Feminist theology books offer new views
By KAYE ASHE
In a well-known passage of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Shug Avery asks Celie what her God looks like, and Celie answers, "He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted." His eyes are big, bluish-gray and cool and he has white lashes. Shug doesn't blame her. "Ain't no way to read the Bible and not think God white," she admits. But Shug explains that she herself lost interest in God when she found out she thought God was white and a man. She searches for God inside herself and as part of everything "that was or is or ever will be."
Alice Walker here gives literary expression to women's increasingly intense and broadened awareness that they must name God for themselves and that they must do so out of their own cultural, historical and social experience. Shug would find the God who emerges from these two books a lot less boring than the one she encountered in churches and dismissed because he failed to engage her.
In Women Encounter God, Linda A. Moody examines in turn conceptions of God as articulated by white feminist, Latina feminist, Hispanic (mujerista) and African-American (womanist) theologians, all of whom write within the general framework of liberation theology. She appreciates the distinctive accent of representatives of each of these groups; she doesn't sidestep the tensions that have resulted in a much richer and diversified theological vision; and she doesn't minimize the challenge of attempting "to reconcile the pressures for diversity and difference with those for integration and commonality." Moody, ultimately, doesn't really reconcile these pressures. Rather, she brings into dialogue women's voices speaking clearly and passionately from various cultural and class perspectives.
There was a risk involved in this effort. Moody situates herself as a white theologian whose family are Kentucky tobacco farmers and construction workers who never had money to spare. Much of her life has been spent, however, in community with white feminists, African-American and Latin American friends and colleagues. She chose to resist the "temptation to silence" that she lists as one of the obstacles to multicultural theological reflection, and to enter into an analysis of different types of theology that nevertheless intersect at significant points. All, from their particular perspective, find a God who is relational and "embodied," and who shares power in the work of justice.
I appreciated Moody's critical and comparative analysis. She respects the intrinsic differences among the theologies she explores while recognizing the commonalities that allow for a dialogue across boundaries. She makes no attempt to collapse differences so that we can rush to what can only be described as a pseudo-unity, a premature sisterhood; neither does she imagine that we are speaking in mutually unintelligible tongues.
The book will serve as an introduction to multicultural reflections on God for those who are not familiar with the works Moody analyzes and cites to good advantage. It will offer valuable insights in regard to methodology and suggest next steps to those already engaged in the dialogue.
Like Moody's book, The Power of Naming focuses on feminist liberation theology. Its cultural lens, however, is broader, including as it does views from Africa, India, Australia, Korea, China, Thailand and the Philippines.
Editor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza brings together in this hefty volume essays that appeared in Concilium from the mid-eighties to 1996, making available to us between the covers of one book the thought of some of the best feminist scholars around the globe.
Schüssler Fiorenza, in her introduction to the text, places feminist theological discourse in the context of feminist theory (Moody, too, makes this connection) and within a system that analyzes not only sexism but the interlocking oppressions that affect women: "racism, poverty, colonialism and religious exclusivism." She emphasizes the effects on theological development of the silencing of women and their exclusion from the academy, theological education, religious authority and symbol-making and sees this exclusion as a foundational theological problem to be taken seriously not just by women but by the church at large. She calls for a shift from "malestream" scholarship to a kind of theologizing that takes into account the diversity of human experience and the transformative potential of feminist insight and feminist sensibilities.
The 32 essays that comprise the Concilium Reader are grouped under four headings: "Claiming Our Own Theological Voices," "Naming the Structures of Women's Oppression," "The Theological Construction of Women's Silence," and "Changing Theological Discourses." As might be expected, the voices represented speak in a number of different keys. Some emphasize theory; others historical, political and social realities; still others spiritual and liturgical perspectives. Coming as they do from five continents and from widely and richly diverse religious-theological and cultural settings, the essays demonstrate the vigorous growth of feminist thought that has taken place in the last 20 years.
A common thread running through both books is the difficulty the term "feminist" presents. The term is vilified in fundamentalist circles and contested in academic ones. Some have identified it with a white, supremacist mentality and so rejected it, while others understand the term as embracing a worldwide movement being reshaped by women from every corner of the globe.
Schüssler Fiorenza clearly appreciates the urgent need and the importance of diverse feminist communities speaking from their own experience, but she warns against a "balkanization" of the movement that would fragment and divide it into "special interest groups": Asian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, lesbian, elder, differently abled and so on. She suggests that such a fragmentation would, in the end, play into the hands of established powers and calls instead for a process whereby the naming of feminist liberation theology is constantly destabilized and its meaning refined and redefined.
Moody, too, operates in that tense arena where differences must be articulated, sometimes in anger and bitterness, and understood before fruitful exchange and mutual enrichment can take place. An early and successful experiment in reciprocity among theologians of different races, cultures, and sexual orientation resulted in the publication of God's Fierce Whimsy in 1985.
The books reviewed here give hope that both feminist liberation theology and Christian identity itself will become increasingly multicultural and multireligious. Schüssler Fiorenza reminds us that "to be cosmopolitan, democratic, and catholic this identity must remain particular, heterogeneous and provisional, subject to ... renegotiation ... and recreation in the diverse liberation struggles."
Both of the books reviewed here have an index and useful footnotes. Women Encounter God includes a valuable bibliography as well.
What emerges most clearly for me from the pages of these books is that the way women encounter God and the evolution of feminist liberation theology is located squarely in the midst of a struggle for a fundamental change in human consciousness and the structures of the societies in which we live. In this sense, the questions posed are not "women's questions" anymore than the U.N. Conference in Beijing was a Conference "on women." Women are looking at God, worship, violence, the economy, nature and the earth from a particular perspective. And that perspective is relevant in piercing and poignant ways for the future of the human race.
Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Kaye Ashe resides in Berkeley, Calif., where she does development work for her congregation.
National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997