A Radical Conclusion: We Are Our Own Authorities by Carol P. Christ

Carol Christ in LesbosElisabeth 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.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Epistemology, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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23 replies

  1. This a great reminder of the deep inner right and responsibility that we so often give up because of the need to be like others or force others to be like us. This seems to begin in the family and continue throughout our relational life. There is a Zen Buddhist saying that if you meet the Buddha kill him which is a rather frightening reminder to make our own decisions about the deep matters in life. That is often hard to do when so much of the control and persuasion around us is made in the form of ‘love’ and ‘righteousness’. This teaching is particularly important for me as I suffer from guilt when I do not please others and yet I often end up going along with situations that I do not truly want or agree with. How to live this teaching in a kind and loving way is a continual inner conflict for me!


  2. Spirituality is ontological and therefore, in my view, can only be learned or understood through direct experience, or, what Starhawk, in DREAMING THE DARK, referred to as a “participation mystique.”


    • In my opinion there are religious experiences and these are or can be valuable. However, if we don’t use our discernment to think about them too, we have no way to determine which experiences are valuable and promote the flourishing of the world, and which do not. Many people’s religious experiences “tell” them that women are not full human beings, and so on.


      • There is a profound wellspring of exquisite being at the heart of our existence. “Participation mystique,” as I understand it, opens you up to an awareness of that truth. So even though it is only a spiritual practice, it has within it a feminist awakening, at least for any woman who has not seen how miraculous, how lovable, beautiful and ageless her existence truly is.


  3. Brava! Excellent and thoughtful post. I guess Fiorenza makes the question mark the most important part of punctuation. Makes sense to me. It’s especially important to question teachings and dogma we’ve accepted unquestioningly “forever.” I agree that we need to make our own decisions. BTW, I like your new photo.


  4. This is essentially Quaker process of discernment.


  5. Well Done!

    You have captured the essence of the 60’s—and my personal mantra—Question Authority!


    • You are right of course and I too am a child of the 60s, but there is a special poignancy to this questioning when you (women, slaves) are one of those “the authorities” deemed less than human.


  6. hello Carol

    Thanks for your post – the question of authority is one that I have begun to open up for myself and in conversation – and for some people is a question too far and we can’t take the conversation on very much. It’s good to read your exploration.

    The question I find myself coming back to is how to trust my own ‘authority’, reminding myself that my own unexamined assumptions are just that and benefit from examination – which is quite hard work!! I’m sure you’re right that engagement with communities is multiply beneficial and an ability to receive and share perspectives is helpful.

    I wonder sometimes whether stopping using the word ‘authority’ could be an interesting discipline – to see what difference it makes and whether it is a word that we need

    all good wishes for your continuing explorations



  7. Great post, Carol. I think questioning authority is central to the feminist project, and agree with you that it needs to take place within a community of like-minded individuals. It’s especially important for us women, since we’ve been socialized to be relational. On the good side, that makes us more open to intimacy, but on the negative side, it makes us more susceptible to other’s opinions (as cristina demonstrates).

    I have two questions for you. 1) I assume that you mean God when you speak of “transcendent reason.” Right? 2) I’m wondering why you start with Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (this is a real question). In some ways, the idea of questioning authority can be traced back to the Socratic method introduced by Plato into Western philosophy, since it’s based on the process of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking. In my late twentieth-century experience, I was introduced to this idea by Timothy Leary, who told us to think for ourselves and question authority (probably the person that David Lukenbill is referring to). If the reason is that Schüssler Fiorenza is a feminist theologian, why not begin with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote: “We have made a fetich [sic] of the Bible long enough. The time has come to read it as we do all other books, accepting the good and rejecting the evil it teaches.”


    • 1. I was simply stating that when we reason, we do so as human beings from finite historically conditioned situations. If “we hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” then it must also have been “self-evident” to the founding fathers that women are not created equal to men. In other words, the conclusions of “reasonable thinking” are not self evident to all who have engaged in this practice. Therefore, it seems to me, we are reasoning from our experiences and situations, and do not have access to truths that stand outside of experiences. At the same time, I would not excuse the founding fathers. Abigail Adams pointed out the “flaws” in their “logic” and they refused to listen. (Nor do I “excuse” anyone who “owned” human beings.)
      2. I liked the way ESF put it and she is often quoted by others. You are right that she is not the originator of the idea of questioning tradition from a feminist perspective. For me it is not just a matter of questioning traditions, it is a matter of recognizing that traditions have enshrined great injustices (to women and “others”) as stemming from both God and transcendent reason. So it’s not just questioning authority, but recognizing that the “greatest minds” of “our tradition” and our “revealed” religious traditions have made some pretty major “mistakes.”


      • Thanks, Carol. I have a better understanding of what you mean by “transcendent reason.” Is this a concept that appears in certain types of theology?


      • Nancy I would say the idea that “man” can rise above his body and social connections in order to commune with transcendent truth is as old as Plato–and influenced many philosophers and theologians. It was also an idea that inspired many Enlightenment thinkers who viewed themselves as throwing off the shackles of religion and tradition in the name of “truth” which was “self-evident” to the “rational man.” Proponents of historical criticism assumed that “reason” could tell us which parts of the bible were historically conditioned and therefore not to be considered revealed. I am not sure where your question about this is coming from, as I think you must have studied this too. Am I missing something?


      • No, I just thought that the way you were using “transcendent reason” might indicate a technical term. Instead you’re once again assembling several different historical strands that are connected and illuminating those connections in our intellectual history (Thanks!). As a pagan Unitarian Universalist, I find myself surrounded by people who truly believe in (scientific) reason (philosophically derived from the Enlightenment). I know from my experience and from studying human psychology that reason has its limitations and is often just rationalization. And, of course, it’s used against us women as the “irrational sex.” As you said, I’ve studied the examples you cite, but I like how you indicate Plato’s influence on the Enlightenment and , therefore, on historical criticism of the Bible.


  8. I like this ideas about questioning (past) authority and coming to trust the validity of our own authority. We’ve been working out this methodologically in Musawah to challenge certain laws that some take as canon which were in fact the production of men as authorities (normalizing their experiences). 0

    I just wanted to think out loud on this here to ask, can it not also be given evidentiary support so that it works into new canon (not just for women) if we listen and accept that (internal) still small voice and the present embodiment as an intentional part of the divine design?


  9. Amina, in part your post a little while ago which I read as saying Islam can become what Muslim women say it can become was one of the inspirations not for the ideas in this post but for writing it. The idea that there is no self-evident “essential core” of tradition (either androcentric or liberating) puts an end to arguments that begin “Islam is sexist” or “Islam in its essential core is not sexist.” In other words traditions have been what some interpreters say they were, and with any luck and divine inspiration, they can also change. It is up to us as we become out own authorities. I am not sure about divine design, but for me the idea that divine power is inspiring women to change traditions and to create new ones is something I experience and think is valid.


  10. One criterion I use for discerning whether a particular text promotes the full humanity of women is that any historically conditioned acts or words that are unacceptable to contemporary women should relate to superficial matters rather than substantive ones (which is also a matter of opinion of course). For me however the crucial question regarding Judaeo-Christianity and women is: allowing for the fact that he too was conditioned by the time in which he lived, did Jesus himself promote the full humanity of women? Your point that such questions must be ultimately thrashed out in communal situations is an excellent one.


  11. Excellent post.

    I would only add that full discernment, questioning, and human development can only happen in a society which tolerates this kind of process. If you do live in a society which promotes critical thinking, be grateful and make a prayer for your sisters and brothers who have yet to be freed from intellectual bondage.


  12. in the Vedas, when a woman is invited into the family through marriage, she enters “as a river enters the sea” and “to rule there along with her husband, as a queen, over the other members of the family.” (Atharva-Veda 14.1.43-44) This kind of equality is rarely found in any other religious scripture. Plus, a woman who is devoted to God is more highly regarded than a man who has no such devotion, as found in the Rig-Veda: “Yea, many a woman is more firm and better than the man who turns away from Gods, and offers not.” (Rig-Veda, 5.61.6)
    In fact, in early Vedic civilization women were always encouraged to pursue spiritual advancement without hindrance: “O bride! May the knowledge of the Vedas be in front of you and behind you, in your centre and in your ends. May you conduct your life after attaining the knowledge of the Vedas. May you be benevolent, the harbinger of good fortune and health, and live in great dignity and indeed be illumined in your husband’s home.” (Atharva Veda, 14.1.64)
    Unfortunately, these standards have declined primarily due to the outside influences that have crept in because of foreign invaders, either militarily or culturally. These foreign invaders(British and Muslim) who dominated India mostly looked at women as objects of sexual enjoyment and exploitation, and as the spoils of war to be taken like a prize. The oppression of women increased in India because of Moghul rule. As such foreigners gained influence and converts, decay of the spiritual standards also crept into Indian and Vedic culture. The educational criteria of Vedic culture also changed and the teaching of the divinity of motherhood was almost lost. The teaching changed from emphasis on the development of individual self-reliance to dependence on and service to others. Thus, competition replaced the pursuit for truth, and selfishness and possessiveness replaced the spirit of renunciation and detachment. And gradually women were viewed as less divine and more as objects of gratification or property to be possessed and controlled, or even exploited.

    This is the result of a rakshasic or demoniac cultural influence, which still continues to grow as materialism expands in society. Money and sensual gratification have become major goals in life, though they alone cannot give us peace or contentment. Instead they cause us to develop more desires in the hopes of finding fulfillment while leaving us feeling hollow and ever-more restless without knowing why.

    Mahatma Gandhi once wrote that the way we treat our women is an indicator of our barbarism. Whereas men may have greater physical energy than women, the latter clearly have more internal and emotional energy. It is not without reason then that women are identified with shakti in Vedic civilization. If women are kept suppressed, this shakti will be denied to the family and the society, thus weakening all of them.


    The nature of motherhood of women was always stressed in Vedic India. After all, we often find them to be the foundation of family life and of raising the children properly. They usually provide the love and understanding and nurturing for the development of our children in a way that is unlikely from most men.

    Bhishma Pitamaha also said: “The teacher who teaches true knowledge is more important than ten instructors. The father is more important than ten such teachers of true knowledge and the mother is more important than ten such fathers. There is no greater guru than mother.” (Mahabharata, Shantiparva, 30.9)
    In ancient India the Sanskrit words used by the husband for the wife were Pathni (the one who leads the husband through life), Dharmapathni (the one who guides the husband in dharma) and Sahadharmacharini (one who moves with the husband on the path of dharma–righteousness and duty). This is how ancient Vedic culture viewed the partnership of husband and wife.

    When a husband and wife are willing to be flexible to each other’s needs and move forward in love and mutual understanding, the relationship can go beyond equality to one of spiritual union. This means that each one appreciates the talents of the other, and views the other as complimenting what each one already has. This also makes up for the weaknesses or deficiencies of the other. In this way, each can provide support, encouragement and inspiration to the other. This ideal can only be achieved when they properly understand the principles of spirituality. It is also said that where the husband and wife get along well, Lakshmi Devi (the goddess of fortune) Herself dwells in that house.


  13. Recently, a new lesbian friend of mine, who is 73 years old, started crying. We had gotten to know each other very slowly at a cafe where we happened to meet accidently. Each Monday, late in the day, I’d go over to the cafe to chat with a woman who gradually became a dear friend. It took her a very long time to come out to me, she was from a generation of women who weren’t even in a lesbian community. She’d had many partners, had a good career, but found herself very alone. I liked her because she was kind, I liked her sense of great physical affection. And then one day a health crisis hit, that she’s dealing with.

    For decades she had enjoyed life, had a circle of lesbian friends that she did things with, but as a result of this health crisis she told me that she couldn’t stand to hear the meaningless conversations of her peers, she grew to hate the ex-hetero women who were ALWAYS talking about their grandchildren and children and making sure they ALWAYS mentioned that they had an ex-husband.

    I think we bonded in our mutual hatred of anything having to do with het family values or ex-het lesbians who never really get a clue most of the time. I was enchanted with my 73 year old friend because she had NEVER married a man and had never had a sexual relationship with any man. Believe me, there is a difference energetically, something special in the women I meet like this.

    But she was crying, she said she was “starved for substance,” in pain over the babbling meaninglessmess of her friends. I am not for everybody, that is for sure, but one thing I stand for is a radical relentless seriousness. I love the passionate connection I feel with my lesbian sisters, and I find this passionate love here and there. These women are not part of the big happy LGBT family, they did not have this. She knew nothing about lesbian feminism or the women’s movement or anything, she voted for Ronald Reagan, completely didn’t know about the AIDS epidemic. She had a small world with her partners and all their friends were gay men who they had loads of fun with. But they never got AIDS apparently, or they hid it from her.

    What am I getting at here? I am getting at an old woman, who is alone, who loves roses, who holds my hand when we walk to the car. And she cries and I am with her during this huge scary medical crisis, and I tell her, that she can say anything she wants to say to me, that I will hold her words in the greatest serious communion. We don’t have the luxury of superficiality. I find I must step up and say things I am very shy about saying to women. It is hard. I am completely in love with her, a different kind of love, it is the love of someone who woke up recently, someone who actually respects my very radical opinions, who finds when I share my mind no holds barred that it gives her what she so longs for, serious substance.

    She invited me to her church recently, but I told her politely that I hate listening to men give sermons, and that I actually hate churches, really hate them, liberal churches, I hate the fakeness. She was shocked when I told her that I hated to listen to men, was so sick of their conversation, found them useless to my sense of liberation. All of this stunned her, and yet she responded to my truth, my lack of sugar coating. I fear that she might not live much longer, and that time is running out, and she is very scared to have to make complex medical choices. I felt that now was the time to say how much I loved her, that she could cry with me, that I could cry with her. Do we have a place in the world for this intense communiton between lesbians my age, and my beloved women who are in their 70s and 80s now?

    The words that never het, lifelong lesbians say to one another constitute holy text for me, and this consciousness comes to me, and enables me to wander into strange cafes and meet strangers, I see these women, I know my lesbian sisters very quickly, their bright eyes, their delightfully short gray hair, they have this physical strength, this physicality of the uncolonized female body. I can’t explain this actually, but women who never have sex with men are powerful, we should celebrate every woman who is this, we are rare. This gives us some kind of power that we discover, I feel I am finding this, and it is such a relief, because then the holy books disappear, the hetero oppressive culture goes away, and I feel time is running out for these women in their 70s, who lived in an oppressive lesbian hating world that I can’t even begin to imagine.

    So she reaches out and holds my hand as we walk to the car, she is unafraid to do this, and she has no fear. She has asked me to be a person who speaks in substance, who can hear her pain and suffering, I am a stranger, and now, she longs for truth, unvarnished serious truth, and no patriarchal society will ever care about this. Nope, and even I notice that she is far braver than I am, because I never would have been able to reach out for her hand first.



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