Quo Vadis, Domina?
God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It
Since the rise in the sixties of what has been called the second feminist movement, there has been an extensive debate in the Christian churches about the identity and the roles of women. At first the focus was on the issues. In recent years increasing attention has been given to feminist theology as a new force among Christians. Of the books written on the subject, perhaps the best is Manfred Hauke’s God or Goddess?
Hauke is Professor of Dogmatics in the Roman Catholic Theological Faculty at Lugano, Switzerland. He is best known as the author of Women in the Priesthood (English translation published by Ignatius Press, 1988), probably the leading study by a Roman Catholic theologian on the ordination of women. In his latest book, he turns from the issues surrounding the ordination of women to the source of the main challenges to Biblical and traditional Christian teaching on the role of women—feminist theology.
God or Goddess? is a clearly written, well translated, non-polemical treatment of the main outlines of feminist theology in its various forms. The body of it compares feminist positions with the main Christian doctrines and indicates points of difference and their significance. It covers many of the major feminist theological writers, probably all of the notable ones in Germany and many in the United States.
The background to feminist ideology and theology in intellectual history is much broader than we are accustomed to see in American books that treat this issue. Hauke, for example, traces the American women’s liberation movement to its Marxist origins. His work should be especially helpful to Americans who tend to overlook or under-estimate the Marxist traits and thought modes of feminist theologians.
As is often observed, Americans tend to equate Marxism with Communism and are surprised to find that even after the demise of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe, Marxism is the dominant force in many countries in the world. Like Social Democracy, feminism, still alive and well, is clearly one of the Marxist offshoots.
But what is the evidence of Marxist influence on feminism? Hauke identifies, among other things, the willingness to evaluate all positions in terms of ideological import regardless of empirical or scientific backing; the hermeneutics of suspicion; the relative indifference to rational argumentation; the confrontational tactics; the long-term campaign waged in confidence that history is on one’s side; the division of the world into pro-and-contra (good and evil); and the rewriting of history from an ideological standpoint. While Hauke only sketches in the genealogy of the movements and the main features of the Marxist orientation, the facts he presents explain a great deal.
The main part of God or Goddess?, however, considers feminist theological positions in relation to Christian doctrine. Feminist theology, Hauke points out, uses a methodology that gives “women’s experience” priority over revelation and subscribes to an understanding of human nature that overturns traditional Christian teaching. For each of the main Christian doctrines he indicates the divergences between orthodox Christianity and feminism. Ultimately, one must ask the question: in what sense can feminist theology be understood as Christian?
Werner Neuer, author of Man and Woman in Christian Perspective (Crossway Books, 1991), in a review of Hauke’s book in Kirche und Medien says, “Evangelical readers will be happy to see that Hauke, a Catholic theologian, also thoroughly considers the Protestant feminist critique and usually formulates its positions in such a way that evangelical Christians can see their significance. This book can be recommended to all Christians who, in their attempts to deal with feminist theology, are looking for help and direction.” The best equivalent by a Protestant author in English is perhaps Mary Kassian’s book, The Feminist Gospel: The Movement to Unite Feminism with the Church (Crossway Books, 1992). While the style and level is similar, Hauke focuses on a systematic comparison of feminist theology with orthodox Christian theology, and provides treatment of both European and American authors. Both are helpful.
On both sides of the feminist issue, Christians from very different backgrounds—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—find themselves working together in ways they had never done so before. For those who accept “mere Christianity,” sharing of resources in this area would seem to be a natural place for cooperation.
This is the best available presentation of feminist theology that gives a theological overview. It is accessible to a wide range of people, including the educated layman, while handling the questions of concern to theologians. Hauke’s descriptive approach to feminist theology is basic enough and non-controversial enough to leave little room for disagreement. For those who accept Christian orthodoxy, his evaluations are indisputable.
Hauke’s even-handed treatment of feminism, however, should not blind us to the dangers posed by this new ideology. The feminist theologians whom he describes are an extensive and influential group of people who usually call themselves Christian, identify their writings as Christian theology, and occupy many church positions and academic posts. They are, however, not only not orthodox but, for the most part, are not Christian in any recognizable sense.
If what Hauke, Kassian, Neuer and other similar authors are saying is true, Christians may be dealing with the greatest theological challenge since Gnosticism. We are confronting a movement that is in no sense Christian, but that is subtly transforming Christian teaching “from within” along the lines of an alien ideology—at the expense of the basic integrity of Christian doctrine.
How can such a thing go unchallenged? Many people are unaware of the real agenda of the feminist ideology, and many of those who know what is happening—church leaders and seminary professors—have already made their peace with feminism or look the other way in regard to the theology behind it. Beyond this, there seem to be two reasons. First, the issues that the feminists raise in the church are ones that the secular world is already adapting to on a massive scale. The traditional roles of men and women are not viable in a new society without some serious reconsideration and adjustment for very new circumstances. That task is not easy. The second is that “liberal” or “secular” theology since the Enlightenment has never hesitated to alter the meanings of doctrinal statements. They might not change the words, but they replace the traditional understanding with one more palatable to the modern mind. Such an approach is not easy to spot, and the feminist version of it fits in well with other similar remodelings of Christian theology. For whatever reason, church leaders are often unwilling to take on such challenges.
The greatest threat we face does not come from the clearly identified feminist theologians like Mary Daly or Rosemary Radford Ruether. In the evangelical camp, as noted by Mary Kassian, the early evangelical feminists have suspiciously given up on their evangelical theology. No, the real threat comes from those who still say that a theology that incorporates the tenets of feminism can be incorporated into orthodox Christian theology as a reasonable “development” of Christian doctrine. Such an approach is at best a Trojan horse.
Stephen Clark is a leader in The Sword of the Spirit, which is a movement of ecumenical Christian communities. He is also the author of Man and Woman in Christ (Servant Publications, 1980). This review is adapted from a review in The Evangelical Catholic, which is edited by Touchstone Associate Editor David Mills.
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“Quo Vadis, Domina?” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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