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The 'male' in feminist theology

The “male” in feminist theology

by Susanne Heine

in Theology Digest no 36:1 (Spring 1989). pp11-14.

Feminist theology’ s original intent was to seek out women who had been suppressed in church history. In recent years however it has moved in a variety of directions. Susanne Heine discusses a number of currents in feminist theology and reminds us that not everything written in this area deserves the name theology. In the final analysis both men and women must be prophetic toward one another always keeping in mind that false prophetesses and prophets may also appear.

“Das ‘Mannsbild’ in der feministischen Theologie,’’ Diakonia Internationale Zeitschrift für die Praxis der Kirche 19:3 (May, 1988) 162-67.

The feminist perspective on the other sex (in this case the male) depends on what motivates feminist theology. The perspectives range everywhere from hope in a matriarchal time of salvation, to a more humble thesis concerning the necessary transitoriness of feminist theology, until it is successful in developing into a mature non-sexist theology. Men in feminist theology therefore figure in different ways.

Jesus’ friendliness toward women

One type of feminist theology sees in Jesus the man who has completely developed his personality and overcome the temptation to sever the “feminine side” of complete humanity (whatever that may mean). Through Jesus, the “integrated man” (Hanna Wolff, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Christa Mulack, et al.), Christianity is in its very roots friendly toward women. Furthermore the attempt is made to trace thc threads of tradition which an androcentric historiography has concealed and shortcircuited (e.g., Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bernadette Booten). lHere lie the most important accomplishments of feminist theology. Guided by their special interests these feminist theologians can once again raise to consciousness the forgotten, silenced and suppressed traditions concerning women, and enable us to see women’s positive role in the Christian tradition beyond the usual stereotypes. It must be kept in mind, however, that Christianity’s original friendliness toward women accommodated itself to its ancient, patriarchal environment. Thus, this friendliness must be traced back to Jesus’ intentions. And although this type of feminist theology over-interprets Jesus’ unbiased attitude toward women, it does address women’s real experiences of suppression by a male dominated church, and the fact that their possibilities for development have been curtailed and their feelings of self-worth diminished. According to this view, men are called to conversion, while women are to exhort each other in order to gain an attitude of self-confidence as “whole, good and beautiful human beings” (Elisabeth Moltmann).

Look back in anger

For another type of feminist theology Christianity is the subject of fierce attack. In light of the extensive tradition of male dominance, these feminists think that it is laughable to argue for Christianity’s initial friendliness toward women on the basis of a few rediscovered women of early times. Because of their own experiences, authors like Gerda Weiler and Mary Daly claim that Christianity is fundamentally anchored in misogyny. But there is more: The evil began already in Judaism. Yahweh is plainly “the guardian of the patriarchal principle” (Elga Sorge). This God of the Jews is guilty of destroying a vibrant, living world determined by women and their goddesses. This type of feminism is only peripherally concerned with Christian/theological questions. What is worth noting are the connections, though not expressly intended, with “religious anti-Semitism” which we too hastily believed were dead after the Holocaust and Vatican II, and against which Jewish feminist theologians have started struggling. This prejudicial position operates on the basis of friend/enemy categories and extends also to the male sex: It is inferior, leads humanity into ruin, and, together with the entire biblical-Christian tradition, should be dismissed.

Matriarchalism as paradise

Beyond what we understand as theology, the authors who hold this position have a general religious understanding that looks backwards and forwards to a matriarchal culture. Prior to 3000 B.C., world culture was matriarchal and far removed from the inhumanity of later patriarchalism. Writers like Heide Göttner-Abendroth, as well as Gerda Weiler and Elga Sorge uncritically accept Bachofen’s hypotheses, derived from myths and sagas, as historical fact. Their rallying cry is that the patriarchal situation must be reversed: Male superiority will be countered by female superiority and “womanhood,” putting stress on feelings and denying rationality, will be the paradise to come. Furthermore, whereas “patriarchalism” always wants to reduce women to what is considered to be their female nature, these feminists are content with freely defining themselves that way and they are firm in the conviction that the world’s problems will be solved by regaining its female essence.

Men are again considered a deficient form of humanity. Through their domination, they have denatured the entire social structure. While it is part of the classical feminist repertoire to demand equality and assume positions which until now only men have held, feminists of this stripe do not want to dirty their hands with patriarchally polluted politics (or church politics). They withdraw into a closed circle where they can more easily deal with their womanhood as they build the superstructure of new religious ideas and rites. According to 1Cor 11, the man is superior to the woman, but has immediate access to relationship with God. There are feminists who invert the hierarchy and speak of an immediate relationship of women to the “goddess,” an immediacy which men cannot share (Elga Sorge). The code word “goddess” is multifarious. The revival of ancient eros and fertility cults is mixed with belief in the “female traits” of the biblical God and a hypostatization of female self-experience of the “goddess in us.”

Nature against morals

What these various feminist positions specifically mean by “patriarchate” is vague. While use of patriarchate has become commonplace, matriarchate as a generally accepted historical fact is justified by referring to secondary and tertiary literature. There are both men and women, however, who react very critically and pessimistically to these “facts” and methods, especially when the alleged facts are subjected to scrutiny. Thus, the idealization of the matriarchate increases as religious feminist ideas become more popularized. But only those who also know the backdrop of church history are allowed to criticize. Behind the progress made for equal rights, emancipation and partnership in recent years, women’s experiences in the church have been more and more depressing. Women indeed still have experienced the destructiveness of men and the male God of Christian dogmatics presented by men; they are constricted by rigid moral norms which were established, but not grounded; and when they ask about the meaning of church rules they are all too often rebuffed by reference to tradition. Given today’s almost insoluble ethical, military, environmental, political, scientific and technological questions as a consequence of men’s politics an immense relief may be felt by reverting to the unquestioned “goodness” of nature which is claimed.as women’s domain. Everything that corresponds to nature, says this thesis, is eo ipso good including women because they are even more tied to nature than men. But what does it mean to speak about nature in a context of the human? This question is not answered. Because in this feminist model everything is supposed to have reference to nature and to be in harmonious accord with the cosmos, the troublesome distinction between good and evil is apparently removed, or blamed on a patriarchal pattern.

There are various historical examples of the attempt to set aside the ethical questions from which human beings cannot escape. And Christian churches also in their own way participate in this model of taking “nature” as a criterion for ethical evaluation. Even today there is a stream of Christian sexual moral (birth control) that believes it can appeal to nature for distinguishing good and evil: the more natural the better. There does exist a tradition which holds the view that God chose the male sex for his salvation work because of the superiority of the male nature. However, there is no idea to entertain the thought that the Jewish people might be of a better “nature” because God chose them. As absurd and unjustified as all of these classifications are, they have influenced history, as finally, the division of human beings in our century into Arian and non-Arian referring to “natural” race shows, and went unchallenged by wide segments of Christianity. That now women want to be of a better “nature” than the other half of humanity is equally as unjustified and damages their ultimate goal. But looking at the long history of discrimination against women because of their inferior female nature: Who cast the first stone?

In the lion’s den

It is worth noting that the progress made in equal rights for women in the church, which has one result in women’s ordination in the Reformation churches, started before the onset of feminist theology. The battle for equal rights for women began as a political battle based on the demands of humanity and is to be waged in the church through ethical, political and social arguments. It is appropriate to connect feminist theology with liberation theology. The church needs a solid theology which pays attention to women’s human interests but is not detached from the main issues of Christian faith and theology. It is also necessary to go into the “lion’s den.” Women who shun confrontation with men will change nothing in their favor. In order to effect this confrontation, there needs to be a realistic image of women and men. Neither women, nor men, are of ethically higher or lower value and our common human nature, not our sexual nature, defines us. Because we are humans we cannot narow our existence to the “mere natural.” The fact that men bear more official responsibility because they exercise more political power has also ensnared them in greater guilt; but women should not imagine that they can salvage the “innocence” of their traditional subordinate role as they exercise new positions of official responsibility. There are also some things women can learn, and they can learn them only if they do not picture men as monsters, though men are tempted to take advantage of their privileges. There is still as much for men to learn. Women and men are both faced with the same ethical responsibility not to stereotype one another on the basis of sexual nature. Rather, they are to support one another in carrying out this responsibility.

It may be “natural” that women remain bound to rearing children, while men are not. But whether this social pattern corresponds with ethics and responsibility remains a question. It must be possible for women to devote themselves to the family without being called old-fashioned and it must also be possible for them to take part in public responsibility without being accused of an attitude unfaithful to their destiny. The same thing holds true for men. Feminist theology can always appeal to the demand of Galatians: There is neither male nor female. In the long run, catchwords like matriarchate and patriarchate do not help things progress. Where women and men face each other as Christians by exercising the prophetic office toward one another, which is a task they cannot abdicate, many false prophetesses and prophets may also turn up.


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