If you’re looking to get a toehold in feminist theology I’d suggest the premise that has become axiomatic for many of us: symbols function.  Paul Ricouer’s notion that “the symbol gives rise to thought” has been developed by Elizabeth Johnson,[1] among others, to explore and uncover how our religious imagination as Christians – in the words, images, stories, and symbols we use – both reflects and reinforces a system of values as played out in our lived experience.  More particularly, feminist theologies often pose the question: If symbols function, how do they function for and about women?  Already in this forum you can find a number of examples of this basic premise at work: Elizabeth writing on Mary, the mother of Jesus; Katie tracing the history of Christian marriage; Megan critiquing certain theologies of suffering and the cross, to name but a few.  On one level such a project hardly seems worth pointing out – it’s so simple!  At the same time, the very presence of feminist theology as an enterprise speaks to a history of neglect of these seemingly rudimentary questions.  Recently I attended a forum on “Feminism Today” at which professors from four disciplines briefly outlined the understanding of feminism operative in their respective fields.  One presenter framed her comments around precisely this approach; she stated that feminism is about posing the right questions.

In light of this framework and in the spirit of introduction (and not much more than that), I’d like to raise the issue of language as an instance of symbolic imagination at work in the world, with important ramifications for gender and still more for actual women.  Acknowledging from the outset the enormous amount of theoretical groundwork one would need to cover in linguistics and semiotics, I’m going to steer clear of those conversations and instead opt for a bit of personal narrative.  The topic is one that continues to interest me – in a highly variable proportion of fascination and frustration – and one I think is illustrative of any number of crucial questions in, and challenges for, theological reflection from feminist perspectives.  Moreover, I hope this approach may suggest the process of consciousness raising (dare I say conversion?) that I’ve come to believe is a central project for feminist theology.  So, how do women fare with respect to Christian discourse about God and about human beings?  How did I come to care?

Two brief anecdotes by way of response.  I remember being in high school and enjoying an animated conversation with my dad (whom I also blame for the genetic disposition to nerdiness undergirding said conversation) about the decline of society as seen in the rise of grammatical errors.  Specifically we pontificated on the increasing tendency to use “they” in place of a singular pronoun (e.g., “If someone writes a blog post they should try to be concise …”).  Of course, I sniffed, the correct way is to use “he.”  Grammar says so.  Similarly, I look back at my writing from that era, including burgeoning efforts in theology and spirituality, to see a preponderance of “He”, “Him”, “His”, “Father” and “Lord” etc. in reference to God, as well as a smattering of “men”, “mankind”, and even “Man” when making universal statements about humanity, present company included, not least my own deepest spiritual intuitions as a child of God.   I can’t quite conjure my mindset at the time except to recall, first, being something of a stickler for rules, and, second, searching for an expression of holiness, of the mystery of God and human existence, as best I knew how.

My know-how was informed by a set of linguistic conventions “proper” to the English language and an overlapping body of ecclesial language – the Scriptural images I read and heard, the creed I recited, the songs I sang, the doctrines I studied, and the prayers I intoned.  Until a certain point I effectively took these as givens.  For some years and counting, however, I’ve found the majority of them to induce something between a cringe and intense anxiety, sadness, or rage.  This would likely be a better story if I could better connect the dots along the way to this reversal, but I’m afraid there’s a lot of blank space.  I suspect it had quite a bit to do with the following: a gradual recognition of patterns of non-neutrality and disparate valuation in treatment of females and males; letting the inchoately uncomfortable stirrings of my own experiences of these patterns rise to the surface (I have a brother, and therefore a comparative data set, so to speak); a disturbing if partial education in some of the horrors of violence committed against women as women, especially in terms of sex and power; and the acquisition of concepts and vocabulary with which to understand and express these phenomena.

In my reckoning, that “symbols function” is at the heart of it all.  Like Johnson, biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders points out that there is an active dimension, albeit frequently subtle or even unconscious, to the formation of concepts, images, words, etc., including religious ones.  She writes, “In recent years the work of scholars in theology, liturgy, and Scripture has made us aware that the imagination is not primarily a reproductive or combinatory faculty but is our constructive capacity to integrate our experience into dynamic and effective wholes which then function as the interpretive grids of further experience.”[2] That is to say, our images of God and of human beings, the way we speak about who we are and who we know God to be, are not just out there, given and static.  (If you think the Christian category of revelation in scripture and/or tradition is exempted, I respectfully and strongly disagree – but for considerations of length won’t elaborate at this juncture.)

Three analytic concepts feminists use to describe the limited, faulty, even sinful qualities of this process are androcentrism, patriarchy, and sexism.  The dominant images in the Christian tradition reflect the perspective of the ruling male as paradigmatic (androcentrism), celebrate the ruling male in sexist social structures (patriarchy), and convey a belief in the superiority of males (sexism).[3] All this started to make a lot of sense as a means of understanding that male-dominated language and imagery at the level of symbol is not only a structurally parallel (yet unrelated, neutral) phenomenon to a history of women’s oppression, but also stands in a causal relationship.  The contention I’m driving at is the connection Megan has already cited in the now famous aphorism from Mary Daly: “If God is male, then the male is God.”  There is a great deal more to be said about the complexities of claiming such a relationship and I realize I’ve as yet said very little about it, or about the actual ill-effects for women.  Conversely, of course, even the dominant images aren’t monolithic or univalent; one of the strategies of feminist theology is to employ a hermeneutics of retrieval to discover other lesser-known symbols, or to re-imagine traditional ones, that can function well for women, disempowered men, and children.   Nevertheless, I think it’s important to get this on the table, admittedly without appropriate depth and nuance, as a critical assumption operative in much of feminist theological discourse.  (Please don’t think, for example, that I’m claiming either a 1:1 relation between gender-exclusive God-language and the worst atrocities against women, or that such language could never be experienced as liberative by some women.)  In future posts I hope to return to a number of related issues, including the functioning of particular symbols, such as certain images for God and grammatical structures.  If you’re itching to read more in the meantime, I’d suggest Schneiders’ 1986 Madaleva Lecture (cited below) as a highly readable, short introduction.

[1] Johnson, Elizabeth A.  She Who Is. (NY: Crossroad, 1992), p. 47

[2] Schneiders, Sandra M. Women and the Word. (NY: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 16.

[3] Johnson, p. 22-24.

19 thoughts

  1. A thoughtful post and your experiences really fleshed out the female struggle. I am ashamed to say that I have only begun to consider these issues of symbol/metaphor and its relation to (often unconscious) androcentric assumptions through arriving late at the work of Sallie McFague. I think you are asking the right questions about the function of the imaginary and the self, especially with regard to “God as man”, which must (at least unconsciously) reflect back onto women as “lacking” more than men in their existence as imagio dei. I will be interested in your reflections as you pursue this line of inquiry. All the best.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Beth–it’s a lucid outline of a concept that’s pretty tough to wrap one’s mind around. This same basic starting-point–“symbols function”–is behind a lot of the most interesting stuff (I think) going on in Bible, too.

    The story about “he” vs. “they” as the singular pronoun struck a chord–I too tend to be a stickler for grammar, and this one is a particular problem for me. As it turns out, singular “they” has been widely used in “classic” English literature since the inception of Modern English–see http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003572.html
    and other Language Log posts, which periodically revisit the issue. So it’s not, actually, “wrong” according to the “descriptive” standards of English grammar–many, many writers who are widely considered to be masters of the language have used it. But I still think it’s wrong. It still sets off buzzers in my head that are based on training rather than reason. So…I personally still use “he” or “she” (alternating at random is my compromise). And when I was teaching, I still marked singular “they” as wrong, simply because I didn’t want college admissions officials and HR people to think my students were dumb.

    All of which is just another example of the complexities of the ways symbols function to shape our conception of reality–sometimes reason gets the last word, sometimes, not so much.

    1. Thanks for the interesting historical tip and the link, Mary. And if you ever are inclined to share some thoughts about how you see biblical symbols functioning, please do! That’s definitely a crucial part of this conversation that I didn’t get into.

  3. Hey Beth,

    Thanks for this awesome introduction. I hope you continue to write more on this topic, because I have tons of questions.

    One concern I have is how much the feminist project is concerned with the retrieval of symbols and how little is written on the underlying theory (whether one is situating the discussion in terms of semiotics, sacraments, or a philosophy of the imagination). I mean, who is doing this right now? Schneiders? MacFague? I don’t know of anyone else. So I’m glad you’ve directed us to examine the topic as one worthy in its own right.

    The move to examine the way symbols *function* seems to entail (among other things) a shift to analysis of reception within the community (rather than just the fittingness of the sign to the signified). Symbols will function differently for different persons, communities, etc.

    Earlier this semester a debate broke out in one of my classes over the use of Father-language for God, particularly with regard to people who had been abused by their fathers. A few students argued that these people needed to change their understanding of father on account of their relationship with God as Father, rather than reading their relationship with their father into their relationship with God. I argued the opposite point, because father-language has the possibility to keep one from entering into that very relationship, but I think it’s important to note that symbols work both ways. The language we use in God-talk will affect how we think of God, but it seems necessary to also recognize that there is a legitimate apophatic moment in all God-talk that opens it to be baptized for such purposes–and might provoke a new understanding of the original concept in question.

    Anyhow, the debate raises some important questions: How do we mediate between different ways the symbol is functioning for different people in the same community, (who are partaking of the same symbols via prayer and worship)? And how do we recognizing dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the subject, the symbol and the symbolized?

    1. Key questions at the end, Erin. Those get right to it and I hope we can continue to think about this together. I plan to be doing some more writing at some point anyway! Elizabeth Johnson really situates her whole discussion in the context of apophatic theology and how Christians have wrestled with the very possibility of speaking about God – necessary, yet necessarily insufficient – so I definitely think that needs to be forefronted. I’m curious to know what you think about the Coakley example Michael gave, on the issue of Father language in particular.

  4. Beth, this is a great post for feminist semiotics noobs like me. Your clarity is really helpful!

    I want to respond with a connection I’m making with the article I’m basing my (seven-month-overdue) comparative theology paper around. UChicago’s William Schweiker picks up on the “active dimension” that symbol formation has, and the constructive element always present in theological imagination. Though he’s not writing in a feminist context, I think Schweiker might assist you in making your point when he writes about the need for a hermeneutics-centered approach to comparative moral theology: “[U]nderstanding always enacts a world of meaning; we discover a world in part by our active participation in making meaning… The condition for understanding others is precisely that we live our lives as interpreters of meaning” (from Schweiker’s _Power, Value and Conviction: Theological Ethics in the Postmodern Age_, p. 117).

    I think what he’s saying here is that symbols function by enacting worlds of meaning for us (both as individuals and as members of interpretive communities). As a moral agent, I have to recognize my situatedness in a world of meaning and recognize that situatedness in others. For feminists, this probably means that male God-language enacts a world of potentially oppressive meaning, a meaning not present (or at least not central) in non-feminist “worlds.” The importance of consciousness raising that you rightly stress is that members of different worlds of meaning need to be aware of meaning as it functions differently in various meaning-worlds.

    I dunno, I hope that’s at least a little useful for your purposes. When I was reading your post I thought of Schweiker and thought he might shed a little light. Again, Beth, this is a great post within a great blog. In the future I’ll try to comment on posts written by people I haven’t even met!

    1. Hey Sam. I appreciate the reference to Schweiker; I think it fits well with with the notion that symbols work “both ways” that Erin mentioned and that I tried to suggest with the quote from Schneiders. Thinking about meaning-worlds is helpful, too, because it can get at the multivalent nature of symbols, giving us reason to look to the situatedness that we’ve come to see is so formative of our experience. Does he end up talking about ways to communicate and even adjudicate between those worlds?
      Good luck on your incomplete, and comment away!

  5. Beth,

    I find this question really interesting. It’s one I’ve been thinking about for awhile in terms of a broader relationship between language and power. One thing I’m wondering about, perhaps for future posts, is whether you would want to draw a distinction between symbols and concepts. I’m not sure if any distinction of this kind can really be defended in concrete cases. But what’s on my mind is that the word “symbol” suggests something that is rich, and yet somewhat opaque or ambiguous, in meaning. A symbol requires a practice of never-ending interpretation which is capable of holding contradictory elements in tension and embracing a perhaps relatively high degree of uncertainty. By contrast, the word “concept” suggests that, although interpretation is still needed, a certain clear sense of things is more readily available. A concept is something which is more or less unambiguous in meaning. So this would be a rough, rough way of trying to distinguish them.

    The reason I raise this issue is that it seems to me easier to pin down the effects of a concept than a symbol. So, for instance, if, as in patriarchal societies, men understand (and not merely imagine) women to be inferior–that is, formulate for themselves a concept of women’s inferiority–then the deleterious effects of this are going to follow in a very clear way. But if, as is perhaps the case in twenty-first century U.S. culture, there are many ambiguous symbols of women in circulation, which allow for a variety of destructive or life-giving interpretations, then it seems that the connection with power is much more difficult to specify.

    The problem, of course, is that symbols are what we’ve got. Notions that are disambiguated enough to count as concepts seem hard to find, especially surrounding questions of gender.

    Some feminist theologians have, from time to time, attempted to make a ruling on certain symbols–the cross for instance–on the basis of an analysis of their negative effects. But my sense is that any ruling of this kind has to take place at a conceptual level, insofar as a concept is nothing other than a decision made about the exact meaning of a symbol. But in the absence of such conceptual certainty, in the presence of symbols whose meanings are diverse and perhaps even contradictory, the task of feminist interpretation seems more difficult. Instead of deciding for or against symbols, it seems there is a need to distinguish the concepts at work in them, or the concepts which they may produce, and try at that level to sort out the good from the bad.

    I don’t know, what do you think?

    1. Andrew, have you read Sallie MacFague’s _Metaphorical Theology_? I think her distinction between metaphor and model would be really helpful to the questions you are raising. She traces a continuum from metaphors (if I understand her right “symbols” would fall in this category–though she is more interested in predication than ontology) to conceptual theology with working models as a midway point. I actually think her understanding of models is incredibly rich, even though I dislike her theory of metaphor. (I like my Ricoeur neat, not diluted, thank you!).

    2. I second Erin’s recommendation of McFague (although perhaps as a hermeneutical wimp, I found her Ricoeur quite easy to digest). I’ve also recently been getting into a lot of Tillich and secondary literature around his work on symbols, which also tries to navigate the tension between the importance of symbols (say, the cross) and the need to avoid the fetishising/idolatrous tendencies involved with symbols.

      Thinking out loud and perhaps displaying some of my own theoretical dispositions, I wonder if a lot of the work on ‘Post-Marxist Discourse Theory’ might be useful in this regard. esp. say, Laclau & Mouffe’s work on hegemony and empty signifiers. Certainly their stuff would speak to what you, Andrew, have argued for: i.e. the “need to distinguish the concepts at work in them, or the concepts which they may produce, and try at that level to sort out the good from the bad”

    3. Thanks much, Andrew. In short: I think you’re right. This is what I want to get at, that there is a connection between language and power, but that spelling out the concrete causal relationships is somewhat murky. I want to give due attention to the fact that some people experience precisely those symbols I find most oppressive as most rich, comforting, liberating, etc., and yet still I really want to press the structural patterns that I’ve become convinced have an overall negative effect. The distinction between concept and symbol, as a rough measure of relative specificity, seems like it could indeed be an important one. Then again – and I may be missing your point here – I guess my thinking about this is shaped by a Catholic context and the realities of dealing with authoritative teaching. Do you have thoughts about where “doctrine” would fit? As Katie notes, it seems that in this context what could potentially be ambiguous, opaque, always to-be-interpreted-again symbols are dealt with as something more along the lines of “concepts,” relatable to fairly specific ethical judgments, for example. Or perhaps one would say it’s not the symbols themselves but the social, cultural, or ecclesial mechanisms by which the process of concept-production occurs that are the problem? In general I think I share your intuition that it’s not so much about “deciding for or against symbols”; especially in light of the importance of tradition it seems that the strategy of expansion (the more the merrier approach!(?)) is a helpful one. That’s my take on what Johnson, for one, is trying to do in terms of language for God. And then, speaking ecclesially, if a wider range of symbols is in circulation we come up against some of the questions Erin indicated concerning liturgy and such (and, it strikes me now, considering even whether liturgy is the expression of symbols or an effect, or both…). Well, as you can see I think a lot about this, too — though with less clarity than you! So I do hope to hear more of your insights in the future!

  6. I like this!

    Our nine-some is now complete!

    I like this because it seems as though in the tradition “man” and “woman” have also functioned as symbols and one of the things that is at stake in current ethical and theological debates is the nature of the relationship between “man” and “woman” as illustrative symbols and the fact that individual, flesh and blood human beings are much more complex and even different from their symbolic representations.

    the dominant impulse in official teaching seems to be to claim that when individual men and women are different from symbolic “man” and “woman” (for example, in the spousal metaphor–christ the bridegroom, etc) this difference is one of deviation, caused by sin and/or defect.

    in other words, more and more the magisterium is using these symbols as ethically prescriptive.

    ultimately, the debate comes to down to what is more “real,” symbolic/platonic femininity and masculinity or the beautifully messy and diverse way in which actual human beings are gendered.

    1. And I like this! Really important points, Katie. I also want to write more about how I see a symbol of “human” imagined in exclusively male terms as tied to a view of women as deviant, defective, and sinful. Surely there are many instances of explicit refusal of this in the Christian tradition, however such a view also finds both explicit and implicit supports, in great numbers. Your sense of how our gendered symbols can accommodate our complex human reality – or not – is absolutely critical. Thanks!

  7. Excellent introductory article, Beth!

    I really look forward to future discussions about this, especially on the the normativity of “Father” language. That’s a question I’ve been struggling with as I present material on the Trinity to my high school students. For myself, I agree with Sarah Coakley on the need for Father language as viewed through the Gospel lens of Jesus and his “abba” experience. That said, trying to get high school students on-board with “the Father with a womb” (a la the Council of Toledo) usually just means making them imagine God as a male hermaphrodite, a freakshow figure rather than the transcendence and fulfillment of sexuality.

    Keep up the great work!

  8. This is a short anecdotal comment, but…

    Like you, I also insisted (because it was RIGHT! and to show people that THESE THINGS DIDN’T BOTHER ME! BECAUSE I WAS 100% RATIONAL!) on using “he” as the generic singular pronoun in high school and through a lot of college — and using man, mankind, etc. I very much had an, “I can perform the translation to the universal in my head; anyone who can’t is just being silly” attitude…

    …but I still recall the day that a professor used “she” for a generic pronoun (in a course on Ancient and Medieval Philosophy… his solution was to switch between he and she). I don’t remember the point he was making, but he was trying to describe how philosophical arguments should work: “When a regular person wants to make this point, he might say XYZ, which is great, but when a philosopher tries to express this, she needs to be attentive to ABC and DEF as well.” I was a sophomore, and it was the first time I thought — hey, maybe I should think about potentially getting a PhD one day… because I could suddenly see “a philosopher” as a category that potentially included me, and not just “those guys back then / over there / in front of me lecturing.”

    It’s taken me a lot longer to be comfortable using feminine pronouns for God, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, and I still find it difficult to pray with feminine pronouns, but I really make a concerted effort to refer to God as both he and she — I go back and forth depending on paragraphs — precisely because we don’t know how our imaginations are being (mal/)formed — or how we are forming others’ imaginations — when there are realms we’re just not considering…

  9. Hi Beth,
    Understand the genetics of the long introductions.. at least they show you are thinking of all sides and trying to be fair. I’m late for Mass and HE/SHE knows it. Love and blessings.

  10. It’s also interesting how pronouns in some languages do not have gender- Kreyol, some African languages- don’t know much about languages, though, just noticed this. Also, I’ve been wondering about Christ as “King” and “Lord”…. certainly an ancient concept, but these can bring up some negative connotations today. “Chief” or “Executive Director” would be no better.

    1. Hi Kathy,
      We do try to be fair and that can result in some extra words, for sure! No gender at all in Kreyol? Very interesting! The point you raise about the language of “King” and “Lord” is one that’s been noted by a number of feminist theologians, too, most notably Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She coined the term “kyriarchy” (from the Greek kyrios for “lord” or “master” and archein meaning “to rule or dominate”) to refer to interlocking systems of domination or oppression, in which patriarchy plays a part. So, too, do many business practices connoted by the modern terms you mention. The question for some is whether Jesus’ “lordship” (“executive directorship”??) is of a qualitatively different sort such that it can be helpful to employ this model. Or not… Thanks for reading!

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