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review of Elizabeth Johnson's 'SHE WHO IS'





She Who Is: 7 Analysis of Sexism


In Elizabeth Johnson's 'She Who Is', the author explains the way feminist theology tends to originate on the margins of the dominant androcentric tradition, both giving voice to the devaluation of women, and seeking the transformation of the dominant central structures and mindsets.

Turning to address the pervasive problem of sexism, she asserts that feminist liberation theology sees clearly that society and the church are pervaded by sexism, both through structural patriarchy and personal androcentrism. This has debilitating (and sometimes devastating) effects on women both socially and psychologically. And this sexism interlocks with other forms of oppression in the world, accentuating the effects for those in the poorest communities.

Sexism has had a huge and harmful impact on the way our societies and culture have been shaped. Throughout history, sexism has maintained that men are inherently superior to women by nature... by the very order of things. And it has acted in discriminatory ways to enforce this 'natural' order, denying women certain rights, ordaining certain subordinate roles for them, and keeping them in their 'proper' social 'place'.

Sexism like racism betrays the fundamental inability of a dominant group to deal with otherness, and fails to acknowledge the full and equal humanity of one half of the human race. It's expressed in social structures and personal attitudes and actions, intertwined in the public and the private realms.

Patriarchy is the name commonly given to sexist social structures. Typical is the traditional pyramidal pattern of social relations - hierarchical with series or layers of subordinations - that can be seen in governments, in families, in church, in business, in work... which has been so prevalent historically that it has sedimented the dominance of ruling men to the point of making it seem natural and culturally normal.

Religious patriarchy is one of the strongest forms of this structure because it understands itself to be divinely established and authorised. Thus the power of the ruling men is claimed in some of these structures to be delegated by 'God' (invariably spoken about in male terms) and exercised by divine mandate.

In addition to the structural nature of this patriarchal sexism, there is that engrained and personal pattern of thinking and acting that is sometimes termed 'androcentrism', and which takes the role of men to lead as normative for humanity in many spheres of life. Thus socially and psychologically, sexism exerts pressures on women to acquiesce in a model of home and society that is fundamentally man-ruled and unjust.

Elizabeth Johnson looks at the way sexism has damaged women's lives in the world, and turns more closely to analyse its impact through the church.

In society at large, women have for most of history been denied a combination of political, economic, legal and educational rights. This continues in various forms today. In situations where people suffer intolerably from poverty and racism, the dynamic of sexism burdens women with added and profound exploitation: so that they often become the underclass that functions as "slaves of the slaves".

Look at some of the statistics: though women are one half of the world's population, according to UN stats they work two-thirds of the world's working hours, have only one tenth of the wealth, own one hundredth of the land, and are two thirds of the world's illiterate. To make that dark picture even bleaker, women are bodily and sexually exploited, physically abused, raped, battered, denigrated. The indisputable fact is that men do this to women in a way that women do not to men: sexism is rampant on a global scale.

In such a context, the church might be reasonably expected to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ to confront and overturn these patriarchies and such sexist ways of thinking. But historically, sexism in the church has been embedded and enshrined, from the male identity of the deity, to the male leaders, and even to the role of leadership often attributed to men in the home.

One of the most influential androcentric syntheses in the Catholic tradition (to take Elizabeth Johnson's own denomination) is that of Aquinas - and she points out that he saw 'men' as the pinnacle of Godde's creation. The staggering sexism of his language is an indication of just how far women were marginalised: "The active power in the seed of the male tends to produce something like itself, perfect in masculinity; but the procreation of a female is the result of the debility of the active power, of some unsuitability of the material."

Since the soul informs the body, women's defective physical state leads Aquinas to the conclusion that woman's soul is likewise deficient, her mind weak in reasoning, and her will fragile in choosing good. And the patriarchal consequence: for her own sake she needs to be governed by others wiser than herself: "by such a kind of subjection, woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates."

Theologically such prejudice is backed up - as Paul also backed it up - by the claim that woman's defective nature was seen in the garden of paradise (and elsewhere) where she was the occasion of causing men to sin.

It is clear that the patriarchy of Aquinas's own culture, coupled with the inherited views of religious community, led him to accept without question the subordination of women as the Godde-given order of the world.

The effective influence of Aquinas's theology on the development of the Catholic Church demonstrates how powerfully androcentric thought and ideas can function to legitimate patriarchy. As an intellectual model it constructs the world in language, mindset, imagery, and distribution of values in such a way as to marginalise women, and justify structures that exclude and disempower them.

Aquinas is just one example. Through most of Christian history, women have been subordinated in theological theory and ecclesial practice again and again. Even at the time of writing, they are largely excluded in catholic structures from those ecclesial centres of significant decision-making and from official public leadership roles. They are called to honour a male saviour sent by a male 'God' whose legitimate representatives can only be male. The femaleness of women is judged to be not suitable as metaphor for speech about 'God'.

There is a final part to this process of subordination, and that is the pressure which brings about - internally - women's own subordination of themselves. Too often, and particularly in a religious context, women internalise the images and notions declared about them by the ruling group and come to believe it of themselves. Being inculturated in a thousand subtle ways through familial socialisation, education, the media, and religious practice (with its seeming divine mandate and authority), it is far too easy for women to internalise this sense of powerlessness... to believe the myth... so that the oppression becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy inculcating passivity and acceptance of other people's power and domination. .

Susannah Clark


Links to my summary pages on 'She Who Is':


She Who Is: My introductory comments on Elizabeth Johnson's book

She Who Is: 01 Right Ways to Speak of Godde

She Who Is: 02 Mediating the Mystery of Godde

She Who Is: 03 Purposes of this Book

She Who Is: 04 The Rationale behind Feminist Liberation Theology

She Who Is: 05 The Patriarchal 'God' of Classical Theism

She Who Is: 06 Feminist Theology and the Vantage Point of the Margins

She Who Is: 07 Analysis of Sexism

She Who Is: 08 Feminist Assessment of Sexism as a Paradigm for other Oppressions

She Who Is: 09 The Methodology and Response of Feminist Theology

She Who Is: 10 The Central Criterion of Human Flourishing, and Goal of Transforming Communities

She Who Is: 11 Critique of the Way People Speak about 'God'

She Who Is: 12 Sociological and Psychological Effects of the Male Metaphors for 'God'

She Who Is: 13 Theological Effects of Idolatry, resulting from Patriarchal Language for Godde

She Who Is: 14 Whether to use the word God




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