Feminist theology challenges tradition Women and the Word

November 07, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

During the past 20 years, thousands of women have become ministers, rabbis or cantors. Not only are these women changing the face of religion, they are influencing the future of religious thought in America.

Many are using the mantle of religious power to examine and challenge traditional views of the Bible, its teachings -- and God.

They, along with other scholars, question the silence of women in a Bible written by men. They have "re-discovered" and sought instruction from such women as Deborah, the judge who saved the Israelites from Canaanite forces, and Mary Magdalene, whom some call Jesus' 13th disciple.

And they are disputing the "all-powerful," mostly male depictions of God used by Christians and Jews. They are challenging the narrowness of our concept of God, how that concept is communicated through Biblical language and images, and how it influences the way we live.

"Think of a religion's ancient scriptures, texts and diaries as a great big stone," explains Dr. Martin Marty, a professor of the history of American religion at the University of Chicago. "Then imagine putting a lever under it and turning it over to see what else is there. You unearth other meanings, you look at what was taken for granted. You see that these texts come from patriarchal cultures."

He believes feminist scholarship has transformed religion more than any movement in recent Western history.

"It includes more vocabulary changes, more conceptual changes, more contention, more promise," says Dr. Marty. "It touches more than half of the human race."

Feminist theology has expanded the images of God to include female as well as male characteristics. Its adherents seek to use metaphors and analogies that point up the merciful, compassionate, nurturing and creative aspects of God -- characteristics they say enrich worship and spiritual understanding.

But sparks fly when they suggest altering language that has sustained worship for thousands of years.

"One discovery has been that although the Bible has patriarchal language, it has less patriarchal language than translators have given it," says Phyllis Trible, professor at Union Theological Seminary and author of "God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." "So it requires a rethinking of Hebrew and Greek vocabularies, and ++ how words were used in their own context, and how best that can be brought into our own [modern] context."

Some Christians, however, believe that God, in fact, is male, based partially on Jesus Christ's references to God as "Father." And many Jews and Christians believe that scriptural -- and often, liturgical -- language should not be changed because of its sacred and cultural legacy.

"The Bible is locked into the world's great literature, and there is a controversial issue as to whether every word counts," says Dr. Marty. "In the act of changing it stands the question, 'Are we doing justice to the language?'

Old vs. new language

"More liberal churches' lectionaries won't say 'Jesus, God's only son,' but 'Jesus, God's only child.' A prayer won't end with 'Father, Son and Holy Ghost,' " he says, "but instead, praising 'Creator, Savior, Spirit.' . . . Or, 'We give thanks to the Lord for Her mercy endures forever.' "

Dr. Trible says some language changes can read awkwardly and lack scholarly integrity.

"But the fact that this goes on points to the need and urgency of making changes in a responsible way," she says. "If not, then it is going to be done anyway. Sometimes lay people are the ones to provide the leadership. And the so-called leaders may be the ones that have to be led."

Many scholars and clergy continue to use the old language and metaphors with the stated understanding that the reality of God is much broader than the words imply. However, others insist upon language changes because they find the text degrading to women and others.

"I believe anything that is demeaning of another human being cannot be of God," says Sister Carol Rittner of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies. "And that this is part of the message of the women scholars."

According to feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, the male images and language many still use to describe God are comforting because they are familiar. But they also are harmful because they support a religious system that has considered women to be marginally important.

"Religious experiences are expressed in a vocabulary drawn from the significant and valuable in a particular culture," she writes in "Standing Again At Sinai." "To speak of God is to speak of what we most value. . . To image God as male is to value the quality and those who have it. It is to define God in the image of the normative community and to bless men -- but not women -- with a central attribute of God."

A God beyond gender

Scholars say education can help to correct cultural distortions. Children tend to begin their spiritual lives with a more integrated concept of God, says Rabbi Shira Lander of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

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