Feminist theology challenges tradition Women and the Word

During the past 20 years, thousands of women have become ministers, rabbis or cantors. Not only are these women changing the face of religion, they are influencing the future of religious thought in America.

Many are using the mantle of religious power to examine and challenge traditional views of the Bible, its teachings -- and God.


They, along with other scholars, question the silence of women in a Bible written by men. They have "re-discovered" and sought instruction from such women as Deborah, the judge who saved the Israelites from Canaanite forces, and Mary Magdalene, whom some call Jesus' 13th disciple.

And they are disputing the "all-powerful," mostly male depictions of God used by Christians and Jews. They are challenging the narrowness of our concept of God, how that concept is communicated through Biblical language and images, and how it influences the way we live.


"Think of a religion's ancient scriptures, texts and diaries as a great big stone," explains Dr. Martin Marty, a professor of the history of American religion at the University of Chicago. "Then imagine putting a lever under it and turning it over to see what else is there. You unearth other meanings, you look at what was taken for granted. You see that these texts come from patriarchal cultures."

He believes feminist scholarship has transformed religion more than any movement in recent Western history.

"It includes more vocabulary changes, more conceptual changes, more contention, more promise," says Dr. Marty. "It touches more than half of the human race."

Feminist theology has expanded the images of God to include female as well as male characteristics. Its adherents seek to use metaphors and analogies that point up the merciful, compassionate, nurturing and creative aspects of God -- characteristics they say enrich worship and spiritual understanding.

But sparks fly when they suggest altering language that has sustained worship for thousands of years.

"One discovery has been that although the Bible has patriarchal language, it has less patriarchal language than translators have given it," says Phyllis Trible, professor at Union Theological Seminary and author of "God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." "So it requires a rethinking of Hebrew and Greek vocabularies, and ++ how words were used in their own context, and how best that can be brought into our own [modern] context."

Some Christians, however, believe that God, in fact, is male, based partially on Jesus Christ's references to God as "Father." And many Jews and Christians believe that scriptural -- and often, liturgical -- language should not be changed because of its sacred and cultural legacy.

"The Bible is locked into the world's great literature, and there is a controversial issue as to whether every word counts," says Dr. Marty. "In the act of changing it stands the question, 'Are we doing justice to the language?'


Old vs. new language

"More liberal churches' lectionaries won't say 'Jesus, God's only son,' but 'Jesus, God's only child.' A prayer won't end with 'Father, Son and Holy Ghost,' " he says, "but instead, praising 'Creator, Savior, Spirit.' . . . Or, 'We give thanks to the Lord for Her mercy endures forever.' "

Dr. Trible says some language changes can read awkwardly and lack scholarly integrity.

"But the fact that this goes on points to the need and urgency of making changes in a responsible way," she says. "If not, then it is going to be done anyway. Sometimes lay people are the ones to provide the leadership. And the so-called leaders may be the ones that have to be led."

Many scholars and clergy continue to use the old language and metaphors with the stated understanding that the reality of God is much broader than the words imply. However, others insist upon language changes because they find the text degrading to women and others.

"I believe anything that is demeaning of another human being cannot be of God," says Sister Carol Rittner of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies. "And that this is part of the message of the women scholars."


According to feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, the male images and language many still use to describe God are comforting because they are familiar. But they also are harmful because they support a religious system that has considered women to be marginally important.

"Religious experiences are expressed in a vocabulary drawn from the significant and valuable in a particular culture," she writes in "Standing Again At Sinai." "To speak of God is to speak of what we most value. . . To image God as male is to value the quality and those who have it. It is to define God in the image of the normative community and to bless men -- but not women -- with a central attribute of God."

A God beyond gender

Scholars say education can help to correct cultural distortions. Children tend to begin their spiritual lives with a more integrated concept of God, says Rabbi Shira Lander of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

"I think kids organically have an understanding of God that transcends gender -- or that tries to merge gender -- because their original connections with God are filtered through their experiences with the authority figures of their parents.

"Since their parents are male and female, they tend to project that onto God. If at some point they learn that God is not female, the obvious conclusion for them is that the male is the authority figure -- both in the world and in the family," Ms. Lander says.


Worship services referring to God in gender-neutral terms -- or using male and female pronouns -- have become increasingly common in liberal Jewish and Christian denominations. The Rev. Florence Ledyard, rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium, refers to God regularly as both "he" and "she."

"It's not a big deal," she says. "It's just woven into the fabric of life here. It's part of how we all gather together and struggle with what it means to be a faithful person. . . . When we can allow ourselves the opportunity to understand and to experience God in a plethora of ways, we begin to understand the real power, and depth, and height of our God."

Politics and power

For some, referring to God as male and female also carries a political and social agenda. If congregations can loosen their attachment to the predominantly male, authoritarian language of worship, perhaps they can also accept cultural changes that call for distributing power more evenly.

In her book "She Who Is," Fordham University professor Elizabeth Johnson suggests that belief in top-down systems of religious power has diminished with the rise of political democracies and emphasis on individual rights.

"If God is always imagined as "Omnipotent Lord," then that becomes the model for church authority," she says. "If God becomes envisioned as an empowering, sensitive, loving power, then that becomes the model for how we should interact. Once the idea of God begins to change, the understanding of church -- and of yourself -- begins to change. At the root of the tensions these days are these different notions of God which create different expectations of how we should be together as a community."


The determination to re-evaluate religious tradition also fuels various "liberation theologies." These maintain that God demands social justice for people who have been oppressed and ignored.

"One effect of feminist theology is the call for new ways of interpreting scripture that pay attention to the issue of gender and, related to that, to race and class. They are all tied together," says Dr. Trible.

"Many people think of the Bible as a "should" book, as a book of prescriptions telling us how we should behave. But it's much deeper and broader and more complicated than that. . . . The Bible sets before its readers a choice of blessings and curses.

"The Exodus story becomes a story of liberation if you are a slave or enslaved. But suppose you are the Canaanite. . . . The Pilgrims used Exodus to get out of Europe and also to justify the suppression and annihilation of Native Americans."

Inclusion of women

The Bible is filled with examples of how language and story interpretations can be used to ennoble or suppress. Feminist scholars are trying to change centuries of interpretations that have not included women as sources of spiritual knowledge and power.


"Ideally, women tend to teach, lure, guide, tease people into co-operative ways of acting," says Dr. Johnson, who has studied how women use power.

"Women are always trying to keep relationships going, and to maintain connections. And in that model, the power of God assumes a whole different shape."

Kathleen Hurty, director of ecumenical networks for the National Council of Churches, sees an increasing commitment to crafting and using inclusive language in church services and writings. She credits the interest to new scholarship and to lay people "who are also beginning to struggle with what it really means to express partnership between women and men.

"There is a yearning to make that partnership work better," she says. "And there is a growing recognition that our liturgical language and hymnody have been freighted with masculine language and metaphors.

"I think some women and some men -- both -- are trying to find new ways to express what it is to be a church, what it is to be thinking about God, and what it is to relate to each other as human beings."