The Emergence of Feminist Theology: Remembering our Roots by Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ

Goddess and God in the World final cover designThis blog is an excerpt from our new book Goddess and God in the World which will be published by Fortress Press in just one week — on August 1. As we look forward to its release, we remember the critical works that started us on a journey of discovery that continues to unfold. In a jointly written chapter, we describe the beginnings of feminist theology.

Feminism was welling up from under during [the late 1960s]. We became feminists early in graduate school but did not discover feminist theology until we were preparing for our comprehensive exams. As Judith was later to write, feminism placed a question mark over absolutely everything for us: the maleness of God, the male authorship of the Bible, and the male perspectives from which virtually all theologies had been written. Three key essays set the stage for future work in the field, including our own. We have already mentioned these essays, but it is important to address the challenges they posed to traditional theology, and our own responses to them, in more detail here.

Valerie Saiving (Goldstein’s) groundbreaking essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” (1960) argued that the Neo-orthodox identification of sin with prideful self-assertion was based on masculine or male experience and ignored the female or feminine sin of self-negation. Men, Saiving suggested, need to undergo a complex and challenging process of differentiation from the mother by repeatedly proving their masculinity, while women grow to be women naturally, through the physical maturation of their bodies. The temptations of women thus have a different character than those of men and are better captured by terms such as triviality, distractibility, and dependence on others rather than pride. Judith challenged Saiving’s understanding of what constitutes “masculine” or “male” and “feminine” or “female” experience in her dissertation, insisting that the experiences of women are not the same in all times and places, but are rooted in specific situations, cultures, and histories. Nonetheless, the notion that the experience of the theologian matters and that gender matters in the construction of theology came to us as a revelation. Both of us have continued to assert that theology must be rooted in human experience, including the particular experiences of women in differing cultural situations.

The lecture Rosemary Radford Ruether delivered when we brought her to Yale Divinity School was later published as “Motherearth and the Megamachine” (1972). In it, Ruether explained that classical Greek thought, which became the foundation of Western theology, had separated mind from body, creating a set of oppositions that included rational and irrational, soul and body, spirit and nature, male and female. In each case, women were identified with the despised and subordinated side of the polarizations. “Man” was rational, spiritual, and able to transcend the body and nature, while “woman” was defined by her connections to the body and nature, and had a lesser rational capacity than man. These dualisms were encapsulated in the traditional opposition between “transcendence” and “immanence.” “Transcendence” refers to pure thought or pure spirit imagined to exist alone without dependence on the body, nature, or relationships with anything other than itself. “Immanence” refers to views in which the self and the world are understood through the body, nature, and relationships of interdependence. God has generally been understood to transcend the world, and men have been seen as capable of transcendence through rational thinking, while women have been understood to be trapped in immanence, mired in the body and nature. Ruether argued that women’s liberation would require the transformation of classical dualisms and a reintegration of the separated.

Ruether’s analysis provided support for our conviction that mind and body are connected and that the experiences of the body must become a resource for theology. It validated Carol’s insight that traditional theological ideas about the relation of women to men and the relation of body to mind are connected and confirmed her conviction that theologians must reexamine traditional ideas about the relation of God and human beings to nature. For Judith, Ruether’s talk shed light on the messages she had received about being too smart for a girl and encouraged her to explore the history of attitudes toward the body in Jewish, Christian, and feminist thought. Our recognition of the need to transform all of the classical dualisms in a new understanding of the relation of reason and feeling, mind and body, humanity and nature, transcendence and immanence, would be central to all of our future work.

In “After the Death of God the Father,” Mary Daly argued that the God who had been proclaimed “dead” by male theologians was the male God modeled on images of male power and authority. The traditional picture of God, Daly said, glorified the qualities of “hyper-rationality, ‘objectivity,’ aggressivity, the possession of dominating and manipulative attitudes toward persons and environment, and the tendency to construct boundaries between the self (and those identified with the self) and others.” Daly drew a strong connection between this understanding of God and the subordination and oppression of women, for “if God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated.” Daly did not believe “the real” God was dead; rather, she predicted that, with the liberation of women, new and more authentic images and conceptions of God would emerge. This essay supported and clarified our nascent sense that a male God created by male theologians supported male domination and our conviction that the insights of women’s liberation had the power to change the world. In time, we would reject the image of God as a dominating male other and the conceptions of God that followed from such images, including notions of God’s transcendence, omnipotence, and omniscience, and we would develop new understandings of God rooted in our experiences as feminists.

These essays raised questions that we, along with many others, are still pondering today. How should we understand and evaluate theological traditions that were created almost exclusively by men? How would theologies written by women and informed by our experiences be different? Should we continue to participate in traditions that subordinated women and defined God as a dominating male other? Can traditions change, and are there limits to the changes that are possible?

The essays by Valerie Saving, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Mary Daly can be found in Womanspirit Rising.

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Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow are co-authors of Goddess and God in the World and co-editors of Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Judith wrote the first Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai, while Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess. Judith is co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Carol leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Order their new book now.