheism itself encourages people to think hierarchically. This way of thinking then gets reflected in social structures. For Hampson, the central principle of feminism is the idea of equality and the creation of society without unjust hierarchies. Hampson said in interview 'Thus a transcendent monotheism, in which God is conceived of as other than humankind and set apart, sufficient to 'himself' and allowing no other 'gods' must represent a feminist nightmare.' 


Opponents of Hampson have argued that she has a very narrow view of what constitutes Christianity as she rejects more liberal interpretations of Christian teachings. 

Reformers would argue that it is possible to recognise the historical nature of the religion without concluding that it is intrinsically out-dated.

  • They could use empirical evidence to show that views have changed (e.g. views on slavery, women priests in the C of E etc). 
  • They could also use theological justification (the Holy Spirit can guide the Church to new understandings/infinite nature of God means that all understandings of 'his' word are limited and so subject to development.
  • The 'golden thread' type approach could be used to identify essential truths and sort these from the non-essential teachings that reflect the world view of the time.

Alternative Christian:

Elaine Pagels:

Elaine Pagels is a professor of Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Elaine Pagels accepted that mainstream Christianity contains misogynism and patriarchy. She suggested that Early Christianity also contained alternative traditions which were much more egalitarian. These traditions are found reflected in the Gnostic Gospels.

Video clip about the Gnostic Gospels (includes Pagels talking about them) here.

In 1945 a set of ancient scrolls were found in Egypt. Amongst them were so called 'Gnostic Gospels' including the Gospel of Thomas,The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (among others).

Traditionalists would argue that the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels seems less Jewish than the Jesus of the Canonical Gospels. Since Jesus was a Jewish teacher it seems more likely that early texts would preserve this whilst later ones would ignore it. Traditionalists would also argue that the Gnostic Gospels seem to reflect more aspects of non-Jewish theology - e.g. Greek thought - than the Canonical new Testament material. In short, traditionalists would say the Gnostic Gospels are LATER and LESS RELIABLE than their canonical equivalent.

Watch a clip of Pagels versus a traditionalist here.

Traditionalists would argue that these gospels were written later than the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, Pagels (and some others) argue that they contain authentic early Christian teachings that demonstrate the diversity of belief and practice that existed the Early Church. Professor Helmut Koester (Harvard University) has suggested that the Gospel of Thomas might preserve within its current form some traditions that are older than the canonical gospels.

We know from Paul's letters that there were divisions amongst the first Christians (Paul seems to have faced two different groups of opponents, the Judaizers (who wanted Christianity to be more Jewish and keep kosher and circumcision) and the Sophists (speakers skilled in the art of rhetoric and possibly influenced by Greek thought). Whilst we can never know for sure exactly what the different groups of Christians thought, there is certainly some evidence that they did not always agree!

For Pagels, the important thing is that some of these Gnostic Gospels seem to be very positive towards women.

  • They use male and female language about God.
  • Some go further and describe God as a dyad containing both masculine and feminine aspects.
  • Mary Magdalene was an important figure (as a disciple or, possibly, as Jesus' wife).
  • Some Gnostic sects had female priests.

Pagels hypothesised that the Gnostic Gospels were left out of the Bible precisely because they were more pro-women.

It is important to stress that not all the Gnostic Gospels say the same thing and Pagels does not argue that they are definitely more authentic than the canonical material (though she does suggest that they might preserve the egalitarian message of Jesus which is hinted at in the canonical material) . However, they are an alternative tradition that Christianity can draw upon and use to reform/reconstruct itself along more egalitarian lines.

What is Gnosticism?

The word comes from the Greek gnosis (knowledge). 

According to the mainstream churches Gnosticism was a heresy (perversion of true teaching) that developed in the second century as the result of the influence of Greek forms of thought (e.g. dualism) on Christianity.

According to Pagels it is one of the many varieties of Christianity that existed in the early years. and was at least as authentic as other forms of Christianity. (This was originally argued by a German theologian called Walter Bauer. His book was published in English under the title Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1971)

Gnosticism has various forms but a text might be regarded as 'gnostic' if it has some of the following qualities:

·    Belief in secret knowledge not taught to everybody.

·    Dualistic view of the world in which spiritual things are good and physical things are evil.

·    An emphasis on finding the 'hidden meaning' in biblical texts including more allegorical interpretations of things like the resurrection.

·    Denial of the physical humanity of Jesus (the physical body being a weight to the soul).

Find out more from the BBC history page here.


  • In the Gospel of Philip Wisdom (Sophia in Greek and Ruah - a feminine noun - in Hebrew) is the female aspect of the divine and balances the Logos ('word') who is incarnate as Jesus ('the Word made flesh'). 
  • The Gospel to the Hebrezos had Jesus refer to 'My mother, the Spirit' whilst in the Gospel of Truth Jesus said of himself 'I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son'. 
  • In the wonderfully named gnostic text  Triple-formed Primal Thought the divine says 'I am the Thought that dwells in the Light...she who exists before the All...I move in every creature...I am the invisible one within the All...I am perception and knowledge… I am androgynous. I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate] with myself.  . . . I am the Womb… to the All . . . I am …glory of the Mother.'
  • Valentinus (a gnostic theologian who claimed to have received secret knowledge taught by Paul) described God as a dyad (something with two parts) containing both male and female aspects.


  • The Gospel of Philip presents Mary as Jesus' constant companion (spiritual companion, not wife). She is the incarnate form of Wisdom, the female part of the Divine. The gospel includes the words '. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you as (I love) her?"' The text has been damaged but scholars are reasonably confident about the probable original words from the parts that are left.
  • Gospel of Mary Magdalene recounts Mary encouraging the other disciples after the disciples when they were afraid. According to the gospel Peter got angry that Jesus should have taught Mary things that he had not told the other disciples. The male disciples eventually agreed to follow Mary's lead. The disciple Levi (aka Matthew) said 'Surely the Lord knew her very well; that is why he loved her more than us.”' 
  • The Gospel of Thomas names two women, Mary and Salome as disciples of Jesus. (Salome is mentioned in the canonical gospels as one of the women who discover the empty tomb).
  • The Wisdom of Faith Dialogue includes Jesus defending Mary's right to speak with the words 'whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.'
  • In the Dialogue of the Saviour Jesus gave special knowledge to Mary, Matthew and Thomas. Mary is described as 'the woman who understood all things'.

According to Pagels:

'[The gnostic gospels] unanimously picture Mary as one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples. Some even revere her as his foremost disciple, Jesus’ closest confidant, since he found her capable of understanding his deepest secrets.'

Elaine Pagels, Introduction to The Secrets of Mary Magdalene

If this is true, then why is she not portrayed as such in the canonical gospels?

The Gospel of Thomas the Gospel of Mary and the Wisdom of Faith Dialogue state that Peter was reluctant to accept Mary's authority because of her gender. According to Pagels, this is evidence for the disputes in the early Church that led to women being left out of the canonical material and Mary becoming the victim of a smear campaign to discredit her by associating her with a prostitute or a sinful woman.

'Note, for example, that the very writers who picture Peter as the disciple whom Jesus acknowledges as being their primary leader—namely, the authors of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke—are the same ones who picture Mary as no disciple at all, but simply as one of “the women,” or, worse, in the case of Luke, someone who had been demon-possessed...'

'Let us note, too, how this works in reverse: every one of the sources that reveres Mary as a leader among the apostles were excluded from the New Testament canon. '

Elaine Pagels, The Secrets of Mary Magdalene


'Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."'

'God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.'

'God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."…'

Genesis 1:26-28

According to Pagels, the gnostics tended to focus on Genesis 1 rather than Genesis 2. What became mainstream Christianity focused on Genesis 2. As Genesis 1 is the text in which God creates male and female at the same time (as opposed to the Adam and Eve story in which Eve is made as a helper) this reinforces the idea that male and female are equal. 

Furthermore, Gnostics thought that literal interpretations of Genesis 2 were missing the point. (Gnosticism generally rejected the superficial meaning of the text and looked for the hidden meaning in the story.) One way to read Genesis was as a story in which human beings come to discover Wisdom.

In her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent Pagels argued that Augustine's treatment of the Genesis story, in particular his belief in original sin, was at odds with the ideas that went before. The idea that humans are born with concupiscence undermines free will and (according to Pagels) owes more to Augustine's own troublesome experiences than to any preceding theology.


Gnostic thought tended to be dualistic and value the spiritual soul/mind more highly than the body. If the body is relatively unimportant then it perhaps follows that gender (assuming we take it to be primarily a bodily thing) is irrelevant.


Pagels argued that gnostic theology was reflected in the structure of gnostic church society.

'…many gnostic Christians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine forms with a complementary description of human nature. Most often they refer to the creation account of Genesis 1, which suggests an equal or androgynous human creation. Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities.'

Elaine Pagels, The Secrets of Mary Magdalene

As evidence for this Pagels referred to Tertullian's condemnation of the heretics. Tertullian said 'These heretical women how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!'

Quotation from Pagel's book The Gnostic Gospels

Pagels believes that in this respect the gnostics were being true to Jesus' message and the practices of the first Christians. Pagel's said 'Jesus himself violated Jewish convention by openly talking with women and including them among his disciples. Furthermore, in the very early Christian communities women acted as prophets, teachers and evangelists. Paul endorses this in Romans 16.7 where he praises the work of women he recognizes as deacons and fellow workers; he even greets one as an outstanding apostle, senior to himself.' Thus, far from being heretical, gnostic Christianity was more accurate than what became mainstream Christianity.


The essay was entitled Gnosticism, Feminism and Elaine Pagels and was published in Theology Today in 1981 

In an article in Theology Today Kathleen McVey (professor of Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary) has made the following criticisms of Pagels' argument.

McVey is a practising Roman Catholic.

  1. Whilst Pagels is correct that gnostic texts do (sometimes) talk about the divine dyad, she fails to pay attention to the relationship between the male and female aspects of God. The female aspect remains inferior to the male and is often associated with the material (bad) side of the world rather than the spiritual (superior) side of the world.
  2. Pagels is incorrect to say that 'mainstream' Christianity focused exclusively on the Genesis 2 teachings. Clement, Ambrose, Augustine and others all wrote about Genesis 1 as well as Genesis 2.
  3. We actually know very little about what the gnostics did - so we don't know whether they had female priests or not. Our sources for gnostic behaviour are the writings of (mainstream) Irenaeus and Tertullian. Pagel's uses these sources inconsistently, they are 'discounted by Pagels when describing behaviour of which she disapproves and are taken literally when the behaviour is acceptable to modern feminist views.'
  4. Pagel's routinely used Tertullian as an example of mainstream views - yet in many respect he was not mainstream (he spent years following Montanus a self-proclaimed prophet who brought new doctrines and practices to the church - supposedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).

McVey concluded:

'In short, heresy and feminism were not such good bedfellows as either Pagels or the modern Christian misogynists would have us believe. While there is some evidence that women may have played a larger role in some heretical communities than in their orthodox counterparts, attempts to link activity with the beliefs of the communities have failed…Insofar as modern proponents of women’s rights are concerned, does gnosticism offer a “powerful alternative” to orthodox Christianity? I think not.’

Read his article here.

Others have been harsher still.  Paul Mankowski of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome argued that her reputation as a scholar is 'undeserved' and that she misrepresents the arguments of Irenaeus. He stated:

'I am not calling for academic sanctions but, more simply, for clarification. Pagels should be billed accurately -- not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist. Her oeuvre is that of fiction -- in fact, historical romance.'

Goddess Thealogy:

Carol Christ described the birth of post-traditional Goddess thealogy (from the Greek 'thea' = goddess) in her chapter in the Cambridge Companion to feminist theology. She wrote:

'Goddess thealogy, like feminist theology more generally, begins with women's experience. Goddess theaology often begins with and individual woman's dissatisfaction with the male imagery of biblical religion. He experience of the Goddess, which may come to her through reading, dreams, ritual, or meditation, becomes authoritative for her. She may then share her experiences and ideas with friends, start or find a ritual group.

Marija Gimbutus was born in Lithuania but emigrated to America and worked at Harvard. She was a respected historian and anthropologist. Her book The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe suggested that neolithic people in Europe focused their devotions on goddesses rather than gods. She argued that these societies were matrilineal (mother-based), peaceful and egalitarian. As evidence she cited the widespread existence of female sculptures (evident from their sexual features) found in temples (indicating a sacred nature).

Youtube link to a lecture in which Gimbutus set out some of the evidence for her argument here.

Many proponents of goddess theology believe that they are rediscovering elements of a very old tradition.  Often those following goddess thealogy have been influenced by Marija Gimbutus' work on ancient European civilizations is often cited as evidence for widespread goddess worship that predated the patriarchal civilization and male gods that followed it. Mary Daly (who does not actually write much about goddess figures) argued that the Patriarchal Christian doctrine of the Trinity derived from the triple goddess figure.

As Carol Christ noted, Goddess thealogy values personal experience very highly. This naturally leads to a huge diversity of beliefs among goddess followers. However, there are some general themes:

  • Unity with nature. Goddess figures tend to be associated with motherhood and thus with mother nature. Consequently, goddess thealogy often stresses the importance of ecology and living in harmony with the world.
  • Related to this is a rejection of dualism which  place material things and spiritual things in opposition to each other. In (some) strands of tradional Christian thinking women are associated with the material (bad/less good) side of things and men with the spiritual, rational, (superior) side.
  • Re-evaluation of the body. Humans are not seen as 'fallen' and bodily urges are not seen as bad. Sexuality is something to be celebrated.
  • Community/inter-relatedness.



Don't forget that you need to create an argument one way or other. You cannot just list strengths and weaknesses or write 'on the one hand...on the other hand...'

'who wins and why' = clearly explaining which theologian creates the most convincing argument. You need to explain very clearly WHY it is the most convincing case.

The key question to consider when evaluating the post-Christian theologians is whether they are right to consider Christianity beyond redemption. The most obvious thing to do would be to compare them to the reform/revisionist theologians and consider 'who wins and why?'. Daly and Pagels have similar reasons for rejecting Christianity - but they are not identical. Which reasons are most persuasive? Is there one killer thing that makes Christianity incompatible with feminism? You can also consider how valid/useful/workable are the ideas that the plan to introduce. What do you think of Daly's re-imagining of ethics? Do you accept Nietzsche's analysis of morality or do you think that there are good arguments for absolute moral values? Could God as Be-ing have any value? How does this relate back to postmodernism and Cupitt?

When evaluating the alternative Christian theologies/thealogies you need to question whether the sources they use are adequate (are they reliable? are they 'Christian'? Are the conclusions drawn from them correct?). You could also consider whether Pagels et al are guilty of confirmation bias (seeing what they want to see). In general, do you think that it is good for Christianity to look outside itself for new inspiration? You might want to link to Hick and the idea of a new global theology. However, if you found the arguments of the post-Christian theologians convincing then you might want to argue that rather than seeking out non-canonical traditions with which to 'patch-up' Christianity Pagels should just accept that Christianity is damaging to women and abandon it.

Further Reading:

PDF of Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father online here.

PDF of Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology online here.

A detailed synopsis of Daphne Hampson's After Christianity is found on her homepage here.

Episode of In our time (BBC radio programme) on gnosticism (45 minutes long) here.