Friday, July 12, 2013

Thinking about Feminist Theology

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            I write these weekly e-mails for a lot of reasons.  One of those reasons is because we don’t have much of a spiritual education ministry happening at our church.  The small numbers of CCCUCC folks involved in regular study and discussion of their faith remains a weakness of our church.  So when I’m not addressing something particular about our church, I try to throw in some stuff for you to consider about your faith amid the many other ideas you consume through various media in a given week.  Reading my e-mails is a poor substitute for being in a regular group where one grows in her or his faith, but I figure it’s better than nothing.
            Related to this issue of church folks growing in their faith, I was a part of a conversation involving some UCC clergy this week where some were bemoaning the fact that despite the many exciting things happening among religion scholars over the last several decades, ministers share very little, if any, of that information with their church members.  Most church folks operate with a theology that they acquired as children, perhaps modified enough so it’s not discarded in the face of adult experience, and it’s not entirely their fault for doing so.  Their ministers must also bear responsibility for acquiring a theological education but sharing little of it with the people they are charged with leading. 
            It seems both clergy and laity have much to answer for in terms of shallow religious faith.  My weekly e-mails don’t absolve me of my own responsibility as pastor, but they are one of the ways I hope to help you be better-educated Christians.  This week, let me briefly touch on feminist theology.
            Susan Thistlethwaite is one of the UCC’s top feminist theologians.  She teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC school) and is its former president.  In the seminary’s latest newsletter, Thistlewaite takes a look at “Second Wave Feminism at 50,” specifically the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique.  Generally, feminism as an ideological and philosophical movement in America is divided into three stages or “waves.”  The first wave of feminism was the suffragist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The second wave took place around the time of Friedan’s book, post WWII when many Caucasian women achieved college education and middle class incomes yet had little say over their own lives.  The third wave of feminism has taken off over the last 25 years as an attempt to include the voices of women beyond those of the Caucasian middle class.  In theological circles, as Thistlethwaite notes, feminist theologians generally fall into these three waves.
            The Suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw the Bible and its interpretation as a key source of the oppression of women, so they set about to reinterpret the Bible for the benefit of women.  Second wave feminist theologians sought to deconstruct patriarchy, the systematic valuing of men as different from and superior to women, in all aspects of society: law, cultural practices, language, psychological constructs, religious beliefs, etc.  Third wave feminist theologians have sought to include the voices of women of color, women of non-European descent, poor women, lesbians and transgender women.  Each successive wave of feminist theology has pushed at the boundaries of what it means to be Christian, what we mean when we talk about God and what ways do our religious practices harm and oppress?
            What feminist theologians have written over the last 150 years matters a great deal for the local church, yet their work is largely absent from church.  I would argue that churches remain largely bastions of patriarchy, and the shifts within churches to allow women a greater if not equal role in religious life has more to do with our changing culture than our changing understanding of God.  It is a tragedy that Christianity in America remains largely an oppressor of women rather than a force freeing women from oppression.  Feminist theology offers us a way to be a different Christianity.
            Some men (and some women) will scoff at the idea of feminist theology and label it mere political correctness.  Yet, the gendered way we think about God affects to a great degree the way we think about men and women.  Mary Daly laid the issue out succinctly when she wrote, “If God is male, then male is God.”  If God is understood to be male and only males are truly in the image of God, then women are necessarily other than and less than men.  In most Christian denominations, women cannot be ordained as clergy, because this understanding of God’s maleness colors the interpretation of the Bible regarding church leadership.. 
Furthermore, male experience (heterosexual male experience that is) becomes the norm for understanding human experience including theology.  Here’s an example from feminist theologian Rebecca Chopp’s excellent article on feminist theology.  In 1960, a scholar named Valerie Saiving criticized contemporary male theologians, including Reinhold Niebuhr and others, for “identifying sin universally with self-assertion and love with selflessness.”  Saiving argued that this might be true of men’s experience but not for women.  Women often were and still are forced to subordinate their own needs and desires to that of men, yet this selflessness is not the result of love but rather oppression.  Similarly, women are often criticized when they assert themselves for equal pay or treatment-is that sinful?   (For another even more contemporary example of why feminist theology matters, take a look at Susan Thistlethwaite's Washington Post article after Mitt Romney made his infamous “binders full of women” remark during the presidential debates last fall.)
What feminist theologians have been writing for the last 150 years is of vital importance for the church today.  Younger generations are leaving organized religion in droves, because they see religion-especially Christianity-as oppressive of women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, etc.  They are right!  By engaging with the work of feminist theologians, we broaden our understanding of God and our understanding of how God works through humanity.  Also, we tell our daughters and granddaughters who are leaving the church that they too are made in the image of God and their voices are honored in the church.        
Grace and Peace,

You can read more thoughts from Chase on his blog: and follow him on Twitter @ChasePeeples1.    

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