What’s the difference between feminist theology and good theology?

I often hear this question (stated rhetorically with the expectant answer being “none”) used to dismiss feminist theology, while seeming to legitimize its concerns. There was a time, the argument runs, when all theology was at least accidentally patriarchal, but thanks to feminists in past years good theology has learned its lesson: it will no longer use only male pronouns, it will advocate (if the matter comes up) for equal rights and responsibilities in the church, and while it would be awkward to entirely avoid using male pronouns for God it will at least put in a footnote stating that such use is a necessary evil. Thus, feminist theologians today would do well to give up their unnecessary (and self-indulgent) preoccupation with female experience and concern, and focus instead on just doing good theology.

There are a number of ways to respond to this argument. One is to question whether one actually has a good understanding of the concerns feminist theology might be addressing. For example, those who call for an unqualified ethic of selflessness and unconditionally deride all forms of pride and self-assertion would do well to add some feminist theology to their good theology. In doing so, they might learn how such rhetoric has often been used to oppress and disempower women. They might also learn something about the importance of self-care and cultivation of voice for those whom society tells not to speak.

As a subset of this, in delving further into feminist theology one might be surprised to learn that there are many feminist theologies each with their own foci and even with their disagreements. At the very least, discovering such complexity will teach the good theologian that theology (especially if it wants to be good) speaks to varied and complex realities and bodies. A theology that simply wants to be good and therefore does not see the need to engage with this diversity cannot help but do violence to this diversity.

One could also question whether it is desirable for feminist theology to ultimately dissolve into a truly good theology that would take the various concerns and insights of feminism seriously. Certainly I think that it is very desirable (if also improbable) for all theology to take feminist presuppositions seriously, such that all theologians would pursue their work with an active feminist consciousness. However, not all of this theology will (or should) specifically focus its investigations on the experience and concerns of non-male bodies. If this is right, then there will always be a need for strong voices in feminist theology as distinct from just good theology. And any theology will need these voices if it does indeed want to be good.

At present such points are not the main reason why I think it is crucial to differentiate “good” theology from feminist theology. The most pressing reason for me is on the right side of your screen, where you can see a list of theologians and a list of philosophers. All of them are male. And this is consistent with a lot of good theology: it tends to draw almost exclusively from men. Women’s voices are present in feminist theology and are oddly lacking in theology that does not label itself as feminist, even when this theology is good. This is, I submit, the single most obvious difference between feminist theology and good theology. It is a difference that matters a lot and should tell us that good theology, as rich as it undoubtedly is, must have some significant blind spots.

This blog has been around for about a month, and I have tried to do good theology. I am starting to realize that that will not be enough. Hopefully over the next few months I will be able to do some theology that people might call feminist. And there’s a good chance that such theology will become much better as a result.

2 thoughts on “What’s the difference between feminist theology and good theology?

  1. 1. This is a good post. It also leads to another question: does theology accidentally oppress until the oppressed cry out? The reformation might also be another historical point to draw upon, but it might be best to stick to your post.

    2. So, if Christianity were so good, then why is it not always the source of goodness? why does it oppress? Does it have to wait to oppress before it can do good again? If we look at our good friend, Jesus, we do see that he is responding to times of turmoil, ambiguity, etc., in order to speak and say new things. Sometimes I hear the gravitation towards the idea (though never explicitly said) that Theology should have all the answers laid out in advance for everyone to follow: it has everything that it needs — the perfect conception of love. So, does theology, then, always limp behind the petitions of the world?

    3. Sorry for the many questions.

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    1. @1. I would follow Yoder in saying that the reformation of Christianity often comes from the margins of both church and society.

      @2. A common answer, especially for Mennonites who like to look back to the Constantinian shift of the church, is that the way of Jesus is wholly good. Unfortunately it has been seen as a powerful tool by the powers that be who have often co-opted it, using a sham Christianity to exploit others. But this is not Christianity, and if we return to the sources, we will again find a pure Christianity that knows no evil. I am sympathetic to this view and I think there is a lot of truth to it. However, I think it is important to acknowledge something “impure” at Christianity’s foundations. In regards to this post, we cannot say that context and correct interpretation takes away all misogyny and promotion of patriarchal values found in the Bible; nor can we deny that the Bible is a document written and compiled by men. So even as Christianity (and the Bible, and Jesus!) provides much resource and tendency against these misogynistic impulses, we should not name these impulses as wholly external. They are a part of an impure faith, which as impure, beckons us also into it as engagement partners. Years ago I wrote something on what this might look like in the context of Biblical authority. You may find it interesting. https://ortusmemoria.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/when-the-bibles-word-is-not-the-best-word-or-what-to-do-when-scripture-is-wrong/

      Liked by 1 person

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