Should Sexual Misconduct of Theologians or Sexism in Their Writings Affect Evaluation of Their Theologies: What Consitutes Complicity in the Rendering of Woman as Sexual Temptress? by Cynthia Garrity-Bond


The accusations made by over seventy women against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein carved out a safe space for other women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against Hollywood elites, namely big name actors who thought their fame translated to consent by unwilling women.

The latest allegations accuse Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct against a then fourteen-year-old year old girl in 1979 when he was thirty-two-years old.  This week, fifty Alabama pastors signed a letter of endorsement for Moore, citing his unwavering biblical commitment to marriage between one woman and one man and anti-reproductive rights for women—all couched within the troupe of “religious freedom.”

For me, the Ray Moore scandal is especially noteworthy due to its theological underpinnings. How is it  37% of Alabama Evangelicals are more likely to vote for Moore since his sexual misconduct surfaced despite growing condemnation from their own Republican party? In his support for Moore, Jerry Falwell, Jr. states:

It comes down to a question of who is more credible in the eyes of the voters—the candidate or the accuser, and I believe the judge is telling the truth.

Bingo! Here, Falwell captures the true essence of the debate—women, i.e. the accusers, cannot be trusted.  Both lay Evangelicals and tordained pastors endorse a theological view of women as temptresess.  While volumes can and have been written about men and their sexual predatory behavior, I cannot help but wonder how the writings and behavior of  “Church Fathers” and/or contemporary theologians contribute to a particular strain of emphasis on a theology-below-the-waist that subordinates and even abuses women.

In examining a theologian’s life, Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at Baylor, asks an important question, “If there’s something negative in their life story (as a theologian) should that affect how we value their intellectual contributions?”

Take for example Augustine, who is counted as the Church Father.  While any scholar of Augustine would insist on placing him within a contextual timeline, i.e. early Augustine, middle or late, his writings on women, especially as they pertain to her standing before God or imago dei, directly contributed to women’s secondary status from a theological perspective.  With emphasis on her bodily manifestation as matter, divorced from any spiritual or intellectual capacity via her will, women have a utilitarian function limited to reproduction. Augustine’s writings can have a negative influence on pastors.  How much misogyny is passed down and endorsed based on the sexist writings of Augustine?

More recently, the life of prominent Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and his alleged sexual misconduct of female students at Union Theological Seminary begs the same inquiry as Augustine.  After his death, his wife Hannah wrote From Time to Time, an account of Tillich’s own struggles with his shifting understanding of God in the wake of WWI and beyond.  Apart from this self-inquiry, the text reveals Paul Tillich’s troubled marriage and numerous adulterous affairs. Critics of Hannah see her as a troubled and jealous women who envied her husband’s popularity as well as pointing to the seeming contradiction of opposing his affairs while having an open marriage.  I understand the latter critique, but it’s a false equivalency to use it to shield Paul Tillich from condemnation for his sexual misconduct with students.  Using his fame and power to abuse women places him in the same categories as those figures recently accused of sexual abuse, who feel their positions of privilege or even their XY chromosomes entitle them to abuse and mistreat women.  So the question remains, do we treat the writings of Tillich differently given his sexual misconduct?

Finally I include the life and writings of 20th century Mennonite and pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, accused of harassing and assaulting as many as one hundred women (yes, 100!) students during his twenty-four years as professor.  In “Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Rachel Waltner Goossen recounts Yoder’s desire to develop a new sexual ethic housed under a broader theme of a messianic eschatology  “including the idea that intimate physical contact was an appropriate expression of non erotic Christian love, and asked select female students to help.” “Research” included fondling, oral sex and when necessary—intercourse.  Additionally, Yoder’s eschatology advocates separation of church and state whereby the church is free to establish its own norms and practices absent state laws, for example sexual misconduct.

In my own theological study I raised similar questions after my reading of Augustine and certain Church Fathers. How do I reconcile their sexist theology with the rest of their corpus of writings? Are their views (sometimes held to be matters of doctrine) combatable with the full, theological imago dei of women and if not, why are they still being studied ?  When I raised my discomfort in the valorizing of certain writers and writings, I was met with equal discomfort and ambiguity. Do we throw the errant, sexist theologian out with the bath water? When it comes to Augustine (on whom I have done the most reading and research), I continue to find fault lines with him, particularly when it comes to human sexuality and women.  In Judith Stark’s Introduction to Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, she too wrestles with how Augustine’s legacy is to be understood:

If Augustine should be understood in the context of his times, does stance exonerate him from the charge that he provided powerful legitimation for the subordination of women in Western culture?

Where does this leave the feminist reader when evaluating the work of theologians who have written, as is the case of Augustine on the subordination of women, or have practiced sexual misconduct, as is the case of Tillich and Yoder?  Do we completely dismiss their work, or is there another option to this theological quagmire?  According to Stark, there are consequences to abandoning contested writings or theologians.  If ignored, feminist interpretation of their work is left out of mainstream philosophy and Christian thought.  I agree, to a point.

I believe the weight of an accused theologian’s sexual charges must be brought to the foreground before, during and after examination of their writings.  Using a hermeneutics of suspicion let the student wrestle with the weight of said theologian and their sexual misconduct.  Absent a full disclosure and examination, only a false exegesis is given.  How would this rendering influence practical theology in seminaries?

By naming the sin of sexual abuse and sexism, how might this affect the behavior of future ministers or pastors?  For too long the church and theological institutions have been complicit in either ignoring problematic writings that promote the second-class standing of women as sexually suspect, or are complicit (as in the case of Yoder) in the theologian’s sexual abuse of women.  If we ignore theologians views of women, we will continue to see the manifestation of bad theology in the likes of Evangelicals like Roy Moore and those pastors who support him theologically.

 

Cynthia Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, transnational feminism, animal theology/welfare, women and incarceration, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment and Mariology.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, General, Sexism, Sexual Ethics

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18 replies

  1. Yes this is a discussion that continues to be avoided–perhaps because to seriously engage in it could lead to throwing the baby out with the bath water–namely to realizing that theologians’ thinking about women is related to flaws in their theologies as a whole. For example, as I showed years ago, Barth’s view of the relation of women to men is structurally similar to his view of “man’s” relation to God. If one is wrong, what about the other?

    Barth too held the view that “God” could command someone to go against “man’s” laws, a view that excused his (polygamous?) “relationships” with his wife and secretary.

    Of course in fundamentalist contexts theologians’ views on women would not be ignored, they would be endorsed. This is a different problem.

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    • Yes, Barth’s anthropology is inline with all the other male theologians who are considered top reads in systematic courses. If you were teaching a systematic course Carol, how would you address this dilemma? Thanks for your valuable and tested response.

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      • I would criticize a theology based on “love patriarchalism” or “domination with love.” I would advocate for the views he criticizes, namely that there is no such thing as revelation that does not come through human subjects; and that a theology that is based solely or primarily on obedience to the divine will is flawed and dangerous. I would criticize his view of God as a tyrant, this as Hartshorne said is not the highest view of God we can imagine, nor is it the only way to interpret the Bible.I would point out that Barth the man was deeply flawed in his own relationships with women–no doubt deeply hurting his wife and his secretary, not divorcing perhaps for the sake of his career.I would ask why Charlotte von Kirschbaum was not acknowledged as co-author or encouraged to pursue her own career as a theologian. I would also contrast his views with the “better” views of say Rahner and Hartshorne and of course feminist theologians! I would assign Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes.

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  2. Great thought-provoking post, Cynthia. What do we do with theologies that go against basic decency–at least what we think is basic decency since conceptions change over time? We struggle with the same kind of thing when we look at some of our “founding fathers.” Jefferson, for example, owned slaves. Does that mean his thinking about government should be ignored? Leila Ahmed, Egyptian American author on Islam and Islamic feminism as well as professor at Harvard, talks about how our ideas of justice change over time. We (humanity) are constantly evolving. It’s why, she notes, we need amendments to the Constitution. What’s considered good and just in one epoch of history is not considered good and just in another. She speaks (and writes) that since our ideas of justice change over time, we need to understand our sacred texts differently as well. We do seem to be at a point right now where many of us (enough it seems to finally have an impact) are done with misogynistic interpretations of our Scriptures. Moving forward is always messy.

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    • a flood of memories of majoring in religion at Duke 1963, reading the “big” theologians, male of course,
      liking the smallness of the classes, the kindness of the professors, the effort of fellow students–but looking back on theological discourse, my response is to reject the theology of ANY person or institution that sanctioned the diminishment of females as equals in God’s eyes….I reject the behaviors of abuse, lying, exploitation in these theologians-after all their theology is their thinking about god, not a direct revelation from god to man. I have concluded so far that “thinking” comes from the mind-body as a unitified espression. This means means that the writer’s bodily experiences of love, sex, exploitation, an victimization all participate in their thinking about god, and their development of a theology cannot be separate from their experiences…this subtle permission that theology gives to the abuse of women, the abuse of children, the enslavement of peoples, the destruction of creation all reside within the same flawed moral framework. Just as we reject the abuse of politicians, we can reject the implied permission for abuse given by theologians and the church institutions…I don’t think it is a legal or political argument. I think it is a “first-principles” or “underlying assumptions” argument, or as Michael Polanyi wrote in those days in Personal Knowledge and Merleau-Ponty espoused in The Phenomenology of Perception…our physical and bodily experiences are part of our thinking, part of our imagination, and therefore cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the type of thinking a person generates. This includes theology, which is “thought, speculation, imagination, interpretation” about god. It is not revelation. …. In conclusion I reject any theology written by a professor who has used his/her power and status to dominate and intimidate and abuse (even through seductive persuasion) others. I am fine with “throwing the baby out with the bath-water.”

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    • Excellent response, beginning with T Jefferson. Do you know where in Leila Ahmed’s career she has written about our shift in conscience? I know in Boarder Passages she is against the wearing of the hijab, but later writes endorsing it. Thank you!

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      • I heard Leila on an NPR podcast some years ago talking about our (humanity’s) changing conception of what justice means. (I tried to pull it up and found it was “archived.”) There may be a way to resurrect it? Will have to see. Regarding hijab: Yes, in A BORDER PASSAGE, Leila talks about hijab as something she and her family (as well as those women in the circles where she lived) did not wear hijab. It seems that it wasn’t necessarily something she was “against,” just not something that was done in her social circle. Her more recent book, A QUIET REVOLUTION, talks about her trip back to Egypt where she found so many women, including (especially) younger women, taking the hijab. Leila says wearing hijab for many of these women signified their right to be in the public space and active within the public sphere. Whereas, she notes, for her mother’s generation (largely), the hijab meant being “closed off.” Since hijab is a symbol, the hijab means what we (humans) inculcate into that object.

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  3. All the Abrahamic religions further patriarchy which causes these views toward women. As long as people follow them, the mistreatment of women will continue.

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    • You know for so long I tried to dodge this crucial fact, crafting my faith through a feminist lens that still allowed for some tradition. It’s a bit like decolonizing the self, painful and difficult to release. Thank you for your insight.

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  4. If these theologians–even the famous ones–continue to denigrate and abuse women (but seldom boys??) and see women only as temptresses, that makes me think their god is not anyone I can worship. And I don’t want to honor–or even pay attention to–men like Jerry Fallwell (either dead father or morally dead son). Sigh.

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    • I think they continue to denigrate women but do it in a more creative manner. And yes, Jerry Falwell, someone who deserves no respect. Thank you for your comment and wisdom!

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  5. When the underpinnings of one’s theology are basically patriarchal, one should probably expect this kind of thing to happen.

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    • I can agree with you now–but this affirmation took me too long to come to terms with. There is a bit of a feeling of loss and where do I go from here when you wake up to this reality. Thank you for your investment.

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  6. I would think that a theologian’s attitude and actions toward women reveals his attitude to the rest of life as well. So it would influence my interpretation of his/her writings. We are always interpreting, examining, accepting or rejecting, moving along and getting new insights, aren’t we?

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  7. This is what I tried to convey in my classes but it fell on deaf ears. Yes, always in process, trying to find a safe and informed place to land.

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  8. This is an important conversation. Thank you for writing this piece. Is it possible to fix the typos?

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  9. I doubt that Ray Moore or the Evangelicals in Alabama supporting him pay much attention to the writings of Tillich, Barth, Yoder, or even Augustine. My sense of these folks is that they are so unselfreflective that they don’t have a clue as to the real source of their attitudes and values. They are “All we need is the Bible; don’t need no theology” people, who consistently read into scripture their patriarchal, racial, and judgmental values, even when they are not there in the original.

    But the question is really posed to those of us who are in denominations where Tillich, Yoder, Barth, and Augustine are read and taken seriously. As someone who has been engaged directly in implementing sexual misconduct policies and removing offenders, I think we must approach these peoples writings with the greatest of suspicion. Just as I can no longer watch a Woody Allen movie without being creeped out by the characters and relations he is creating, or wonder to what extent Kevin Spacey was channeling his own entitlement into Richard III and Frank Underwood, so I cannot read these theologians without being painfully aware of their attitude towards women. As John Egan SJ taught me at Regis College Toronto three decades ago, anthropology is also theology, and what we think about human beings has implications for how we think about the divine. The valorization of the male and the categorization of the female as either a Jezebel or a Virgin Mary is destructive and harmful. “Do we throw the errant, sexist theologian out with the bath water?” Well, maybe not, but we do need to subject them to a critical analysis from a feminist and post-colonial perspective. Then we need to move on to prevention, safety, and lifting up intellectual and social processes that emancipate and empower. These abusive theologians are without doubt part of our history and legacy; this does not mean that they need to be determinative for the future.

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