Challenges to the Role of Theological Anthropology in Feminist Theologies

By Teevan, Donna | Theological Studies, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Challenges to the Role of Theological Anthropology in Feminist Theologies


Teevan, Donna, Theological Studies


ONE OF THE MOST serious challenges to the turn to the subject that has so influenced Catholic theology is found in postmodern thought or more specifically in poststructuralist theory. This challenge is most keenly experienced by those who have been influenced by Euro-American feminisms that have been in dialogue with the thought of Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx. This article arose out of my desire to find out where a thoroughly different theological anthropology might lead. Although I have not become a poststructuralist feminist and in fact remain committed to feminist-Lonerganian approaches to theology, I believe there is something to be learned from poststructuralist feminism's attention to the relationships that exist among human consciousness, language, and politics. I suggest that Anglo-American poststructuralism might be valuable even to feminists who have philosophical and theological commitments quite contrary to some of its central tenets.

Here I first briefly review the models of theological anthropology prominent in Catholic theology, then offer a sketch of the poststructuralist approach to the relationships that exist among language, subjectivity, and politics. Finally I offer a few suggestions about how poststructuralist feminism, in its Anglo-American expression, may contribute to nonpoststructuralist theological anthropologies and theological method.

In particular, I am interested in how poststructuralism can stimulate new thinking about the appeal to women's experience that has been so prominent in Catholic feminist attempts to reconstruct theological anthropology and to forge a feminist approach to theology in the Catholic tradition. The volume edited by Ann O'Hara Graft In the Embrace of God: Feminist Approaches to Theological Anthropology takes experience as its foundation and frame; her own contributions to that book make clear the challenges of working with the category of women's experience. Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is lays out the methods, criteria, and goal of a feminist liberation theology that would ground critical discourse about God, identifying as foundational the experience of protest against sexism and a commitment to the flourishing of women in their concreteness. She describes this foundational experience as a kind of conversion involving contrast and confirmation: "contrast between the suffering of sexism and the humanum of women, and confirmation of women's creative agency and power, both mediated through the same Christian tradition." (1) More recently, in an exploration of feminist ethics and natural law, Christina Traina has condemned a naive appeal to women's experience while advocating a "critical approach to women's experience" that is rooted in "a primary commitment to women's well-being." (2) She contends that an epistemologically sophisticated notion of experience is necessary because experience serves a pivotal role maintaining the tension between creativity and givenness in theological anthropology and in "the formation of normative moral claims." (3) Attention to women's experience in Catholic feminist theology tends to be rooted in a conviction that women are made in God's image and called to participation in the project of building up the reign of God. Thus, the well-being of women--understood not in isolation but in relation to God, other human beings, and the earth--serves as a goal and criterion of adequacy for feminist theology. If the glory of God is a woman, as well as a man, fully alive, we must identify what is death-dealing and create pathways to a more fully human life. Built into Catholic feminism is an implicit if not explicit notion of what makes for full human personhood.

If "women's experience" is not to become either a cliched move in theological reflection or one that is riddled with so many difficulties that it becomes ineffectual, feminists working out of the Catholic theological tradition need to reexamine the relationship between their notions of experience and their understandings of human personhood. …

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