Sin-No More? A Feminist Re-Visioning of a Christian Theology of Sin

By McDougall, Joy Ann | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Sin-No More? A Feminist Re-Visioning of a Christian Theology of Sin


McDougall, Joy Ann, Anglican Theological Review


There is a largely unquestioned consensus in North Atlantic feminist Christian theology against speaking of sin either as a ruptured relationship or refusal of a transcendent God's will for humankind. In contrast, this article explores what a feminist theology of sin might look like, if it is rooted in humanity's dynamic relationship to a radically transcendent gift-giving God. In what follows, Daphne Hampson's "After Christianity" exemplifies the position that Christianity's classical symbolic order is incompatible with feminist views of selfhood and equitable gender relations. Second, Hampson's claims are contested by the view that a radically transcendent God can be a source of human empowerment, as shown in Kathryn Tanner's theology in "Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity." Finally, the author demonstrates how Tanner's concept of sin as "blockage" or "blindness" to God's gift-giving, once "rhetorically re-dressed" in feminist terms, can overcome the gender troubles with the classical Protestant paradigm of sin as pride.

Whatever Happened to the Feminist Doctrine of Sin?

No doctrine in Christian theology has proved more vexing to contemporary North Atlantic feminist theologians than that of sin. In the early seventies Valerie Saiving and Judith Plaskow touched off an initial feminist protest against the doctrine by challenging the paradigm of sin found in the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Saiving and Plaskow argued that Niebuhr and Tillich's versions of the Protestant paradigm of sin as pride-in Paul's terms, being boastful or puffed up in one's faith-hardly fit the lived experience of women, who suffered more from exaggerated humility and self-subordination than from self-exaltation.1 Defining sin in terms of the rebellious will (or in modern terms as the self-inflated ego) presumed a notion of autonomy and agency that many women do not enjoy. Not only does the sin of pride or self-exaltation miss the mark in identifying the source of women's alienation, but also such sin-talk has proven complicit in women's gender captivity. For many women, sin-talk functions as a "rhetoric of otherness": a cultural mechanism that assigns to women false guilt and self-blame, and in so doing traps them on the underside of the economy of gender relations.2

While feminist theologians may speak with one voice against the root paradigm for sin as pride, they propose highly differentiated hermeneutical, sociopolitical, and rhetorical strategies in reconstructing Christian discourse about sin.3 One way to analyze what has happened to the feminist doctrine of sin is to observe the various migrations of the doctrine from its locus within modern theological anthropology.4 With that in mind, let me provide a brief typology of three such migrations: first, to the doctrine of redemption/liberation; second, to the doctrine of creation; and third, within theological anthropology itself.

For many of the pioneering Christian feminist theologians, reconstructing the doctrine of sin meant identifying patriarchy as the original sin from which both men and women need liberation. In the early eighties so-called second-wave feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, and Sallie McFague exposed the symbolic and social order that supported patriarchal relations of domination and subjugation.5 Each sought to liberate humankind and indeed all of creation from their bondage to this patriarchal social order, by offering alternative models of right relations built on equality, mutuality, and friendship. These feminist proposals were more than socio-ethical programs of liberation. They were full-scale programs for reforming the Christian tradition. Along with analyses of sin and redemption, each proposed distinct linguistic strategies for reforming Christian God-talk and its gender anthropology, so that women might gain the agency to shape their own notions of God, self, and world.

Building on these pioneering analyses of patriarchy as original sin, a second group of feminist theologians took a different path to redressing the gender trouble with sin. …

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