The Autonomous Woman
Feminism’s Incompatibility with Christian Faith
by Susan Cyre
Feminist Daphne Hampson, a systematic theologian at the University of St. Andrew, Scotland, writes, “To be a Christian is not simply to preach Jesus’ message. It is also to proclaim a message about Jesus—and therein for a feminist lie all the problems”1 (emphasis mine). Feminism as an ideology with its own set of priorities, goals, and premises competes for our allegiance to the Jesus Christ of Scripture. While feminist ideology can recognize some parts of Jesus’ message as compatible with their own premises and goals, it cannot accept Jesus’ person as the definitive revelation of God. Feminist ideology cannot proclaim a message about Jesus Christ.
This incompatibility is recognized by feminists themselves. Daphne Hampson, baptized in the Church of England, and Mary Daly, a former Roman Catholic, both now reject Christian faith and consider themselves “post-Christian.” Naomi Goldenberg wrote as early as 1979, “The feminist movement in Western culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Yahweh.”2 Referring to early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Goldenberg wrote, “The first feminist critic of biblical traditions understood that Judaism and Christianity had to be eliminated for the position of women to be significantly improved.”3
The Autonomous Feminist
An underlying premise of feminist ideology is inherited from the modernism that spawned feminism: we are autonomous decision-makers. Phillip Johnson, a University of California law professor, has defined modernism as “the condition that begins when humans understand that God is really dead and that they therefore have to decide all the big questions for themselves.”4 Johnson’s definition applies equally to feminist ideology, and it is this claim to autonomy that makes feminist ideology incompatible with Christian faith.
Modern men and women have rejected transcendent truth, believing that no God who decides the “big questions” exists. Feminist ideology is but one manifestation of this denial of transcendent truth. The malady is widespread. A Barna poll found that two-thirds of the American people believe that there is no such thing as transcendent truth. Fifty-three percent of those professing to be conservative Christians also said there is no such thing as absolute truth.5 University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom wrote in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, that “almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”6
The fundamental question is, “Who decides what truth is?” or in Johnson’s words, “Who decides the big questions?” If we decide, we only can do so by first denying the transcendent God who spoke definitively in Christ. For in Christ, God, who is the author of truth, answers those big questions. To be autonomous decision-makers and decide the big questions, feminists must reject the historical Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture and, therefore, must end up post-Christian. For human beings to believe they are autonomous, they must first reject a God who is autonomous.
The Projection of Men
Feminist ideology is based on the premise that all religion is a human construct by the ruling males who use it to oppress women. As in Marxism, religion is seen as a tool created by those in power to keep their subjects submissive. Feminists charge that men were the leaders in Hebrew and Greek society and so devised a religion that supported their positions of power. According to feminist ideology the transcendent God revealed in Scripture is a projection of men. In addition, Scripture, theology, and the Church all represent efforts by men to affirm their own position and oppress others. Feminist writer Mary Daly summed up the feminist argument that men created a God to affirm their superiority: “If God is male then male is god.”
If the Christian God and Christian faith is a projection of men’s experience, the next step for the feminists is natural enough. Feminist ideology calls women to imagine a new god and new religion as a projection of women’s experience. Women, then, become the final arbiters of the content of truth.
Women are free to use portions of Scripture if they find it reflects their truth. Feminist Letty Russell, a professor at Yale Divinity School, explains that women determine what in Scripture is authoritative by giving their assent to it only when it agrees with their subjective inner voice: “The text only has authority as I agree with it and interpret it to my experience.”7 Women are equally free to use secular, pagan, and pre-biblical writings as inspiration if they reflect women’s truth. Feminist Rosemary Ruether claims “whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or . . . the authentic nature of things.”8 By defining what constitutes their own “full humanity,” women also then determine what denies or diminishes that full humanity. Their “full humanity” becomes the measure of truth.
Using the feminist paradigm, truth is not revealed by God, but is determined by women as they subjectively decide what affirms their full humanity. A woman must, therefore, be able to determine the content of her truth with no limitations placed on her and then, again without limitations, act in accordance with that truth.
The Unacceptable God
In feminist ideology, to be a completely autonomous determiner of truth, one cannot be limited by the Christian God. Two issues emerge that put God and the feminists on a collision course. First, if God has will and is able to act in perfect freedom, then his will limits the will and choices a woman can make. Feminism’s answer is to reimagine God as a totally immanent, amorphous energy force which has no will and no ability to act. Second, God’s choice to become incarnate in Jesus Christ demands a response by us. Jesus’ concreteness cannot be ignored. But to respond to Jesus means to allow our will to be limited by the Word. Feminism’s answer is to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and accept him only as a prophet who showed human beings how to renounce oppressive social structures. Or the feminists deny his humanity and spiritualize Jesus back into the energy force. As Daphne Hampson observed, feminist ideology can comfortably preach parts of Jesus’ message, but it cannot “proclaim a message about Jesus” (emphasis mine). Jesus, for the feminists, can be accepted as a prophet but not as Lord and Savior.
The transcendent Christian God, possessing both the will and the power to act, is an anathema to feminism because his existence limits women’s ability to choose. A God who chose to create the world limits women if they should choose not to accept the world as God’s creation and be under his authority. A God who chose to create men and women to live together in marriage limits the women who may reject marriage as a God-defined relationship. A God who chose that sex be contained in a one-man one-woman marriage limits the choices of women who choose lesbian sexual practice. The Christian God who directs history and intervenes in the natural world to create, sustain, judge, and redeem, is an unacceptable limitation on women’s autonomy.
The New God of Minneapolis
Feminist ideology, rejecting the transcendent Christian God who has volition and power to act, draws heavily from New Age and Eastern religions. Feminism has imagined a formless energy force which permeates and unites the universe, making the material world, including women, divine. According to feminism, women seek the wisdom to be in harmony with this energy through inner self-discovery. This totally immanent, faceless energy-force god constructed by the feminists neither wills nor acts to limit women’s autonomy.
Ruether calls this energy the “cosmic matrix of matter/energy.”9 And Mary Daly claims god is not a noun but a verb—“being.” She writes,
As a uniquely masculine divinity loses credibility, so also the idea of a unique divine incarnation in a human being of the male sex may give way. . . to an increased awareness of the divine presence in all human beings, understood as expressing and in a real sense incarnating . . . the power of being.10
Feminist witch Starhawk, writes,
There is no dichotomy between spirit and flesh, no split between Godhead and the world. The Goddess is manifest in the world; she brings life into being, is nature, is flesh. Union is not sought outside the world in some heavenly sphere or through dissolution of the self into the void beyond the sense. Spiritual union is found in life, within nature, passion, sensuality—through being fully human, fully one’s self.11
The November 1993 Re-Imagining Conference, held in Minneapolis—planned and paid for by mainline denominations—showed the inroads feminist ideology has made into mainline church leadership. The conference was held midpoint in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. The conference was a showcase of feminist ideology.
Speaker Carla DeSola described the inner discovery that brings one’s divinity into harmony with the world when she told the group, “Feel your being, this being is sacred like the earth . . . (when) we are in touch with our deep self we release the spirit into the world. We become, like Sophia, a tree of life for the healing of ourselves and the nations.”12
Supporting this same idea of human beings as the divine incarnation, Rita Nakashima Brock told the group, “Remember, incarnation is activity, god as verb, not a state of being. When we take responsibility we can use our power to love, to nurture, to enable freedom and willfulness of others.”13
Feminist speaker Chung Hyun Kyung told the group in Minneapolis they could become gods and goddesses and then taught them to harness the universal energy force. She said,
In many parts of Asia, incarnation always comes from the bottom to the top. Never does god’s son or daughter just drop here and become god—rather it is a very organic process, you come and you experience all the things in this world and because of the way you lived, the way you shared your life you become god and goddess one day.14
Chung then led the group in New Age “pranic healing,” telling them they could harness this life-giving energy. She said, “If you feel very tired . . . you go to big tree and ask tree, ‘Give me some of your life-energy’.”
Rejecting Jesus’ humanity and recasting him as an energy force, Asian feminist Kwok Pui-Lan told the conference participants, “If we cannot imagine Jesus as a tree, as a river, as wind and as rain, we are doomed together. If we are forever anthropocentric in our search for the redeemer, we are doomed.”15
This is sheer pantheism and nothing new. In much of feminist ideology there lurk the dark shadows of an ancient gnosticism that has repeatedly sought to undermine the scandal of the Incarnation.
The Temptation of the Formless God
While we see that this desire to rid themselves of the concreteness of Jesus Christ in favor of a spiritualized energy force is a feminist phenomenon, it is a distortion not unique to the feminists. David Yeago, professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, situates the rejection of the Christian God who wills and acts in a false dichotomy between Law and Grace. Yeago argues that this desire to throw off the bounds that are imposed by the concrete and particular is an issue that underlies the currently popular teachings on “law versus grace.”
The law, as God’s Word, represents the concrete, objective revelation that limits our freedom to act. The gospel becomes good news precisely because it is freedom from the boundaries imposed by the concreteness of the law. The next logical step, according to Yeago, to achieving freedom from boundaries is to reject Jesus Christ himself who, in taking the form of a man, became concrete. Yeago writes,
The logic is simple: if form is enslavement, then a God who took form in history would be an enslaving God. The liberating God must therefore be a formless God, a God at most dialectically related to any particular form, a God who is everywhere and nowhere, whose faceless elusiveness frees us from the tyranny of the particular and ordered and definitive. This is the God whom, we are told, we must not ‘limit,’ that is, whom we must not confess as definitively self-given and self-identified in Jesus Christ.16
The feminists imagine this freedom, this autonomy, in an energy-force god or a spirit divorced from Christ. Yeago observes that the popular desire to reject the particularity of the law as binding and instead to seek freedom in a grace divorced from law, will lead to a rejection of Jesus Christ whose concreteness also imposes limits.
This may explain why so many Christians, even conservative Christians, reject the existence of absolute truth. The truth is revealed in Scripture, in the law, and it is binding and concrete. Many Christians prefer a formless God who does not limit their autonomy. Ironically, this is exactly the direction the feminists take.
The Rejection of God in Christ
The transcendent Christian God who wills and acts within human history must be rejected by feminist ideologues because he limits their ability to will and act. The Christian God who is the author of truth and who acts to establish a reign of truth limits feminists who claim the right to be authors and establishers of their subjective truth. Similarly, Jesus Christ, the concrete visible image of the invisible God, is unacceptable since he, too, by virtue of his being the Truth incarnate, limits the feminists’ ability to determine truth autonomously and act on it. Logically, the feminist cannot accept the primary Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” since that describes submission to Jesus as the transcendent One who is the Truth.
Jesus Christ of Nazareth is concrete, irrefutable proof that God has volition, and has the ability to carry out his choice. He is perfectly free, perfectly autonomous. But, therein is the rub. If God is perfectly free, then his choices limit the freedom of the women to choose. His autonomy limits their autonomy.
God’s choice to come concretely in history in Christ confronts human beings with a choice—to respond to the truth in Christ or to reject Christ. When Jesus spoke, his words conveyed meaning. They were not meaningless gibberish, but particular words that conveyed information. And if Jesus is the incarnate God, then the information his words conveyed is truth. Similarly, Jesus’ life was not a collection of random meaningless acts; it was the self-revelation of God. To respond to Jesus Christ of Nazareth, as the unique Son of God, is to acknowledge that his words and actions have meaning. But this self-revelation limits the feminists’ subjective inner version of truth.
In order for the feminists to preserve the autonomy they covet, they cannot acknowledge that Christ is the revelation of God and that God willed, acted, and spoke in Christ. Instead, the feminists reject Jesus’ divinity and declare that he merely is a good human being whose acts of love and compassion should be imitated. So Ruether writes,
His ability to speak as liberator does not reside in his maleness but in the fact that he renounced this system of domination and seeks to embody in his person the new humanity of service and mutual empowerment . . . Christ, the liberated humanity, is not confined to a static perfection of one person two thousand years ago.17
And Virginia Mollenkott claims,
Many of us would understand Jesus to be our elder brother, the trailblazer and constant companion for us who are here in time and space but ultimately one among many brothers and sisters in an eternally, equally worthy siblinghood. First born only in the sense that he was the first to show us that it is possible to live in oneness with the divine source while we are here on this planet.18
Cosmic Energy or Christ the Way?
So where does this notion of an immanent cosmic energy-force god take the feminists? First, since the cosmic energy force dwells in all material objects, the material world becomes divine. Trees become divine, the sun is divine, human beings are divine, animals are divine. Sexual practice as part of the material world becomes divine.
The feminists claim that when the material world is seen as divine, it will instill in human beings a reverence for the created world and for one another. But it does not; rather, it strips the material world and human beings of all meaning, purpose, and value. Human beings are no longer in the image of the transcendent creator but are on the same level as trees; chopping down a tree or committing euthanasia on an elderly person are of the same magnitude. Killing an ant is the moral equivalent of killing a human being since both are equally invested with the divine energy force.
Personal immortality does not exist. Instead, according to Ruether, when we die, our energy
dissolves back into the cosmic matrix of matter/energy from which new centers of the individuation arise . . . To bury ourselves in steel coffins, so that we cannot disintegrate into the earth is to refuse to accept this process of entering back into the matrix of renewed life. Such a manner of burial represents a fundamental refusal to accept earth as our home and the plants and animals of earth as our kindred. In this way we also fail to recognize the redemptive nature of our own disintegration-reintegration back into the soil.
Ruether’s energy-force god does not will and act to direct history. Instead, history becomes the endless cycle of life and death following the rhythms of nature. Unlike feminist ideology, the Christian faith attests that God has reconciled the world to himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ history becomes a linear progression of events in which God is actively accomplishing the fulfillment of his redeeming will for all creation.
Hampson’s critique of feminist ideology was accurate when she said that to be Christian requires we say something about Jesus and that this is problematic for the feminists. Indeed, it is impossible for the feminist. To affirm absolute autonomy, the feminist ideologues cannot confess a transcendent God who wills and acts, whose will is truth, and who acts in history to fulfill his will. The feminists cannot claim Jesus as Lord and Savior; they cannot witness to him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The mystery of the Christian faith that the feminists reject is that human beings only can become truly free as their lives enter into the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Earthbound human beings enter the life of the transcendent God who is not bound by earth. Human beings who allow their will and lives to be limited by Christ find that they are free from the sin that binds them and that they enter the real freedom of will possible in Christ.
The feminist’s energy-force god, the formless void, does not limit women’s autonomy, but it also does not forgive, or love, or sustain, or redeem. There can be no personal relationship with a verb or an energy-force in the trees. The feminist seeks freedom but ends up bound by the material world. The Christian is bound by Christ and finds freedom. The feminist believes everything is divine and discovers nothing has value. The Christian believes only the transcendent God is divine and finds because of him everything has value. The feminist believes she is divine but discovers at death she loses her identity and becomes food for worms. Christians know that at death they will stand eternally in the very presence of Jesus Christ, and the One they saw only dimly they will see face-to-face.
1. As quoted by Carl Braaten, “Feminist Christianity: An Oxymoron?” dialog, v. 30, no. 2 (Spring 1991), pp. 86–89.
2. Naomi Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 10.
4. Phillip E. Johnson, “Nihilism and the End of Law,” First Things, No. 31 (March 1993), pp. 19–25.
5. Cited by Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word, 1992), p. 184.
6. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 25.
7. As quoted in Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992), p. 171.
8. Rosemary Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), pp. 18–19.
9. Ibid., p. 257.
10. Carol P. Christ, Judith Plaskow, eds., Womenspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 59.
11. Ibid., p. 263.
12. Re-Imagining Conference, tape 1-1.
13. Ibid., tape 2-2.
14. Ibid., tape 2-1.
15. Ibid., tape 3-1, 3-2.
16. David S. Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology,” Pro Ecclesia, v. 2, no. 1 (Winter 1993), p. 44.
17. Ruether, pp. 137–138.
18. Re-Imagining Conference, tape 11-1.
Susan Cyre is a research consultant for the Institute on Religion and Democracy and is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She recently appeared on ABC Television’s “Nightline” to discuss feminist theology and the ramifications of the feminist Re-Imagining Conference held in Minneapolis in November 1993. She and her husband live in Blacksburg, Virginia; they have two sons.