A Woman Looks at Theology

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  • A Woman Looks at Theology

    Eva Zabolai-Csekme

    One of the greatest revolutions in the history of Christian theology is beginning to happen in our days: women are in the process of doing indigenous theology. Here I am using the word indigenous not only to mean emerging out of a certain cultural and historical situation, but in addition to this, emerging out of the forgotten dimension of the female life experience which for such a long time was largely excluded from the theological thinking growing out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When women do theology they do not simply add to the current streams of theological thinking but they contribute to theology challenging, rediscovering, renaming and recreating its content, its implications and the language used for its expression. This whole new process (of women doing theology) has a very definite eschatological dimension for it manifests the struggle for a new heaven and a new earth, giving a present expression to one important aspect of the future and to the hope that is within us.

    Theology is not simply an intellectual exercise, but the expression of the religious experience of Gods people. Every religious experience is by nature inseparable from the life experience of people. The encounter between God and people never happens in a vacuum but in a concrete historic situation. When the people of Israel, moved by the Spirit of God, said a decisive no to slavery in Egypt and followed God by searching for the promised land, they experienced a liberating, sustaining, questioning God in their breaking away from captivity, in their daily struggle for life and in their search for the land where their future was to be. This experience of God did not belong to the priests or prophets only, but to the entire people of Israel. This experience was shared by each individual but at the same time it belonged decisively to the community as a whole. And as this experience combined the private and the communal, it combined what we call the profane and the sacred. God was experienced within the realities of life but at the same time the power of God provided the frame within which life was experienced. The people of Israel formed their understanding of God and themselves on the basis of this life experience which was closely related to God-experience and formulated their religious rituals accordingly. In other words, their theology was an expression of their communal religious experience,

    The Rev. EVA ZABOW-CSEKME is st& secretary for the study of church structures and womens work in the department of studies of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva.


    As the future of Israel became their history, many more religious expe- riences were recorded, all of which formed their theology. Though God- experience always happens in the present, it is not separated from the past but builds upon it, for past, recorded, religious experiences are co-determining factors of the new religious experience. Just as the past shapes the present religious experience, the latter gives expression to the expectations and hopes, and as such indirectly shapes the future. Therefore, a living theology inte- grates past, present and future in a creative way. Such a living theology combines the understanding of the past with the hope for the future, so that the present can be lived meaningfully. Thus theology is the expression of the religious experience of Gods people, based upon a life experience which combines the communal and the individual, the religious and the profane and the elements of the past, present and future.

    The moment theology becomes the property of a small group of people, be they priests, pharisees, university professors or the church hierarchy, it becomes a dying theology, for it is not nurtured by the life experience of the totality of Gods people. Theology cannot be legislated either, without sacrificing the richness and meaningfulness that can only develop out of an authentic, life-related religious experience.

    Patriarchal language

    Like any other experience, the religious experience has been expressed and recorded with the help of those tools which humans possess for expression, namely, firstly language and secondly the arts.

    Language always develops within the socio-economic and political struc- tures of a given community. Language therefore essentially reflects those structures. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, theology was expressed and recorded by means of that language which grew out of the patriarchal culture of the Judaic society. Within a patriarchal tradition, life is experienced through the reality of prescribed sex-stereotypes which again is reflected in the language used. Language, however, is not only the expression of a given culture but also a powerful tool for the perpetuation of that culture, because language is a vehicle of socialization. Through language children learn to understand relationships between people, to identify objects, to recognize the social reality around them and to be recognized. Language does not only teach the names of objects and concepts, it also attaches certain connotations, certain values to those objects and concepts.

    Let us now try to examine what it means for our understanding of theology that within our Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of the religious experience of people was recorded with the help of that language which grew out of a patriarchal tradition. In a patriarchal society, social and cosmic reality is defined according to the way in which the male members of this society per- ceive reality. Essentially, the perception is an androcentric one. Everything and everybody is defined by his/her or its relationship to the definer. In such a society, the male members define their own role, their own values as well as


    those of the female members of that society. The male way of understanding reality is then internalized by society as a whole and has far-reaching conse- quences for everybody involved.

    The same can be applied to the recording of the religious experience of a patriarchal society. Even if the religious experience belongs to the totality of the people it is expressed and recorded according to the understanding of the men within that society. But as I mentioned before, each recorded religious experience influences the future religious experience of people. Therefore, a religious experience interpreted through the male perception of reality and recorded with the help of a patriarchal language will in the future influence the religious experience of both male and female. As a result, in a patriarchal society, even if women try to contribute to theology they will essentially contribute to patriarchal theology.

    The patriarchal God

    One could write a whole book about the characteristics of patriarchal theology and what it does to people but let me at this point just reflect upon one very important aspect of it, namely the patriarchal understanding of God. Throughout the recorded history of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Euro- pean cultures, people described God mainly in anthropomorphic terms. The pantheons of the various cultures were populated by goddesses and gods acting very much like human beings. In the strong patriarchal tradition of Judaism, the goddess(es) disappear and the one God remains, understood and described mainly in masculine terms.

    Although there are attempts in the Old Testament to point out that the essence of God cannot be limited to anthropomorphic terms, like the famous statement in Ex. 3 : 14 I am becoming who I am becoming, God was generally understood in terms of King, Ruler, Father, Lord. Since in a patriarchal society the characteristics of the male are regarded as positive values (such as strength or dominance), the characteristics assigned to God were virtually identical with those which the males assigned to themselves. God was perceived as ruler, as the mighty who had power above all, someone who was jealous if people looked at another God, who rewarded and punished according to his judgment, who was a bit temperamental and unpredictable but merciful as a whole, and even when He killed or destroyed, He did it with wise judgment. In other words, the patriarchal description of God represents mens ideal perception of themselves.

    In Christ, of course, we have a completely different image of God. In Christ God is understood as being meek and soft, loving, forgiving, suffering, misunderstood and self-sacrificing . But the patriarchal tradition from the time of Christ up to the present has so far not been ready for such an understanding of God. Our church history, our still patriarchal theology and our hierarchical church structures which are supposed to be there in the name of Christ, are a living proof thereof. In order to further legitimize the Patriarchal structures of society, the meek and suffering Christ was transformed into a Lord, King,


    and Ruler in need of soldiers to fight for his cause, for the image of God is always being used to justify the given social reality, thereby assuming a legitimizing function.

    In a patriarchal theology, God is said to ascribe roles to women, men, children and slaves which are regarded as divine orders and are, as such, unquestionable. The famous example is the story of the Fall in Gen. 3, where as a consequence of sin, roles are ascribed to male and female, whereby the female is subordinate to the male. Or, for example, in the Judaic tradition the maleness of God was used to legitimize male dominance over the female. By nature of their sex, men understood themselves to be represen- tatives of God on earth and assumed those ruling, judging, punishing functions which were ascribed to God. Though it was stated quite clearly in Gen. 1 : 27, 28 that both male and female were created in the divine image, the general understanding was quite a different one. That, of course, is nothing unusual in a society where God is referred to in male terms. Look at our famous theologian, the Apostle Paul who, as a former pharisee, probably knew the Old Testament inside out and therefore Gen. 1 .27 , 28 was not unknown to him; and yet in I Cor. 11 : 7 it is the most natural thing for him to say that man is the image of God, but woman is the image of man.

    Contrary to the ease with which Paul identifies himself with the image of God, to women this identification process is not that simple. Since we speak of God as Father, King, Lord, and so on, deep down women experience God as someone who is different, contrary to men to whom God is someone like themselves. That means that, whenever theology is spoken in patriarchal language, women, in order to attempt to understand what has been said, must do their own interpretation. But even then I am not sure whether we can ever experience the same immediateness as men for whom culture has paved the way.

    I will never forget the recollection of an experience by the well-known feminist theologian Dr Nelle Morton. While attending a conference for women theologians, the group decided to try an experiment. During the worship service conducted by the women themselves they exchanged every terminology for a female one. And as the Scripture was read and they listened to the words: she is a new creation, many of them had an experience as never before. In Nelles words: At that time I was close to being 70 years old, but it was for the first time in my life that the Gospel touched me in that immediateness.

    The New Exodus Womens attempt to do indigenous theology today related to their life

    experience as women, is in a sense very much like the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt. It begins with the growing awareness of their own situation and the pain that is caused by this awareness. For every liberation process is a painful process, since consciously experienced oppression is much more painful than an unconsciously experienced one. And as women find themselves questioning and reflecting in this great existential pain, they experience God in a way that is entirely their own.


    I am tempted to say that down in the deepest hopelessness and existential hurt, God is there, revealing herself, and out of this encounter with God grows the strength to say NO to the meatpots of Egypt, to the false securities and fight for the freedom to live or die in the desert until the land of the future is found. For it is clear that this new spirituality which has broken into our times and which is carried by the womens movement will have to go through a period of searching, struggling and suffering until answers can be attempted to questions we are not even able to ask yet. However, there are already a few directions visible which will have to be taken up:

    1) The method of theology

    You will remember that I have used the expression women do theology. This was not a grammatical mistake, but a conscious statement, for when women do theology they use the method of action/reflection out of which theological insights arise, rather than simply applying existing theological insights to present situations. And because of this method, the theology growing out of the womens movement is a communal theology. It is in the group where this action/reflection process takes place and it is in the group where the religious experience finds its communal expression. In a sense women know that their task is not to write 12 volumes of systematic theology presenting the eternal truth which then can be legislated, but to grab the reality of the eternally becoming God, as this reality touches their lives by unfolding the past and pointing to the future.

    2) The search for a future-orientedpast

    When we take a look at the book market, we realize that there are more and more works available on the subject of women in the various periods of history. Women in many different disciplines are engaged in trying to find their own hidden past. This process is an extremely important one. Historical identity is part of the self-understanding of human beings. It gives people a sense of belonging, it gives them a chance to reflect upon their actions in terms of the past and it helps them to formulate their direction, be that in continua- tion of or in opposition to the past. When we look at ordinary history books we realize that out of some hundred pages there are not more than two or three dealing with women. When we open the indexes of these books we find under w: women: their place in society, women and divorce laws, etc. But when we try to look under m: men, we do not find anything at all. It is self-evident that society is mans society, where women have a place. The same goes for history. Women today realize that history is really his-story and that we will have to do a lot of research to find our hidden past.

    However, it is not enough to find our past in order to be liberated for the...


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