To begin answering the title question, there first must be an examination of Feminist Christology, its origins and variations from “mainstream” Christology. While discussion of the Incarnation or the human/divine nature of Christ is not gender relevant, feminist theologians believe that no true picture of Jesus has been produced. The reasons for this stem from the work of Albert Schweitzer, that each portrayal of Jesus is more representative of the portrayer than Jesus.
Feminist Christology differs from traditional Christology (referred to as “patriarchal Christology” by feminists) in that it’s starting point is not necessarily the life of Jesus. 2 While Christ is dealt with in feminist Christology, the experiences of men and women are considered first and then biblical material is added and contemplated in light of these experiences. The underlying assumption being that simply reading scripture is insufficient. Even if it were possible attempting to follow the teachings without context would amount to living as a “first century Rabbi/itinerant preacher”3 in the modern world.
This is obviously unsuitable. Added to this is the fact that feminist Christology is not restricted by its white, middle class background and thus now embraces a diversity rarely found in patriarchal Christology and the differences become more apparent. The goals of Feminist Christology must now inspected to ascertain its success or otherwise. Jacquelyn Grant defines them thus “Feminist Christology has two tasks. First, feminist Christology must show how traditional male articulated Christology’s have been used “to keep women in their place” rather than to save women.
And second, feminist Christology must provide images for the liberation of women by way of the liberation of Jesus from oppressive and distorted interpretations. “4 It is these two objectives which will be used in this essay to assess the success of Feminist Christology in achieving its stated aims. The first objective of Feminist Christology, articulating that traditional male orientated Christology essentially subjugates women, will now be assessed. The fundamental question which frames this issue is whether a male saviour can redeem women, Rosemary Radford Ruether asks “Can a Male Saviour Save Women? 5 While Ruether acknowledges that women have never been explicitly excluded from salvation by Jesus’ maleness, she does raise the point that it is often referenced by those denominations who oppose the ordination of women.
This can be easily confirmed, Forward in Faith (the Anglican organisation dedicated to the opposition of the ordination of women) for example, opposes women priests as “a practice contrary to the scriptures as they have been consistently interpreted by the two thousand year tradition of the churches of both East and West. 7 The maleness of Jesus and the Apostles is very much at the root of this “traditional interpretation”.
Elizabeth Green finds this to be “keystone” behind such opposition to the ordination of women. 8 However, organisations such as Forward in Faith typically cite Christian unity as the overriding reason for opposition9. While there is a circularity to any argument to oppose the ordination of women because other denominations do (who in turn, oppose it for similar reasons), it is not sufficient to simply claim that male orientated Christology flawlessly translates into a solely male clergy.
Similarly, Green’s connection of male orientated Christology and the lower position of women is also unjustified and demonstrably false. The vast majority of pre-Christian societies around the world were male dominated. Early Christian society would naturally be a continuation of patriarchal Jewish or Roman society. The fact that Christology did not begin to influence gender relations until relatively recently is more interesting.
Green uses Ruether to connect male orientated Christology with patriarchal Christianity and the ensuing male dominated social structures thus “patriarchal Christianity moved toward a total integration of the Lordship of Christ into the Lordships of worldly hierarchies. Christ as the divine Logos is seen as the apex of a hierarchical social order baptized as Christendom”10 A powerful image certainly, the link to the language of Christology is compelling, however Green’s finding of this conclusively demonstrating that “The maleness of Christ thus worked to ensure women’s subordinate position in society as well as in the church. 11, is premature. The language of Christology is a significant area in support of this. Isherwood politicises Chalcedon as an example of this12. When describing the incarnation, Chalcedon uses two words, enanthropesin (to live among humans or have human form) and oikonomia (household management or law/order/administration). Oikonomia is the more commonly used term by Chalcedon and thus the mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of the “Lord’s order/law/management economy”. 13
This is then confirmed by subsequent exclusions and intolerance stemming from the oikonomia of Jesus’ nature. 14 When discussing the success of attempts by Feminist Theologians to reform Christology, the possibility that they are in fact reinforcing gender based division must be examined. While it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid using gender in Feminist Christology, more than one theologian has highlighted the dangers of not doing so. There are two major reasons for this problem.
The first is that by attempting to remove themselves from within “the symbolic order of patriarchy”, theologians marginalise themselves and ensure that their contribution to the debate will not be heard. 15 This is the particular opinion of Andrea Nye and Luisa Muraro. 16 The second aspect of this issue is related by Robert Con Davies thus: ‘A critique of paternal discourse, in other words, is necessarily compromised by the mere fact that there is no absolute recourse to metalanguage, metaculture, or metaself from which to perform an uncompromised critique. 17 This inability to produce a completely objective viewpoint when discussing Christology, particularly when of a Feminist nature, requires extraordinary care to be taken as regards a writers own bias and preconceptions. This is not always the case. Fiorenza, who will be focused upon later in this essay, is accused of falling in to this trap and thus becomes part of the “oppositional framework of patriarchal symbolic and thus involves herself in a major contradiction”18 by Eriksson.
This unfortunate and overly combative as Fiorenza’s less militantly feminist viewpoint has much to offer this debate. Eriksson’s primary complaint is that “At the same time that gender is spoken of as separating in the sense that patriarchal construction of symbolic feminine gender positions women as a social group unified by their common experience, patriarchy is conceptualized (by Fiorenza) in a way that undermines the primacy and epistemological significance of physical gender in favour of other, not gender dependent, factors such as class and race. 19 This an excellent example of how a viewpoint of Christology, which is perfectly legitimate and insightful, being declared unfit for purpose as it violates feminist agenda’s. That said Fiorenza has not explained how she avoids this problem and the criticism remains valid. The danger remains that by colluding with existing patriarchal Christology, feminist theologians contribute to a culture of self hatred in women and theological disrespect for women in general. 20 For Feminist Christology to be valid and “fit for purpose” a more conclusive answer to these problems must be found.
Elisabeth Schi?? ssler Fiorenza has a markedly different approach to the first of Jacquelyn Grant’s tasks. Rather than attempting to construct revolutionary post-patriarchal Christology, she explores existing theoretical frameworks and the role Theology, particularly Christology, has in preventing the oppression of women. 21 Her linking of patriarchal Christology with modern, right wing thought regarding “traditional” gender roles and the role of women, is a useful means of demonstrating the “real world” impact of patriarchal Christology.
In particular, Fiorenza links the far rights interchangeable usage of divine power and masculine power, is relevant to the title question. Specifically, Fiorenza claims that “The political-religious right claims the power to name and define the true nature of biblical religions against liberation theologies of all colors and geographical locations. Its well financed think tanks are supported by reactionary political and financial institutions that seek to defend kyriarchal capitalism”. 2 Fiorenza therefore claims that women must not allow patriarchal theologians sole authority to define Christology through religious texts and must consistently use the language of both the intellectual fathers of theology as well as contemporary feminists. 23 The use of the term kyriarchy by Fiorenza is a departure from more hard line feminist theologians, in that it broadens the category of those oppressed to include race, class and financially based prejudice and also accounts for scenario’s in which women are the oppressors.
Fiorenza justifies this by claiming that “the hermeneutical center of a critical feminist theology of liberation cannot simply be women”. 24 While this distinction may be unpalatable for more radical feminist theologians, its implications are no less far reaching. It is argued by Lisa Isherwood that both modern capitalism and the Roman Catholic Church are kyriarchal systems and that under such systems, democracy is nothing but a carefully nurtured illusion. 5 While this has slightly hysterical overtones and there is not space here for an in-depth analysis of freedom within democracies, it is a possibly a glimpse upon the upper scale of the impact of male dominated theology upon society. Using kyriarchy’s broader scope to include racial discrimination, Isherwood describes the process by which she believes Christology has been used for the purposes of white supremacy as well as the subjugation of women. 26 In this process, Jesus is portrayed as the greatest human to have ever lived.
Being both male and (due to a “bleaching over the years”27) white, the greatest champion of the human race and the archetype of all future heroes, is extremely useful to those whose politics are to the far right. When considering feminist Christology’s success in demonstrating how patriarchal Christology has subjugated women, there are mixed results. While the use of language in traditional Christology is male and power orientated (or at least excessively susceptible to misuse in this direction), feminist Christology has yet to resolve the key issue of how to avoid using this language in its response.
Fiorenza’s concept of kyriarchy is more cohesive. However, the language issue is still not resolved and the addition of other groups to the oppressed and the addition of women oppressors distances kyriarchy from feminism and limits it’s usage in the answer to the title question. The second task of feminist Christology, to provide images for the liberation of women by way of the liberation of Jesus from oppressive and distorted interpretations, will now be examined. There are two main areas of work within this field, the first reinterprets existing images of Christ, the second provides entirely new images.
The first area works upon the premise that the manifestation of God in Jesus was an eschatological event whose fulfilled reality lies in the future and that Jesus was a free person who challenged outmoded customs and laws. Combined with Christ’s lack of prejudice against women and His treating them as equals insofar as the limitations of the culture of the time would allow, it is a reasonable assumption that He would be working in concert with women for their liberation in the modern age.
This poetically described Mary Daly in “After the Death of God the Father, Women’s Liberation and the transformation of Christian consciousness” as “This awakening of women to their human potentiality by creative action as they assume equal partnership with men in society can bring about a manifestation of God in themselves which will be the Second Coming of God incarnate, fulfilling the latent promise in the original revelation that men and women are made to the image of God. “28 This redefining
Of imago Dei, is an example of how the second task of feminist Christology is made easier by the, albeit limited, success of the first task. Having proven that the image of Christ has been used to discriminate against women, thus making them tainted, reworking the same images into a new form, gains validity and loses controversy. Regarding the creation of new Christological images in line with feminist thinking, the validity of new images must be considered. The controversy of the example which will be used here, that of Christa, centred around the “right” of anyone to portray Jesus as female.
Daly provides a valid counter to this “The becoming of new symbols is not a matter that can arbitrarily be decided around a conference table. Rather, they grow out of a changing communal situation and experience. This does not mean that theologically we are consigned to the role of passive spectators. We are called upon to be attentive to what the new experience of the becoming of women is revealing to us, and to foster the evolution of consciousness beyond the oppressiveness and imbalance reflected and justified by symbols and doctrines throughout the millennia of patriarchy. 29 The image of Christa, which portrays a crucified woman i. e. a female Jesus, was displayed at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine during Easter in 1984. Unsurprisingly, there was a large amount of controversy. 30 Beyond the predictable accusations of sacrilege, there was also concern that it glorified the suffering of women31, somewhat ironic bearing in mind it was commissioned for the United Nations Year of the Woman. However, some feminist theologians, such as Carter Heyward, were cautiously optimistic as to what Christa could come to represent.
Indeed, Heyward claims that “She (Christa) can represent for Christian women precisely what the church has crucified with a vengeance and what we must now raise up in our lives; the erotic as power and the love of God as embodied by erotically empowered women”. 32 The role of erotica within Christology aside, Christa does link the threads of feminist Christology, the experiences of women, a reinterpretation of imago Dei and the production of a modern, post-patriarchal depiction of Christ.
However, there is a risk of Christa becoming an object of idolatry, an accusation levelled by feminist theologians at traditional Christology. 33 Heyward, elaborates on this danger and the solution: “Like all religious symbols, Christa should always be transitional-an image to help keep us open and growing in our respect and love for erotically empowering women and men. We cannot get stuck on her as a redemptive image, even for those of us who are Christians. To rectify any one symbol is to give ourselves permission to stop growing and changing. Christa is no one among us and never will be.
She is no one child, woman or man. She is no one earthcreature, seacreature or skycreature. “34 This cleverly counters accusations of idolatry and also removes Christa from any assumption that it is any way linked to the historical Jesus. Thus Christa, becomes a true part of feminist Christology, untainted by patriarchal Christological symbology. When assessing the success of Feminist Christology’s second task, to provide images for the liberation of women by way of the liberation of Jesus from oppressive and distorted interpretations, it is again, an incomplete success.
While, the likes of Christa can be seen as successfully providing new Christological images by avoiding any pretence of being based upon the historical figure of Jesus, they are open to criticisms of idolatry and more significantly can be misinterpreted to still be oppressive. For example Christa’s supposed glorification of women’s suffering. Likewise, attempts to rework existing images again stumbles upon the issues of language and cohesion. In conclusion, Feminist Christology, while imperfect, has made progress in advancing its aims. It suffers from a lack of cohesion among its contributors.
The lack of agreement over kyriarchy’s role within feminism for example, leaves the area open to excessive divisiveness. In addition, the use of language must be very carefully examined. It will remain extremely difficult for feminist theologians to make their points effectively if there is a constant risk that they are working against themselves by promoting patriarchal symbolism. Work has been done in reclaiming such symbolism but it is as yet, incomplete. In short, Feminist Christology is relatively young and though imperfect, it is as valid an area of study as any other.