First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Feminist Theology: Not Just for Women

May 14, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

I believe God is everything … Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it … My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.  -  Alice Walker, The Color Purple



I did not know what it meant to have a feminist theology until I became a Unitarian Universalist. I had glimmerings before then. But no real words for it. Only in the crucible of a women’s group studying women’s religious history did I begin to understand there was such a thing in its own right. And that such a theology could give expression to my dissatisfaction with traditional religion and traditional images of God. And that it could begin to open up new and creative spiritual expressions for me.

My first experiences of feminist theology were with goddess spiritualities. Those quickly expanded to other areas, including earth-centered practices and paganism. Then I went to seminary. Between being a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and being a seminarian, I was learning some pretty edgy stuff compared to what I had grown up with religiously. Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father, Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, and Sallie McFague’s Models of God, for example, deconstructed traditional ideas and offered new ways of seeing the world.

My seminary theology professor, who I have the good fortune to be working with again in my doctoral studies, included Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality in our coursework. That opened up a creative, ecological, and feminist approaches to Judeo-Christianity. I was also fortunate in seminary to study with a visiting professor, a South African theologian who had been engaged in the work of apartheid. From him, I was introduced to third world theologies, liberation theology, ecofeminism, and womanist theologies.

So what is feminist theology? Feminist theology came into full bloom in the late 20th century as a critique of patriarchal texts and traditions. The God depicted in traditional religion was rejected for justifying the domination of women. But this God was also rejected as perpetuating slavery, colonialism, war, and environmental degradation. The emerging feminist theology was closely linked with the revaluing of the body, as well as the Civil Rights, anti-poverty, and anti-war movements.

Alice Walker’s excerpt from The Color Purple expresses these views in beautiful sensory language: The first step is away from the old white God. What replaces that is a God that is everything and everywhere. A God embodied in experience. In feeling and touching and hearing and seeing. In religious experience that honors the body rather than shaming it. In religious experience that includes and honors nature – trees, birds, air. That includes the relational dimension of life. That includes all people. And embraces the joyful experience of being connected to everything.

The novel The Color Purple is structured around letters written to God by the main protagonist Celie. At the story’s opening, Celie is only 14 years old. She is an uneducated black girl in rural Georgia. Her father beats and rapes her. He twice impregnates her, and each time he takes her newborn into the woods and returns alone. Celie’s mother dies and her father remarries but the abuse continues. Soon enough Celie is married off into a loveless marriage. Celie describes her first understanding of God as an old white man with a beard. Clearly this God did not speak to her lived experiences. Her first step toward an actual embodied experience of the divine was realizing that God is not male or female, no particular gender and also no particular race. Indeed, God could be found everywhere and anywhere. By the close of the novel, Celie writes to God: "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God." The traditional theology Celie had learned failed to take her into account.

Traditional religious texts and traditions are communicated from a nearly exclusively male perspective and therefore cannot help but be skewed. The historian Gerda Lerner argues that our whole culture is infused with a certain way of thinking as a result. It is not enough to simply add women on. What is needed is a whole restructuring of the way religion is done. I am struck by this idea, not only in terms of the levels of anti-woman sentiment in our culture today, but also in the context of this church’s work on anti-racism, which intersects with issues of sexism. We find ourselves situated in a culture steeped in white supremacy and institutional racism, as well as ableism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other isms. It is not enough simply to add people on. The very structures upon which society and religions are based need to be reformed.

Just think about our work with the women and children incarcerated at the Berks Detention Center. Nine asylum-seeking women and their children were deported this past week. Society is still structured on a domination model that degrades and denies the real lived experiences of women, and especially women of color, in this case Latinx women, and children. Beginning with the abuse and violence in their home countries and including their incarceration for 18 months here in Berks County. That was followed by our country’s highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court, refusing to hear their appeal. They were deported and returned to one of the most dangerous and most violent countries in the world. There these women have already been subjected to violence and their sons are prime targets to be recruited to gangs. The one bright spot in all of this is that arrangements were made for them to be met by a caring organization when they arrive back in their home country.

Among the many things I learned from feminist theology is that it is a way of acknowledging women’s experiences. But more than that, it is a way of reconceiving human thought and experience. Feminist theology is about a more evolved way of being in the world, one that appreciates the fuller scope of human experiences. This necessarily includes everyone, all beings.

It is intersectional, addressing issues of gender, class, culture, race, ability, and more. It is not about exchanging a male god for a female goddess. Women and girls certainly may need female images to counter the male domination images that are so prevalent in our culture and which persist in our consciousness. And feminine language can offer a woman-affirming vision of the divine. Yet we all do well to acknowledge that God and Goddess language, like all language for the holy, is metaphorical.

One of the things feminist theology is not – it is not about making women’s experiences more important than men’s. Nor is it about remaining in a limited gender binary. Let’s be honest. Even the words male and female, we are learning, do not encompass the realities of people’s real experiences.

Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow have been writing and working in the field of feminist theology for a few decades now. They speak of feminist theology as embodied theology. Plaskow focuses on Jewish feminist theology and Christ on Goddess feminist theology. They describe embodied theology this way:

We believe that the world and the body are our true home; that divinity can and must be known in the world and in the body; and that this world is the one where we live out our lives and where our choices make a difference This conviction, which underlies all of our theological insights is so basic to our thought that we have largely taken it for granted. Yet, we acknowledge that to locate the meaning and purpose of human life in this world flies in the face of many traditional views, both Eastern and Western.

Numerous traditional philosophers and theologians have argued that embodied relational experience is finally unreal or insignificant because the goal of human life is to escape the body and the finite world in order to unite with the infinite - a transcendent divinity or ultimate principle. The embodied theological method we propose as a new way of constructing theologies begins with the insight that theology is rooted in experience.

While our faith certainly places great importance on reason and intellect, we have increasingly come to embrace an embodied theology. Experience is located in the body. Human understandings of the world are not attained solely through the rational mind. The capacities to feel, touch, see, hear, taste and smell the holy are just as or more crucial. God can be felt not just thought about. Being part of everything is not just an idea but also the actual experience of feeling that “if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.”

An important part of feminist embodied spirituality has been extending the circle of inclusion to the material world of the body and nature. Bodies in religion have too often been ignored or disparaged. Feminist theology insists that the divine is experienced through the body and that divinity can be found in the material world. The first Unitarian Universalist source articulates the centrality of sensory, bodily experience. The sixth Unitarian Universalist source with its emphasis on nature’s cycles honors the material world in which we live.

Feminist embodied theology is consistent with UU theology. Unitarian Universalism is sometimes described as a unity in diversity. This means that we do not all believe exactly alike but that there are some values we hold in common. I just want to stress that I am not suggesting that there are right and wrong ways to name or experience God or Goddess or even that the term has meaning for everyone. What I am suggesting is that we do indeed hold some things in common, many of which are described by embodied theology.

We see ourselves as cells in the body of this cosmos. Many droplets in the ocean. We collectively recognize our connection to each other – to other people and other beings and to trees and air. We affirm that each one of us is in some way a part of everything. Our aspiration is for belonging, connection, justice – here, now.

May we commit ourselves to weaving and strengthening this embodied web of connection. May we insist on changing structures designed for disconnection and dis-unity. May ours be a religion striving toward the embodiment of being and loving.

Amen. Blessed be.

Resource: Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Fortress Press. 2016.