What is feminist theology?
Feminist theology is the study of how women relate to the divine and the world around them as equal creations in the image of God. It’s a big conversation involving women and men from across Christian denominations sharing their thoughts in everything from scholarly dissertations to blogs and popular books. Even though the conversation contains a lot of diverse viewpoints, there are also a few key beliefs most feminist theologians share.
Feminist theologians believe that it matters who is doing theology. There’s no such thing as thinking about God in a vacuum; in other words male theologians bring their experience of gender when they talk about God, and so do female theologians. When engaging with religion it matters what someone’s body is like, what their experience is like and how they’ve been included in or excluded from the church. Christian feminists’ emphasis on experience and context leads them to look at Biblical texts, worship services and even personal devotion from the perspective of who is included and who is excluded. The goal is to shape the Christian tradition in ways that value both genders and to heal the harm that has been done to women in the name of Christianity. Feminists are especially alert to traditions and beliefs that exclude or are harmful to women, but increasingly they are also paying attention to race, class, LGBTQ issues, and the environment, working towards a Christianity that is life-giving to all people.
Why is feminism necessary for Christians?
In the Bible, Jesus is recorded to have been respectful of and personally close to women, but Christianity as a religion has had a long history of denying women’s equality. From rules banning women in church leadership, to attitudes implying women’s moral inferiority, and even the use of Biblical passages to defend domestic violence, Christianity often treats women as lesser creations. Some injustices against women can be traced to the sexist cultural contexts in which Christians have lived, but Christianity itself has too often been used as justification to denigrate women.
There are many reasons why sexism can be so deeply ingrained in Christianity. Greek social and philosophical categories that were popular when the church was forming often influenced Christian social norms, and thus also colored Christian writing and theology. Through years of reinterpretation in sexist societies, ideas that categorized men and women on opposite sides of divides like good and evil, rational and emotional, enlightened and carnal, became common binaries in Christian thought and treated as part of the religion itself.
However, there are several core Christian beliefs that push back on dividing up the human race like this: humanity’s creation in the image of God, and Jesus’ incarnation as both human and divine. Genesis 1:26-27 reads, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” That image of God expresses itself in humankind regardless of gender. Women can claim the sacredness of being in God’s own image equally with men and use that equality to reclaim their value within the Christian tradition.
Similarly we read in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus became human in order to save humanity, and an important part of that was having a particular body and experience. To be exact, Jesus’ human experience was that of an impoverished Jewish male living under Roman occupation. However, what all of us fundamentally share with him is our experience of humanity. The other particularities of his life, including his gender, are not more sacred than other human conditions. Jesus’ gender allowed him to preach and teach in his culture, but it was his humanity that allows him to be savior for all genders.
What do Christian feminists study?
Even though the Biblical beliefs above affirm women’s worth, there are also passages of scripture that have been used to limit and harm women. A key task of feminist theology is reconciling belief in divinely ordained gender equality with Biblical passages that seem to portray women as of less value than men.
Feminists have taken a variety of approaches to the Bible. One of the most common is to read problematic passages in light of the liberating message of the Bible as a whole and study limiting or violent passages within the cultural contexts in which they were written. For many feminists, closer study of texts in their historical context leads to a greater appreciation of the Bible’s respect towards women, but for some there are texts that remain too disturbing to accept as God’s word. In that case, another option is to critique the canon (the selection of books that make up the modern Bible), especially since women were not very involved in the process selecting them. Theologians then evaluate ancient texts more directly on how they relate to women. Most feminist theologians do take the Bible as we know it as the central, normative text of Christianity and read it critically, paying close attention to what it says about women, and using imagination and historical research where it fails to mention women at all.
Other pursuits of feminist theology are very similar to the range of studies in theology as a whole: the Trinity as a unit, or individually as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Eschatology (the end times), Creation, the Church, etc. In each area, women’s experience and relationship to God is brought to the forefront, and theologians work to highlight women’s often marginalized voices. Feminist theology shares this work with a related but distinct area of study: womanist theology.
What is the difference between feminism and womanism?
Womanist theology is a type of liberation theology rooted in the faith, experience, scholarship and perspectives of African American women. It shares with feminism an interest in how women relate to God, the church and society but critiques feminists for being too narrow in their view of who women are and how they relate to the divine. Specifically, womanism is founded on the voices of black women who have often been ignored by white feminists. Womanism is an independent discipline grounded in African American theology and identity that also engages ideas from other types of liberation theology such as Black and Mujerista (Latina/Hispanic) theology. Feminism and womanism both inform each other as they explore the ways that women’s contexts and lives shape how they engage with the divine.
How does feminism change worship and spirituality?
Sometimes theology can seem like pretty heady stuff, but feminism also makes a practical difference in worship, prayer, relationships and church leadership. For example, in worship and prayer many feminists are working to make sure that both genders are included in how we talk about God.
Most Christians would say that we don’t believe God is literally male, but we often refer to God as “he” and use male images like “king” or “father” when we worship. While these images can help us understand God’s power and protection, male ways of imagining God can also limit our relationship to and understanding of the divine if they are all we use. Since we, even subconsciously, think of women and men as possessing different character and personality traits, imagining God exclusively as male can lead us to neglect ways in which God is more stereotypically “feminine,” such as being nurturing, patient or gentle. Many women relate to God more closely if these feminine aspects are highlighted, and men may find their understanding of God is broadened as well. When worshipping or praying, some feminists use “he” and “she” interchangeably for God; others attempt to sidestep any gender at all and use titles such as “Creator,” “Holy One” or simply “God”. Similarly, when using images to describe God, many feminists balance male and female images: not just king but also wisdom (personified as female in Proverbs 8), not just a father but also a mother (as seen in Isaiah 66). These expanded ways of describing God can lead to a fuller wonder for who God is and how God is in relationship with humanity.
A faithful part of the living Christian tradition
Feminist theology can be intimidating at first. Feminists are not afraid to look critically at beliefs and worship practices that have become enshrined in religious tradition, including ones many of us hold dear. If we look more closely though, it’s clear that feminist theologians criticize Christianity not because they want to destroy it but because they are deeply faithful. It’s that faith that leads them to wrestle with how women can be understood as full participants in the church, the Biblical texts and the whole salvation story. Their contributions are vital to bringing women’s faith and experience into equal partnership in our ongoing Christian conversation.
Vicky Beeching, “Was Jesus A Feminist?” (2013)
Sarah Bessey, “I’m a Feminist Because I Love Jesus So Much,” Christianity Today (2013)
Rachel Held Evans, “Confessions of an Accidental Feminist” (2012)
Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology
Natalie K. Watson, Introducing Feminist Theology
Big Names in Feminist Theology, and Highlighted Works
Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation
Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age