Monday, April 28, 2008
Theological Response to Feminist Theology - Sexism and God-Talk and Battered Love
I belong to a culture that is well known for its chauvinism and sexism. Women, even though they play an important role in society, are still under the auspices of men. As in many other Western societies, women are repeatedly treated unequally and despite the continual growth in awareness and inclusiveness of the sexes, they have not yet arrived where men today still stand alone.
With this being said, I look at feminist theology with respect. However, as I approach it, I bring with me the weight of a culture that praises male dominance, especially in church environments. This is my background; this is the way I was raised, and unfortunately, this will eventually become apparent in this paper, not in the form of sexism, but in the form of spontaneous reaction to a different paradigm. However, my intention is not to perpetuate the wrongness of my culture, but to be challenged, transformed for the better, and as the result, be an agent of awareness and transformation regarding sexual equality.
I personally do not see women as being different from men in their humanity and capacity. I also recognize that I do not have trouble seeing men and women playing the same roles in society. For me, men and women are equally capable to execute the same jobs and have the same positions in any area of society. I affirm the same regarding public offices. Thus, for me, men and women can occupy any governmental position regardless of whether it is city, state or national. I disagree when I am aware that women normally are paid less for doing the same job as men. I feel bad every time I hear or see on TV domestic violence where usually the men beat or morally damage the women, or when I am aware of any violence (rape, torture, battery, etc.) against women practiced by men.
My struggle, though, arises when I try to equalize the roles of men and women in the religious sphere. In this case, my personal inclinations toward an equality of roles and my deep sympathies toward women’s leadership are seriously compromised. The simple reason for this dichotomy does not lie in my culture (although my culture ratifies this approach), but in my understanding of the Bible.
Sexism and God-Talk – Rosemary Radford Ruether
As any other oppressed group, women also redefined theology in such a way to rescue their voices and their importance among those who are considered oppressors. I appreciate the principle of feminist theology. However, I cannot totally agree with Ruether when she says that “[T]heologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption” (19). This statement is extremely profound as Ruether excludes anyone who denies the full humanity of women from their imago dei, reason, salvation and church (without mentioning its proper names). It sounds as if Ruether is considering this sin (which is horrible and must be completely avoided) as unforgivable. Not that she is stating this, but this is how it sounds to me. Furthermore, in her attempt to recognize the values of different beings, Ruether ends up negating humanity (both male and female) as the crown of creation. Thus, while I can see Ruether’s attempt to recover the full image of women in Scripture, I also see her denial or even complete rejection of basic truths in the Bible.
On the other hand, I believe that Ruether is completely right in her description of women as the oppressed of the oppressed. Thus, feminist theology in this regard, becomes more effective than other liberation theologies. Liberation theology in a sense seems to be blind to the particular struggle of oppressed women in their communities or in a sexist society. So, feminist theology goes deeper in the rescue of the oppressed women, calling oppressor the very person who in a larger scale is the oppressed (poor men in general).
Another characteristic of Ruether’s theology that I do not appreciate is her embrace of other religious texts (Gnostics and even texts of other religions) as an attempt to “clean” her theology from patriarchal influences. Personally, I find this problematic, especially considering the Bible’s own claims of the use of such texts. Apparently, many of the false teachings and teachers exposed in the New Testament were of Gnostics. The apostle John wrote an entire letter warning the church about false teachings. The short letter of Jude also talks about the influence of Gnosticism in the early church. Thus, Ruether’s use or appreciation of texts that are not canonical represents a problem in her theology. It seems that Ruether is trying to use the Bible texts to prove that it is permeated with sexism, and therefore, that it must be reinterpreted using alternate texts to form a feminist theology. In other words, she is using the Bible against itself to produce a new theology from extra biblical writings. Even though I disagree with the patriarchal worldview of both Old and New Testaments, I do not think that creating a new feminist non-patriarchal theology is the remedy to sexism and chauvinism. There must be another way of bringing equality of sexes from an orthodox view point (am I being too unrealistic?). Regarding Ruether’s term to express the fullness of the divine she wants to picture in her book, I do not see any problem with it. The term God/ess is really clever and according to Ruether it covers both male and female characteristic of God. However, when Ruether (rightly) suggests that “God/ess-language cannot validate roles of men or women in stereotypical ways that justify male dominance and female subordination” (69), I find it difficult to accept. As I said, the term is clever and appropriate and she is right in point this out, but nevertheless, it does not erase the patriarchal tendency found in the Bible or do justice to the larger amount of references to God as male. I know that the God I see in the Bible is a patriarchal-chauvinist God for Ruether, however, the God/ess of Ruether is a fake god. Let me try to explain my point. Ruether’s God/ess is the imagination of a God not found in the Bible. I know that in Jesus Christ we find the perfect revelation of God and that Jesus identified himself with the poor and the oppressed. I also know that since Jesus is our greatest model, we too must act like him toward the poor and oppressed. We must identify ourselves with the poor, the weak and the oppressed, no matter what their race or gender. Acting like that, we will sympathize with them and we will not act as oppressors. However, God the Father and the glorified Jesus are not like Ruether’s God/ess. We find in Ruether’s deity an only immanent God, whereas the biblical God is both immanent and mainly transcendent. He is as Barth extensively writes about, totally other. He is from a different category, so to speak. We must learn from the pages of the Bible and accept the patterns which are proposed there. Ruether’s God/ess is an idol or a fake god not because of its sympathy with women, but mainly because of its denial of the real God of Scripture. The problem I see here is that for Ruether every theology, every biblical and church tradition, every Scripture passage is corrupted by “patriarchal alienation.”
While reading Ruether’s book, I came across conceptions that I have never heard about. For example, Ruether, referring to churchmen’s ideas throughout the history of the church, writes “[A]s an ‘inferior mix,’ woman can never as fully represent the image of God as man” (94). She also states that “[W]ithin history, woman’s subjugation is both the reflection of her inferior nature and the punishment for her responsibility for sin” (95). These are only two examples from several stated in the book. I wish I could argue against these statements and say that Ruether was wrong. But unfortunately Ruether proves her case by showing in the writings of prominent theologians that in fact what she wrote was right, and by right I mean that the theologians indeed wrote about women in the terms quoted above. Augustine, the first theologian mentioned, did not consider the women apart from men as bearing the image of God. Aquinas talks about women in Aristotelian terms considering them inferior to men. These pre-reformation views of women, I confess, were entirely new to me. However, the views presented by Ruether after the Reformation I have heard about, and I am more sympathetic towards them. Basically, Luther considers the position of women as a punishment from her sin and Calvin considers the place of women as the divine created social order which has nothing to do with her sin. So, according to Calvin, before God created the world, He ordained that men would rule and women would follow men’s rule.
Following the patriarchal anthropology, Ruether brings the feminist egalitarian anthropologies into the discussion: eschatological feminism, liberal feminism, and romantic feminism. What these feminist anthropologies try to do is essentially rescue the value of women from patriarchal views of them. Ruether’s argument can be summarized in her own words: “[W]omen, through the opening of equal education and political rights, have indeed demonstrated their ability to exercise the ‘same’ capacities as men” (109). Thus, Ruether’s point is that the theologians were wrong and that even some feminist anthropologies were wrong. Instead, men and women are totally equal in every aspect if they receive the same education and opportunities in life. Furthermore, Ruether argues that as humans, male and female have a “full and equivalent human nature and personhood” (111). I personally find it difficult to argue against Ruether’s point in this matter. I read in Genesis where God seems to have punished Eve with submission to her husband, but what I see in our world is this passage being taken so mistakenly that I do not know if that is what God intended for women. I totally agree with Ruether that male and female are different because of the work of culture and socialization. But again, I must ask myself, who do I have to obey or follow, God or my own tendencies? One thing I know, Augustine and Aquinas completely missed the point on their observation of woman. I definitely disagree with them; however, Luther and Calvin’s views are tempting to me.
I now want to turn my attention to Weems’ book Battered Love. In this book Weems analyzes the metaphorical language of husband/wife found in the book of the prophets Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Battered Love – Renita J. Weems
Weems’ book is an excellent study on the figurative language used by the prophets in order to convey a message that is effective in a patriarchal society. She uses the prophetic speeches of Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, concentrating on their use of metaphorical language. However, even though Weems recognizes the several types of metaphors used by these particular prophets, what she is more concerned with is specifically the husband/wife metaphor. In fact, the husband/wife metaphor has for the Old Testament society a deeper meaning. Weems says that “the metaphor of the promiscuous wife is the kind of metaphor Hebrew men shared with other Hebrew men, in that it was a metaphor that absolved them of guilt in battering their wives, a metaphor that absolved them of serving lore about women and women’s bodies, and a metaphor that justified the control and punishment of women” (42). Thus, Weems touches on the central nerve of ancient Hebrew society. She brings to the surface difficult to understand parallels between an unfaithful woman and an unfaithful society. She also exposes the prophet’s skills to provide a message that is greatly effective from men’s point of view, but at the same time, extremely biased towards women in general. Towards the end of the book, Weems brings the metaphor of husband/wife to the present, questioning what we are going to do with it. Is there a place in our post-modern society where we can continue to use the same type of language without promoting violence and sexism toward women? Is male violence justifiable in today’s society regardless of women’s behavior? These are the type of questions we need to respond to after reading Weems.
I really appreciated Weems’ approach to the matter of violence, sex and marriage in the Hebrew prophets. She does not try to move away from the biblical text, but she recognizes it and even understands the prophet’s use of such vivid and heavy language. She writes from the stand point of the oppressed (as an African American woman); however, we do not find any bitterness in her writings. I also think that she is right to be concerned about the reaction of the modern reader of such texts, especially women. For some people, it is hard to separate violence towards women from God’s ways of dealing with the unfaithful Israel.
However, in my personal experience, I have met several Christian women that would agree with God’s way of dealing with unfaithfulness. These women would say that God is not punishing women in general, but only those who are unfaithful. They would also say that the metaphor is not used for women only but for men as well, since the idea of the metaphor is not violence against women but punishment against unfaithfulness from either men or women. Another argument that these women use is that since God is male, he could not consider Israel as another male but only female, so, gender is not an issue in the metaphors but it is the only way to characterize the relationship between a male God and His people. Finally, these women agree that unfaithfulness in a marriage relationship is wrong and that it does not have a place among both Christian women and men. Now, whether these women agree that the means of gang rape and mutilation as described in Hosea 23 is God’s way to punish unfaithfulness, I do not know the answer. I assume that as followers of Christ they would also consider any type of violence against the spirit of the Gospel.
So, what makes these women accept the use of violence against women in the Old Testament and not accept the same type of violence today? My best answer for this question would be that today we are under a new covenant. The ways God dealt with His people in the past are not the ways Jesus relates to us today. Thus, they accept this type of language the same way males and females accept God’s command to slaughter the Canaanites or the Baal prophets. It was “okay” back then, it is wrong today.
Ruether and Weems are necessary voices in our society. I believe that our seminaries and religious institutions need to hear more attentively what feminist theology has to say. There must be more conversation and less debate. History has shown that women are not the weak vessels as mentioned in the Bible, and that they have their place in all areas of society. If we completely shut our ears from hearing the voice of courageous women such as Ruether, Weems, and many others, we are not only showing our prejudice towards them, but also, we are showing our ignorance and our fear of losing power. Hearing them, however, does not mean that we must accept all their claims and speculations. But it definitely means that we all, men and women alike, are still struggling to understand what the will of God on this matter is.
 I point this out not to say that I am completely influenced by my culture to the point that I agree with the position in which women are usually placed in society. I point this out as a way of positioning myself against this cultural trend but at the same time inescapably influenced by it.
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