I recently told some friends about this year’s Lent series on “Male Feminist Theology”. One of them looked at me suspiciously and said, “I know what each of those three English words mean by themselves, but I have no idea what they mean together; it sounds like you’re fitting together things that don’t naturally go together”.
People often hear phrases like “Black Theology”, “Liberation Theology”, or “Feminist Theology”, and feel like there is a profound arrogance at play–isn’t simple “Theology” enough? Why must each group have their own pet theological opinions that belong only to them? But this is to profoundly misunderstand these theologies.
“God” is the name that Christians give to the underlying mystery of the universe. Because the foundation of our theology is ultimately a profound mystery, the reality is that our understanding of this God, even in spite divine revelation, will always be fragmented, partial, and paradoxical at times. Lynn Japina writes:
Theology does not finally represent the mind of God so much as it illustrates the efforts of human beings to gain a deeper understanding of God, themselves, and the world. Theology is not abstract and objective, but arises out of human lives, conflicts, doubts and dreams. When theology is understood as faith seeking understanding, it becomes clear that people’s approach to theology will differ depending on the questions they ask and the areas in which they seek clarity.
The primary idea behind “Feminist Theology” is not “men suck” or “women are better than men” or “women are nothing but victims” or “we don’t like ‘regular’ theology.” It’s that there’s no such thing as “regular” theology in the first place. It all arises out of the experience, personality, culture, and time of the theologians. There is no “objective” theology from which “feminist theology” is a diversion. What we usually think of as simple “theology” is, to be more accurate, “White Male Theology”.
And this “White Male Theology” has mainly been marked by Enlightenment ways of thinking and analyzing texts, ideas, power, and institutions. And–just like the results of the Enlightenment itself–this has often marginalized the thoughts and contributions of women. As Christina Traina says in her amazing book Feminist Ethics and Natural Law:
In the Enlightenment tradition, sense knowledge is information received through any of the five senses; events of sense knowledge are analyzed discretely. “Women’s ways of knowing,” on the other hand, count emotions, relationships, skills, and embodied, particular, practical experience generally as legitimate and essential sources of knowledge…. In contrast to Enlightenment sense knowledge, feminist embodied experience is the experience of the whole self in its social context; it is normally analyzed narratively. This sort of wisdom is, at least initially, first-person wisdom, difficult to articulate concisely and nearly impossible to pass on in a scientific article.
This Enlightenment view of knowledge and truth inherently reduces humanity to just the individual’s five senses and individual skills of logic. But humans are so much more!
The sad truth is that most of “regular” theology was established by European males steeped in a way of thinking that refused to let their full humanity be used to seek knowledge and do theology. This is why Traina beautifully says, “the deeper implication is that women’s ways are human ways, inevitably practiced also by male academics but either dismissed as trivial or cloaked misleadingly in scientific and philosophical propositions.”
Feminist Theology is theology for us all–for our growth, our flourishing, our inclusion, and for our full humanity.
Knowing there is no “ultimate, objective” theological system that will be comprehensive and correct to the Divine reality, it is my contention that, while attempting to stay true to the revelation we have been given, we should feel a radical freedom to cast and recast our theological articulations in whatever terms that serve the realities of God’s Kingdom in the context in which we find ourselves now.
In other words, depending on the context we’re in, the topic we’re addressing, or the goal we’re trying to accomplish, I think we should feel free to use different–even contradictory–ways of talking about God. The way we conceive of God in our minds should actually change as we encounter different needs and work for different goals.
God is less like a textbook and more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are definite contours and boundaries to the options you have, but we are free to choose different paths and conclusions depending on where we find ourselves.
Currently, our context is one where God’s daughters have been oppressed, abused, marginalized, silenced, and kept out of our traditions—both ecclesially and scripturally. So men who desire to do theology in a way that respects this reality should feel the freedom and the responsibility to consider feminist perspectives as their chosen prisms through which to engage as God’s people in the world. They must (not “can”) employ what Traina calls the “preferential option for women”, which is
a primary commitment to women’s well-being…. But even more significantly the preferential option for women is a condition of knowledge itself. Authentic moral knowledge and modes of moral reasoning arise out of feminist praxis: activity in solidarity and friendship with women and in commitment to their genuine flourishing. Sliding toward theological language, we can say that knowledge of women’s true good, here and now, and development of modes of moral reasoning that are consonant with it depend on authentic, active love for women.
When we prioritize the voices and experiences of women within our ways of knowing, including in our theology, this is actually closer to the fullest truth we can have. Finally incorporating a whole dimension of experience and wisdom that was previously excluded will inevitably move us forward. In other words, to buy into feminist concerns is to add to the welfare of humanity’s concerns.
But there’s one last problem. What does a straight white cisgender male who wants to support the cause of feminism do with his theology? What does feminism have to say when a man, like myself, steeped in nothing but Western male-centric theological constructs wants to have a theology that is inclusive of the feminist experience and critique? What sort of theology can a man do that doesn’t simply re-appropriate the theology of women into his own, as one more patriarchal act of theological colonialism?
I cannot know the female experience. I cannot be a part of the life, embodiment, and knowledge that results in feminism. In short: I can’t be a feminist any more than I can be black. I will always be an outsider looking in; a cheerleader on the sidelines.
This is why I am trying to put together a theology for male feminists. Those of us in power and privilege need to have theological ideas available to us that show solidarity for women and give us resources to hear them, fight for them, resist structures that oppress them, and seek their full involvement and flourishing in our thought, lives, and society.
And that’s what I’ll be doing. Starting next week, I’ll be going through different aspects of theology and proposing a way forward–a way of thinking about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the Bible, ethics, etc. that needs to be willfully chosen by us if we are to take seriously the voices that have long been shut out.
[image credit: Robert Delauney’s “The City of Paris”]