Excluding Women = Bad Theology
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Part III
Part of being a fully alive, flourishing human means to step into the fullness of personhood as free, whole, creative, curious, builders of our worlds. So, how is it that in the 21st century, there are still many women who aren’t able to fully participate in this vision of flourishing, but are trained from an early age to push down their curiosity, drive and desire …and to settle for being deferential, compliant, and passive.
How did this happen?
In my last video, I gave an overview of how theology and philosophy have worked in tandem over the centuries as a sort of playground for great thinkers to explain and construct our complex worlds. Here, I want to take a turn and explore how these two disciplines have influenced the area of women’s equality.
Flourishing & Non-Flourishing
If the core of our humanity is a capacity to create, exercise agency, and have a say in our own existence, what happens when we are robbed of that? In nature, the opposite of blooming is a withering, slow decline to death. This is the same thing that happens to humans when we are forced to push down our gifts of curiosity, creativity, and decision-making, which is precisely how generations upon generations of women have experienced life.
The plight of women is hardly news; wage gaps, poor representation in government and the boardroom, greater domestic burden, human trafficking, rape and violence, fewer economic opportunities, and more. While society at large has been tackling this as a human rights issue for centuries, conservative Christian churches remain bastions of patriarchal thinking, with leaders often unwilling to admit that their biblical interpretations cause harm to real women in their congregations.
This disgrace, this oppression is rooted in Christian theologies handed down from early church fathers who spoke more from their own social location than from the heart of God. And where did they get their ideas about women?
Dining, ding, ding….The philosophical ideas of the Greco-Roman world. See my last video on how greek thought influenced the church.
Aristotle, Plato, and their crew believed women were illogical, incomplete, inferior, and possibly defective. (1) Their culture was built on strict gender roles and hierarchies. It was from this foundation of misogyny that Church fathers crafted their theologies that codified women as inferior.
The Roots of Oppression in the Church
From the beginning of the Judeo-Christian experience, males have dominated the narrative. They created the book that gave them the advantage, declared it was from God, and then used it to dominate for over 2000 years.
In the biblical text, we see this at the very beginning with the story of creation, when men crafted God in their image, and then in the New Testament, they centered one of their own as the hero of the story. Women were not invited in as full participants, and were either relegated to the sidelines as peripheral characters or painted as the temptresses and seducers of mankind.
It was men who wrote the early authoritative accounts, men who decided what writings would be included in the canon, and then as the only legitimate church leaders, it was men who interpreted the text for the masses. Finally, it was men who set in stone the pillars of church doctrine that doomed Christian women to be second-class citizens in the church.
Interestingly Jesus shared a message that was radically liberative both to the Jewish status quo and the broader culture. His words put everyone on the same [playing field regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or economic and social status. But as the church grew and became more entrenched in the Greco-Roman world, there was a push to restrict women. Deeply embedded philosophies about women being inferior won out over the liberating message of the gospel.
As the church became more established, important Christian concepts such as the Imago Dei and the Trinity were born out of the troublesome ideas about women being inferior. They rely on male-centered, monarchical imagery of God, which further alienated women; violence, power, war, obedience, Kings, and subjects.
Another concept that is problematic for women is Original sin. Original sin was born out of the ideas of St. Augustine, the first-century philosopher who was instrumental in developing western Christianity. Augustine was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism. (image: women bad, men good) Augustine’s ideas about women are nuanced, but he clearly doesn’t view them as competent beings who can stand before God alone on their own merits. It is only in relation to a husband, that they are cast in God’s image. From this idea. Augustine moves to the creation story, where he frames women as sensual and given to base impulses got humans in this mess of needing salvation. Augustine’s ideas about original sin framed women as the problem and man/God as the savior. (2)
By the time we get to Thomas Aquinas, original sin was an official doctrine of the church. Aquinas enters the conversation by specifically calling out the very attributes of a fully participating human and creator as sinful; one who strives for excellence, curiosity and desire/embodied experience.
Therefore, the woman desired the promised preeminence and perfect knowledge. The beauty and sweetness of the fruit also added to this, attracting her to eat it, and so she, contending the fear of death, disobeyed the command of God by eating of the forbidden tree. And so her sin was manifold. First, there was a sin of pride, in which she inordinately desired excellence. Second, there was a sin of curiosity, in which she desired knowledge beyond the limits determined for her. Third, there was the sin of gluttony (desire/embodied experience), in which the sweetness of the food induced her to eat. Fourth, there was a false esteem of God, when she believed the words of the devil speaking against God. Fifth, there was disobedience by transgressing the precepts of God. (3)
Aquinas ensures compliance by instilling the fear of God’s wrath, which would limit generations of women from following their own desires to wherever they might lead. Aquinas effectively removes women from participation in the fullness of humanity and signals to the world that the woman who crosses the line and wants too much must be tamed, and she must remain afraid.
This sealed the fate of women for centuries to come.
Women’s Voices Emerge
In the area of women’s rights, we see a tug of war between Christian theology and secular human rights arguments. Along the way there was a smattering of women’s voices, most forced to push back against the system within the tight constraints of their location.
One such person was Hildegard of Bingen who used her position as an abbess to write and teach. Her most famous ideas were around conceiving of God as masculine and feminine and she wrote of her experiences with the feminine nature of God. (4)
In the 18th century, there was a shift in philosophical thought known as the enlightenment. This was marked by growing secularism and a loosening of the authority and influence of the church, and an emphasis on rights and individuality. This explosion of new ideas around liberty and individualism affected religion, politics, and social issues.
This was good news for men, but women were still largely out of the conversation. Many male thinkers did not expand their enlightened ideals of freedom and progress to those outside their own gender.
It was in this environment that Mary Wollstonecraft would become a champion of the rights of women within the context of human rights. Though not the first woman to write of such things, Wollstonecraft’s robust engagement with thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau caused her to stand out during the enlightenment. She was one of the “primary architects” of the view that “women’s human rights is the view that women are entitled to equal rights with men because of the sexes’ shared status as human beings.” (5)
As modernity marched on, the presence of women in philosophy and theology increased and by the 20th century, there was an explosion of women in the field with such names as Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Mary Daly, and Bell Hooks. Like the men before them, these philosophers tackled women’s rights pushing back against faith traditions.
The bad seeds of male domination and female exclusion that were planted by western philosophers and watered by Church Fathers have grown into a narrative that doesn’t work for everyone. It is with great sadness and a touch of rage that I acknowledge how many Christian women still do not live as free, creative, agentic persons who are in charge of their own lives. The Christian legacy around flourishing is problematic and in need of a reboot, but the roots of bad theology are deep and twisted.
Hope for Change
In the last 30 years, a new wave of ecofeminist, womanist and mujerista philosophers and theologians burst on the scene (collage of women) and are changing the face of the conversation and I have great hope that these visions of liberation theologies will crack open the door to greater liberation for Christian women. But, it won’t be easy. It will require us to question the literal translation of the Bible as the final and unflawed authority. For some, this battle was won a long time ago, but within the evangelical subculture, questioning is still seen as heresy – the legacy of Tertullian’s crew, where the fear of heresy keeps people from even examining other ideas.
Though it can feel scary to push back, understanding the fallibility of early church fathers is liberating when we realize there is nothing sacred about their views, and we have the same rights as they took to wrestle with questions and come to our own conclusions.
Ecofeminist, Ivone Gebara, affirms that humans create theologies and we can remake them as needed.
Our extraordinary creativity acquired the ability to produce meanings capable of helping us live out this or that situation. But these meanings are not static realities. They are part of the dynamism of life, and thus they change as well. Of necessity, they undergo transformations in order to respond to life’s demands and adapt to new situations as they arise.(…)The human meaning of things comes from ourselves, as does the human meaning of the entire universe.(…) It is we, through our ancestors and traditions, who have constructed the Trinity…so we can change our way of portraying it as we develop new perceptions. (Longing for Running Water, Gebara, 6)
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