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, 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.” 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). 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.