Feminist Theology: A Review of Literature

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According to Sandra Schneiders's useful definition, feminism is a comprehensive ideology, rooted in women's experience of sexual oppression, which engages in a critique of patriarchy, embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth, and actively seeks to bring this vision to realization.(1) Feminist theology may be considered that part of this quest for justice which is concerned with critical analysis and liberating retrieval of the meaning of religious traditions. In the roughly 35 years of its existence, contemporary feminist theology has produced a vast, international body of literature that ranges across all of the theological specialties and beyond. The notes that follow revisit several salient themes and debates in the area of systematic theology, although no hard and fast division obtains between this discipline and feminist ethics and biblical hermeneutics.(2)

The current intellectual ferment first came to expression in Valerie Saiving (Goldstein)'s now-classic 1960 article, "The Human Situation: A Feminine View," in which she raised the question of the applicability of prevailing theological statements to all human beings. Her own suggestion, that teachings about sin as pride or will-to-power and about redemption as negation of self or self-giving love might look very different from the perspective of women's experience, struck a deep chord.(3) Since then, virtually every aspect of inherited theology has been scrutinized for the ways in which its context has shaped its content, the two being inextricably linked.

In 1985 Mary Jo Weaver identified six tasks for feminist academicians.(4) The first three involve pointing out the absence of women in a field, recognizing that whatever knowledge about women in fact exists has been trivialized, and searching out the lost traditions of women. Much work on these initial tasks was undertaken during the 1970s and early 1980s. The other three tasks entail reading old texts in a revisionary way, challenging the discipline methodologically, and working toward a truly integrated field. In the last ten years these latter tasks have been taken up with enthusiasm and rigor by feminist theologians, resulting in works that not only fall under the general rubric of systematic theology but also stretch the boundaries of what has been understood to be systematic theological discourse.

While earlier (i.e. pre-1980) feminist theologians could be characterized as either "radical" or "reformist" in view of their relation to patriarchal traditions,(5) no such classification can be made now. This is due to the diversity that prevails in approaches to the constructive tasks of theology, to the point where feminist theologies would be a more accurate nomenclature. Even the term "feminist" is problematic, given its association with largely white, middle-class, well-educated women. In the U.S., the "womanist" theology of African-American women and the "mujerista" theology of Hispanic women now take their place at the table, along with the insights of Asian-American women. Indeed, attention to diversity, otherness, and difference has emerged as an essential methodological concern of feminist theologies.(6) This shows itself in several ways.

First, the recourse to experience is a major though controverted move in all women's theologies. As in Saiving's essay, "women's experience" in distinction to the claim of "common human experience" functions as a theological resource and criterion.(7) Yet it became increasingly evident in the 1980s that the nature of that experience needed more careful scrutiny. Does the appeal to experience refer to bodily, socialized, psychological, historical, religious, political, cultural, racial, class, or economic experience?(8) Is it an appeal to their own experience by white women who fail to consider the difference that race makes, thereby effectively erasing women of color the way traditional male theology overlooked all women? …