Reconstructionist or Revisionist Feminist Theology

As with liberal feminist theology there are no specific theologians whose ideas you must be familiar with.  Therefore, the questions will not be on specific theologians but about the general ideas that they hold. 

The specification does say that you need to know about revisionist/reconstructionist responses to secular reconstructionist feminism (see separate page).  About the use of the hermeneutic of suspicion and women in Christian history and about feminist re-imagining/reconstructing language about God and the Trinity.

This page will summarise key ideas from Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether.

The hermeneutic of suspicion:

The hermeneutic of suspicion was developed by Paul Ricoeur.  The point of the hermeneutic of suspicion is to challenge previous interpretations of a text by considering who interpreted it and why they might of interpreted it in that way. The reader should ask 'did the interpreter stand to gain anything from interpreting it this way rather than that way?' 'would they have had any subconscious preconceptions that might have lead them to a certain reading of the text?' 

Once the reader has interrogated past interpretations they are then in a position to approach the text afresh for themselves.

Many feminist theologians use the hermeneutic of suspicion to challenge traditional interpretations of the bible.  Liberal feminist theologians like Phyllis Trible challenge the way Genesis 2-3 has been interpreted and argue that the (male) interpreters had something to gain from reading the stories in a certain way.  Using the hermeneutic of suspicion enabled feminist theologians to reject traditional patriarchal understandings of the text without rejecting the Bible itself.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza:

Elizabeth Schusslier Fiorenza (a German Protestant feminist theologian) used the hermeneutic of suspicion as the first stage of interpreting the Bible.

  • Hermeneutic of suspicion
  • Hermeneutic of remembrance
  • Hermeneutic of proclamation
  • Creative actualisation

Re-imaging language about God:

One of Mary Daly's most memorable quotations is

'If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.'

Mary Daly

What she meant was that if we think of God in male terms then that affects how we view the relationship between man and woman.  We subconsciously think of men as being more like God, as being 'normative' for what it means to be human. Women become 'other' and different.  They are the adapted version of humanity, the less good bit.  We subconsciously think of authority as being a 'male thing' - why would we not if the supreme authority figure is a man?

Christianity uses almost universally male imagery when discussing God.  God is almost always referred to as 'He'.  We speak of God as 'Father', of Jesus as 'Son'. Even the Holy Spirit as one of the persons of the Trinity is properly referred to as 'He' rather than it. Metaphors which have traditionally been used of God (Judge, Good Shepherd) are also generally seen in male terms and all this is reinforced by religious art which depicts God as a man.  Just think of the famous Michelangelo Creation of Adam to illustrate the idea of man begetting man with no female to be seen.

Theologically speaking God has no gender.  God is purely spiritual and has no body.  Since gender is primarily a bodily thing it is hard to see how a non-physical thing could possess it.  However, for Christians, when God became human in the incarnation he came as a man.  Thus, for Christians, God in history was male.

'because the male excels the female sex, Christ assumed a man’s nature.'

Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Theologians like Augustine and Aquinas saw this as a matter of necessity.  God had to come as a man because the male was more fully in God's image.  Woman's subordinate 'helper' status meant that she was inferior in bodily terms (though not in spiritual terms) so it would have been unsuitable for God to be incarnate as a woman.

Rosemary Radford Ruether:

Maleness non-essential:

Essential features:  Those that are part of somethings essence. The cannot be them without it. They cannot not have them. E.g. having human DNA is essential to being human.

Accidental features: Those which a thing may have but could not have had.  For example, an individual human may have blonde hair, but they could also have been brown haired, red haired, black haired etc.  Hair colour is accidental to that particular human rather than being essential to their human nature.

Ruether disagreed.  In her view, Jesus' maleness was 'accidental' to him. God could have come as either gender, the fact that he chose a man may have been to do with the historical context, but it was not essential. This means that, for Ruether, if God had chosen to become incarnate at a different point in history he might have chosen differently and been incarnate as the daughter of God.  This is different for Augustine and Aquinas who would have said that the historical time of the incarnation is irrelevant.  God would always have come as a man because maleness is essential to him.

Rediscovering the divine feminine:

Quotations taken from Ruether's 1983 book Sexism and God-Talk

Ruether suggested that 'from archeological evidence one can conclude that the most ancient human image of the divine was female'.  She is referring to sculptures like Paleolithic sculpture known as the 'Venus of Willendorf' which was found in 1908. 

Page with lots of images of the Venus of Willendorf here.

The accentuated female features (large hips, round breasts, apparently pregnant stomach and defined genitalia) led many people to conclude that it was a representation of some sort of mother goddess figure. Many other ancient sculptures with similar features (though none so well defined) have been found in various parts of the world.  

Ruether argued that there are even hints in the Old Testament of previous Goddess worship.  Yahweh (God) is sometimes mentioned with 'his Asherah' - possibly his consort or wife (though scholars are far from agreed on this point).  If earliest religious believers saw the divine in female terms and if the Bible itself assimilated older religious traditions and texts that included Goddess worship then what happened?  Ruether utilised the hermeneutic of suspicion and suggested that it resulted from patriarchal rule. 

'Male monotheism reinforces the social hierarchy of patriarchal rule through its religious systems...God is modeled after the patriarchal ruling class...A symbolic hierarchy is set up.  God-male-female.'  

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

Notice that Ruether clearly does not see the Bible as a divinely inspired canon of absolute truth.  She considers primarily as a human historical document uses diachronic exegesis to see how it may have developed over time.  If the Bible is not entirely true, and the image of God that it portrays is culturally dependent then there is justification for reinterpreting and reimagining God. 

To further justify re-imagining language used about God Ruether pointed out that female imagery has always been a part of descriptions of God (though it has been utilised to a far lesser degree than male imagery).  She highlighted examples of God's love being compared to that of a mother (as did Pope John Paul II in the Mulieris Dignitatem).  She also referred to the medieval female mystic Julian of Norwich who described God in female terms.

‘Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.’

'The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, more courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.'

Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Divine Love (Fourteenth century)

Ruether's point was that it is not unheard of for Christians to use female language and imagery when describing God.  Julian's revelations were widely revered as an aid to devotion by the medieval Church despite their somewhat unorthodox language.

Some biblical scholars believe that the Wisdom literature started life as a book of praise to the goddess wisdom and later got absorbed and reworked into the Old Testament by writers who reinterpreted her as just a personification of Yahweh.

A particular interest for Ruether was the Wisdom literature.  In various books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) God's Wisdom is personified in female form. 

'In the Wisdom tradition the female image appears as a secondary persona of God, mediating the work and will of Go to creation.  The Book of Proverbs describes Wisdom as an offpring of God, being brought forth from God before the beginning of the earth, cooperating with God in the creation of the world.  In the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is the manifestation of God... She is the subtle power of the presence of God.'

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

Ruether suggested that Jesus might originally have been seen as a prophet of Wisdom.

Jesus, prophet of Wisdom:

Re-imagining God:

Given that

  • God is not literally male
  • Female language has been used historically but has been lost
  • Exclusively male language is damaging

Ruether thinks that it is both necessary and legitimate to reconstruct the language used to describe God.

'Christianity has never said that God was literally male, but it has assumed that God represents preeminently the qualities of rationality and sovereign power. Since men were assumed to be rational, and women less so or not at all, and men exercised the public power normally denied to women, the male metaphor was seen as appropriate for God, while female metaphors for God came to be regarded as inappropriate and "pagan". The Logos who reveals the "Father", therefore, was presumed to be properly represented even though the Jewish Wisdom tradition had used the female metaphor, Sophia, for this same idea. The maleness of the historical Jesus undoubtedly reinforced this preference for the male-identified metaphors, such as Logos and "Son of God", over the female metaphor of Sophia.'

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

Janet Soskice:

Chapter accessible here from sites that have a subscription to the Cambridge Companion series online.

Janet Soskice has written a chapter entitled Trinity and Feminism in the Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology.  In many respects what she says is similar to Ruether.  However, she also suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity is important because it actually guards against androcentrism. 

Compare this to D'Costa's comments about the Trinity in the light of inter-faith discussion.  Christians know God through the Trinity, non-Christians know him in other ways through the other persons of the Trinity.

 The doctrine of the Trinity says that Jesus was wholly God but not the whole of God. That is, Jesus was God incarnate but God incarnate is more than just Jesus. There are parts of God that are not Jesus.  This is similar to Ruether's argument that Jesus was accidentally male rather than essentially male, a point with which Soskice agrees.  Soskice wrote 'human bodies must be either male or female, but Christ is the Saviour not because he is male but because he is human.'

However, although Soskice thinks that the doctrine of the Trinity does not have to be male-focused, she recognises that it often has been viewed that way historically.  She surmises:

'If the doctrine of the Trinity has suffered from a distorted male weighting, then the challenge to contemporary theology - not just to feminist theology - is to return the balance.'

Soskice then proceeds to outline several ways that this might be done.

  1. Desexualise language and replace Father/Son/Holy Spirit with Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer.
  2. Emphasise the female characteristics of the Spirit.

Yet she recognises that neither of these approaches is without problems.  

The first is depersonalising and threatens to limit the roles of each part of the Trinity to one area in contrast to the traditional doctrine which stresses the interconnectedness of the persons (Jesus was imbued with the Spirit at his baptism enabling him to fulfil the Father's will in redeeming the world).

The second is problematic for feminists.  If we argue that the Spirit has nurturing/mothering tendencies and thus is the female aspect of God then we imply that women are characterised by motherhood.  Moreover, as Soskice says 'the Spirit by implication is here handmade of the other two (male) persons who are the ones to be really known and loved'. The Spirit tends to be less prominent in Christianity than the Father and Jesus and identifying that aspect with woman might actually serve to theologically marginalise women more than keeping solely male language and stressing that it is metaphorical.

For Soskice (as for Reuther) Julian of Norwich provides a useful pattern for feminist understandings of the Trinity.  Julian was willing to speak of Jesus as mother and God the Father as mother.  She did not reject the male language applied to the Trinity but supplemented it with female language.  If the point of the incarnation is that God became human then he must, in some way, represent all humans and both genders. Soskice points out that in the Old Testament God is spoken of in both male and female terms and female metaphors are not restricted to one aspect of God.

Soskice concludes that, on balance, the doctrine of the Trinity prevents a complete identification of God with maleness. The doctrine is, she thinks, the 'grammar' of Christian belief in that it provides us with a framework to think about God. Yet she does not think that language about the Trinity should become fixed.  Soskice quotes Elizabeth Johnson who wrote in her book She Who Is 'it is not necessary to restrict speech about God to the exact names that scripture uses,' therefore, feminist theology can add to the language used of God without rejecting all the terminology that went before. 


Reclaiming tradition:


Remember in an essay you cannot just ask rhetorical questions like this!  You need to make a case using clear reasoning and evidence.

For example, you would have to explain why it might be impossible to discover what women like Phoebe actually did.  You could point out the ambiguity of the term, the limited number of references to her (one, Romans), the type of source (letter), the intention of the letter (pastoral advice, commending Phoebe, not explaining what she did), the impossibility testing our theories (2,000 year gap!) etc.

You need to make the case, not assume it is obvious! 

The most obvious challenge to make of Schussler Fiorenza's approach is to point out the speculative nature of her ideas.  To what extent is it actually possible to read between the lines and discover the hidden women of the Bible? Are we in danger of just finding what we want to see?

The hermeneutic of suspicion is widely used by contextual and revisionist theologies and there is much to recommend it.  Interpreters are generally influenced consciously or subconciously by their own world view and to try to look anew at a text must first involve putting aside the interpretations that have been inherited.  However, are feminist theologians guilty of using a hermeneutic of paranoia rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion?

Finally, is tradition worth reclaiming? Radicals like Daly would encourage feminists to reject the Bible as a patriarchal, misogynistic, outdated text. She would see no point in trying to reclaim and rebrand it.

Naming God:

We could start by asking whether it actually matters if God is described in predominantly male terms.  After all, Shakespeare hypothesised 'what's in a name? That which we call a rose by any name would smell as sweet.'  Does it really matter if we only talk about God as Father, Son and the [male] Holy Ghost?

If we conclude that it does matter then what are our options?

  1. Replace all male language with female language.
  2. Replace part of it (e.g. call the Holy Spirit 'she')
  3. Vary the terminology we use.
  4. Write s/he and god/ess when writing about God.
  5. Remove gender entirely and talk about 'them' or 'it' and speak of the Trinity as 'Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer'.

In Gyn/Ecology Mary Daly wrote sarcastically:

'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'

None of these seems to completely solve the problem.  1) just reverses the bias 2) might be said to be inadequate as the Trinity remains two to one male and the female part is the bit that is often perceived as subordinate. 3) might work in theory, but it is hard to imagine doing it in practice. 4) is workable in writing (Schussler Fiorenza does it) but doesn't work verbally. 5) loses the personal nature of the Trinity (and has been specifically condemned by the Vatican for that reason).

Plus, none of these options can get round the historical fact of Jesus' maleness which may (or may not) be a problem depending upon your point of view.

Perhaps to discover truly female-empowering ways of speaking about God one has to look beyond the canonical Christian material and perhaps consciously reject Christian tradition as radical feminist theologians do.

Further Reading:

Very brief overviews of different types of feminist theology here.

Janet Soskice's chapter on Feminism and Trinity (Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology) here.