Feminist theology is a theological movement primarily within Christianity and Judaism that is intended to reexamine scriptural teachings on women and women's roles from a woman's perspective. Feminist theology attempts to counter arguments or practices that place women in inferior spiritual or moral positions. Feminist theologians work either from inside or outside traditional religious and denomination structures to bring justice, freedom, and equity to women and to reverse or stop practices that marginalize women. From inside traditional religious or denominational structures, feminist theology tends to be based on an active reading of scriptural texts through the lens of women's issues both from ancient and contemporary points of view. From within traditional religions or denominational lines, feminist theologians tend to emphasize abolishment of archaic, reactionary patriarchal views of religion and church in favor of more egalitarian views that emphasize equality between the genders.
Keywords Eisegesis; Exegesis; Feminism; Feminist Theology; Fundamentalism; Hermeneutics; Marginalization; Postmodernism; Theology
Sociology of Religion: Feminist Theology
Change is a necessary part of growth, and societies and cultures grow through their adaptation to change. Therefore, to continue to be relevant to the current generation, the teachings and doctrines of any religion need to be reinterpreted so as to be relevant to the situation in which the current generation finds itself. Other might argue that the tenets of a religion are (sometimes literally) set in stone and speak for themselves without interpretation. More moderate theologians tend to argue that the basic tenets of a religion do not change, but that one needs to view them in greater historical context in order to understand how they are to be applied in more modern times. More liberal theologians look at the same historical and current cultural contexts and tend to throw out those traditional teachings that they find to be archaic.
Examples of these approaches can be seen in the headlines. The rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion over the ordination of gays and lesbians is just one example. Many in the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion) believe that the Christian Bible should not only be reinterpreted to be relevant to contemporary society but also be actually reinterpreted using the beliefs and standards of the postmodern world. Therefore, they reject what others believe to be the biblical teachings on homosexuality and advocate for the ordination of gays and lesbians. This debate was brought to a head by the ordination of an openly gay priest to the bishopric. As a result, a number of Episcopal churches split from the American Episcopal Church and moved under the authority of the more traditional, conservative Anglican Church in Nigeria. The Episcopal Church later elected a woman as Primate (the American bishop who leads the national Episcopal Church). In response, some conservative bishops that did not believe in the ordination of women refused to speak to her. Arguments over who is right and who is wrong, whether or not the liberal American branch should split off from the greater Anglican Communion, and who gets to keep church property when an individual church decides to go a different way continue.
However, it is not just the Episcopal Church that has such issues of interpretation and reinterpretation of Scripture. The United Church of Christ is well-known for its reinterpretation of biblical teachings (in particular those relating to the role of women and gays), and the church disregards the parts of the Bible that it views as not relevant to today's society. On the other end of the spectrum, the Southern Baptist Convention and various fundamentalist churches argue that the statements in the Bible should stand as they are and — although made relevant — for the most part do not need to be interpreted in historical context. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention has argued that the ordination of women is unbiblical and has gone so far in some cases as to demand that the ordination of women pastors be rescinded. Such arguments are not isolated cases; similar debates have occurred in the Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations.
The Feminist Theology Movement
Standing against such arguments — particularly conservative views of the secondary role of women in the church — are feminist theologians. In general, there are two types of feminist theologians. The first of these comprises theologians who view traditional or mainstream religion from a woman's perspective. This form of the feminist theology movement is found primarily within Christianity and Judaism. The overarching goal of this type of feminist theologian is to reform traditional religious institutions along feminist lines. For most of these advocates, important topics include the ordination of women, new language about God, and greater denominational recognition of the needs and contributions of women. The second of these types of feminist theologians comprises those from other religious traditions such as goddess worship. Some proponents of feminist theology within this latter group have established their own sects devoted to the worship of female power such as fertility and imagination. Other proponents, however, are not involved in any sect or religious institution (Porterfield, 1987).
Feminist theology grew out of the broader feminist movement and concomitant consciousness-raising sessions of the 1960s and 1970s. In many ways, feminism in general was a movement to revitalize the culture at large. Feminist theology is an extension of the feminist movement that seeks to revitalize religion. As the feminist movement in secular culture began to demarginalize women and give them greater justice, freedom, and equity, some feminist thinkers turned their attention to parallel problems within the structures of religion and church. As with the feminist movement before it, feminist theology seeks to point out weaknesses and inequality in the status quo and to offer solutions to make practices and theology more equitable from a woman's point of view. The intent of feminist theology is to gain greater justice, freedom, and equity for women within religion and church. To this end, feminist theology seeks to remove patriarchal concepts that are related only to ancient culture, rather than the biblical author's intended message, from contemporary church and religious teaching and doctrine. Some examples of how this is done is through the use of gender neutral names for God, abolition of perceived archaic rules regarding the behavior and dress of women, and recognition of the spiritual and moral equity of women with men. One of the causes célèbres for equity is the ordination of women. Arguing from both the scriptural text and the example of ancient church practice, feminist theologians argue for the ordination of women and for equal roles within the ecclesiastical hierarchy (Porterfield, 1987).
One can be both a feminist and a theologian yet not be a feminist theologian. Several shared traits distinguish both types of feminist theologians from these other groups. First, feminist theologians have an appreciation of religion that distinguishes them from those feminists who reject religion either because it is irrelevant to their cause or because it is a hindrance to it. Although feminist theologians tend to agree with feminists in general that organized religion has historically oppressed, subjugated, or marginalized women, feminist theologians believe that religion can support and empower women. However, feminist theologians are distinct from theologians in general. As with other feminists, feminist theologians strongly criticize social structures that oppress or marginalize women and emphasize those that empower them. Equality and justice for women is frequently the lens through which feminist theologians read scriptural or other sacred texts. In addition, feminist theologians frequently emphasize women's bodies as sources of religious inspiration or moral concern and a need to take care of the earth and...
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