DO RELIGIONS HAVE AN “ESSENTIAL” “CENTRAL” CORE THAT IS–OR IS NOT–SEXIST? by Carol P. Christ


Carol Eftalou - Michael HonnegerThough 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.

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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15 replies

  1. Thank you for this Carol. Yes, “adding “feminist” in front of these terms changes their meanings”, and doing so helps for any “liberating” discourse on any religion or religious group.

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  2. These are all very excellent points; thank you.

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  3. Excellent post, Carol.

    “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.” Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), an Egyptian scholar, was labeled a heretic and had to flee Egypt for asserting just that. He said there are two dimensions to the Qur’an–divine and human–and we only have access to the human dimension. “We are not divine.” He further noted that Muslims “believe” their sacred text exists in some divine realm, but have no access to anything but the Qur’an that exists in the material world.

    Another difficulty Nasr noted is that there is a huge gap between the work of scholars and “people in the street.” Some of his work was about closing that gap.

    Look forward to reading the new book you and Judith have written.

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    • You are right that the situation is different in the Islamic world–in terms of general acceptance of the idea that texts–even allegedly revealed texts–are written from and must be interpreted from standpoints.

      However, the point remains valid, that different groups within Islam have different ideas about what the central or essential meaning of Islam is.

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  4. Found something that could also help muddle the ‘sexism core’ debate i.e. religion as facilitating resource allocation, an article by Nicolas Baumard and Coralie Cehvalier in the Royal Society Proceedings;

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1818/20151593

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  5. Thanks for this, Carol. I was taught that in reading Scripture, the community that wrote it, the community for which it was written, and the community in the present, are all important. But it’s easy to forget sometimes.

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  6. It would seem then, that in any sacred text, one could find what one wants to, (if one looks hard enough). And that can be a positive thing or not. I wonder though, how many people stay in communities where they do not share generally accepted interpretations, but enjoy the community (or cannot escape it), and keep their *heretical* opinions to themselves. My guess is that the number is substantial.

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    • There is a marvelous variation of Paganism in Japan, that is, their indigenous religion, dating back to prehistoric times, and which is still worshiped, called Shinto (pronounced shindo). Just about everything has a god or goddess to pray to in order to protect it. There are thousands of these deities — just a few examples here, collected at random —

      Ame-No-Mi-Kumari—Water goddess.
      Benten —Goddess of love, the arts, wisdom, poetry, good fortune.
      Chimata-no-kami —God of crossroads, highways and footpaths.
      Funadama —The boat-spirit, goddess who protects and helps mariners and fishermen.
      Haniyasu-hime—Goddess of the earth.
      Inari—Both a male and female deity, god/goddess of rice and agriculture.
      Isora—God of the seashore.
      Izanag—Primordial god of the sky and the creator of everything good and right.
      Jinushigami—Minor deity who watches over a town or plot of land.
      Kuni-Toko-tachi—Earth deity who lives in Mt. Fuji.
      Kura-Okam—God of rain and snow.
      Marisha-Ten—Queen of heaven, goddess of the light, sun and moon.
      Mawaya-no-kami—Kami, or deity of the toilet
      Miyazu-Hime —Goddess of royalty.
      Tatsuta-hime—Goddess of autumn.
      Yamato—The soul or spirit of Japan.
      Yuki-Onna—The Snow Queen or goddess of winter.

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  7. As usual, brava! It’s always so nice to read a balanced, reasonable post. (Many of the posts on this site are of course balanced, reasonable, and totally cool. Which is why I come here every morning.)

    I agree that religious revelation comes to us through our individual mental sieves (so to speak) and people can argue from at least 360 different angles about what that revelation means. Any given revelation probably has its own shade of meaning, that is, to everyone who hears it……..unless the hearer is totally dominated by a teacher with a strong agenda. Such teachers no doubt infest all religions.

    Even ours. Thanks for referring to the cool discussion about paganism that followed my last post. I love it when the larger community speaks up!

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  8. Thank you, Carol, for this important set of reflections. I am mostly in agreement but also worry, with my colleague Aysha Hidayatullah and others, that the text(s) we accept as revelation, especially for Muslims, cannot be interpreted to mean what we would like them to mean with no boundaries for those meanings. And, what if what we call sexism is in fact God’s intent?

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    • Thanks Julianne. I think there is a difference between recognizing a standpoint and anything goes in terms of interpretation.

      In regard to your last question: How do we know God’s intent? Are you suggesting that God wrote the scriptures with no human standpoint involved? Even if that were true, how could we ever be sure that we (who surely have standpoints) interpreted/understood a particular text correctly? And if one part of scripture seems to contradict another, how do we decide which text should have precedence over the other?

      Or did you mean what if what we call sexism does indeed appear to be the meaning intended by certain texts in scripture? If that is what you mean, I agree with you.

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      • On God’s sexism: women critics of those who cite scriptures to “prove” God’s sexism often respond that “a loving and just God could not possibly decree the subordination of one sex to the other.” In this case, the idea that God is loving and just is learned from scripture and then scripture is read against itself. While those making such a move generally point to the sexist standpoint of the sexist authors and interpreters of certain texts, they do not always acknowledge that they too have a standpoint: namely they too are choosing which texts to foreground and which to ignore or background.

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      • If I understand her point correctly, I agree with Aysha Hidayatullah that parts of scriptures may be/are indeed sexist, and that first generation scholars’ efforts to reinterpret them so they are not sexist, in order to prove that the Qur’an itself is not sexist is doomed to failure/wrong/based on defending the notion of the authority of scripture.

        The position I am presenting is that “even if” parts of scriptures “really are” sexist, or appear to us to be really sexist, one is still presented with the question of choice: to work to transform traditions or to leave them.

        In addition, I am criticizing Christian liberation theology insofar as it asserts that there is an evident liberating “core” in Christian scripture and/or tradition by which the rest of scripture/tradition can be justified. I pointed out years ago that “the prophets” may call for “justice for the poor” but they do so in the name of a “God of war” who (in my opinion) should not be called a liberator if one of the things human beings need liberating from is a warrior mentality. But even if the prophets were presenting a liberating paradigm, we would still have to ask by what criterion are their words used to judge other parts of scripture? In my opinion, the answer cannot be “revelation” but must be that certain communities within Christianity (or Judaism) find these texts to be more central/revelatory than other parts of scripture.

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  9. I saved this to read after first semester of school was completed which occurred today–I am a teacher. Once upon a time, I studied comparative religion and philosophy and lately started working on a book of poems about ancient goddess practices and what happened to humanity when they were overcome and/or driven underground. Modern religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, are destroying Earth. Hinduism as practiced is no better. Religion and culture are inseparable. If we humans continue current behaviors, we are doomed.

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