Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Women's Voices

[Teresa Elwes, ed. Women's Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology. London: Marshall Pickering, 1992.]

My work-inspired, non-Christian but shaped-by-Christianity and aiming-to-be-respectful exploration of feminist theology continues with this book. It collects works from feminist theologians working in academia in the U.K. All but one are working in Christian traditions, and the other is Jewish.

For the most part, the essays in this short collection address quite specific topics, though the final two were clearly staking out positions on differing sides of the Christian feminist theology versus post-Christian feminist theology debate. The other essays looked at questions like the use of "Father" in Christian discourse, the doctrine of the Trinity and how to relate that to feminism, the relationship between different feminisms and different Mariologies, and a feminist Christian look at theodicy (the problem of evil). The one Jewish contribution examined women in the creation stories in Genesis. Overall, I enjoyed most of the essays, though my experience of reading them was certainly shaped by the fact that I am approaching this topic with little background and am not invested in the field's various debates. My favourite contribution was "Feminism and Christian Ethics" by Linda Woodhead, which managed to say things that resonated with debates very central to my own life journey despite locating at least part of its grounding in Christianity, a tradition with which I do not actively identify. There was also one essay which I found utterly appalling -- it was basically an exercise in anti-trans bigotry, which more or less openly equated transness with mental illness.

Because this is only the second book I've read in what will be a fairly scattered and random exploration of feminist theology, most of the things that it made me think about were not particularly specific to its content but more general responses to the entire enterprise of feminist Christian and post-Christian theology.

One element of that was a certain amount of respect for the ease with which this tradition seems to deal with life across a broad range of scales. At least based on my limited sampling, a recognition of the importance of the micro, the macro, and what lies in between seems to come quite easily to feminist theology. I suspect it owes this both to its feminist roots and its theological roots. My reflection on this placed it in implicit contrast with the secular left, where relating micro and macro is often more tortured, if it is prioritized at all. This is partly because, though there can be some overlap in the micro between these traditions, the theological versions of the macro often have a certain elegance and coherence that secular left macros could not and should not want to match. But I think there is also something in there about differences in priorities that perhaps secular leftists who claim to prioritize politics beginning from whole, embodied people could learn from.

A larger part of the thinking sparked within me by this book was about different ways of relating to texts. It would be hard to come up with a generally accepted definition of "Christian" that did not include some sort of respect for the authority of the tradition's governing text, the bible. Certainly the form of that respect varies immensely, and can be one of the key points of conflict among different versions of Christianity. But it seems to me, and I think to most Christians, that in order for claiming that label to make any sense, some sort of connection to the bible as a primary document must be maintained.

In one way or another, it seems that much of feminist theology is about figuring out how to construct a relationship to that foundational text that maintains sufficient relationship to claim the label "Christian" while at the same time making it a liberatory relationship for women. The tricky thing about this is the fact that feminisms are bodies of ideas, discourses, and practices that do not have any necessary sympathetic connection with Christianity, so creating a synthesis of the two is a major undertaking. A key question is how compatible they really are. I can see how some feminists have taken the position that it is not possible to synthesize the two in any satisfactory way, or that it is just not worth the effort. I can also see how others, while acknowledging the magnitude of the task, feel that their experience of both will be enriched by the other.

Despite that sympathy for different feminist responses to synthesizing their feminism and their Christianity (or Judaism), when I relate it all more directly to my own political practice I am filled with suspicion about any need to cling so tightly to a particular foundational text. Which is kind of a complicated reaction, because it is not like I treat all texts in a uniformly tentative, distancing sort of way -- some I embrace and integrate deeply into my view of the world, others I hold on to as provisionally useful but subject to a more active sort of constant reevaluation, while still others never get past the lobby. I think my suspicion is not in response to people having sustained regard for a particular text, but from that regard being felt necessary as an essential marker of legitimacy rather than because of a utility, beauty, or challenge contained in the text itself -- the kind of relationship you can find in some Christians and some Marxists for their respective founding documents, where they are searched for wisdom because of the reverence in which the searchers hold them a priori rather than holding them in reverence and searching them because of the wisdom (beauty, challenge) they continue to demonstrate. Which is not, I want to emphasize, a comment on either set of founding documents, but on how some people relate to them.

But then again, maybe it is that as well. After all, both of those sets of foundational texts have been involved in the organizing of some pretty oppressive sets of relationships and practices, including patriarchal ones, in the real world. When you look at the role of the bible in organizing patriarchal relations for two millenia or (for some parts of it) more, it becomes easy to lean towards those feminists who wish to continue to explore spirituality but do it in a post-Christian context. It is tempting to conclude that despite the efforts of Christian feminist theologians to synthesize the two traditions to which they are loyal, it is hard to believe that with that record of the last two thousand years that any result of that reclamation is really integral to the founding document. As someone outside of that tradition, it isn't for me to say, but I certainly wonder. On the other hand, perhaps the reasonable insight here is not about Christianity being any more irredemable than any other collection of discourses, practices, and relations that emerge from spaces that are patriarchal and oppressive in other ways -- which is to say essentially all human-produced discourse, practice, and relations. Perhaps it is more indicative that any organizing text of sufficient complexity will have such a breadth of possible relationships to embodied practices and relations in the material world that it can be taken up for both oppressive and liberatory purposes, and therefore using a particular text as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness and its opposite is a dead end. Perhaps it is an argument for treating texts as tools rather than authorities. Perhaps it is a sign that the best bottom line is human experience and that we must ultimately hold texts accountable to that experience rather than the other way around.

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