Posted by: Dan | December 8, 2006

Why Feminism (and not other elements of liberation theology)?

It has sometimes been remarked that feminist theology and exegesis has had a more lasting and widespread impact upon the Western Church and Christian Academy than other expressions of liberation theology. For example, most theological journals now require that submissions consistently employ gender-inclusive language, and professors generally make a point of requiring the same in the writing of their students.

This, then, leads me to this question: why has feminism had a more widespread and lasting impact than the other forms of liberation theology? To (almost comically) pick up on our prior example, I know of no major theological journals that list “solidarity with the poor” as a requirement, and I know of few professors who require this of their students (although, to be fair, I have encountered a few profs who have strongly encouraged [to put it mildly] their students to live in that way). Why is it that the more economic elements of liberation never achieved any major influence over the Christian Academy? Why does Latin American liberation theology feel so passe?

Surely it is not because the quality of scholarship is any different. Far from it. The writings of Gutierrez, Sobrino, Arias and the Boff brothers is just as rigourous (and sometimes significantly more so), than the writings of Ruether, Schussler-Fiorenza, Daly, and Trible.

Perhaps an argument could be made that the difference is that other streams of liberation theology are just too contextual. Thus, this argument would suggest, feminist theology achieves a broader influence because women are everywhere, whereas Dalit Theology has trouble spreading beyond India because the caste system doesn’t exist in America, and Latin American liberation theology has trouble spreading north because we live in a very different world. However, I think that this argument must also be rejected. Why? Because the essential elements of liberation theology — solidarity with the poor, God’s preferential option, etc. — easily apply in any cultural situation. Gregory Baum has done a fine job of applying those principles in Canada, Jim Wallis used to do a fine job of applying those principles in the United States, and Jurgen Moltmann has done a fine job of applying those principles in Europe.

So why feminism and not these other expressions? Well, there are two major reasons why I believe feminism achieved a wider influence upon the Christian Academy.

The first is that feminism was already achieving success as a broader cultural movement within the West. In this regard, the Church and the Christian Academy, simply did what they have done so many times before — followed on the coat-tails of cultural change. A book recently published by one of my professor’s is a fine example of this. It is entitled Finally Feminist and it argues that, although God does not desire feminism at all times and in all places, God now desires feminism within the cultural milieu of the West (now I find this approach to feminism to be hugely problematical… but I am torn. Given the influence that this prof has upon Canadian Evangelicals, I’d rather see him “finally feminist” than not feminist at all). Although the Church’s tendency to follow the trends of whatever culture is dominant has generally had an, IMHO, negative impact upon the Church, this could be viewed as one of those times when the Spirit moved within the culture in order to speak prophetically to the Church (and the Christian Academy).

However, the second reason why I believe that other elements of liberation theology have not had as significant an impact as feminism is because, quite simply, they seem to require a more costly transformation in the way in which we live. To write with gender-inclusive language doesn’t cost me anything. To be taught by a female prof doesn’t cost me any more than being taught by a male prof. Heck, even if women get paid the same amount as I do, I’m still making the same amount of money that I made before. The average Christian in the Academy can, by and large, embrace feminism through a shift in rhetoric — and not a very large shift in the way in which he or she lives.

To embrace other forms of liberation theology would be far more costly. If I take liberation theology seriously I may have to move out of my comfortable home and into a far less comfortable neighbourhood. To embrace liberation theology means that I may have to study, teach, and write, with the objectives of reconciliation and shalom in mind — and those lie outside of the realm of my “expertise.” And it may force me to enter into relationships with people who don’t even speak the same language as the Academy, and people who don’t give a rip about defining an “inaugurated eschatology,” or an “Ausgustinian ecclesiology.” These people might not even care that I have a PhD in Theology, and they might even jeopardize the safety of my person and my family. No, no. Gender-inclusive language, well, I can handle that. Solidarity with those on the margins? No way, man, that’s not my calling or my gifting.

However, the surprising lack of impact that liberation theology, in general, has made upon the Western Church and the Christian Academy, should also cause us to reconsider the so-called advances of feminism. You see, my suspicion is that, just as with the rest of Western society, most people have adopted the rhetoric of feminism, without adopting the praxis thereof. This then leads to a situation where it is that much more difficult to attain to the feminist goals, because everybody thinks we’re already there!

However, at least on a cultural level, the stats suggest otherwise. Look up the stats re: violence against women in the home, the sexual trafficking and enslavement of women, and the sexual assault of women. Furthermore, look at the ways in which the police, the courts, and even the hospitals treat women. These things come together to paint a very bleak picture indeed. Most of the stats have gone up, not down (note: some have suggested that this is so because women now feel more empowered to report offences; however, although I don’t really want to get into a technical discussion here, I find that argument quite unconvincing).

Within Christian circles the same tends to hold true. Granted, my school affirms the equality of men and women — but women are a striking minority in the teaching and leadership positions. Further, to simply adopt the rhetoric of feminism, without also moving in the role of advocacy, seems especially hollow. While the Christian Academy has done a good job of changing its language, it has, generally, done hardly anything in terms of advocacy. Likewise, on another level, it seems that the most significant thing that has changed in the area of Evangelical Christianity is that the language of “complementarianism” has replaced that of patriarchy — and the end result is the same in both cases.

Thus, by beginning by asking why elements of liberation theology apart from feminism have not had a significant impact upon the Western Church and the Christian Academy, I have ended up with the conclusion that even feminism has not had much of an impact. This is so, I suspect, because we in the West do a fine job of developing theologies that serve our own ends. Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but we have ended up thinking that we are loving our neighbours by loving ourselves.

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