Exploring the feminine and masculine impulses of Godde
review of Elizabeth Johnson's 'SHE WHO IS'
She Who Is: 4 The Rationale behind Feminist Liberation Theology
In her book 'She Who Is' Elizabeth Johnson presses for a strong critique of traditional speech about Godde, and in her second chapter she begins by explaining the reason she uses Christian feminist liberation theology as her chosen route and method of exploring and opening up to Godde.
She starts by defining the basic intent and purpose of most Christian theology over many centuries: "faith seeking understanding" and "searching for a deeper discernment of the meaning of the gospel". Allied to this search, is the desire to look for "deeper understanding of human life and the whole universe in the light of the graciousness of divine mystery." So there is a search to know and understand Godde more fully, and the gospel, and the implications of Godde's grace and love for human life and community and the whole creation.
Turning to Christian feminist liberation theology, in particular, she defines this as "reflection on religious mystery from a stance which makes an a priori option for the human flourishing of women." So women's flourishing becomes a lens through which faith seeks understanding and meaning and an opening up to Godde.
The background contexts to this 'a priori' belief in the need and calling for women's flourishing are the countless ways women suffer from being demeaned and marginalised in theory and practice, even though they know that their human identity should possess goodness, dignity and creative power as intrinsic qualities.
The feminist theologian then brings to light the damage and suffering imposed on women, and analyses its causes - identifying the agency, hope and potential of women to explore and claim new interpretations of Christian tradition and encounters and revelation.
And the struggle of women in faith to seek understanding acts as a forge for feminist theology: as they strive for life and flourishing in the face of oppression and alienating forces.
Elizabeth Johnson then makes the point that theology, forged from this perspective of struggle and experience, inevitably calls into question the traditional way people speak about Godde.
Firstly because this speech - drawing imagery and concepts from a world of ruling men - often inclines towards oppression in its implications and assumptions, legitimising structures ruled by men in ways assumed to be like Godde. Whether consciously or not, this sexist 'God language' undermines the human equality of women who are - in reality - made in the same divine image and likeness. The result can be (and often is) human lives shaped by patterns of dominance and subordination, with attendant violence and suffering.
Furthermore, this traditional masculine imagery of Godde can be not only oppressive, but also idolatrous: I'll quote Elizabeth Johnson's exact words on this because they are so good - "insofar as male-dominant language is honoured as the only or the supremely fitting way of speaking about God[de], it absolutizes a single set of metaphors and obscures the height and depth and length and breadth of divine mystery. Thus it does damage to the very truth of God[de] that theology is supposed to cherish and promote."
Opponents may argue that such a critique is too narrowly concerned with women's issues. The issue of the right way to speak about Godde, however, is central to the whole faith tradition. The values at stake are profound and substantive, involving both the quest for justice in human life, and the truth (however darkly glimpsed) of the holy mystery of Godde.
Feminist theology's critique of traditional 'God language' enters the history of theology at a critical juncture, Elizabeth Johnson asserts, as the impact of the modern world challenges Christians to reflect anew on historical traditions and assumptions, and as - in response - many theologians are seeking to formulate ways of speaking of Godde in a living tradition that may make radical departures from the past.
The contribution of feminist theology may be a profound element - though not the only one - in this opening up and liberating and deepening of Christian tradition and understanding. These tensions in theology between the past and present - and unfolding future - are explored next in this excellent book.
Links to my summary pages on 'She Who Is':