Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza articulated a widely held tenet of feminist theology when she stated that feminism places a question mark over all inherited texts and traditions. This means that feminists cannot and must not accept any teaching or traditional way of performing religious acts simply because “the Bible [or the Koran or the minister or the priest or the rabbi or the imam or the guru] tells me so.”
Instead, feminists must question every text and tradition and the words of every religious leader to see whether or not they promote the full humanity of women. The implication of this is that we must acknowledge and take responsibility for becoming our own authorities—as individuals and in communities.
A tongue –in-cheek letter that began circulating on the internet in 2000 under the title “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?” makes the point that even those who claim to be adhering to every “jot and tittle” of the Holy Book are in fact choosing to accept some aspects of tradition while rejecting others. The letter begins:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
The author of the letter continues:
Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
Presented with this argument, most readers of this blog would insist that they hold a more sophisticated understanding of revelation and the authority of tradition than the one the author of the letter attributes to Dr. Laura. Those familiar with the method of interpretation of the Bible called “historical criticism” might argue that revelation is always historically conditioned by the attitudes and opinions prevalent in the time it was written.
Thus, they might state, the notions that God condones slavery or condemns homosexuality are ideas that were widely held at the time of the writing of the Biblical book known as Leviticus. These ideas are no longer held by reasonable people today; therefore, they can be viewed as the historically conditioned prejudices of the writer or writers of Leviticus, but not as the Word of God.
On the other hand, these same people might assert that certain parts of the Bible are to be understood as the Word of God. For example, liberal Jews might consider “ethical monotheism” to be a truth revealed in the Bible, but the laws about keeping slaves and keeping kosher to be relative to the time in which they were written. Similarly, Christian advocates of liberation theology might argue that the idea that “God is on the side of the oppressed” is authentic revelation, while the verses that state that God told the Hebrews how to treat their slaves or that they could have multiple wives are historically conditioned.
The point that is missed and missing in many discussions of historical criticism of the Bible is that someone other than God is performing the acts of historical criticism that separate the so-called wheat from the so-called chaff in the Bible. It is by no means “obvious” which threads of traditions are revealed and which are not.
Early advocates of historical criticism may have appealed to Enlightenment notions of reason and reasonable men in making such determinations. But we now understand that many reasonable men in the 18th and 19th centuries created new laws defining a slave as 3/5’s of a human being and women as the property of their fathers and husbands.
From this we must conclude that notions of “what is reasonable” are themselves historically conditioned. It will do no good to appeal to “reason”against the Bible if “reasonable men”can be shown to have held ideas that are no longer considered reasonable.
This radical conclusion has been fudged by many who assert that though there are aspects of traditional teachings and practices they reject, there remains an “essential core” of tradition which they accept as “true” and “revealed” by God. The point they are missing is that someone is picking and choosing which aspects of tradition to consider revealed and which to reject as historically or otherwise conditioned.
Goddess feminists, Buddhist feminists, and others may think they have escaped the dilemma posed here because they reject the Bible altogether. It is true that particular kinds of claims have been made for revelation by the peoples of the book. However, the question of authority is not dispelled by the simple act of rejecting the Christian or Jewish Bibles or the Koran.
Whenever Buddhists make claims that “Buddhism teaches” or when Goddess feminists state that “my tradition tells me,” questions about who is determining the core or essential meaning of traditions are inevitably raised. No “tradition” can be accepted “whole.” Some aspects of traditions will inevitably be highlighted, while others will be glossed over. Goddess feminists who ask whether or not it is necessary to practice rituals skyclad (without clothes) or whether warlike images of Goddesses are to be accepted or rejected are picking and choosing within “Goddess traditions.”
If picking and choosing among and within traditions is inevitable, then who is doing the picking and choosing? When appeals to transcendent reason are ruled out, the logical conclusion is: we do. The next question is: who are we? Answers to this question might include: individuals, communities, or inspired individuals such as priests, popes, rabbis, minsters, gurus, or lamas who are to be trusted.
The fact that allegedly inspired individuals have abused and continue to abuse the trust that is placed in them suggests to me that no one should ever place her trust in inspired or allegedly inspired individuals. Far too many of them have denied the full humanity of women. Far too many of them have sexually abused their followers. Does this mean we can never learn from religious teachers or leaders? Of course we can. But we should never give up our own powers of discernment. And we should immediately place a question mark over anyone who asks us to do so.
We must always ask ourselves: Does what Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama or Starhawk says make sense to me? Does it go against any values I have held dear up to this point? Do I want to change my way of life? Should I? Is there anything being said or done here that could be harmful to me or anyone else? In other words, we must always recognize that while we can learn from others, we are the ones who must decide what to accept and what to reject in everything we hear.
Does this mean that every individual must become her own authority? What about communities? Are individuals ever isolated from communities? Many feminists have criticized the notion of the “isolated rational individual” inherited from the Enlightenment. We argued that reality is relational. I become I in relation to you, and we both are shaped and to some extent determined by the communities, societies, and histories in which our lives are situated.
For me the insight that reality is relational means that it is a good idea to test every idea and practice—whether inherited from tradition or the product of individual questioning—in communities. While we may first discuss them among friends, among feminists, or in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Goddess or other communities, we also need to ask if they heal or harm “the other” and the web of life.
At the same time, our own powers of discernment must be the final authority for each one of us. Only you and I can decide which friends to listen to, which communities to call ours, which aspects of which traditions we wish to affirm or reject, and how we understand the presence of divinity in our lives and in our world. The feminist question mark means that we can no longer take anything “on faith” or “trust” anyone else to make these decisions for us.
Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute–$150 discount for a limited time–www.goddessariadne.org. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine,Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.