Feminist Theology: Challenges to the Birth of a New Religion

                               By Candace Anderson (a friend of TNMTam)


         This paper will explore the burgeoning topic of feminist theology and more specifically, the thinking of post-modernists ore revolutionaries as Rita Gross, a feminist theologian, would describe this group (Gross, 1996).  Theas is the feminine form of theos which is from the Greek meaning god.  Feminist theologians call themselves theologians to reinforce the need for and the use of the feminine in language.  Revolutionaries are women and men who have decided that the western religions are too sexist and too entrenched in patriarchal values to enable them to find their values and spirituality within that context.  These are people who made the difficult decision to leave the faith of their upbringing.  Leaving one's religion is often a traumatic experience and requires a change in consciousness to occur.  Anger is one of the transformative emotions, which facilitates this frightening transition.

         Their criticism goes religion to the belief that made monotheism is a major contributing cause of enduring male domination in the world (Gross, 1996).  These revolutionaries also discovered the incredible power of symbol and language to affect our individual and collective psyches.  "Our language about divinity and our symbols for divinity . . . act upon our consciousness in complex ways, influencing and sometimes directing how we understand divine relationship to the world (Schneider, 1999, p. 8)."

         Several recognized experts on women's spirituality have named the concept of subjectivity as a prerequisite for spiritual development.  This concept and its importance to spiritual development in women will be explored.  Criticism abounds in this new field, both within the feminist movement and in western theological systems.  Some noted scholars have crafted worthy criticisms of womanish religion which are included in this paper.


         Some women are seeking to find ways to define and live by a creed of distinct women's values.  Luce Irigary, a religious philosopher, believes that in order for women to develop spiritually, they must first achieve subjectivity (Jantzen, 1999).  Subjects are those who are able to achieve strong autonomous egos.  According to the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lucan, to become a subject requires a language that adequately represents the self (Jantzen, 1999).  Jantzen perceives that the basis of the English language is masculine, and that it is impossible for any woman to become a subject without first taking on masculine qualities or at least identifying with male thinking.  Some feminist philosophers contend that the paucity of female inspired divine symbology also prevents them from obtaining subjectivity.  Deepening subjectivity is a quality that is achieved through awareness, hard work and discipline (Jantzen, 1999).  It is not simply given.  Certain of the revolutionaries claim that even though they tried to find their divinity within the Judeo-Christian tradition using skills of commitment and discipline, they did not find a strong enough connection within themselves to develop spiritually through the ideology of a male dominated religion and a male deity.

         Many current feminist thinkers believe that the patriarchal religious doctrines need to be deconstructed to obtain subjectivity for women.  The purpose of this deconstruction is not so much to destroy male-centered theology, as to achieve an opening within the structure so that thinking outside masculinist thought can begin, can grow, and eventually flourish, unhindered by the grounding of traditional values.  Some feminists argue that to debate within the Judeo-Christian structure, through the use of their own assumptions and style is counterproductive and it serves to solidify the set of assumptions from which these academic and societal sanctioned religious authorities speak (Jantzen, 1999).  "Irigary insists that for women to develop subjectivity of our own . . . it would be necessary to disrupt the symbolic, displacing the masculinist structures by new imagery . . . on new ways of conceiving and being which revolutionary thinkers are creating visions of theology.

Voices of Feminist Theologists

         Grace Jantzen agrees with some of Irigary's proposals and adds some of her own thoughts to it.  In Becoming divine: towards a feminist philosophy of religion (Jantzen, 1999), Irigary states our first spiritual responsibility is to become divine and the purpose of religion is to facilitate that task.  She grounds her divinity in the symbol of natality? Natality provides an image of birth, of wonder, hope for new beginnings, creativity and possibilities.  Jantzen speaks about divinity as a horizon of becoming where the course of becoming divine is always new.  She says, "becoming divine entails an aim of increasing sensitivity to the face of the Other: the Other of this world, not of some other world beyond embodiment or beyond death (Jantzen, 1999, p.265)."  The highest values would encompass the conscious and creative progress toward healing injustice and for the world.  Jantzen believes the most important component would be a commitment to turn injustice and suffering into flourishing for al of humanity and the earth (Jantzen, 1999).

         From this perspective, the relationship of the world to God/Goddess is akin to our connection to the body self, inseparable from the entirety of the self.  God/Goddess is thought to be inseparable from the world.  She is suffering, laughing and growing with us.  Jantzen promotes pantheism as a way to contain the diversity of developing feminist imagery and symbol.  The concept of the horizon of our becoming symbolizes that to become transcendent is to seek a more deeply embodied humanity, in which the complete development of the characteristics and symbols for this transcendence is always beyond our capacity.  In Jantzen's vision, there is always something to strive for some aspect of the human self, which if developed will deepen our connection to the divine, humanity, and the earth.  To strive for divinity is our human responsibility.  The path towards it lies in the diversity of symbols and in the projected horizon of our deeply immanent becoming (Jantzen, 1999).  Within this context there is no ultimate reality, it is more of a fluid state of moving toward greater wisdom.

         Mary Daly describes the need to move from worship of God the Father to finding our own female stories of the ultimate divinity within women's experiences (Christ & Plaskow, 1992).  Carol Christ, an early, yet still very dynamic voice of feminist theology, agrees and found that traditions of Judaism and Christianity did not mirror women's knowledge.  As early as 1972, when she began teaching about women and religion, she encouraged women to create a new spiritual tradition (Christ & Plaskow, 1992 and Anderson &Clark, 2004).  Christ had written five books and co-edited two other books on the topic of women's spirituality.  In her latest book, She Who Changes: re-imaging the divine in the world, Christ has described how feminists are currently as individual and in small highly committed groups, are experimenting with symbols and rituals.  Through this effort, they are trying to use or create language in a gender inclusive manner in this developing theology.  She suggests devising home altars choosing items of special value that may be from various religious traditions or have significance to the creator of the altar.  The purpose of this personalized altar is to serve as a reminder to the individual or the family of the continuing desire to become.

         "Prayer for Christ begins by thanking God/Goddess for life (Christ, 2003)."  She asks for help for herself and gradually widens the circle of her prayers to include the entire web of life on earth.  The grounding of the prayer is the circle of life, which is not a hierarchical image.  Re-imaging the divine is an ongoing process because becoming divine is a continual, creative process.  This kind of thinking promotes equality and not the ego enhancing practices of western religions which promote power over, not power with.  This philosophy supports the idea of shared power.  Deeply rooted in her thinking is that change is.  "Goddess/God is fully involved in the changing of every individual in the universe and in evolution as a whole.  Creation is co-creation . . . Everything in the world is in process (Christ, 2002, p.45)."  Creative freedom enhances all change.  Goddess/God experiences every change that happens to us and cares about our suffering and relishes in our joy.

         The power of relationships is central to this thinking.  Every person is embedded in a web of relationships, beginning with the family and expanding outward to ever more complex social and environmental relationships.  To acknowledge the value of these relationships and work with respect toward deepening our connection within these essential relationships is an important part of Christ's vision.  Relationships are the foundation of humanity.  "The self is created in relationship and it is deeply affected and changed by them.  Relationships are internal; they affect and change us at the most basic level (Christ, 2003, p. 76)."  Freedom is found within relationships.  Although an individual may experience conflicts over self-interests in contrast to the interests of others, learning to find a way to work through the conflict changes those who see the value in meditation over confrontation or winning.

         Christ believes that "sympathy is the root of morality and is the grounding of the web of life (Christ, 2003)."  There is a difference between human and divine sympathy.  Human sympathy is subject to the ebb and flow of our individual and varying capacity for it, whereas, divine sympathy is steadfast and absolute.  She uses the idea of dual transcendence to explain how divine sympathy is greater than human sympathy.  Goddess/God is omnipresent, not omniscient and omnipotent as in masculinist religions.  "The divine sympathy adds to and changes our experience by appreciating them in the best possible way consistent with reality . . . making a new creative synthesis of our experience by looking at it from a wider more consistent love perspective then we have (Christ, 2003, p. 91)."

         An entirely different approach to women's spirituality is taken by Starhawk and Zsuzsanna Budapest who turn to ancient Goddess worship as the basis for their modern woman-centered religion.  Budapest is a hereditary witch, who teaches in the Wicca tradition.  Wicca is a western tradition inspired by paganism, and ancient nature worshiping religion based on the Great Goddess.  A hereditary witch generally uses the same rites as those that have performed since ancient times.  She has created a self-blessing ritual to help woman overcome their internalization of male oppression.  "Religion controls inner space: inner space controls outer space.  If a woman internalizes her oppression and thinks she is inferior . . . she will not need to be policed by the actual oppressors because she will have assimilated their values and she will police herself (Christ & Plaskow, 1992 p. 271)."  Rituals like self-blessing help women to disrupt their internalized patriarchal values and to create the internal space to replace that destructive ideology with one that honors the feminine principle.

 Starhawk reports that learning of the Great Goddess profoundly changed her life (Starhawk, 1989).  In paganism, she became aware that her female body was sacred and that the pleasure enjoyed by her body was part of the path to sacredness.  Needs and desires are to be celebrated as part of being alive.  Earth-based religions seek to honor the earth and humanity in their cycle of change.  "It also seeks to broaden consciousness and to use small groups called covens to open psychic abilities and intuition (Starhawk, 1989)."

 Feminist spirituality in the Great Goddess tradition means for Starhawk a change in consciousness about relatedness (Starhawk, 1989).  This includes relatedness to each other, relatedness to the earth and relatedness to politics.  As she grew in consciousness, she increasingly appreciated the importance of sensitivity to others different from herself and inclusiveness.  She seeks not an ultimate definition of reality, but a willingness to grow beyond our personal boundaries.  "We need not deny our experience but recognize that it is one facet of reality . . . only then can we really receive the gifts that are there for us in other perspectives (Starhawk, 1989, p. 8)."  Starhawk believes that as this movement grows, the Goddess will inspire creation in the arts and creative responses to save the earth and it diverse peoples from destruction.  Humans, through inspiration of the Great Goddess, will help manifest on earth the combined visions of what could be (Christ &Plaskow, 1992; Gross, 1996 & Starhawk, 1989)."

      Criticisms of Feminist Theology

         One of the first women to clearly articulate how religious beliefs affect political and economic realities was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In her prosaic book, The Woman's Bible, written in 1895, she contends that Jesus was a feminist and that the patriarchal church authorities deliberately misinterpreted Christ's teaching to the extreme detriment of women (Stanton, 1999).  Many suffragists at that time worried that voting issues would be confused in the mind of legislatures with Elizabeth Cady Stanton's profaning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Stanton who was ridiculed by the press and church leaders developed a thick skin for protection.  Even with some stinging criticism of some of her peers could not phase this strong woman.  She believed that any conversations about the topic would put new ideas into the public arena (Gurko, 1974).

         Current criticism of feminist religious thinkers comes from many aspects of society.  Most interesting is that some to the most scathing criticism come from other feminist.  The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion publishes a roundtable discussion.  In this format, one woman writes an article and several women respond to it.  In the roundtable discussion titled "Generation to Generation," Emily Neil, self described as a third generation Harvard feminist, bemoans those who she describes as the second generation feminist scholars, who are criticizing the work of pioneering theologists as less sophisticated then current theologians (Spring, 1999)."  She worries that this kind of approach is more hierarchical and plays into he same ground that supports masculinist academicians and patriarchy.  Neil is concerned that current theologians are more concerned with academic recognition than the struggle against male-centered institutional power.  Consistent with the womanish writers in this paper, Neil recommends instead of an analysis of the evolution of women's spirituality, it would better serve women's a style more to see this as an expanding dialogue on feminist theology, or a building-on-approach (Spring, 1999).

         In a different roundtable discussion on "Feminist theology and religion diversity" (Fall, 2000), the author critiqued the lack of diversity among feminist theologians.  While Christian theologians were over-represented, non-white and non-Christians were notably absent.  Even within the feminist Christian community, she discovered a lack of interest in other religions and a sense of religious superiority.  Women authors from other religious disciplines responded to this article mostly by affirming the author's assertions.

         It appears that feminists have been deconstructing patriarchy more effectively than they have been defending themselves.  Groups such as The United Methodist Bishop Cannon, The Christian Coalition, Presbyterian Layman, as well as, famous conservative Christian men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan, have been openly critical of feminist religious agenda.  Some feminists view the intensity of the backlash from these Christians as a tribute to how successful they have become getting people to question the assumptions under grading Christianity.   Aside from their concerns about losing power and statue, these western religious thinkers have espressed concern about idolatry, polytheism and the loss of abstract transcendence (Schneider, 1999).

         Idolatry and polygamy are equated with heresy by biblical followers.  The feminist support of the use of concrete objects for worship, such as stones, trees, statues and images of the female body, bring charges of paganism, idolatry and polytheism.  Feminist counter that the exclusivist images of western religion provide a more covetous idolatry than the multiple feminine and nature-inspired symbols do.  Theologians try to avoid the problems with idolatry by showing that their conception and language about the divine is metaphorical, not the concrete, ultimate answer.  To answer the charges of polytheism, theologians affirm that polytheism is part of their beliefs.  Polytheism for womanish religions is considered more inclusive.  It honors diversity while supporting the potential multiplicity of Goddess/God.  Theologians agree that their religion does not promote abstract religions is for immanent, embodied transcendence (Schneider, 1999).


         Feminist spirituality is a vibrant, vital area of study.  It is of interest to academics religious leaders, those questioning the set of assumptions of their religion, and those seeking spirituality defined by women's values.  Deconstructing the Judeo-Christian tradition has been significant in helping these revolutionaries decide to leave their faith.  The opposite side of deconstruction is the desire and willingness to construct new symbols, imagery, language, and ritual to match the growing awareness to create and define female divinity.  This creative impulse directs much of the developing work in the field.  Many women are actively taking part in this innovative impulse.  This paper explored the thinking of only a few theologians.

         Some generalizations can be made about the values underlying this emerging field.  Appreciating diversity and inclusivity are important basics.  There are strong ties to eco-feminism, consequently honoring the earth, which provides a home for each individual.  Growing awareness of the finiteness of our home, forces womanists to work to preserve and protect it.  The quality of acceptance of the limited, finite lives of human beings, who in the face of that limitation, nonetheless are responsible for striving to become the best human being possible.  Transcendence involves becoming more fully embodied, honoring and appreciating the female body.  Theologians are working on developing language, which gives women subjectivity, a prerequisite to spiritual development.

         Change is one assumption underlying the significance of becoming.  Since we are always in a state of becoming, we should bring conscious awareness to that state and direct this state to help us become more aware of and active in creating solutions for oppression and injustice.  The idea of relatedness is immersed in this style of thinking.  We exist in a web of relationships, which are essential for our survival and development.  Holding the idea of deepening relationships is one of the highest values defining this philosophy.  The divine force is profoundly interwoven in our lives as is the fate of the earth.  Divinity is with us, yet she is more than the collective life in the world.  She provides steadiness and an expanded state to hold our suffering and joy while, at the same time, she is ardently connected to our longings and loss.

         Some of the criticisms from patriarchal western religions were not perceived as a reproach at all.  In fact, theologians proudly acknowledged that this religion was not seeking a disembodied transcendence, nor was it very concerned about abuse of idolatry, since objects of worship were derived from individual and group decisions.  New symbols and imagery are being tested by feminists.  This aspect of theology is perceived as ungrounded by patriarchal theologian.  This religion is always becoming so that it shouldn't strive to develop uncompromising dogma.  The concern about polytheism, is not a problem for womanish.  Feminist spirituality seems to embrace the concept of polytheism.

         The critiques from within the feminist realm are harder to answer, because it speaks to a turning away from fundamental feminist values.  These show a lack of respect for diversity and inclusivity, as well as falling back into patterns of hierarchical thinking.  Criticisms, which remind one to be true to their roots, serve a good purpose.  The level of anger from this criticism may be partly allied with these writers' using anger as the transformative emotion to allow them to stand outside society's dominant culture.  The slipping back into older culturally reinforced patterns is not uncommon.  They can serve to remind feminists just how difficult it is to change one's consciousness.

        This writer would ask those who have harsh criticisms for this emerging religion to have compassion.  Never in the history of the world has a religion been born under the watchful eye of the entire world.  Highly public criticism may do great harm to a field in its vulnerable infancy.  It would be more helpful to the cause of feminism for feminist to temper their well-earned and developed anger with compassion for themselves and their cause.  It will be fascinating to watch as this unfolding religion emerges, harsh criticism may have a deleterious affect on this beginning movement.