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Christology and Feminism:Can a Male Saviour Save Women ?

Christology and Feminism:Can a Male Saviour Save Women ?

by Rosemary Radford Ruether

From To change the World, Crossroad, New York 1981, pp. 45-56; republished here with permission of the author and publisher.

Christology has been the doctrine of the Christian tradition that has been most frequently used against women. Historically this anti-woman use of christology reached its clearest formulation in the high scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that the male is the normative or generic sex of the human species. Only the male represents the fullness of human potential, whereas woman by nature is defective physically, morally and mentally. Not merely after the Fall, but in the original nature of things, woman’s ‘defective nature’ confined her to a subservient position in the social order. She is by nature under subjugation. Therefore it follows that the incarnation of the Logos of God into the male is not a historical accident, but an ontological necessity. The male represents wholeness of human nature, both in himself and as head of the woman. He is the fullness of the image of God, whereas woman by herself does not represent the image of God and does not possess wholeness of humanity.(1) This view of the male generic character of the imago dei is also found in St Augustine.(2)

It follows for Aquinas that woman cannot represent headship either in society or in the church. Her inability to be ordained follows from her defective or (as Aquinas put it, following Aristotle’s biology) her ‘misbegotten’ nature. Just as Christ had to be incarnated in the male, so only the male can represent Christ. Mary Daly’s succinct judgment in her book, Beyond God the Father would seem to be fully vindicated in Aquinas’ theology: ‘When God is male, the male is God.’(3)

This male-dominant theology, that relegates woman to inferior status in both creation and redemption, has enjoyed considerable revival in recent years as the keystone of the conservative reaction to the movements for women’s ordination. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox writings against women’s ordination a certain constellation of arguments emerges, centred in the relation of maleness, christology and priesthood.(4) Jesus’ historical example is usually cited. Jesus appointed no women disciples; therefore he desired no women to be ordained (without recognition of the historical gaps and anachronisms of this argument).

But the matter is deeper than historical example. This is no issue of passing and relative social forms. No emergence of women as equal to men in society can change the context of the discussion. For these writers, the exclusion of women from church leadership is not based on particular structures of society. Even the traditional doctrine of order of nature is left to the side. Rather, the neoconservatives wish to see in the exclusion of women some unchangeable sacramental ‘mystery’ that links the maleness of the priest with the maleness of Christ. The bridegroom-bride symbolism is seen as central to this argument. Christ as the head and bridegroom of the church must necessarily be male, and, hence, also his representative, the priest. Obviously only males can be bridegrooms, although, oddly enough, these writers find no difficulty in the idea that males, in the laity, are ‘brides’. It is taken for granted that this symbol system of bridegroom over bride, as head over body, male over female, is a revealed truth, rather than itself being simply a projection of a certain male-dominated social order.

Behind this christological argument of the necessary maleness of Christ and his representative, the priest, lies, it seems to me, a theological assumption; namely, the maleness of God. Not just Jesus’ historical humanity, but the divine Logos, the disclosure of the ‘Father’, is necessarily male. In a remarkable forgetfulness of their own traditions of analogy and the via negativa, images such as ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ for God are not regarded as partial images drawn from limited (male) human experience, but are taken literally. ‘Daughter’ or ‘mother’ are not regarded as equally appropriate analogies.

The disclosure of God in history is seen as a disclosure of a fundamentally male reality in such a way as to exclude women from representing this divine redemptive action. They can only represent the passive, the receptive, never the active side of the divine disclosure. The Vatican Declaration against the Ordination of Women in 1976 sums up this new theological materialism when it declares that there must be a physical resemblance’ between the priest and Christ.(5) Since this strange new version of the imitation of Christ does not exclude a Negro, a Chinese or a Dutchman from representing a first-century Jew, or a wealthy prelate from representing a carpenter’s son, or sinners from representing the saviour, we must assume this imitation of Christ has now been reduced to one essential element, namely, male sex.

Numerous leading Roman Catholic theologians, including Karl Rähner, have actually condemned this Declaration as ‘heretical’ at this point.(8) That the Vatican would have unleashed such a document as an authoritative statement seems to me very significant. It reveals the extent of the contradiction between the message of Jesus as redeemer of all humanity ‘in which there is neither male nor female’ (Gal.3.28), and the construction of christology through symbols that make it the instrument of patriarchal domination. The question I wish to ask in this chapter is: can christology be liberated from its encapsulation in the structures of patriarchy and really become an expression of liberation of women ? Or is it so linked with symbols of male-dominance that it is unredeemable as good news for women?

Certainly many feminists have already concluded that the maleness of Christ is so fundamental to Christianity that women cannot see themselves as liberated through him. Thinkers such as Mary Daly or members of the Women’s Spirituality Movement have already declared that women must reject Christ as redeemer for women and seek instead a female divinity and messianic symbol.(7) Thus the question of whether a male saviour can save women is not merely a provocative theoretical question. It is one on which many thousands of women have already voted with their feet by leaving the church and seeking alternative feminist communities.

I will look at three alternative models of christology to see whether there are other resources in the Christ symbol that might disclose different options from those discussed above. These are (a) the imperial Christ; (b) the androgynous Christ; and (c) the prophetic, iconoclastic Christ.

(a) The imperial Christ

The imperial Christ of Nicene theology was constructed by the fusion of two basic symbols from the twin heritages of Christian theology: Hebrew messianism and Greek philosophy. The Messiah symbol was drawn from Hebrew sacral kingship. In the Zechariah prophecy this Messiah is described as a warrior-king who will overthrow enemy empires and install Israel, the oppressed nation, in power. The enemy nations will be reduced to client states who will come up to Jerusalem to pay tribute to the new imperial ruling centre of the world.(9) This vision represents the dream of revenge of the oppressed nation which will, through God’s help, turn the tables on the great imperial nations, and itself become the new imperial ruling power.

To this dream of the messianic ruler of the new age, Greek philosophy added the concept of the divine Logos or Nous of God which discloses the mind of God and manifests, in noetic form, the plan of nature. This Nous of God is not only demiourgos, or agent of God in creation, but also the means through which the universe is governed. This concept is set in the context of a hierarchical ‘chain of Being’. Just as the Nous of God governs nature, so the Greeks must govern barbarians, masters govern slaves and men govern women. The free Greek male is seen as the natural aristocrat, representing mind and headship in nature. Women, slaves and barbarians are the ‘body people’ who must be governed, who are ‘servile by nature’.(9) Greek political thought in the Hellenistic period linked this Logos theology with the universal emperor who must act in the body politic as the representative of the Nous of God governing the universe.(10)

In the christology of Eusebius of Caesarea, adviser to Constantine at the Nicene Council in AD325, these two heritages of Hebrew messianism and Greek Logos philosophy are brought together. Christ becomes the Pantocrator, the cosmic governor of a new Christianized universal empire. The Christian emperor, with the Christian bishop at his right hand, becomes the new Vicar of Christ on earth, governing the Christian state of the new redeemed order of history.(11) In this vision, patriarchy, hierarchy, slavery, and Graeco-Roman imperialism have all been taken over and baptized by the Christian church.

Needless to say, elements of this christology might have been constructed in a different way. The victory of the Messiah as vindicator of the oppressed might have been seen as the radical levelling of all hierarchy and subjugation rather than the installation of the New Israel as the centre of a new empire. The Hebrew counterpart of the Logos doctrine identifies God’s creative and redeeming Word as Holy Wisdom, represented as a female rather than male symbol.(l2) But these options were lost in official Christian development. Instead, imperial christology wins in the fourth century as a sacralized vision of patriarchal, hierarchical and Euro-centred imperial control.

(b) Androgynous christologies

I would like to turn now to a number of alternative christologies that represent Christ as unifying male and female. I mention here gnostic christologies of the early Church, mediaeval Jesus mysticism, especially in Julian of Norwich, women Joachite leaders of the late Middle Ages, nineteenth-century Anglo-American sects, such as the Shakers, and finally Protestant pietism. All of these have been seen as marginal or heretical except pietism, which has actually become the dominant spirituality of much of Western Christianity in the bourgeois era. The root of these christologies lies in the basic Christian affirmation that Christ redeems the whole of human nature, male and female. In Paul’s words, in Christ there is ‘neither male nor female’.

These ideas are elaborated in the gnostic gospels. The Second Epistle of Clement states:

For the Lord himself being asked by someone when his Kingdom would come, said: When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, the male with the female, neither male nor female.(13)

Christ is seen as the restored androgene of the original creation, before the separation of female from male. Women are seen as equal participants in this gnostic redeemed humanity, but only by abolishing their roles as sexual persons and mothers. The Gospel of the Egyptians has Jesus declare: ‘I have come to destroy the works of the female’, i.e. sexual desire and procreation (ch. 9.63), while the Gospel of Thomas vindicates the inclusion of women in redemption by having Jesus say, ‘Lo, I shall lead her, and make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Logion 114).(14)

Ancient gnostic androgyny, as well as its modern revivals in mystics, such as Jacob Boehme,(l5) is androcentric. Maleness and femaleness are still seen as opposite principles standing for mind and spirit versus sense, body and sexuality. The two are brought together in a male-centred concept of the self in which the female is neutralized.

A somewhat different tradition is developed in the Jesus mysticism of Julian of Norwich. Here Jesus is declared to be both mother and father. Like a mother Jesus feeds us with his own body. He nurtures us first with milk, as newborn babes in the faith. The ambiance of these images of the mothering Jesus in mediaeval mysticism is found particularly in eucharistic piety. But since both the human and the divine person of Christ was firmly established in mediaeval thought as male, this means that mothering or female qualities are taken into the male. In Christ the male gains a mode of androgyny, of personhood that is both commanding and nurturing. But it is doubtful that Julian’s society would have allowed her to reverse the relation and give to women, through Christ, the right to exercise the male prerogatives.(l6)

Perhaps the boldest effort to bring the female into redemption is found in a couple of little-known female leaders of sectarian movements in the tradition of Joachim of Fiore. The Joachimites believed that the Second Age of the Son, represented by the clerical church, would be superseded by a Third Age of the Spirit, which would bring redemption to perfection. This notion allowed many dissatisfied groups in the late mediaeval world to express their disaffiliation with the existing ecclesiastical and feudal hierarchies. Most Joachimites did not see the vindication of the female as a part of their agenda. But one such group gathered around Prous Boneta, founder of a Provençal Beguin sect. They believed she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the new Eve who would bring final salvation to all humanity.(l7)

Another group in Milan declared that their leader, Guglielma, was the incarnate Spirit. Just as the second person of the Trinity had appeared as a male, so the new dispensation of the Spirit will appear as a female. The Guglielmites believed that all authority had departed from the corrupt hierarchy. In the new church, built on the foundations of the Spirit, there will be four new spiritual gospels, and women will be spiritual leaders.(18) Such groups were marginal even with the sects, and were regarded by the church as monstrous heresies to be stamped out immediately. Yet here we have the stirring of a much more radical dissatisfaction. Here women do not merely affirm a mothering or female element within a male-centred symbol, but dare to dream of turning the tables on the male-dominated world. Only in recent years, in the feminist Goddess movements, have we seen similar ideas where women announce a ‘return of the Goddess’, signalling better humanity that will supersede the corrupt religion mediated through the male redeemer.

Although feminist Joachimites were exterminated in the Middle Ages, it is probable that ideas of this kind continued to gestate from various sources in underground currents of European sectarian and mystical thought. Otherwise it is hard to explain the appearance in the late eighteenth century in England of a Quaker sect called the Shakers who also declared their faith in a female Messiah who would supersede and complete the redemption through Jesus.

The Shakers based their belief in a dual Christ, both male and female, on their doctrine of God. God is androgynous, both Father and Mother. So the incarnation of God must take place in both the male and female forms. Redemption has been incomplete so far because it has taken place only in male form. However, in their founder, Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers believed that the long-awaited female Messiah, the manifestation of divine wisdom, had at last appeared, completing the salvation of humanity.(19) This parity of male and female in redeemed humanity must also be expressed in a parity of male and female leaders in the messianic community. However, the Shakers followed the gnostic tradition in defining this messianic community as celibate.

The idea of a need for a new dispensation in female form enjoyed wide currency in the nineteenth century. It is found in such diverse sources as the French utopian socialists, the St Simonians,(20) and the New England Transcendentalists. It is constantly hinted at in Mary Baker Eddy’s new Church of Christian Science. who even declared that since the highest meaning of God is Love, the feminine’ nature is closer to God than the masculine.(21) Eddy rewrote the Lord’s Prayer to read: Our Mother-Father God’.

These movements reflect widespread unrest in nineteenth century thought over male and female identities in relation to religion and society. Underlying this unrest are shifting political and economic patterns. The secular liberal revolutions displaced religion from the public political order and located religion instead in the private sphere. At the same time industrialization was depriving women in the home of many of their traditional productive functions. Poor women were being drawn out of the home into the factory. But the normative nature of woman was being redefined in terms of the bourgeois housewife who was primarily seen as a nurturer. rather than a productive labourer in a family business.

This new role of the bourgeois wife coalesced with the privatization of religion to unite the definition of Christianitv with the definition of womanliness. This accorded with a pietist tradition that defined religion in terms of affect or feeling rather than reason or dogma. Woman was seen as the more natural bearer of the Christlike virtues of love, altruism and self-sacrifice. Spirituality, piety and self-abnegation were seen as particularly appropriate for women (i.e. ‘good’ domesticated women).

This idea of women as more Christlike than men allowed very different interpretations that raged on both sides of the battle over women’s emancipation in nineteenth-century America. For conservatives, woman’s sweetness and goodness was fragile and can be preserved only by the strictest segregation in the home and renunciation of all desires for education influence or leadership. For many feminists, on the other hand, this notion of woman’s Christlike nature suggested a messianic meaning to the emergence of woman. If woman represents the higher human qualities of peace, purity, reconciliation and love, then these qualities are too good to keep at home. These are just what the world needs to save it from the various evils that corrupt society. The home, in nineteeth-century female reformism, becomes the launching pad for a crusade into society to redeem it and elevate it to the female standards of goodness.

These traditions of the androgynous Christ reveal an ambivalent heritage. All exhibit a sense that a masculinist Christ is inadequate to express full human redemption, that Christ must in some way represent both male and female. The earlier tradition sees the female as the lower element to be united into the higher male element. But, as we move into the nineteenth century, the valuation shifts. The female comes to be seen as the ‘better half’. representing redemptive qualities that will uplift and perfect humanity. The emergence of women points to a messianic future that will transform the male world of war, conflict and exploitation into the woman’s world of peace and reconciliation.

This heritage still divides the woman’s movement today. Women can’t decide whether they want to ‘get into the man’s world’, defined as an evil world, but also the ‘real world’, or hold out for a better but non-existent (utopian) world represented by the still unempowered ‘feminine’ principles.

(c) The prophetic iconoclastic Christ

Another perspective on christology is being elaborated by liberation theologies. Liberation theologies go back to nineteenth century movements of Christian socialism that began to seek alliances between the gospel and the Left. Liberation theologies base their christologies particularly on the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Here is a Jesus who does not sacralize existing ruling classes. The messianic prophet proclaims his message as an iconoclastic critique of existing élites, particularly religious élites. The gospel drama is one of prolonged conflict between Christ and those religious authorities who gain their social status from systems of ritualized righteousness. Jesus proclaims an iconoclastic reversal of this system of religious status. The leaders of the religious establishment are blind guides and hypocrites, while the outcasts of the society, socially and morally, prostitutes, publicans, Samaritans, are able to hear the message of the prophet. In Matthew’s language, ‘Truly the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you’, i.e., the scribes and Pharisees (Matt.21,31). The gospel turns upside down the present order; the first shall be last and the last first.

This reversal of order is not simply a turning upside down of the present hierarchy, but aims at a new order where hierarchy itself is overcome as a principle of rule. This may have been the source of the messianic struggle between Jesus and his own disciples. It certainly has been the root of misunderstanding of Jesus by the church historically. When the sons of Zebedee ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right hands when he comes into his Kingdom, he confronts them with his different vision of the way into the messianic future.

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt.20.25-27)

The meaning of servanthood in this oft-quoted and oft-misused text of Jesus cannot be understood either as a sacralized Christian lordship that calls itself ‘servant’, but reproduces the same characteristics of domination, or as the romanticizing of servitude. This is why neither existing lords nor existing servants can serve as a model for this servanthood, but only the Christ, the messianic person, who represents a new kind of humanity. The essence of servanthood is that it is possible only for liberated persons, not people in servitude. Also it exercises power and leadership, but in a new way, not to reduce others to dependency, but to empower and liberate others.

This means, in the language of liberation theology, that God as liberator acts in history to liberate all through opting for the poor and the oppressed of the present system. The poor, the downcast, those who hunger and thirst, have a certain priority in God’s work of redemption. Part of the signs of the kingdom is that the lame walk, the blind see, the captives are freed, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Christ goes particularly to the outcasts, and they, in turn, have a special affinity for the gospel. But the aim of this partiality is to create a new whole, to elevate the valleys and make the high places low, so that all may come into a new place of God’s reign, when God’s will is done on earth.

How does the question of the subjugation and emancipation of women fit into such a vision of the iconoclastic prophetic Christ? This world view is not concerned with the dualism of male and female, either as total groups or as representatives of some cosmic principles that need to be related to each other. But women are not ignored in this vision. Indeed, if one can say that Christ comes to the oppressed and the oppressed especially hear him then it is women within these marginal groups who are often seen both as the oppressed of the oppressed and also as those particularly receptive to the gospel. The dialogue at the well takes place not just with a Samaritan. but with a Samaritan woman. Not just a Syro-Phoenician but a Syro-Phoenician woman is the prophetic seeker who forces Jesus to concede redemption to the non-Jews. Among the poor it is widows who are the exemplars of the most destitute; among the moral outcasts it is the prostitutes who represent the bottom of the list. This is not accidental. It means that, in the iconoclastic messianic vision, it is the women of the despised and outcast peoples who are seen as the bottom of the present hierarchy and hence, in a special way, the last who shall be first in the kingdom.

How does this vision of the redemptive work of Christ, that addresses itself particularly to the women among the outcast, differ from those messianic visions of the new age of the ‘feminine’ which we described earlier? It seems to me that it has some affinities with them, in the sense that Christ is seen as critic rather than vindicator of the present hierarchical social order. The meaning of Christ is located in a new future order still to come that transcends the power structures of historical societies including those erected in the Christian era in ‘Christ’s name’.

But this biblical vision also differs in important ways from the romantic vision of the advent of the new age of the feminine. These gnostic and romantic traditions abstract the human person as male and female into a dualism of opposite principle, masculinity and femininity. They give different valuations to each side and then try to set up a scheme to unite the two in a new whole This sets up an insoluble problem for human personhood until these qualities labelled masculine and feminine are seen as the product of social power relations rather than ‘nature’. ‘Woman-as-body-sensualty’ and ‘woman-as-pure-altruistic-love’ are both abstractions of human potential created when one group of people in power is able to define other groups of people over against themselves. To abstract these definitions into eternal essences is to miss the social context in which these definitions arise.

The world of the gospels returns us to concrete social conditions in which maleness and femaleness are elements of a complex web in which humans have defined status superiority and inferiority. The gospel returns us to the world of Pharisees and priests, widows and prostitutes, homeless Jewish prophets and Syro-Phoenician women. Men and women interact with each other within a multiplicity of social definitions: sexual status, but also ethnicity, social class, religious office and law define relations with each other. Jesus as liberator calls for a renunciation and dissolution of this web of status relationships by which societies have defined privilege and unprivilege. He speaks especially to outcast women, not as representatives of the ‘feminine’, but because they are at the bottom of this network of oppression. His ability to be liberator does not reside in his maleness, but, on the contrary, in the fact that he has renounced this system of domination and seeks to embody in his person the new humanity of service and mutual empowerment.

Together, Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, the widow and the prostitute, not as male and female principles, but as persons responding authentically to each other, point us to that new humanity of the future. This new humanity is described in simple and earthy terms by Jesus as the time when ‘all receive their daily bread, when each remits the debts which the others owe to them, when we are not led into temptations (including messianic temptations) but are delivered from evil’.


1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Q 92, 1 and 2; Q 99,2; Part 3, Supplement, Q 39,1.

2. Augustine, De Trinitate 7,7,10.

3. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, Beacon Press, Boston 1973, p.19.

4. See, for example, John Saward, Christ and his Bride, Church Literature Association 1977.

5. Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood 27, Vatican City, 15 October 1976.

6. A thorough critique of the Vatican Declaration by Catholic scholars can be found in Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, edited by Arlene and Leonard Swidler, Paulist Press, New York 1977.

7. Naomi Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religion, Beacon Press, Boston 1979, Chapter 1.

8. Zech.9.9f.; 14.1-21.

9. Aristotle, Politics I, 1-2.

10. See E. Goodenough,’The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship’, Yale Classical Studies 1 1928.

11. See particularly Eusebius, Oration on Constantine passim.

12. See particularly Wisdom 6-9.

13. II Clement 12.2.

14. For Gnostic anthropology and male-female symbolism see Elizabeth Fiorenza, in R. Ruether (ed.), Women of Spirit, Simon and Schuster, 1979, 52-4; also Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, New York 1979 and Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1980, pp.48-69.

15. See Jacob Boehme, Mysterium Magnum: An Exposition of the First Book of Moses called Genesis, translated by John Sparrow, John M. Watkins 1924, Vol.1, pp.121 -33.

16. Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, Penguin Books 1973;see Eleanor McLaughlin, ‘Christ, my Mother: Feminine Naming and Metaphor in Medieval Spirituality’, Nashotah Review XV, 1975, pp.228-48.

17. See W. May, ‘The Confession of Prous Boneta, Heretic and Heresiarch’, in Essays in Medieval Life and Thought Presented in Honor of Austin Patterson Evans, New York 1955, pp.3-30.

18. Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachimism, Clarendon Press 1969, pp.248-50 and notes.

19. The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing, published by the United Society, called Shakers, Albany NY 41856, Book VIII, ch.9.1-38 and Book IX, ch.1,26-ch.2,30.

20. See Richard Pankhurst, The Saint Simonians, Mill and Carlyle, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands NJ 1957, ch.8.

21. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures, Boston 861894, p.510.

22. The theme of the feminization of nineteenth-century American Christianity has been developed in a number of recent writings. See Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture. Knopf, New York 1977. For the harnessing of the ideology of womanhood to feminist social reform see Rosemary Keller and Rosemary Ruether, Women and Religion in America, Vol. I, The Nineteenth Century, Harper and Row, San Francisco 1981, esp. chs. 6 and 7.

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