Some thoughts about “Christian feminism”

Some thoughts about “Christian feminism” December 29, 2011

Going where angels fear to tread: a response to “Christian feminism”

Anyone who pays close attention to my writings and especially to my blog knows I am an advocate of women’s rights and equality of women with men (and vice versa). My wife and I have enjoyed an egalitarian marriage for almost 40 years. I have two adult daughters I (with my wife) raised to resist any attempts to limit their potentials due to their gender. Within evangelical and Baptist circles I have advocated for women in ministry as equal with men in every respect. I have written guest columns in various publications to that effect and I have encouraged all my women students to follow God’s call wherever it leads them—including into lead pastor positions in churches. My wife and I have been members of two Baptist churches (in a row) pastored by women. We would not join a church that would not ordain women as deacons or to the gospel ministry. I have stood up in church business meetings and argued for quotas for women on church committees and boards (without success). (This was in a former church, not our present one.) In one church where we were members for 8 years I insisted that when the pastoral search committee talked about its future pastor (not yet selected) they say “he or she” and not just “he.” (The church had no policy against having a female pastor but tended to assume all candidates would be men.) I delivered a plenary address at an annual meeting of Christians for Biblical Equality and promoted that organization to my students and anyone who would listen. Furthermore, I have always taught my students that gender does not apply to God-in-himself/themselves, only to the second person of the Trinity because of the incarnation. (In other words, since the incarnation, there is a man in the Trinity—Jesus. But that does not mean God is male, rather, because of the incarnation, a man is one of the Trinity. Nothing about that fact makes men superior to women or maleness superior to femaleness. There is no ontological reason why God could not have become female.) I have taught students about the “motherly office of the Holy Spirit” (Zinzendorf, Moltmann) and regularly referred to the Holy Spirit as “she.” I have prayed publicly to “Our Father, who is also like a mother to us…” (much to the consternation of some traditionalists). I have taught my students about “Christian feminism” and  used books such as Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is in elective theology courses. I have argued very strongly for searching for women candidates when I have been on faculty search committees at three Christian universities.

I say all that for the benefit of anyone who thinks what I say following indicates sexism on my part. I won’t deny that, as a man in a still largely sexist society, I wrongly benefit from male privilege. I won’t even deny that sexism, so deeply embedded in our culture, seeps into my attitudes from time to time. I pray that God will protect and preserve me from that and help it never to affect my students, my wife, my daughters or any other women. I am simply of the opinion that sexism, like racism, is an insidious disease that affects everyone in a culture saturated in it since its very inception. (E.g., “all men are created equal….”)

Now, having said all that, I have some serious qualms about so-called “Christian feminism.” Let me clarify. The term “feminism” has at least two distinct meanings. One goes back to the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960s. It simply means equality of women with men in every aspect of society. In that sense of feminism, I gladly embrace feminism and identify myself as a feminist. However, gradually, over the past few decades, “feminism” has taken on a different, added connotation especially in academic circles. (I say “connotation” because this second meaning of “feminism” may not be in any dictionary; it is nevertheless the growing impression of what the term means among both its advocates and its detractors and it is increasingly how the term is used in the scholarly academy.) This second meaning is, in brief, that women’s experience and way of being-in-the-world is superior to men’s and should be made the cultural norm including in education. One does not have to read far into the literature of feminist theory to grasp this belief and resulting agenda for social engineering. In my opinion, it has trickled down into public education (and no doubt much private education) so that, as Newsweek magazine reported in a cover story entitled “The Boy Crisis,” in public education generally boys are now treated as “defective girls.” That is, they are expected to learn the way girls typically learn and are punished or drugged for not conforming. The result is a huge increase in the dropout rate among boys and a correspondingly huge increase in the percentage of college and university students who are female (almost 70%).

In other words, I have come to believe that, while society still has a long way to go in achieving real equality between women and men in every area, in some areas the trend is already in the other direction—toward males (especially boys) being treated as unequal with women (especially girls). Another area where women are forging ahead and leaving men behind is in public health. I have blogged and written about that much in the past. I am still convinced that public health, both government sponsored and non-profit, is biased toward women. There is little or no public health concern about the fact that, in general, men do not live as long as women—even when they live healthy lifestyles. We hear frequently that “more women than men die of heart disease” without the added qualification that “heart disease” in that fact includes heart failure due to old age. What we don’t hear is that more men than women die of cancer and more men than women die of classical heart attacks and at much earlier ages.

But my concern here is primarily with so-called “Christian feminism” as it is represented by the main feminist theologians: Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell (now deceased), Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Johnson, Susan Thistlethwaite, et al. I do not include in this list so-called “evangelical feminists” such as those involved in the founding of CBE and (on the British side) Elaine Storkey (author of What’s Right with Feminism?) because I think their beliefs about gender and their agenda for the churches is very different from those in the list of “main feminist theologians.” I have gone out of my way to hear (beyond just reading) as many of the main feminist theologians as possible. I have been at professional society meetings and public forums where the main speakers were Ruether, Russell and/or Thistlethwaite and I have corresponded with Johnson. I have not had the privilege or meeting or corresponding with Schussler Fiorenza, but I have read some of her books and watched youtube videos of her lecturing.

What I am experiencing is that a growing number of young, evangelical women students are being influenced by these “gender feminists” especially with regard to language about God, the nature of the Bible and Christian tradition (i.e., basic orthodoxy), and contemporary worship. I am certainly not of the opinion that these main feminist “Christian theologians” have nothing valuable to offer or that men and women students cannot learn from them. That is not at all what I believe. I encourage students to read them, but as with all theologians, they should be read critically. And therein lies a part of the problem; they do not want to be read critically. For them, feminism is an issue of justice. It is right that society and culture and churches should favor women’s experience and feminist consciousness (which is based on women’s experience) and that theology, including God, should be revisioned and reconstructed using women’s experience and feminist consciousness as the norm even over scripture (to say nothing of tradition). The result is, for example, that Elizabeth Johnson (and I think this is true of the other main feminist theologians) finds nothing valuable or helpful in male experience or consciousness. She stops short of saying that men are bad, but all of the positive images of God she recommends using in worship (for example) are female-based while all male-based images of God are criticized as hierarchical and oppressive. To a very great extent, the agenda of the main “Christian feminist” theologians is to flip tradition on its head and replace male images and metaphors for God with female ones. Whenever God is addressed as “Father,” for example, words such as “warm” must be attached; God must be imaged as a “motherly father” if as father at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against “balancing” male and female images of God in God-talk and liturgy. As I said earlier, I have myself prayed to “Our Father who is also like a mother to us….” What I am objecting to is that mainline feminist theology does not seem to me interested in simply balancing the scales, so to speak, but aims at reversing traditional sexism in theology and church life so that what they call “women’s experience” is valued more highly than men’s. Men’s experience is typically demonized (without quite saying so) and relegated to the dustbin of oppressive tradition. In order to be acceptable to these feminist theologians, men must become like (their perception of) women. Again, I agree that many men could benefit from being more nurturing and collaborative than they tend to be and society as a whole, and church life, could benefit from that. But it seems to me these feminist theologians are not only arguing for that. They seem to me to be using what they perceive as typical women’s experience, as defined by them, as the norm for political life (in its broadest sense including ecclesiastical organization, language, etc.) to the exclusion of men’s experience.

I agree with feminist theology (but not only feminist theology) that hierarchy among humans can be and usually is oppressive (except in relation to children who must be disciplined and constrained by adults). I don’t know if it can be escaped, but I resist it wherever I find it. By “hierarchy” here I mean the idea that status over automatically gives a person the right to dominate and control those whose status is below. I am not an anarchist; I believe leadership is necessary in every social order. But “leadership” need not be hierarchical. My problem with feminist theology is that it tends to imply that leadership itself is hierarchical and that every shred of hierarchy must be abolished even to the point of God being conceived as equal with creation and vice versa. There is a pantheistic strain in feminist theology. I once heard Susan Thistlethwaite deliver a talk on “God and her survival in a nuclear age.” Rosemary Ruether’s feminism in God and Gaia extends to arguing that we should abolish the idea of human survival of bodily death because it implies hierarchy (of humans over the rest of creation). Talk of God as “womb of creation” inevitably implies some kind of pantheism or at least panentheism.

My main concern is that this gender feminism, this mainline “Christian feminism,” is trickling down into so-called “liturgical renewal.” It is not confined to the ethereal realms of academic theology. An example, in my opinion, to be avoided, is (at least some of) the hymnody of contemporary feminist liturgist Brian Wren. I have sung some hymns by him to which I have no strong theological objection, but much of his “reimagining” of God in poetry and hymnody is strongly influenced by the kind of feminism I am talking against here. For him, all images of God are rooted in human experience. Sounds okay, right? But wait, aren’t some revealed? Is Jesus’ addressing of God as “Father” (and teaching his disciples to pray to “Our Father”) rooted in patriarchal experience? Is the Bible’s imagery of God at all normative for Christian theology, devotion and liturgy afterwards or can that imagery be “transcended” for the sake of contemporary political relevance and to promote a political agenda such as radically anti-hierarchical feminism?

One of the basic principles behind gender, mainline feminist theology is that “If God is male, the male is God.”  First of all, that wouldn’t follow even if it were true that God were male (which he isn’t). It’s simply an illogical statement meant for rhetorical effect. But what I think gender feminist theologians (including Wren) mean is that insofar as we use the Bible’s predominantly male imagery of God we teach people that maleness is closer to God than femaleness. Without doubt that has been the case throughout much of Christian history. But does throwing out male imagery of God in favor of predominantly female imagery solve anything? Or does it simply reverse patriarchy? The answer given by feminist theologians is that is not a problem because the opposite of patriarchy is radical equality. Revising imagery of God to suit our own needs (one feminist theologian said she needs a “God who looks like” her) seems dangerous to me. Pretty soon we leave biblical imagery of God behind and use imagery we have invented for our own purposes. As Donald Bloesch used to point out, this is exactly what the so-called “German Christians” did in the 1930s. (I am NOT comparing feminism with Naziism! I am pointing out a danger in moving away from biblical imagery in favor of culturally preferred “relevant” imagery. Where does it stop?  What limits it?)

Feminist theologians (including Wren) believe the Bible delivers to us a patriarchal idol. It also delivers, less obviously, perhaps, a liberating principle of equality—especially in Jesus’ ministry with women. In a sense, then, we must use the Bible against itself. I’m not totally against that; I believe there are elements in biblical revelation that are culturally conditioned and must be criticized using more dominant themes. What I am against, however, is using a contemporary cultural, political agenda (e.g., all hierarchy is bad and must be abolished including God over the world) to decide what is valid and what isn’t in scripture and tossing aside biblical imagery such as God as “Father” in favor of imagery we prefer and create to suite our agendas. Wren, for example, suggests these as alternative images of God (to the Bible’s): “Beautiful Moment,” “Maker of Rainbows,” “Weaver of Stories,” “Straight-Talking Lover,” “Midwife of Changes,” “Daredevil Gambler,” and “Life-Giving Loser.” (See What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology [Crossroad, 1989].) He even goes so far as to refer to Jesus Christ as “she” (something common among feminist theologians justified by the idea that the Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ is the same as the “Sophia” of the Wisdom literature of the Bible.)

I have two main problems with feminist theology including Wren’s (and similar) liturgical revisioning. First, it is not clear to me at all that there original revelation (e.g., scripture) is normative. It seems to me that something called “women’s experience” and “feminist consciousness” is elevated to that level. The result is that “anything goes” so long as it is liberating and culturally relevant (i.e., speaks to and promotes the feminist political agenda). Of course, Christian feminists such as those I’ve named do argue that the Bible contains prophetically liberating elements, but there does not seem to be any commitment to the Bible as a whole as divine revelation, normative for Christian thought and practice (including worship) everywhere and at all times. The result is that there is little distinctively “Christian” about it. Second, closely related to the first, is that the cross tends to get left behind in feminist theology and liturgy. Sometimes it is positively denigrated as “divine child abuse.” Of course, feminists don’t deny that Jesus was crucified, but they do not think his crucifixion was a divine act. Instead it was a martyrdom that unmasks the evil of patriarchy. The cross and redemption theology in general tends to take a back seat (if not in the trunk!) to creation and re-creation theology. In this I find it often less distinctively Christian than pagan.

I’ll close with an anecdote about one of my encounters with a leading feminist theologian. I was about to write my chapter on feminist theology for 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (co-authored with Stanley Grenz) when Letty Russell (Yale theology professor and author of several influential works of feminist theology) spoke at a mainline Protestant seminary (noted for its liberal leanings) only about a mile from where I was teaching at that time. So I drove over to hear her. I arrived a little late and found only one seat empty—at the very back of the chapel. The chapel was filled with women. I think the seminary’s president and I were the only men there. Right at that time, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. was meeting downtown. It was dealing with a controversy over a Presbyterian church near Washington, D.C. that had called a United Church of Christ pastor to be its pastor. (The two denominations have pulpit fellowship.) This particular UCC pastor had publicly declared his disbelief in Jesus’ divinity. The local presbytery had barred the Presbyterian congregation from calling him as its pastor. The church’s appeals worked their way up to the General Assembly that year. Letty Russell spoke passionately for about 45 minutes about how that particular deliberation was a distraction from the main issue which was supposed to be quotas for women in all denominational boards. She said that her denomination always does that—changes the agenda to something “unimportant” like the deity of Jesus Christ when an issue of concern to women comes up for consideration. The chapel crowd of almost all women literally stomped their feet, yelled their support and approval, clapped ferociously throughout Russell’s talk and cheered her on as if this were a pep rally for a Texas football team. (Actually, I kind of liked the passionate participation and “feedback” of the gathered women.) Apparently my body language gave away some intimidation. The woman sitting next to me patted me on the knee and said “Don’t worry honey. We won’t hurt you.”

I have nothing against full equality of women with men in every area of culture, including the church and its institutions, so long as achieving that does not result in reverse discrimination especially for boys and young men. I have nothing against supplementing predominantly male biblical imagery of God with female imagery especially drawn from the Bible itself. I have nothing against feminists protesting patriarchy in the churches so long as they do not discard orthodox doctrine in the process. I have nothing against liturgical renewal so long as it is not done out of political correctness or a desire to be culturally relevant to the neglect of given revelation. I am firmly opposed to addressing God exclusively in gender neutral terms (“Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” in place of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”) or in female terms to the exclusion of male terms (e.g., “Mother” or “Motherly Father” to the exclusion of “Father” and “Lord”). I am firmly opposed to singing hymns in worship that are written to promote a political or social agenda with the purpose of making people feel good about themselves. I am firmly opposed to talking about Jesus Christ as “she” or depicting him as a female on a cross (“Christa”). Without any doubt, Jesus was and is male. I firmly oppose any hints of pantheism or panentheism (as that term was originally meant—to denote God’s dependence on the world) in theology or worship.

I promote teaching Christian folks that God has no gender in spite of the predominantly male imagery of God in scripture. I promote teaching that both male and female characteristics are valuable but prone to distortion and that both genders need redemption without in any way destroying or even undermining their uniqueness as created by God. I promote Christian leadership without hierarchy. I promote liturgical renewal that is not ideologically driven. I promote teaching boys and men to be suspicious of our socially-driven tendencies toward patriarchy without demeaning maleness itself.

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