The Emergence of Feminist Theology: Remembering our Roots by Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ


Goddess and God in the World final cover designThis blog is an excerpt from our new book Goddess and God in the World which will be published by Fortress Press in just one week — on August 1. As we look forward to its release, we remember the critical works that started us on a journey of discovery that continues to unfold. In a jointly written chapter, we describe the beginnings of feminist theology.

Feminism was welling up from under during [the late 1960s]. We became feminists early in graduate school but did not discover feminist theology until we were preparing for our comprehensive exams. As Judith was later to write, feminism placed a question mark over absolutely everything for us: the maleness of God, the male authorship of the Bible, and the male perspectives from which virtually all theologies had been written. Three key essays set the stage for future work in the field, including our own. We have already mentioned these essays, but it is important to address the challenges they posed to traditional theology, and our own responses to them, in more detail here.

Valerie Saiving (Goldstein’s) groundbreaking essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” (1960) argued that the Neo-orthodox identification of sin with prideful self-assertion was based on masculine or male experience and ignored the female or feminine sin of self-negation. Men, Saiving suggested, need to undergo a complex and challenging process of differentiation from the mother by repeatedly proving their masculinity, while women grow to be women naturally, through the physical maturation of their bodies. The temptations of women thus have a different character than those of men and are better captured by terms such as triviality, distractibility, and dependence on others rather than pride. Judith challenged Saiving’s understanding of what constitutes “masculine” or “male” and “feminine” or “female” experience in her dissertation, insisting that the experiences of women are not the same in all times and places, but are rooted in specific situations, cultures, and histories. Nonetheless, the notion that the experience of the theologian matters and that gender matters in the construction of theology came to us as a revelation. Both of us have continued to assert that theology must be rooted in human experience, including the particular experiences of women in differing cultural situations.

The lecture Rosemary Radford Ruether delivered when we brought her to Yale Divinity School was later published as “Motherearth and the Megamachine” (1972). In it, Ruether explained that classical Greek thought, which became the foundation of Western theology, had separated mind from body, creating a set of oppositions that included rational and irrational, soul and body, spirit and nature, male and female. In each case, women were identified with the despised and subordinated side of the polarizations. “Man” was rational, spiritual, and able to transcend the body and nature, while “woman” was defined by her connections to the body and nature, and had a lesser rational capacity than man. These dualisms were encapsulated in the traditional opposition between “transcendence” and “immanence.” “Transcendence” refers to pure thought or pure spirit imagined to exist alone without dependence on the body, nature, or relationships with anything other than itself. “Immanence” refers to views in which the self and the world are understood through the body, nature, and relationships of interdependence. God has generally been understood to transcend the world, and men have been seen as capable of transcendence through rational thinking, while women have been understood to be trapped in immanence, mired in the body and nature. Ruether argued that women’s liberation would require the transformation of classical dualisms and a reintegration of the separated.

Ruether’s analysis provided support for our conviction that mind and body are connected and that the experiences of the body must become a resource for theology. It validated Carol’s insight that traditional theological ideas about the relation of women to men and the relation of body to mind are connected and confirmed her conviction that theologians must reexamine traditional ideas about the relation of God and human beings to nature. For Judith, Ruether’s talk shed light on the messages she had received about being too smart for a girl and encouraged her to explore the history of attitudes toward the body in Jewish, Christian, and feminist thought. Our recognition of the need to transform all of the classical dualisms in a new understanding of the relation of reason and feeling, mind and body, humanity and nature, transcendence and immanence, would be central to all of our future work.

In “After the Death of God the Father,” Mary Daly argued that the God who had been proclaimed “dead” by male theologians was the male God modeled on images of male power and authority. The traditional picture of God, Daly said, glorified the qualities of “hyper-rationality, ‘objectivity,’ aggressivity, the possession of dominating and manipulative attitudes toward persons and environment, and the tendency to construct boundaries between the self (and those identified with the self) and others.” Daly drew a strong connection between this understanding of God and the subordination and oppression of women, for “if God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated.” Daly did not believe “the real” God was dead; rather, she predicted that, with the liberation of women, new and more authentic images and conceptions of God would emerge. This essay supported and clarified our nascent sense that a male God created by male theologians supported male domination and our conviction that the insights of women’s liberation had the power to change the world. In time, we would reject the image of God as a dominating male other and the conceptions of God that followed from such images, including notions of God’s transcendence, omnipotence, and omniscience, and we would develop new understandings of God rooted in our experiences as feminists.

These essays raised questions that we, along with many others, are still pondering today. How should we understand and evaluate theological traditions that were created almost exclusively by men? How would theologies written by women and informed by our experiences be different? Should we continue to participate in traditions that subordinated women and defined God as a dominating male other? Can traditions change, and are there limits to the changes that are possible?

The essays by Valerie Saving, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Mary Daly can be found in Womanspirit Rising.

Ask for a review copy (for blog or print) or exam or desk copy. 

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carol p. christ photo michael bakas

Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow are co-authors of Goddess and God in the World and co-editors of Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Judith wrote the first Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai, while Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess. Judith is co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Carol leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Order their new book now.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Theology, Goddess feminism, Jewish Feminism

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19 replies

  1. Look forward to receiving my copy on order at Amazon!

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  2. Congratulations on the forthcoming book. The cover is gorgeous! I am pre-ordering today!

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  3. It’s a good book. I reviewed it for SageWoman, though I’m not sure when the review will be published. I recommend this book to everyone on this list….and you all can recommend it to your friends.

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  4. CONGRATULATIONS. You can be sure that I will be ordering this book. Process philosophy supports the way I live my life and it re – affirms how critical it is to continue to ask the questions that are threaded through this perspective… How grateful I am to have found feminist theology.

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  5. A fine essay and a great question, Carol: “Should we continue to participate in traditions that subordinated women and defined God as a dominating male other?”

    In our era, I think the environmental movement and nature-based spirituality, including eco-feminist spirituality, are profoundly liberating. In ancient times, and throughout Eastern spirituality, Nature was worshiped not as an overpowering deity but as the way of the seasons and the natural cycles of our lives, including the inherent goodness of all existence. Likewise following the teachings of nature itself, that is, the way nature does things, so effortlessly, can become our scripture. And the same is true of our everyday activities — our presence so delightful, when simply abiding in the here and now. The great Chinese woman mystic and nature poet, Sun Bu-er, (12th c) says:

    “Wash the yellow sprouts clean,
    And atop the mountain
    Is thunder shaking the earth.”

    (quote from IMMORTAL SISTERS: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, p.31, ed. by Thomas Cleary)

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  6. “Should we continue to participate in traditions that subordinated women and defined God as a dominating male other? Can traditions change, and are there limits to the changes that are possible?”

    Thank you so much for this, Carol. While I mostly identify as following a nature-spirituality path, I have strong connections with the mystical Christian tradition and have close ties with an Episcopal convent whose sisters have a progressive view of their tradition, of God, and of gender. That said, I’ve struggled for years to articulate (and understand?) how I feel about attempts at feminist and anti-colonial/anti-imperial shifts from within. I look forward to reading your book.

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  7. Look forward to reading “Goddess and God in the World.” And will order it as soon as it is available. Sounds fascinating.

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  8. I so look forward to reading the new book! And I believe it’s particularly important that we teach, validate and embrace our roots in all aspects of our feminisms. It seems that there is much confusion and misinformation being deployed in service to many agendas and emerging from multiple locations claiming to represent liberation for women. Whether this is unconscious or intentional, I believe it’s critical that those of us moving into our elder years, (having lived long enough to have experienced macro-patterns in social justice movements), embody our role as wisdom keepers, as healers, and give strong voice to our roots in order to offer teachings and clarity during these declining years of patriarchal empire. Thank you both for your brilliant and loving activism (in all its forms), Carol and Judith, and for illuminating the way forward as we seek to make a better world through these incredibly challenging times.

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  9. I read Mary Daly’s _Beyond God the Father_ (which included the essay excerpted for _Womanspirit Rising_) when it came out. But I’m sure I read the other two essays in Womanspirit Rising. Thank you (and Judith) for publishing them for all of us who were thinking about these things at the time.

    I look forward to your newest book with great anticipation! Yay! for all of us. And congrats, Judith Shaw, for the beautiful cover.

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    • Actually Daly left the church b/w the essay and the book, though of course the one led to the other. The change in Daly’s view of the church led Rosemary Ruether to write a very negative review of the book, as it turned out.

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      • Its difficult in 2016 to see Mary Daly quoted with no acknowledgment given to the deeply bigoted and problematic aspects that characterize her work. I was so excited when I saw this book then I have to wonder if it is just more of the same biological determinism that has been creating unsafe spaces for marginalized women for decades. I cant support a feminist spirituality that does not value *all* women. I *really* do want to support and celebrate it but not if its just another tool of hate.

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      • Though she is often read as an essentialist (biological determinist), Daly did not believe “women” will save the world. She was not at all sympathetic to women supporters of patriarchy. Daly believed that women seeking liberation could create “new being” that cannot and does not exist apart from the struggle for liberation.

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      • Judith and I have many disagreements with Mary Daly, but this does not negate the important impact her early work had on our lives and our work.

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  10. I’m so thrilled at the publication of this book, which I have already pre-ordered! As excited as I am at the anticipation of be engaged by the theological, political, social, and spiritual insights, I am just as delighted that you have chosen dialogue as the frame for the book. Conversation, asking one another questions and respectfully listening to the answers, truly listening and hearing each other’s life experiences, thoughts, and ideas — these are the ways we enlighten and enliven one another, add to each other’s wisdom, and grow as a feminist spiritual community. Congratulations!

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  11. Congratulations! I look forward to reading the book, and am grateful for the clarity and eloquence of you and Judith Plaskow in the world.

    I remember when I first encountered the word “immanence” in “The Spiral Dance” by Starhawk. It was such a revelation to me, a single word that shattered a paradigm for me and offered a new way to look at my experience and sense of the divine.

    Wishing you great success.

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  12. I am interested in this dualism, emerging in interpretive stances such as those done by Psychoanalysis. The ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ boundaries are now being transcended in the higher order of emergence of the true self.
    I find it so interesting at how masculine ‘transcendence’ became a pervasive force even dominating the functions of the female body, then becoming violent in the environment and ‘killing god’ without consciousness.
    Is this ruination done from the position of envy? A spoiling of the good object because it cannot be possessed?

    Enkosi,
    Bertrand Leopeng

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