Women Challenge Old Theology

Religious scholars with a female focus are questioning traditional, male-dominated beliefs

THE increase in numbers of women as ordained clergy in United States churches and church organizations long dominated by men has been steady over the past decade. But behind this shift, another quiet and arguably more powerful female-derived revolution is taking place in US seminaries and divinity schools. It's a flowering of new female perspectives in all aspects of theology, historical interpretation, and Biblical scholarship that's not without controversy. In the 1970s, women made civil-rights gains in churches and divinity schools, and fought hard to change male-only language in texts, prayers, and services. But many women found their basic spiritual experience and reading of scripture not adequately answered by traditional male theology and emphasis.

Hence, in the 1980s, women scholars went back to the ``questions behind the questions'' - to the heart of scripture, to the meaning behind Jesus' bold acceptance of women, and to the implications this has for the concept and sense of Deity underlying theology and the Bible.

Women are asking new questions about the nature of ethics, social justice, the structure of authority in churches, the prophetic tradition, the essence of ``holiness,'' and the image of the female in ancient times. Some are exploring how black women in the US relied on the gospel-message and the black church to survive unspeakable repression under slavery and subsequent racial discrimination. Some are disputing the theological view that God wills or creates suffering.

``Schools of theology have been teaching the same thing for a long time, and the challenge by women is coming from outside the old system,'' says Carol Ochs, professor of philosophy at Simmons College in Boston. ``Women are addressing the very limited vocabulary in talking about not only feminine names for God, but also feminine attributes as well: The whole way you think about God. What's more important than that? When you go back and look, Moses talked about God as Mother, but this language has been deemphasized and forgotten in most traditions.''

Yale Divinity School professor Letty Russell agrees but says that``the theological establishment still sees the female view as marginal.'' Still, the inquiry into feminine spirituality is not a fad, argues Barbara Brown Zikmund, academic dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.: ``We are going to be struggling with questions of authority - what is holy? who should lead? - for several decades. Women raise different questions in these areas. Some faculty members may not like these questions but I've seen them struggle with them knowing they must be dealt with.''

The female movement in schools of religion is not monolithic. Feminist methods and views differ tremendously. Factions and camps - and crossovers between them - abound. The spectrum includes conservative evangelicals, radical lesbians, black ``womanist'' thinkers, Jewish and Roman Catholic women, goddess-worshippers, Marxists, liberal Protestants, atheists, and ``pure scholars.''

There are three main groups:

Reformers who feel that church and theology can be changed from within.

Radicals who often advocate a female separation from male culture or a wholesale rejection of ``male-biased'' scripture in favor of a ``post-Christian'' spirituality.

Loyalist-conservatives who adhere to older doctrine (a husband-centered family, for example) but feel it must be transformed in practice by a change of heart based on female virtues.

All three groups stir controversy in academic circles. Critics say that feminists tend to be more ideological than scholarly, and that the actual historical role of women in the early church is being overemphasized. Some see women's enclaves at many schools as a dogmatic ``new orthodoxy,'' belligerent toward those who wish to question it.

Indeed, numerous faculty members contacted for this report would criticize religious feminism only off the record - for fear of recrimination. Some feminist sympathizers went off the record for the same reason.

Much of the work on female religious perspectives is being done at major universities and liberal divinity schools, such as Harvard University here, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Claremont College in Claremont, Calif., and Emory University in Atlanta. Evangelical schools such as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., are slowly accommodating female views. Roman Catholic schools have resisted them, for the most part.

The field appears to be growing. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) reports that there were only seven job openings for professors with a feminist perspective in 1985. By 1988 the number was 20. Last year it climbed to 39. This is significant in a tight job market, says Miki McBride of AAR. The numbers are also deceptive since female views are being incorporated by both men and women professors already teaching. ``Schools tend to generate their own people,'' says Ms. McBride. ``A lot of lecturing is done by doctoral students who are women.''

In the academically all-important area of publishing, women's themes are leading. The top titles this year at Scholar's Press, affiliated with AAR and the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), are both by black women: ``Black Womanist Ethics,'' by Katie Cannon of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and ``White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus,'' by Jacquelyn Grant at the Interdenominational Seminary in Atlanta.

At Fortress Press in Minneapolis (also affiliated with AAR-SBL), 10 of the 60 titles published each year are on women's themes, and they top the sales charts. Pamela Johnson of Fortress says that women scholars are ``beginning to build on each other's work.''

The acknowledged taproot for much of this work is New Testament scholar Elizabeth Sch"ussler Fiorenza. A dissenting Catholic now at the Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Fiorenza in 1986 was made the first woman president of SBL. Her landmark book is titled ``In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.''

Fiorenza's central perception is that Christianity is not a male-based system - though it has historically developed as such. This ignores the example Jesus set in his own community, she says. Jesus did not make religious distinctions based on human status or power - as established churches tend to do. Rather, ``the Jesus movement'' accepted into its flock the poor, the outcast, women, slaves, prostitutes - in radical defiance of Hebrew norms.

In early Christian churches, all were equal - a ``discipleship of equals,'' as Fiorenza puts it. Jesus' example of inclusiveness, long clouded over, also raises new questions about the kind of God he preached. Elaine Pagels at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., is doing similar work on attitudes toward women.

Other scholars such as Rosemary Ruether at Garrett-Evangelical have worked to show that a critique of patriarchal systems of domination and social hierarchy can be found in the logic of the Hebrew prophets - from Isaiah to Ezekiel to Micah.

But some sympathetic scholars feel that feminist approaches are too confining. Howard Clark Kee, a New Testament scholar at Boston University, says a feminist critique is best approached through social history. Fiorenza and Dr. Pagels claim too much for the early Christian community, he says: ``The revolutionary opening up you found with Jesus and Paul was already being repressed by the end of the first century by prevailing social norms. It's regrettable. Women came up with the money to keep churches going, and they were leaders in Pauline churches. But it was over in a hurry. Social history keeps this in perspective.''

The excesses of contemporary feminism - particularly a new and empathetic interest in witchcraft - also concern some academics. As one scholar notes, ``Under the pretext of Christian language you've got some women introducing a religion to students and to churches that is more pagan than Christian.''

The field is currently going through a sorting and screening process says another scholar, who hopes more feminists will begin speaking to ``the human condition - not just women.''

Says Carol Ochs at Simmons College in Boston: ``We're all in [this world] together as people. For some feminists, feminism is their ultimate concern. In my thinking, God is the ultimate concern. God is the test against which you measure. Feminism may be an important way to get there, but for me it isn't a final answer.''


An effort to liberate the word of the Bible from patriarchal interpretations and to see its contemporary use for men and women.

WOMEN AND SPIRITUALITY by Carol Ochs, Tolowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allenheld, 1983

Discussion of spiritual experience as part of everyday living, rather than once or twice in a lifetime.


Scholarly reinterpretation of the gospel of Mark as a narrative story.

FEMINIST INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE by Letty Russell, Ed., Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985

Twelve essays on religious feminism and the Bible by leading women scholars.

ADAM, EVE, & THE SERPENT by Elaine Pagels, New York: Random House, 1989

Suggests that Augustine's interpretation of original sin in Genesis was not a reflection of original Biblical Christianity.

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