Though often asked, this is the wrong question. Every statement about the “essential” or “central” teaching of any religion is based on a prior interpretation rooted in a particular standpoint. Thus, the idea that there is a “central” or “essential” core in any religion is not a matter of fact, but rather a matter of interpretation.
In discussions of religions, we often make global statements about our own and other religious traditions, such as: “Christianity is patriarchal to its core,” or alternatively, “The core teaching of Christianity is to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Or: “The true Islam teaches that God is love,” or alternatively, “Islam always teaches the subordination of women.”
These sorts of claims are made from time to time here on Feminism and Religion too. Every global statement that a particular religion “is” or “ is not” oppressive, calls someone to assert the opposite in the comments. I believe that statements about the “true” nature of any religion should should always be qualified.
Rather than stating that Christianity “has” “a liberating core,” for example, it could be said: “liberation theology finds a liberating core in the Bible against which it judges other parts of the Bible and tradition; while recognizing that the notion of a liberating core is itself a matter of interpretation, I choose to stand with them. My purpose is not to prove that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation, but rather to stand with those who call Christians to become a liberating community in our time.”
In the first decades of the study of women and religion, a lively debate was carried on the question of whether or not Christianity and Judaism were or are “essentially sexist.” In this discussion Mary Daly alleged that the non-sexist portions of the Bible would make a small pamphlet, while Rosemary Radford Ruether and others insisted that the prophetic tradition and the teachings of Jesus formed a core of true revelation against which the sexist and other oppressive parts of the Bible should be judged.
While deciding whether to stay or to leave the traditions of our birth, my friends and colleagues and I engaged in this debate. In this context, Judith Plaskow and I were criticized for dividing feminists into the categories of “reformist” or “revolutionary” in our book Womanspirit Rising. Some Christian feminists asserted that they were not working simply to reform their traditions but to transform them. They claimed that their work was every bit as revolutionary as that of those who had left the church.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza added a new dimension to this debate when she argued that though the texts that form the Christian New Testament had been subjected to patriarchal rewriting and revisioning, “the community of women [later wo/men]” could find a liberating vision within stories that were told about Jesus and the community that formed around him. With this move, Schussler Fiorenza shifted the locus of discussion from “texts and traditions” to “the community or communities that interpret them.”
Schussler Fiorenza has found it necessary to continue to reiterate what is for her the central methodological point because it is often forgotten: religious traditions are always interpreted by individuals and communities. Schussler Fiorenza does not claim that “there is” an “essential core” in the Bible or tradition that is liberating. Rather, she states that from the perspective of a community of women seeking liberation, a liberating tradition can be discovered and proclaimed.
From this methodological standpoint, Schussler Fiorenza can also acknowledge that: from the perspective of a male hierarchy that wants to hold onto its power, a hierarchical tradition can found and proclaimed. The correct question is not: who is right? The correct questions are: who is doing the interpreting, and what kind of traditions we wish to create?
In the conclusion to our forthcoming book, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, Judith Plaskow and I state that:
The idea that revelation is always received by finite individuals who interpret it through their own language and cultural constructs has been widely accepted by biblical critics and scholars of religion for more than one hundred years. Yet as we have noted, some progressive religious thinkers, including feminists, have argued that while texts and traditions contain elements that reflect the standpoints of those who wrote or received them, they still have an essential core that can be called revelatory. We reject this notion on the ground that it is impossible to separate an authoritative core from the remainder of scriptures or traditions. The messages people find in sacred texts are affected by their standpoints: different groups within the same tradition often read their canonical texts in conflicting ways, making incompatible claims about what is central. Reflecting on this fact, we have come to understand that individuals in communities are the ones who may or may not find a meaning in inherited texts or traditions and who must make choices about which aspects of tradition to affirm or reject.
This perspective allows Judith to assert that even though she believes that every aspect of Jewish tradition is permeated by sexism, she and the communities within which she situates herself can choose to call attention to aspects of the Jewish tradition that can be woven together into a more inclusive vision of Judaism. This insight also reminds people who have left traditional religions (like me) not to make global statements that any religion is essentially oppressive. (That religions have been oppressive in specific times and places certainly can and should be acknowledged, both by those who work within them and by those who have left them.)
Nor should we assume that new or alternative traditions are always liberating. As a recent discussion in the comments to a post by Oxana Poberejnaia make clear, contemporary “Goddess religion” is not one tradition, but many; and as comments to a post by Barbara Ardinger also elucidate, “paganism,” “Paganism,” and “Neo-Paganism” are terms that have different meanings for different communities. As I noted in my response to both of these posts, adding “feminist” in front of these terms changes their meanings. This was confirmed by Barbara who added, “I’ve known some Very Patriarchal Pagans, including one semi-famous high priest who always made sure his high priestess was a lot younger and less educated than he was. And of course I’ve encountered men who worship the rapists like Ares and Zeus and a bunch of the other old boys.”
Whether we choose to situate ourselves within traditional or alternative religious traditions, we all stand within communities of interpretation in which we choose which aspects of religious traditions we wish to make central. Recognizing this, we should be careful not to make global statements about the “essential” core of any tradition.
Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be released in June 2016 by Fortress Press, while A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published in the spring by FAR Press. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Michael Honegger.