This semester, I am teaching a course on the doctrine of God. This week, we were talking about sexism, female images, and how we speak of the god of Jesus Christ and had great discussions. This motivated me to post this short column I wrote way back in 2007:
Why feminist theology?
Christian theology is many things. But there is one thing it is not: narrow.
After all, the God of Jesus Christ to whom we orient our entire world is utterly beyond us. God is infinitely other and awe-inspiring. Which means that even though we affirm that we have received fragments of revelation, God’s transcendence should never be underestimated.
So there’s a lot of room to move when we try to speak of God. And even theologians make mistakes. But sometimes these mistakes aren’t mere naïve errors. Sometimes they are reflections of our own sinfulness. In other words, sometimes our mistakes are more insidious, even if they’re unintentional. And this embedded sin in our theology then enables us to wallow in this shared sinfulness.
It hurts to say it, but sometimes this is how we create idols. And one of the most enduring of all of our theological idols comes from the sin of sexism.
One of the most obvious symptoms of this is our exclusively male language for God. This claim shouldn’t be controversial because Catholics and the major Christian denominations all agree that God in God’s self is neither male nor female; God is beyond gender. Yet, because of our need to talk about God, we can respectfully use analogies to do this. One of these valid analogies is calling God “Him” or “He,” since humans are made in God’s image.
But the problem is that we’ve turned this one analogy into the only analogy. At least when it comes to gender. So we can only speak about God in male terms. And that’s projecting a human limit onto a transcendent God.
That’s how we create an idol. And this idol is a symptom of the sin of sexism. Not in the sense of explicitly hating women, but more in the sense of making them invisible. And this is problematic because sexism and its costs are real. And some statistics, although now a decade old, illustrate the reality of this sin.
According to a U.N. report, women make up just a bit more than 50 percent of the world’s population. But they account for 70 percent of the impoverished and two-thirds of the illiterate. Correspondingly, women earn only 5 percent to 10 percent of the world’s wages and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property. But women do two-thirds of the world’s paid and unpaid labor. If that weren’t enough, every 15 seconds a woman is beaten, every 5 minutes a woman is raped, and more than a third of all women are physically abused by their partners during a pregnancy.
All of that should make us nauseated. Because all of us have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and female friends. And if you want to know my response, I defer to theologian Elizabeth Johnson. In her memorable way of putting it, “In my judgment, anyone who would underestimate the wrongs occasioned by sexist prejudice deserves the classic rebuke that Anselm gave to his questioner Boso: nondum considerasti quanti ponderis sit peccatum, ‘you have not yet weighed the gravity of sin.'”
So the sin of sexism is real. And so are its consequences. And its symptoms have colored many aspects of Christian life for too long. We in the 21st century didn’t create it. But we sustain it. And that gives good reason for theologian Anne Clifford’s goal of feminism-influenced theology: ” … to end oppression, discrimination, and violence directed to women and to acquire full equality and human dignity for every woman.”
In Catholic terms, feminist theology is a kind of an “aggiornamento” of traditional theology. It’s a breath of the Spirit that is enlivening the Church. And it’s re-creating us into a more God-centered people. It may be but one method of doing theology. But it has called Christians back to the basic challenge of the witness of Jesus Christ.
You see, feminist theology isn’t about hating men. It’s not about worshiping a victim mentality. And it’s not about hating the Church. It’s about recovering long suppressed voices and re-integrating them as equally authoritative into our attempts to talk about God. It’s about empowering women to serve as ministers and leaders. And it’s about opposing evil and building up the Church. Which means uncovering the sin of sexism among us and struggling against it for the good of humankind everywhere.
Feminist theology is about creating more adequate ways to speak of God and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a broken world. All of this while discerning how theology should influence how we live while calling our sinful practices into question.
Now we should hope for the day when there won’t be a separate “feminist” theology. That’s the day when feminist theology will be so thoroughly integrated into Christianity that it will just be part of the normal course of “Christian” theology. But we’re not quite there yet.
So get used to it. Feminist theology is here to stay. We should be thankful for the path to God that feminist theologians show us. And we should accept their call to repent and return to the God of Jesus Christ.