A Feminist Hermeneutic

In Robert Lentz’s icon “Christ Sophia” the second person of the trinity is presented as a dark skinned woman holding a fertility goddess statue[1].  Lentz observes that the mystery of Christ cannot be fully described in masculine terms alone and that within the Eastern traditions of Christian art it was once common to see Christ presented as a somewhat androgynous figure.  S/he (Christ) delights to be among the people, teaching the ways of God and living among them as a source of vision[2].

Feminism is concerned with the liberation of women and men from the oppression of gender hierarchies and stereotypes, and with ensuring equal rights of access by women and men to social and economic resources.  To view Christ in a female shape is not the ends of a means called “feminism”, yet when a feminist hermeneutic incorporates the work of recovering the Sophia Wisdom of God a critique to patriarchal[3] forms of thought is expressed that leads to a renewed focus on the political, social and economic rights of women as imago Dei[4].  Feminist critique makes no claims to objectivity; it is more concerned with relevance than with declarations of an absolute truth[5].  Feminism is a revisionist ideology questioning the adequacy of conceptual structures of male universality[6] and malestream[7] views and seeks to reclaim the lost voices and values of women[8]

It is typical of any feminist perspective that it views gender as a matter of differentiation of power[9], and therefore of social construction, rather than physiology: it begins from the experiences of women and the analysis of those experiences to embrace alternative views and take action.  Feminist hermeneutics shares a paradigm with liberation hermeneutics[10] in that it holds a specific concern for the oppression of women; it is an ideology rather than a method[11].  (That is not to say that it is not methodical, Mujerista[12] Hermeneutics requires of the writer that she share her stories, and then analyse, liturgise (retell the Christian story), and strategise her response.)  The basis of feminist hermeneutics is the work of liberating women and men from malestream readings[13] rather than the delineation of a uniquely-feminine form of exegesis.    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza observes that woman readers might continue to operate within malestream parameters of thought if those parameters are not questioned[14].   The engagement of feminist perspectives within Christian traditions should be troublemaking[15], change oriented and transformation seeking since it looks toward a liberating praxis[16] in the social, political, historical, domestic, familial and personal spheres of women.  A feminist theology will explore the full humanity of women[17] in an authentic and inclusive community based on just relationships; the integrity of creation; the feminine creative principle as life-giving and life-enhancing; the prophetic and alternative voice and action of women in liberation movements; and the solidarity of women among themselves and with others supporting each one’s struggle[18].

In But She Said[19], Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza examines the patriarchal nature of classical Greek democracy and she is credited with developing the concept of “kyriarchy” over against patriarchy: the headship of “lords and masters” in a graded system of subjugation[20] rather than simply of men over women[21].  Kyriarchal structures were the prevailing social forms during the life time of Jesus, the writing of the New Testament, and the formation of the first Christian ecclesia[22].  Schüssler Fiorenza presupposes that since social structures are formed within and shaped by history rather than by divine ordinance or natural anthropological evolution[23] they can be challenged and deconstructed[24] and she recognises that some New Testament writers demonstrated a move toward a better system even as they did not challenge the old one outright. 

Feminist thinking views experience as structural, the personal as political, and the experience of women unable to be restricted to the domestic sphere.  What happens for women in private affects the public sphere[25] such that where a woman is expected to be subservient at home she will be expected (and possibly expecting) to hold a lesser position in social relations[26].  God’s self-revelation to the poor is a gospel of women and girls since it is they more often than men or boys who are the disenfranchised, unemancipated and uneducated in societies[27].  For this reason the Sophia traditions, which value life, creativity, inclusivity and wellbeing in the presence of struggle, are pleasing not only to some feminist theologians but also to some liberationist theologians[28].  Jesus as prophet of Sophia offers a direct challenge towards, and a spur to action against kyriarchic preferences for the elite, the wealthy and the coloniser, however such preferences remain present in the andocentric language of some “racist, bourgeois[29]” feminist discourses according to Schüssler Fiorenza.  The Sophia traditions offer a new language to rearticulate the symbols and names associated with the divine in the context of the reader’s own theologies and experiences[30]

If women have no public voice it is because the voice of women is silenced; it is not correct to suggest that women are or were not speaking[31].  Yet it must be remembered that experience is plural and not all women have the same experience.  Schüssler Fiorenza offers that the placing of a woman according to her differing colour, caste, (lesbian) sexuality, generation, indigeneity, motherhood, education, health, geographical location, and nationality[32] necessarily affects her experience of gender[33].  In the words of Alexander Jensen, feminist hermeneutics has become atomised[34] such that readers must always ask “which women are we talking about” and whether the writers of feminist critique acknowledge their own cultural background and social location if they presume to speak for “all” women[35].  Schüssler Fiorenza is particularly concerned with confronting the andocentric language used for God[36] and humanity[37],[38] in the Biblical text, patriarchal constructs encountered in the text[39] and misogynistic content of the text[40] which leads to the normativity and authority of male forms[41].    Feminist hermeneutics also critiques the definition of the canon and the history of textual interpretation[42], and the denial of access to women as readers[43] and their position as contributors towards the production[44] and interpretation[45] of texts.  Women have always interpreted the Bible, but since they have often done so within the theological and spiritual frameworks set forth by leading male theologians[46] therefore the reading of women cannot be said to be identical with feminist interpretations. 

Feminist hermeneutics points toward the vast cast of women in the Bible who are relatively unknown to many modern readers[47] even though in the period following Pentecost the Church attracted women in great numbers[48].  In taking on a feminist hermeneutic a twenty-first century reader might choose to seek out these women’s stories as material for preaching, and to reconstruct new histories[49] around the stories of women active within the first Christian centuries[50] and among the generic crowds attendant at Biblical events[51].  A hermeneutic of suspicion might lead to a hermeneutic of reclamation and new ways of reading in spite of the patriarchal biases of writers, redactors, interpreters and commentators throughout the history of the text[52].  The reader might seek interpretations from which to preach that release texts from their captivity to misogynist readings and making them applicable for women and men today[53].  Such a Hermeneutic of Remembrance acts to reclaim the subversive memory of oppressive texts[54] and highlight liberating texts.  In looking to recover a different picture of Jesus from beneath layers of patriarchal tradition and reinvention[55] feminist writers acknowledge that what is assumed by many as going without saying must be challenged if women are to be released from the need to meet unattainable and repressive expectations upon them as disciples and ministers of Christ.  Only when such a theological interest in the liberation of women and men is implemented across all intellectual and shared structures can the kyriocentric mindset and structures of domination be transformed.

A word of caution must be inserted here.  Feminist Christology must resist any form of “over-and-against model” of Jesus the feminist since there is a danger of coming across as decidedly anti-Jewish[56], and supersessionist[57].  The earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish women and men following a dream of liberation for every man and woman of Israel[58].  They were not at all “Christian” in the modern sense but were a new form of the basileia (empire, domain, commonwealth) of God over-and-against Roman imperialism and systemic kyriarchy[59], not temple worship or the theology of the Pharisees.  The emancipatory[60] Jesus movement was one among several[61] movements within the variant forms of contiguous Jewish consciousness, and never posted a concerted challenge to the fundamentals of a holistic, orthodox Judaism[62].  Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that it was Jesus’ challenge to the exploitative kyriarchy which saw him executed, not any perceived blasphemy against Jewish theology[63].  In his being crucified Jesus was silenced by the State, not punished by the priesthood, for daring to gather a low caste, discarded, crowd around the idea of a new way of being empire[64].  At the same time the kyriarchal focus on the spiritual or visionary appearances of the resurrected Jesus should be measured against a theology of the empty tomb which releases women and men from the sense that to be Christ-following is to be meek in the face of injustice and oppression.  That Jesus was not found in the tomb is evidence that Jesus lives among the people, not that Jesus is ascended and removed from all but the select few of (male) visionary chief apostles[65].  The Easter message is liberation for the oppressed, not a new form of kyriarchy where male apostles replace male governors.

One key area of agreement amongst feminist theologians is found in their criticism of patriarchal Mariology[66].  In “the Blessed Virgin Mary” Christian women are presented with a model to aspire to of selfless obedience, subordination, dependency and inferiority.  The femininity of “Our Lady” as asexual eternal virgin, truly woman revealed only in motherhood, and her example of passivity as a cardinal virtue is a model that ordinary women could never hope[67] or want[68] to imitate.  The real Mary was herself certainly quite different from the ideal[69].

In conclusion I acknowledge Elizabeth Johnson’s reading the story of Jesus-Sophia, in support of the views of Schüssler Fiorenza and Lentz, as compassionate and liberating[70].  In Sophia-Christ God “pitches her tent among people to teach the ways of justice”[71], engages fully with human life and suffering, participates in feasts, and includes the marginalised at her table while she is herself marginalised by the powers of her day.  In Sophia the Church is presented with the idea of God as the hostess[72] sovereign in whose realm all people are valued.  Where feminism is rightly perceived as a struggle against unjust forms of power, rather than an angry struggle to wrest power for the sole use of women and girls, it provides a liberating message to all people of faith.  Disparate views gather under the wings of feminist hermeneutics, perhaps representing different levels of engagement with the various areas of struggle, but above all the work any hermeneutic is the work of removing obstacles to understanding the historical presuppositions of text[73].  Much that has been unhelpful with regard to the place of women in the community of faith is being explained, analysed, and in many cases done away with by the work of the feminist hermeneutic.  This can only be a positive thing for the Church, the men in the Church included.

Bibliography:

Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 287-93. Harlow: Longman, 1988.

Fewell, Danna Nolan. “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Rev and exp. ed. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, 268-82. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Jensen, Alexander S. Theological Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2007.

Johnson, Elizabeth. She Who Is.  New York, NY: Crossroad, 1993.

Lentz, Robert, and Edwina Gateley. Christ In The Margins. Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003.

Mitchell, Juliet. “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 426-430. Harlow: Longman, 1988.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, NY: Crossroad, 1983.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. But She Said: Feminist practices of biblical interpretation. Boston, MT: Beacon Press, 1992.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York, NY: Continuum, 1994.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 331-353. Harlow: Longman, 1988

 


[1] Robert Lentz, and Edwina Gateley. Christ In The Margins. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003). 112.

[2] Ibid. 113.

[3]Danna Nolan Fewell, “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Rev and exp. ed. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 280.

[4] Ibid. 268.

[5] Ibid. 269.

[6] Elaine Showalter. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 333-4.

[7] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. (New York, NY: Continuum, 1994). 3

[8] Fewell, “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” 270.

[9] Hélène Cixous. “Sorties.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 289.

[10] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 7-8.

[11] Ibid. 4.

[12] Hispanic, Latina.

[13] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 5.

[14] Ibid. 189.

[15] Ibid. 10.

[16] Ibid. 12.

[17] Ibid. 27.

[18] Ibid.11.

[19] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist practices of biblical interpretation. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.)

[20] Although the male members of each level of dominance were considered superior to their female counterparts.

[21] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 14.

[22] Ibid. 14.

[23] Ibid. 36.

[24] Ibid. 16.

[25] Ibid. 36.

[26] Ibid. 37.

[27] Ibid. 156.

[28] Ibid. 157.

[29] Ibid. 162.

[30] Ibid. 162.

[31] Cixous. “Sorties.” 288.

[32] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 102.

[33] Ibid. 13, 24.

[34] Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics. (London: SCM Press, 2007.), 201.

[35] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 38.

[36] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 44.

[37] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 25.

[38] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 41.

[39] Ibid. 39.

[40] Ibid. 42.

[41] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 41-2.

[42] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 44.

[43] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 35.

[44] Ibid. 29.

[45] Ibid. 28.

[46] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 38.

[47] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1983.), xiii.

[48] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 22.

[49] Juliet Mitchell. “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 430.

[50] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 22, 28-9.

[51] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 26, 32.

[52] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 24.

[53] Ibid. 45.

[54] Ibid. 37.

[55] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 46.

[56] Ibid. 89.

[57] Ibid. 92.

[58] Ibid. 90.

[59] Ibid. 91.

[60] Ibid. 92.

[61] ibid. 92.

[62] It can be argued that there was no “holistic, orthodox Judaism” at the time of Christ but that the cohesion of Jewish worship and praxis occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish nation into Diaspora communities.

[63] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 93.

[64] Ibid. 94.

[65] Ibid. 126.

[66] Ibid. 164.

[67] Ibid. 165.

[68] Ibid. 164.

[69] Ibid. 187.

[70] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 191.

[71] Ibid. 213.

[72] Ibid. 217.

[73] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 2.

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