When Feminists Disagree by Linn Marie Tonstad
A while back I gave a talk on feminist trinitarian theology to an audience of mostly progressive academics, including feminist and womanist scholars of religion. In the course of analyzing what I called the ‘trinitarian imaginary’ in Christianity and its often-patriarchal and masculinist forms, I suggested that transforming that imaginary might require recognizing the hypothetical character of theological statements until the eschaton, a theme that has been developed in depth by a German theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now, Pannenberg is decidedly neither a feminist nor a progressive theologian. To name just one example: in his three-volume Systematic Theology, his few explicit references to feminist or female theologians include a brief mention of Mary Daly (volume 1, p. 262) in connection with a critique of feminist theologians for projecting (!) masculinity into God in their readings of divine fatherhood, and a critique of Valerie Saiving and Susan Nelson Dunfee’s positions on the traditional Christian doctrine of sin as pride (volume 2, p. 243). So when I mentioned Pannenberg as a resource in my talk, one of the feminist scholars in the audience audibly gasped and flinched – it became clear in the Q&A that she had significant concerns about whether I could count as a feminist at all. After all, to mine someone like Pannenberg for constructive feminist theological work might imply an endorsement of his other positions, or might entail taking over aspects of his system that would taint my own project in anti-feminist directions – all legitimate concerns.
Disagreement among feminists and womanists is often incredibly painful. When allies disagree with one another, it can feel like someone is being “bad for the cause.” The history of the relationship between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly, and its public representation, is just one example of the wounds that have marked feminist and womanist theological circles. Feminist and womanist theologians disagree about theological method, about faith, about the possibility of de-patriarchalizing Christianity, about the value of trying to do so, about whether and how Christian themes can or do support feminist ends, and so on – and that’s just focusing on feminist and womanist theologians who have some relationship to Christianity; many, of course, do not. In my own theological work, I value aspects of Christian traditions that many find oppressive and off-putting – divine transcendence, for instance. I am also more skeptical than some about the power of revisioning God in maternal terms as a counterbalance to the heavy weight of divine fatherhood. And I probably ought not even to start on my rant about why the Holy Spirit should not be envisioned as feminine – as so often, Mary Daly said it better than I ever could (“You’re included under the Holy Spirit. He’s feminine!” Gyn/Ecology, p. 38).
In my teaching, I try to present a diversity of feminist, womanist, queer, and “embarrassed et cetera” theological positions, rather than having ‘the’ feminist or ‘the’ womanist voice on my syllabus. This can help students think about the advantages and disadvantages of different arguments and about the positions regarding God, the world, theological method, human flourishing and political ends that generate such disagreements among feminist and womanist thinkers. I want to give students the resources to develop their own constructive theological positions rather than encouraging them to share the positions to which I have come, and it is extremely important for students to recognize that there is no such thing as ‘the’ feminist position on most issues. But I also teach non-feminist, and even anti-feminist, theologians – pope-now-emeritus Benedict XVI being one such. I want students to see the power of the theological logics of his positions on issues where I think he comes to deeply mistaken conclusions – gender, sexuality, and authority being only a few of them. But I don’t teach him as an antagonist or a target. I want students to learn what his positions are so that they can evaluate them for themselves and not simply accede to my assessment; that too is a feminist principle of teaching, in my view.
Some will disagree. So what do we do then? Do we transform the discussion into a question of what counts as ‘real’ feminism, and where that boundary should be drawn? (I myself draw it at ‘choice-consumer’ feminism; how about you?) Do we try to convince each other of the correctness of our views? Can anti-feminist tools ever be used for feminist ends? (Yes, I was teaching Audre Lorde’s essay a couple weeks ago.) We will all fail at achieving feminist perfection (!) in many areas of our lives, personally and professionally, and as feminists it is also part of our task to call each other to account for such failures. But the question becomes particularly pressing when I view as a strength what another views as a failure. In the example with which I began, another feminist scholar thought that engaging someone like Pannenberg positively, even though I had explicitly critiqued him earlier in the same talk, had the potential to undermine the feminism of my constructive theological project. In my view, elements of ‘classical’ or non-feminist Christian discourses can be powerful resources for feminist theology, resources that we have yet to mine with sufficient depth. What do you think? Let’s get this disagreement started!
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theology and theory. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally entitled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.