Feminist Christian Theology

"Feminist Christian theology articulates an ethics for our time." Discuss with reference to the works of Sallie McFague and Rosemary Radford Ruether

An essay for Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society

Adrian Worsfold
June 1997

Feminism offers the replacement of structures and languages of power and hierarchy with networked inclusiveness. From multinationals to the smallest firm, from financial dealing rooms of every kind, trading, international organisations and governments, the all pervasive system is made up of sophisticated hierarchical structures and ideology carrying out of motivations of greed, acquision and power. Feminism offers a counter-ideology, in terms of offering different approaches to living not based on traditionally male behaviours.

Such might make a bridge to ecological issues. A triumphant capitalism, ongoing with its logic of acquisition, efficiency for profit and exploitation raises concerns for the sustainability of nature. The system unchecked has a renewed Malthusian threat. Earth's deep resources were laid over millions of years before the evolution of a conscious humanity with an ability to exploit: but it is exploiting now with waste to match at an ever higher rate. Population growth without a change in food consumption away from animals threatens starvation and disease. Removing trees in forests by intent or pollution threatens the planet's lungs. Ozone holes form.

Malthus in his day was wrong, and humankind continued. Earth has been through bigger climate changes than anything so far feared. Nevertheless, the Malthusian concern on an ecological level is resumed.

Pressure groups exist on both green and feminist lines. There are also opposing pressures. Political parties too are in two minds over development and conservation. Religions, not uniquely, are also in a double bind.

This can be seen in Christianity. Scriptures and structures have been responsible for the (male) structural hierarchies and headships. In Catholic structures where these are identified as essential to the working of the cultus, they are more intensely bedded. There was also the development of the Protestant work ethic offering pursued unlimited growth, and there was the legitimation of states' foreign empire building (converting populations religiously and attempted culturally). Yet some adherents today also use these traditions and certain embedded metaphors for counter-messages. Sometimes these counter-messages are additionally or best found in the once heretical groups (gnostic, Quaker, transcendentalist) and beyond (Pagan, Judaism, certain other faiths). The secular world also provides material.

The theological works of Rosemary Radforth Ruether and Sallie McFague both use and expand the resources of the Christian tradition to produce ecological and feminist theologies. Each builds on the inclusivity connection between feminism and ecology and applies flexibility in the wider tradition's interpretation. Ruether derives her ethics from criticising and reforming structures and activities derived from history, being thus concerned with the developing structural culture of meaning and practical responses, whereas McFague is more interested in directly making meaning through linguistic metaphors. The question is whether each "articulates ethics for our time" or whether the element of compromise and conservatism in the tradition subdues the ethical thrust.

Ruether's methodological approach (1983, pp. 12-46) makes explicit the sociology of knowledge regarding theology, in that it exposes theology as socially constructed around male terms over an historic period. Tradition is actually made, and is intended to be reproduced each generation (sociologists call this "social reproduction"). Crises occur when corruption is perceived in the transmission process, and an attempt is made to go back to roots, as with the Reformation, but now the crisis is deeper as the whole appears corrupted. This is Ruether's feminist challenge, but she stays loyal to tradition (p. 18) in a rather brief and weak argument that truth is more basic (and original) than falsehood and contemporary experience helps restore this base good. She wants to stay in historic continuity.

Her central belief is that anything denying the full humanity of women is inadeqate theology and anything which does is holy. The male is no norm but inclusivity is. Inclusivity means not rejecting other faith stances for any other reason than one's own cultural particularity. So, to begin, Ruether draws upon the Bible selectively against oppression and power, for a new age vision and criticising ideology (p. 24). She seeks a countercultural early egalitarian Christianity (its beginnings, early heresies), the left wing of the Reformation and some nineteenth century egalitarian visions - while not trying to make an alternative orthodoxy out of the string of offshoot movements (p. 36). Why not? She has family connections in Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Unitarianism, Friends and Russian Orthodoxy, as well as a training in pre-classical and classical cultures (1993, p. 10). So use is made of the "dominant" (a peculiar metaphor!) tradition, yet rejecting the fall but revising it as human self-alienation. She refers to Paganism, old and in particular its romantic reinvention, but has difficulties with romanticism and dualism. She also uses recent secular ideologies and these feminisms - liberal, Marxist and Romantic (self) for synthesising.

The outcome is a divinity to uphold the world in a situation of non-discrimination. The highest divinity, God/ess is not paternal but both a source of being and a guide and teacher to liberate.

Social liberation is seen as identifying the religion's messianic symbols with the Enlightenment. Feminist theology seeks, under the God/ess, to unite the individual and community (social and ecological), creation and redemption. Sin is splitting these into separatism. Thus she also rejects a radical separatist feminism (1983, pp. 231-232) and ecology is joined to feminism.

In the postscript she reinforces the leap between feminism and ecology, in that the sinful world controls female reproduction, exploits female labour and rapes the earth and its people, leading the Big Lie of separations and need for driven power and order. Instead there is a divine unity which binds earth and people together.

Incidentally, this idea of divine unity of God/ess is not emphasised as trinitarian (or particularly active in itself) but the concession is a relationship model, in the sense that Ruether likes the idea of authentic relationship of whole persons not halves (Ruether, 1975).

The question is whether the desire of this Roman Catholic writer to stay with the "dominant" stream is not ethically compromising. It is doubtful if she is even successful. The alternatives are former heresies, as Daphne Hampson chose, using contemporary experience, or breaking into reinventions of faith as does, say, Starhawk (Miriam Simos) or even secular soceities. She is wrong to imply that the contemporary, heresies or reinventions negates historical tradition. Contemporary experience is framed by cultural inherited language and structures, heresies were worked out in respose to "dominant" traditions and reinventions draw upon real or imagined pasts for present purposes. What she argues is for is staying loyal to histories and institutions which one might regard as male and unecological, necessarily over restrictive, which not only conserves and keeps the clutter of the patriarchy and paternalism but indeed arguably promotes it. Christ is unique, God is understood using male created language and culture and the religion is exclusive and needs converts. It is only the heretics, the contemporaries, the reinventors and secular who have sufficiently rejected these constraints.

Daphne Hampson (1996, p. 60) suggests many like Ruether associate within the religion because of its residual power in common affairs. To leave is to risk powerlessness. The danger, suggests Hampson, is that such association unwittingly continues affirmations of those who continue the messages of oppression also within the tradition. Christianity is a historical religion demanding reference back and as such is sexist in construction and meaning. (pp. 58-61)

Ruether's attempt at inclusivity and in her consideration of ecology needs other metaphors, particularly Gaia (Ruether, 1993). Gaia is used by neo-Pagans with its roots in classical Paganism. Neo-Paganism abounds in selected images, mataphors and Gods and Goddesses because it is not the historical religion claimed by Christianity, not needing true definitions and orthodoxy over heresy. Ruether wants some of this flexibility.

A neo-Pagan Goddess worshipper, Teresa Moorey, describes the perceived religious importance of Gaia perhaps better than Ruether:

Gaia is the title of the bestselling work by J. E. Lovestock, which puts forward the idea of the earth as a single, living organism of whom humankind may well be the developing nervous system and consciousness of Self. It is intriguing that we are taking up the detached position of Ouranos, as a species, not valuing the Earth, shoving into her all that we have created yet wish to forget, such as nuclar and industrial waste, and choosing to believe that pesticides, pollution, deforestation and all the other travesties do not exist because most of us can't see them...

Of all the ancient myths, that of Gaia is perhaps the one we most need to heed, before our blind progress is castrated, leaving us as a species, broken, bleeding and perhaps superseded, like Ouranos, like the dinosaurs... (Moorey, 1997, pp. 98-99)

So Ruether incorporates this whilst staying with mainly Christianity. Christianity is a source of healing even if also a source of destruction. She is not interested in a world religions approach as she has a cultural background. Gaia is a reference point within her cultural background. It should be added: so are many religions now.

But is Gaia not over romanticised? Its science can be examined comparing Earth and Mars. Mars is stable and in equilibrium but Earth is not stable. Established within a narrow corridor of opportunity, Earth's state of holding active life and volatile mixture of gases risks degenerating to Mars's state. It does not so long as plants take in Carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen, which other life uses. Lovelock (1979) uses Gaia as a way of saying life is interdependent, but risky, like a system. As economists show, equilibriums in systems can be steady, oscillating, move inwards to stability or outwards to instability. Add to this chaos theory and small changes can have big results.

The Green issue revolves around preserving this precarious existence. The religious then take up this Gaia idea, re-deify it and then turn it into a motivator of responsible Green behaviour and romanticism. In this process Ruether gives moral qualities to earth life. Evil she sees as "wrong relationship".

Yet there is a tendency in the life drive itself in each species to maximise its own existence and hence to proliferate in a cencerous way that destroys its own biotic support.

This is not just a human tendency. As Lynn Margulis has pointed out, even ancient bacteria tended towards this proliferating growth, in which the consuming of others finally threatens to destroy both the environment and the species. The lifeforce itself is not unequivocally good, but becomes "evil" when it is maximised at the expense of others. (Ruether, 1992, p. 256)

Nature has a wisdom of built in limits through diversity in interrelation (pp. 256-257).

Surely nature is neither wise, evil, good or whatever but just does! The Gaia thesis has no meaning at a causal level. It is ridiculous to see that bacteria is good or evil in what it just does. Protein life reproduces and maximises success. Notions of good and evil only become meaningful when animals are conscious of being conscious, have empathy for pain and pleasure by other conscious beings, have communication and can plan. Gaia is simply what happens when enough predators are themselves quarry, or when there is sufficient liquid-gaseous stability. Gaia is a human afterthought, a metaphor of our imaginations. Mars is not a once evil planet and Earth a good one!

Ethics cannot be found in the evolved order itself, only by our aesthetic reflection. Of course a belief in a real active deity might import ethics, but the science of life suggests maximising genetic reproduction and transcience. Any deity would be very ambiguous, hardly sustaining as such.

For example, the Earth has had huge species and climactic changes, and even if a large asteroid or stupidity wiped out humans, life would still go on. We are only a product of one line of evolution, and a few accidents on the way, and others are always likely. Indeed it is the life of a planet circling in space to take knocks from within and without, and change, as Mars did.

It seems that Ruether anyway is more interested in human manipulation of the signs and symbols of claimed divinity. It may work with feminism but it sits uneasily with ecology, and she even imports the unhistorical God metaphor Gaia (in terms of how her tradition views history).

Someone who thinks more in the postmodern present, and of stories of imact today, is Sallie McFague. Her interest and method is very much revealed by this comment:

If metaphor were only a poetic device we might assume that some other means of expression, some nonpoetic language, such as ordinary or scientific language, could give us direct access. But if all thought is metaphorical, then we must acknowledge the open-endedness, the risk, and the tentativeness of all opur interpretations. This means that we cannot say our metaphors "correspond" to "what is"; at best we can only say that they seem appropriate to our experience, they "fit" or seem "right". (McFague TeSelle, 1975, p. 51)

In other words, McFague takes more account of the linguistic bases and implications than Ruether. Historical culture is there, as with anyone who uses inherited metaphors, but they first frame her methodology.

The implication is radical: just as Ruether's theology is sociological and political with just a possibility of an actual active deity, McFague's is a linguistic non-realism with only the possibility of theistic realism. It is "what fits" in the stream of narrative. Old existing metaphors can become remote and dysfunctional for the needs of an age, and need to be revised with additions. This is not a doctrinal God of historical permanence, but what suits our talking.

The remote metaphors of patriarchy are challenged, especially in Models of God (1987). Instead, God as mother, lover and friend are to give God personal qualities which span Jewish and Christian traditions. As Judith Plaskow, a feminist Jew, agrees, the exalted wholly Other covenental God of distance and majesty inhibits human growth and responsibility (Plaskow, 1990, p. 130; McFague TeSelle, 1987, p. 68). God as lover for example reaffirms honest sexuality (as in the Song of Songs, see Plaskow, 1990, p. 161-162), and God as friend suggests a depth of relationship that transcends gender, indeed every boundary, and is a companion for life. God is a friend of Earth. As with Ruether, images in the tradition and are being recovered and re-emphasised although this source is not the primary point. It is important to have the right metaphors to challenge the threat of ecological and nuclear destruction.

In The Body of God (1993) McFague attempts to make her rather immanent God more transcendent while incorporating her earlier work.

In this body model, God would not be transcendent over the universe in the sense of external to or apart from, but would be the source, power and goal - the spirit - that enlivens (and loves) the entire process and its material forms. The transcendence of God, then, is the preeminent or primary spirit of the universe. As we are inspirited bodies - living, loving, thinking bodies - so, imagining God in our image (for how else can we model God?), we speak of her as the inspirited body of the entire universe that produces, guides and saves all that is. (McFague TeSelle, 1993, p. 20)

There is a fault in the analogy of us making God in our image. Clearly we do have bodies, and our mind is brain derived, and can be described as inspirited (I would prefer animated). Whatever God may be, if anything, God does not have a body, rather like the tangle Paul was in when considering Christ as a resurrected body. She wants God's body to be to be the universe, which is either playing with words or still immanentist nearly-pantheism. Pantheism is often desribed as next door to atheism. As she says:

...divine transcendence - [is] a way to deepen its significance to us. It is a form of meditation: the more we contemplate any aspect of our universe and especially our own planet, the more we know about it, delve into it, the more mysterious and wondrous it appears. Whether we look at the intricacies of the tiniest bits of matter through a microscope or contemplate the vast stellar reaches of the seemingly infinite space of the known universe, we are awed by the unbelievable detail of the smallest and incredible massiveness of the largest aspects of the body of God. If Job had had access to microscopes or telescopes to convince his hearers of God's transcendence, he would have used them, for his strategy was similar to what I am suggesting: the cosmos is the picture we turn to when we try to imagine what divine transcendence is. (McFague TeSelle, 1993, p. 21)

This is like the daft question often heard, "What if Jesus were alive today?". But such a Job might get on with the detail of knowledge, rather than take too much time over second hand metaphors. For example the astronomer uses constellations as maps but (unlike the astrologer) but knows that the constellations are then meaningless. One star in a constellation can be further away from another in it than we are from them. Then the detail begins.

Wonder and awe may be our psychological response to having our self-consciousness in such a vast and detailed setting, but do we really need to indulge in subsequent metaphorical excursions?

McFague does realise this to some extent. She is most interested in the "common" creation story (which gives results of investigation - so it is at least a little more than a story), but then she makes these time consuming meanderings back into Christianity. Is it not possible to create a theology that stays close to the telescope and microscope, instead of the long journey around using, for example, the "cosmic Christ", "obviously a construction not a description" (p. 160).

Like Ruether, there is this need to be on board this past tradition (so it is a Christian theology) but without the basic reasoning. McFague's approach will not even give her use of the "cosmic Christ" "universality or the whole truth" (p. 185). So why bother then? Rabbi Jesus himself lived in a different era from a nuclear ecological age. He is nothing to do with creation beyond sharing the rest of humankind's DNA. To metaphorise him is nonsense to outsiders; and Christian believers probably have very different more truth claiming reasons (if false) for involving this Jesus.

The same stretching takes place regarding the Trinity. Of course the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will not do (as it is not feminist or immanenent enough), so it becomes:

...the mystery of God (the invisible face or first person), the physicality of God (the visible body or second person) and the meditation of the invisible and visible (the spirit or third person). (p. 193)

Does it not occur to her (it probably did) that her theology is not basically trinitarian at all? This is simply another meandering in order to be counted as part of the tradition. Indeed, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a very good representation of transcendence and immanence in relationship. If it is masculine then surely this is how the tradition believes the God who acts is so constituted. Her theology might be better served as Quaker or Unitarian theism, both immanent and transcendent, on a model of progressive human insight.

Thus this point by Daphne Hampson is not sufficiently the case:

Interestingly, some women theologians have been attracted to an understanding, found in the tradition, of the world as °God's body'. God is present in, yet more than, the material universe, integrally related with it. I think her of the work of Sallie McFague and Grace Jantzen. Such a discussion suggests that, as the grip of Christian orthodoxy weakens and women are freed to express their spirituality in terms that they have chosen, they will do so using profoundly different patterns of thought from those which men have employed. (Hampson. 1996, p. 165)

Rather, although McFague's theology has all the implications of heterodoxy, she uses her excursions to keep on board the orthodox ship. It is wasteful expression, not ecological theology! She demonstrates this: in her personal vision of nature she does not see God in it (p. 210) but rather its specialness calls forth wonder. Only then does she "see" God in it (p. 211).

Are these two approaches ethically sound and practically useful?

There is a question to what extent feminism links with ecological awareness. Churches have made arguments for husbandry of the world and its resources while excluding women from power structures. Equally feminism can be incorporated into structures without intending to go further, as shown by the exclusion and ambiguity regarding lesbians and gays. If feminism is argued for on the basis of rights, are rights appropriate to the whole animal and plant world? Ruether (1993, pp 219-221) quotes Tom Regan regarding animals, but Tom Regan makes claims about meaning making which do not necessarily derive from sentience.

The ecological perspective has commonalities and differences (Tracy, in Fiorenza, 1992, p. 41) with other secular groups and religions. If there is to be resultant solidarity-in-action then it all needs attention to ways of incorporating too the success side of the Western economy. American, Chinese and Far Eastern varieties of capitalism need persuasion certainly (is there any overlap with self-interest?) but even in Europe there has been only slow progress (demonstrated by the lack of appeal of Green political parties with a full programme of change of direction).

McFague does (1993, pp. 202-205) state that her focus is a narrow one. It does not solve consumer lifestyles, rainforest destruction, or indeed the "endless" range of "ecotheological" issues. But the purpose is to help us to think differently using the "common creation story and qualified by the Christic paradigm" (p. 205). It helps, she writes, to ask novel questions and see new connections. But she does offer some connections with public issues, such as incorporating the needs of other life forms, being (strangely?) not anti-abortion but pro control over women's bodies, changing lifestyle and adopting interdependence. Ruether is a little more detailed regarding environmental change as part of envisaging a good society (Ruether, 1993, pp. 258-268).

In any case both writers are concerned with Churches and their stances. It could be a key concern for both. McFague sees her own model as reforming the Church to be a sign of new creation.

Where human beings, decentred as the goal of creation and recentred as those who side with the oppressed, create communities embodying concerns for the basic needs of life-forms on earth, aware of their profound interdependence as well as individuality, there is the church from the perspective of the organic model. The church as a new creation is called to live out the new creation in its body... (McFague, 1993, p. 206)

She says that local churches are concrete bodies to live this out, and so are other communities. Christianity or any other religion cannot save the world, but as an incarnational religion Christianity has a special contribution. In this focus she is similar to Ruether's aims in building communities of resistance and celebration (Ruether, 1993, 268-274).

Surely, instead, Churches - as they repeat their liturgies week by week, and hear dogmas and the language of power - are places not of progressive causes but conservation (not ecological!). They are often the last to arrive at progressive change (such as sexual equality). In terms of social place, Churches are becoming as sects. They react with suspicion at theologies of cultural or metaphorical method in favour of credal certainty and being biblically "sound". Contemporary theology is increasingly distanced from them, even with the compromises and excursions that intend to keep theology Christian.

In a pluralist setting, when churches represent exclusivity, a better strategy is to leave. Daphne Hampson joined the Society of Friends which (in its Universalist mode) suits her non-Christian theism. Or it should if she is lucky: there is equally a tendency for liberal groups with their history, forms and congregationalism to become cut off, difficult to renew themselves and therefore static. If the argument is that once mainline churches are still places representing power and need reformers, it is equally ethical to oppose them. One does not join a political party in order to oppose it; staying in a political party is stickier, but after a point departure allows ethical effectiveness. In opposition one makes and constructs positive alternatives for change, especially in a liberal setting of pluralism cum secularisation.

Certainly there is a hint subversion within these theologies. They can be so deconstructed. Far from God being incorporated into the universe's body and being transcendent over it (McFague), or institutional structures being reformed to bring out a suppressed and marginalised God's meaning in history (Ruether), there is instead a wholesale weakening of God as existing or active. For McFague, God is a human way of speaking; for Ruether God is a frankly humanistic inclusive ideal to determine which parts of a tradition become reused and which outside concepts are brought in. Neither commend themselves to existing believers in God's saving power or humanists who regard each as long winded. Indeed, as Ruether will readily admit, many such inherited Christian metaphors are positively unethical: yet she chooses to work through them even if to reject them.

However, in the wider arena (surely more important), the greatest question is around the assumptions of the ecological movement, especially if reinforced within theologies. McFague herself admits that planetary decay is inevitable (p. 207). It is a daily discipline, however, she states, to try to make the world a better place and with this reflection we learn to love bodies of all kinds. So she is essentially proposing a psychological feeling of goodness and attitudinal change. This sounds like Buddhism!

Ecological sentiment easily becomes over romanticised when nature remains mainly red in tooth and claw and competitive, and the Gaia of the planet is an after the event result rather than a causality. Higher animals are socialisers and complex, and every respect to them is vital as conscious pain bearers. However, the universe and its bodies are transcient places, subject to huge forces often only slightly predictable in outcome. As dinosaurs were once removed, giving sentient conscious development to mammals eventually like ourselves, so we and other creatures can be removed. Indeed, homosapiens probably destroyed the less adaptable neanderthals.

If religion is important to this debate, then spirituality should always be concerned with coming to terms with death and change, rather than trying to conserve or prolong the same kinds of life. Earth healing must involve knocks and scars. McFague and her metaphors, applied to evolution or cosmology, seem to be curious echo of something much older:

It was taught by the Buddha, oh Monks, that... the past, the future, physical space, ...and individuals are nothing but names, forms of thought, words of common usage, merely superficial realities. (Madhyamika Karika Vrtti, requoted Capra, 1983, p. 179)

Feminist Christian theology cannot best articulate an ethics for our time because of the diversions it involves into redundant or unnecessary traditions and metaphors which compromise the result. It would be better to make a theology more deliberately discontinuous than attempting to stay within a tradition. Or perhaps it is superfluous anyway. And, in any case, everything comes and goes, including this Earth and that Sun, the galaxy, and the universe. In the meantime, it is more important that secular politicians who take decisions with planetary implications are accountable to all who take the consequences. We can then all share the joy and blame.

A scientific pair, John D. Barrow and Joseph Silk, surveying the universe's fundamentals, make a diversion into whether there is a grand designer of all that is known (Barrow, Silk, 1983, pp. 227-230). They conclude:

Rather than pursue these unbridled speculations any further, let us return to consder some more practical issues, ones that we can hope to resolve with the aid of twentieth century technology. (pp. 229-230)

Theologies of cosmology and ecology add little understanding to our understanding. Connecting feminism and ecology is interesting but by no means persuasive as ultimately they are different issues.


All published in London unless otherwise stated

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Browning, D. S., Fiorenza, F.S. (eds.) (1992), Habermas, Modernity and Public Theology, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Capra, F. (1983), The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Flamingo.

Hampson, D. (1996), After Christianity, SCM Press.

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Lovelock, J. (1979), Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: University Press.

McFague TeSelle, S. (1975), Speaking in Metaphors: A Study in Metaphor and Theology, SCM Press.

McFague TeSelle, S. (1987), Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Phildadelphia: Fortress Press.

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Ruether, R. R. (1992), Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, SCM Press.