Faith and Feminism
Nicola Slee presents many important facets of Christian feminist theology in this introductory book, a part of the Exploring Faith: Theology for Life series published by Darton, Longman and Todd in the United Kingdom. When I set out to familiarize myself with Christian feminism, I was not aware that the book I chose would be written from a non-American perspective, though I am happy to have found that to be the case. Curiously, Slee places the origins of contemporary feminism in the United States, which makes this particular book a refreshingly objective introduction.
The extent of my understanding of Christian Feminist Theology (CFT) has come through personal dialog with friends and colleagues, and I found this extrapolation no less personal and digestible. Her tone was refreshing and approachable, uncharacteristic of the fringes of certain ideologies that have been suppressed (consciously or otherwise) for centuries; she didn’t indict men, just androcentrism. In fact, Slee considerately concedes that there are forms of feminism that have swapped misogyny for misandry.
Slee’s greatest, and yet simplest, accomplishment (in my reading) is her structure of main threads within the book into individual chapters. These chapters include Bible, Language, Sin, Christology, Salvation, Pneumatology (study of the Spirit), Ecclesiology (study of Church), and Spirituality. The first chapter introduces CFT and the final chapter explores the simultaneous gift and challenge of CFT to the Church. She takes these central theological tenets and describes first how they have been understood popularly (which may be assumed is also patriarchal), how CFT critiques them, and finally where feminist theologians fall short and the ground that has yet to be covered. For someone who prefers logical, sequential arguments, I found her organization incredibly engaging and superbly suited to a beginner hoping to get the no-nonsense basics.
Much of what I read was new to me, though the major tenets were generally expected, such as the purpose and importance of feminist readings of Christian scripture. Especially as a white heterosexual (i.e. privileged) male, interacting with texts like Slee’s are invaluable in my own development as someone who desires to be a more compassionate, well-rounded person. CFT helps me to see the ways in which my own inherent biases have skewed my perceptions, and offers a glimpse of a more equitable world in which those biases have lost their power and their poison. My recommendation cannot be strongly worded enough; this is an essential text for all those interested in the intersection of feminism and faith, men and women alike.
Slee takes care in addressing how patriarchal treatments of Christian scripture have been to the detriment of not only men, but women as well. She outlines several authors who posit that one of the central sins of womanhood in our age is their failure to self-actualize; they have, through androcentric models of Christ, become dependent upon males for security, fulfillment, and salvation. Women, these authors suggest, have drunk the Kool-Aid of androcentrism. In a hopeful tone, Slee reminds readers of all sexes that there are developed theologies that are simultaneously empowering, enlightening, and encouraging for all those who wish to expand their image of the divine beyond the limitations of masculine renderings.
As with any interaction I have with feminism, I admittedly read the text cautiously, painfully aware of those strands of feminism that border on misandry. As that privileged member of society, it frequently seems assumed that my privilege is welcome or unassuming to me; that I take fro granted the opportunities I enjoy on account of my social or economic class. Nothing could be farther from the truth; in the last several years, I have been unable to separate myself from the reality of who I am taken to be on account of my own gender, sexuality, or skin color, even my history in the military. When I recently supported civil unions here in Hawaii as well as on a national scale, why were my queer and female friends surprised? Was it assumed that my gender informed my understanding of gender equity, was there perhaps a bit of cognitive bias on the part of those who knew me? It has been my experience that bias is a universal problem, that nobody is without them.
It is from that perspective that I often enter into texts that espouse a nontraditional ideology. I consider myself quite non-traditional, but at the same time not recklessly so. For this reason, I was ever more grateful for Slee’s treatment of such sensitive subject matter. She is neither an apologist for knee-jerk radical feminism, nor willing to concede to archaic institutions merely on account of their long history. However, the text was clearly focused on women, with only a few prescriptions for men or a feminist interaction with the new field being developed known as “men’s studies.” Hers was an account of primarily, but not exclusively, of women and their experience as source and norm. If I were to change anything in this introduction, I would like to have been given more in the area of deliberately seeking out common ground for men and women’s studies together. Certainly, that effort might take up an entire book in itself, but alluding to the commonality between these two camps a few times in her final chapter seemed to be insufficient treatment, especially considering the fact that frequently in the text the necessity of an academic symbiosis between and amongst the genders is implied.
My impression of CFT has been exponentially increased by my reading of Faith and Feminism. Slee’s final chapter, especially, was provocative and inspiring; calling invested persons to a considerate and critical dialectic. Such a discussion, she implores, will prove fruitful to all concerned; clergy, laity, and secular alike. Should even one of these three groups exempt themselves from this important work, it would be an impairment to all. Her alter call, so to speak, leaves the reader with hope that how things have been does not need be how things are or will be. Not without difficulty, this task of genuine and mutually respectful dialog amongst often disparate ideological camps (sacred v. secular, feminist v. traditionalist) is an imperative that speaks against both ignorance and reaction. Only considered, respectful responses between parties will provide the framework for a future free from fundamentalism.