Friday, February 3, 2012

Resisting "Masculine Christianity": Elizabeth Johnson & Feminist Faith

I want to respond to Rachel Held Evan's call to men in the blogosphere to write a post on the current controversy surrounding John Piper and his "masculine Christianity" (read more about this here).  First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate what Rachel is doing to stand within her tradition as an evangelical feminist voice.  As influential pastors like Mark Driscoll and John Piper dig their heels in to explicitly argue for an androcentric version of Christianity, the evangelical community needs bold voices like Rachel's to challenge these kinds of assertions, which I believe do a great deal of damage to the church.  Additionally, I also want to point out that Fuller biblical studies professor Daniel Kirk has written a fantastic post in response to this controversy that is really worth reading (no really: he talks about the breasts of Jesus in Revelation 1:13!).  As a post-evangelical, progressive Christian studying theology at a liberal Protestant seminary, my voice in this particular conversation will probably mean less than evangelical bloggers like Daniel and Rachel.  Even so, I hope that some in the evangelical conversation on these matters may find my reflections here on feminist Christianity encouraging and constructive in some way.  To my progressive friends, I can only ask for patience as I humbly try to work out my thinking on these matters.

Elizabeth Johnson
 In my first year in seminary, I took a challenging class on feminist theologies.  While I continue to push back against more radical expressions of feminism, I was deeply impressed and challenged by a number of feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, Catherine LaCugna, Marjorie Suchocki, Anne Carr, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Celia Deane-Drummond, and Kathryn Tanner.  Johnson in particular has probably influenced my thinking the most with her now classic and award-winning book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.  She makes the case for a doctrine of the Trinity that uses only female symbols, especially by arguing for the central significance of Wisdom/Sophia language in the bible.  She also rightly points out that
"Jesus' language about God is not monolithic but is diverse and colorful, as can be seen in the imaginative parables he spun out.  A woman searching for her lost money, a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, a bakerwoman kneading dough, a traveling businessman, the wind that blows where it wills, the birth experiences that delivers persons into new life, an employer offending workers by his generosity - these and many other human and cosmic instances are freely taken as metaphors for divine mystery in addition to the good and loving things that fathers do.  God's way of dealing with human beings is at once like and not like all of these.  Later Christian talk about God is poor indeed compared with the riot of images spun out in the Gospels' depiction of Jesus' speech." (She Who Is, 80)
Neither should we forget the many female images for God throughout the Hebrew scriptures: Deut. 32:18, Numbers 11:12-13, Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 63:13, Jeremiah 31:20, and Hosea 13:8 - to name a few.  Such female metaphors that attempt to express the mystery of God in the bible provide "glimpses of an alternative to dominant patriarchal language about God." (She Who Is, 103)

In her constructive proposal, Johnson does not say that traditional symbols of Father and Son must be entirely removed, but that they need to be at least complemented by alternatives that can do justice to the mystery of the triune God and the biblical texts that speak of God in motherly metaphors.  She proposes the symbols of Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia.  Some feminists even argue that as we actively work to resist gender inequality in the Christian tradition, which is many centuries in the making, it would actually be more appropriate and effective to drop all male symbols for God - at least for the time being.  This may not be practical and overstating the case, but I understand their point and recognize that in certain contexts it may be appropriate.  At the very least, I believe that churches need to be open to practitioners substituting alternative images for God in times of worship, confession, reading the Lord's prayer, etc.  A literal, overly strict adherence to certain words for God makes no sense when we recognize the analogical nature of theological language. 

We do need to realize how powerfully theological language shapes our practices and experiences, particularly the way that standard patriarchal images of God have negatively affected women's experiences.  Just a few days ago, a friend of mine who is a woman told a moving story about the very first time she read a book with inclusive language that did not exclusively use the term "he" to refer to God or "man" to refer to people in general - practices that have been the norm for centuries until recently.  My friend said that reading this more inclusively written book was an experience she will never forget, transforming her in a deep and powerful way.

Although I am certainly still working through some of these issues, my own various practices and shifts in thinking at the moment in response to Johnson's challenge as a confessional trinitarian has been to nearly exclusively refer to God as "she" and to use language like Motherly Father, Fatherly Mother, or sometimes simply Mother.  I also think it is right to de-center the maleness of Jesus in Christology by moving beyond a dualistic anthropology.  As Johnson rightly argues,
"if maleness is essential for the christic role, then women are cut out the loop of salvation, for female sexuality is not taken on by the Word made flesh.  If maleness is constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved." (153)
But such logic rests on a dualistic anthropology, which is certainly too simplistic. She argues that we need to move towards a multipolar conception of anthropology that no longer views the sex of human persons as the "touchstone of personal identity." This means viewing humans more holistically as multi-dimensional, sex being one of many dimensions of persons that includes age, race, period in history, bodily handicap, cultural/economic/social location, etc. In this view of humans, the sex of Jesus is no more important to his saving significance than the fact that he was a young, poor, Palestinian Jew living in the first century. Johnson continues:
"A multipolar anthropology allows Christology to integrate Jesus' maleness using interdependence of difference as a primary category, rather than emphasizing sexuality in an ideological, distorted way. Amid a multiplicity of differences Jesus' maleness is appreciated as intrinsically important for his own personal historical identity and the historical challenge of his ministry, but not theologically determinative of his identity as the Christ nor normative for the identity of the Christian community. Story, symbol, and doctrine then assume an emancipatory gestalt." (156)
Furthermore, with Johnson, I think it is entirely defensible to emphasize the female symbol of Sophia rather than male Logos as incarnate in Jesus. Johnson points out that "the fluidity of gender symbolism evidenced in biblical Christology breaks the stranglehold of androcentric thinking that circles around the maleness of Jesus." (99) I have also been rethinking atonement theology for a number of years now in a way that moves beyond certain substitutionary models that feminist theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock have persuasively and rightly criticized as deeply problematic and even hurtful to women (I particularly appreciate the Korean liberation theologian Andrew Sung Park's sensitive work on atonement theology in dialogue with feminist theologians, which I have blogged about before).

Finally, within theology proper, Christians have far too often held on to images and metaphysics that support androcentrism.  Think about it: the ideal man has usually been framed as one who is not impacted (at least too much) by emotions but remains rational, unaffected, unmoved, in power, and on top.  God, imaged in male language, is then naturally interpreted along the same lines: impassible, immutable, etc.  As a trinitarian process thinker, this standard and Greek view of God is no longer something I believe, but instead gives way to the most-moved, internally related, deeply affected God whose nature is essentially love in the fullest sense of agape, eros, and philia.  As Whitehead famously wrote, God is "the fellow-sufferer who understands."  Johnson similarly points out that Sophia is best understood as being manifest "in solidarity with the one who suffers" and as "the source of life." (95)  Furthermore, this Sophia-God is not the God of traditional theism who is absolutely transcendent and only superficially immanent in the world, intervening from without: this is a God who is always essentially immanent in the world and working from within at every moment of becoming, for "the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself", as Whitehead also said.  This God is not the traditional "masculine" God of absolute omnipotence who can basically always get 'his' way if 'he' so desires: this is the God who em-powers rather than over-powers, she is persuasive rather than coercive, and radically immanent as well as transcendent.

You might want to ask after reading this: do these kinds of theological paradigm shifts really matter or make a difference for the struggle for the full equality of women and resistance against androcentric pastors like Piper and Driscoll?  I would argue that they most certainly do.  As Johnson writes:
"While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, yet the daily language of preaching, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female.  The symbol of God functions.  Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women.  Wittingly or not, it undermines women's human dignity as equally created in the image of God." (She Who Is, 5)
Sexism is a truly devastating sin, one that has tragically pushed many women (and men) out of the Christian faith altogether - especially in the last few decades.  Androcentric Christianity, as articulated so unapologetically by pastors like Piper and Driscoll, has resulted in all sorts of injustices for women that we continue to see in the church and throughout society today.  As feminist theologians also point out, not only are women's full humanity denied in these distorted versions of Christianity, but men's full humanity is inevitably denied as well as their identities are constructed in a distorted fashion.  My hope is that we can continue to move towards a more life-affirming, inclusive vision of the Christian faith, and I believe very strongly that feminist thinkers like Johnson need to be heard, now more than ever.  The so-called "masculine Christianity" needs to be actively resisted, but this must necessarily involve our reforming of traditional theologies if such resistance is to ever make a lasting difference.

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