What is feminist theology and how has it impacted our world?
Consider these words from Women in the World Religions (edited by Arvind Sharma):
The symbolic manifestations of a people’s sex role plan are found in the symbols of creative power, for there is ‘a congruence between the gender of a people’s creator god(s), their orientation to the creative forces of nature, and the secular expressions of male and female power. Scripts for female power … accord feminine symbolism and women a prominent role in the sacred and secular domains … Generally speaking, when males dominate, women play an inconsequential role in the sacred and secular domains. Almost always in male-dominated societies, the godhead is defined in exclusively masculine terms.’[i]
One definition of Feminist Theology is that it “Reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of religion from a feminist perspective with a commitment to transforming religion for gender equality.” [ii]
Before we explore this definition, I want to consider what both feminism and theology mean.
What is “Feminism?”
“Feminism is a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.”[iii]
How feminism manifests in our world has evolved over time, from women working to get the right to vote to the use of social media to confront prejudice. Feminist ideology and theology has been and is powerful and potentially life changing for all of us.
[i] (Sandy 1981, 6)
[ii] (WGS 320 Chapter 8: Women and Religion flashcards | Quizlet)
[iii] (Hawkesworth, M.E. (2006). Globalization and Feminist Activism. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 25–27).
What is “Theology?”
Now let’s look at theology. Theology is not static. Prior to the 20th century, theology focused primarily on a person’s relationship with their god. Most modern theologians define theology as a person’s or a religion’s answers to the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, existence, as well as one’s belief/nonbelief in a divinity, in an afterlife, in a soul, and any other supernatural phenomena. Given that feminism and theology are not static, let’s consider our definition again: feminist theology “reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of religion from a feminist perspective with a commitment to transforming religion for gender equality.” How does this definition speak to you today?
The Stories and Myths of Wise Women
Feminists and Feminine Theologians are working to bring the stories and myths of strong and wise women as well as religiously significant women to the attention of their students and the public, not to discredit the male stories and myths, but to bring balance the theology that is being taught. They also are working to bring a feminine influence, a feminine voice, a feminine sensibility into the patriarchal influence often inherent in the values, beliefs, and traditions in all the world’s religions. This work ultimately helps us all to be less blind to the role and significance of women in our world.
So often we, both men and women, are blind to how our culture influences us to suppresses, minimize, and disregard women’s contributions in our religion. I know I have been blind. I preached a sermon many years ago in Austin, Texas, at Wildflower Unitarian Universalist church on Father’s Day about the relationship between fathers and sons. I was approached by a woman afterward who was quite upset that I did not mention the relationship between fathers and daughters as well. Twenty years ago, that was something that flew under my radar. I’ve become more mindful of identifying when Unitarian Universalist history has been written by old white guys and doesn’t include the many women and people of color who contributed to our movement in its early development.” I remind myself to “reconsider the traditions … [of our Unitarian Universalist] religion from a feminist perspective.”
Today’s Feminist Theology
Today’s feminism and feminist theology is expanding our definitions of feminism, and impacting our culture in new and different ways. Today’s feminists are interested in inclusive language and strong women stories, but they are also interested in defining who they are, embracing their individuality and their rebelliousness—rebelling against cultural mores and traditions. They want, as women, to define their own sexuality and their own lives independently of the dominant patriarchal society.
I suggest that Feminism and Feminist Theology are all about pushing men and women out of our cultural and religious comfort zones—to see the world in its completeness, not just in terms of “man, mankind, father, brother or brotherhood.” Women want out from under a masculine cultural umbrella, with its gender dualities, and its black and white absolutism. Today’s feminists accept and embrace non-binary genders and all the colors of life.
Often when we talk about spiritual exploration, it is all about letting go of control, opening yourself up to something new, different, something that might offer some insight or new awareness, something that opens your mind and heart.
Not being in control may give you some insight into what it can be like to be a woman in a patriarchal society, where someone else makes decisions for you and exerts control over your body—think about the laws in some states that are obstructing a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Support Women’s Personal Authority and Voice
In the book, Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions, there is an interesting chapter on a Feminist Model for Spiritual Direction. The author, Novene Vest, asks us to consider looking at our spiritual work through a feminine lens. Vest says that telling a woman to “let go” to gain some insight doesn’t work as well; Vest suggests that women might instead want to explore how to gain personal authority and identify a voice in a culture that minimizes or attempts to suppress their voice.
She goes on to consider the commonly used metaphor for spiritual work of taking a journey, but offers this: “Might not a woman be more likely to find freedom in an image that suggests a safe [enough] place … to conceive and then give birth to a child? What would be the effect of thinking of our basic spiritual practice as involving the rhythms of nesting, gardening, creating a place of beauty…[imagining] a place long treasured, where we had enjoyed watching the play of light and shadow shift with the seasons and the years…cherished the rhythms of aging and dying and birthing again as they appear in the cycle of all living things.”
I am suggesting that in our spiritual, heart, or ethical work, we strive to blur the lines of our cultural limits as we discern who we are as spiritual beings. Do not allow your spiritual work to be defined by what others say, perhaps it is a journey or perhaps it is building a home, perhaps it is being out of control or perhaps it is finding your authority.
Feminist Theology is about a willingness to buck the system, to rebel against having your identity defined by anyone other than yourself, to be willing to be moved and transformed by new ideas, new concepts, new ways of seeing life. Feminism is for everyone, although it is through women’s experiences that we, humankind, can begin to see the world differently than we have been taught. Feminism and Feminist Theology challenge us to understand more, empathize more, stretch ourselves more than we would if we simply accepted the cultural messages we have been fed since birth.
Judy Chicago, an American feminist artist, art educator, and writer, gives us some insight into what our world and our theology might be like if we accept the challenge that feminist theology offers:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again
So may it be.