This month, “We Talk. We Listen.” will be featuring multiple responses to Women’s History month written by male Christian leaders. ELCA Lutheran PhD student Benjamin Taylor is the first contributor, and his post does something quite wonderful: he gives 1) a good overview of common male-centered oversights in Christian theology while simultaneously 2) providing the reader with a wealth of information on feminist theologians and their works. It is worth a good, careful reading, even three or four readings. So dig in, and don’t forget to share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
My act of writing a piece for “We Talk. We Listen.” on feminist theology  must begin with a personal recounting of my own experience, a telling of how I journeyed into the present. I am a white man—more precisely, I am a white heterosexual man, and even more precisely I am a white, heterosexual man with relative privilege. Each of these qualifiers are important to who I am. Each of these qualifiers afford me a set of protections and advantages over against those who do not identify as male, or who is not white, heterosexual, or privileged.
Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Third Word, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also, at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women. The incorporation of diverse voices and backgrounds as “feminist” allows for the diversity of voices, overlapping experiences and shared concerns to be heard.
A few weeks ago in her piece for “We Talk. We Listen,” Dr. Wenderoth wrote about how way that the language we use shapes the way we see the world. Likewise, MDiv student Allison Bengfort reflected on the ways in which society teaches both men and women to objectify women—men to objectify women sexually and women to objectify themselves for the benefit of men. Rev. Julie Ryan witnessed to the rich mosaic of work that is the ministry of clergywomen within the ELCA. And Marissa Tweed reminded us that even though women are ordained in the ELCA, clergywomen continue to face the struggles and challenges that come with being a clergywoman in a deeply partriachial culture, both within the church and in the society at large. These powerful and diverse reflections reveal both the interdisciplinary nature and intersectional approach within the study of feminist theology.
Feminist theologians, by and large, start from the premise that men have maintained a monopoly on God-Talk throughout the history of Christianity. In other words, feminist theologians argue that men have exercised their power to tip the theological scales in their benefit as they shaped the Christian tradition. These androcentric (male-centered) theologies work hand in hand to create and sustain partriachial societies. In explaining the patriarchal nature of these societies, feminist theologians have looked at the way power has revealed itself in their own societies.
As often as power is exercised explicitly, it is often exercised implicitly. In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, feminist theologian Serene Jones writes about the experience of giving birth in a hospital. Upon giving birth to her baby, the hospital staff placed a pink cap onto her newborn, thereby assigning her newborn the gender identity “female.” Jones uses this narrative as she explains the theological construct of original sin: “In the first ten seconds of her life, my daughter had been placed in a web of social meanings that shaped expectations about her. My daughter’s being ‘born into sin took form of a pink cap, a set of hospital rules, and the complex web of social interactions they initiated.”
As we are born (“fallen”) into sin, we are also born into a set of sexual, cultural and political constructs that condition our lives and our self-expression.
Jones’s example illustrates the perniciousness of power in our society. Power not only oppresses the one it deems to be Other, it also represses the one it considers to be Other. Power shows itself by hiding itself under the banner “this is the way things are and this is the way things must be.” Many feminist theologians argue that men have hijacked the symbols and narratives of the Christian faith to legitimize and exercise their patriarchal oppressive power over women. Some obvious examples within the Christian tradition are I Timothy 2, in which the male writer of the letter warns women to be silent in church, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision not to ordain women on the basis of their sex. Instead of viewing these examples apolitically through the lens of “tradition” or “custom,” it is important to name it for what it is: a manifestation of the patriarchal society in which these decisions were made.
But it is also important for us to go beyond these common examples. Feminist theologians note that male theologians have long taken their particular experience of being male (and usually, white, heterosexual and privileged) to be the universal experience of all people. When this happens, the experience of being a woman in a partriachial society is negated. As a result, many feminist theologians have incorporated their own experience of being a woman in a partriachial society as a way of subverting this androcentric tradition. In addition, many feminist theologians look to other resources within the Christian tradition to subvert the sexist, racist and homophobic power structure in society. A few examples, from both feminist theologians as well as from the wider field of contextual theologians, help to show the diversity and the wealth of voices that challenge androcentric theology.
- The theologian Valarie Saiving argued that the theological assertion that sin manifests itself as “pride” is inherently “androcentric” in that it assumes the male’s perspective as the universal perspective.
- The theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid subverts the theological status-quo by articulating an “indecent theology” that calls into question the patriarchal assumptions and assertions about heterosexual normativity, the male/female gender binary, and the repression of sexuality within the Christian tradition in the name of “decency.”
- In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, the womanist theologian Delores Williams identifies the lived experience of black women in the United States with that of the biblical story of Hagar in the Book of Genesis. Williams identifies Hagar’s narrative as a narrative of survival and ingenuity, one that has been largely ignored by male theologians.
- Serene Jones reflects theologically on the experience of reproductive loss (birth complications, stillbirth, abortion, infertility), an experience that one in four women will face in their lifetime. Jones notes that although these traumatic experiences are unfortunately part of the human experience, men have never reflected theologically on such an experience.
- Kelly Brown Douglas deconstructs the Platonist mind/body dualism within the Christian tradition as Douglas reconstructs an ethic of wholeness that offers a more holistic view of the self that better resonates with the African theological heritage.
- In addition to calling into question the hegemonic tendencies under-girding androcentric theologians of the West, Kwok Pui Lan lifts up theological voices from the Third World which offer theological hermeneutics and insights that diverge from perspectives and methodologies of the West.
- In the Lutheran tradition, many feminist Lutheran theologians have critiqued the patriarchal abuses of the cross, which have used the cross as a means to legitimize their own control and abuse of women. A few Lutheran feminist theologians have deconstructed the patriarchal abuse of the cross, and have reconstructed the cross as a source for a socially and political engaged feminist theology. Some proposals include that of the mujerista Lutheran feminist Alicia Vargas and that of Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir.
I am the youngest member of my family. I have two older brothers, and when the family discussion (finally) gets to me and what I “actually do” with my time, I often utter the words “feminist theology” or “black theology.” When they ask further questions, they assume that the qualifier “feminist” or “black” means “other.”
In reading and engaging with contextual theologies (feminist, womanist, black, Dalit, queer, mujerista), it is crucial that we do not understand “contextual” to be “other,” which so often is interpreted to mean “less-than.” We must remember that Western theology, from Augustine to Tillich, is just as contextual as the theologies that we live into and envision in our constructive theology classes. It is merely that constructive or contextual theologies are more honest about their identity and more open to the experience of difference than are other “traditional” theologies.
At times, judging by our slate of courses, our community does not always acknowledge the bountiful gifts brought by diverse theological voices. It can be difficult. The acknowledgement of different voices is fraught with tension. In my own experience, I have struggled with this tension as I came to read these theologians very late in my academic journey. That is a tension I still carry within myself. The engagement with voices that differ from my own offers me a chance of reflection and of self-examination along the journey.
And in this, I invite you to come along.
Benjamin Taylor is a PhD student at LSTC, where he studies systematic theology and continental philosophy. He enjoys reading, traveling, writing, playing golf, and walking his playful—if, slightly misbehaved—dog, Riley. He also works as the Graduate Research Assistant in the JKM Library and serves as the Sittler Fellow in the Joseph Sittler Archive. Ben completed his qualifying examinations on feminist theology in March.
 Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Two-Thirds World, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also and at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women.
 My own experience living in Hyde Park is an experience of negotiating this privilege—realizing it, struggling with it, speaking to it, hiding behind it, coming to terms with it, being embarrassed about it—sometimes all within a matter of hours.
 In using the verbiage “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian(s),” I follow the crucial distinction between “gender” and “sex” that is largely assumed in feminist theological discussions. By this, I mean that sex refers to one’s own biological makeup, while gender refers to the set of cultural meanings and social designations that society ascribes to one’s performance in society. See Linda E. Thomas and Dwight N. Hopkins, “Womanist Theology and Black Theology: Conversational Envisioning of an Unfinished Dream” in A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins, Eleazar S. Fernandez & Fernando F. Segovia, eds., (Marynoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2001), 72-86. On “sex,” Thomas and Hopkins write, “By sex, we signify the biological designation that human beings receive at birth. Thus, sex is a biological construction based on genitalia (78).” On “gender,” Thomas and Hopkins write that “Gender is a socially constructed category. By this we mean that it is not a biological category…Gender is not formed overnight, nor even is it a finished product; it is dynamic and subject to the ongoing formation of human culture (77-78).” Heteronormativity has long portrayed gender as a binary: either one is male or female. This binary needs to be problematized. Gender is a performance that does not need to fall into traditionalist determinations of what is male or what is female.
 Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 117.