By some measures, the influence of feminist theology peaked in the 1990’s. It is still around, however, acting as a supporting pillar for liberal religion’s latest preoccupation: the elimination of “gender.”
Feminist theologians and clergy convened in March 2004 for an annual “Women and the Word” conference at Boston University’s School of Theology, challenging masculine images of God, supporting abortion rights, urging acceptance of same-sex “marriage” and a new “omnigender” and “polymorphous paradigm” in society that is undergirded by a “gender”-neutral theology.
“Women and the Word” is organized by the Boston seminary’s Anna Howard Shaw Center, which is devoted to claiming the “power of women’s voices.” The seminary is a United Methodist institution, though its students come from many denominations.
Among the most provocative speakers was lesbian activist Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. “Women doing theology creates heresy, we were told [in seminary],” recalled Mollenkott, author of the recently published Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach, which is aimed at “transgendered” people.
Indeed, this allegation of heresy is somewhat true, Mollenkott (a former “fundamentalist” and now an Episcopalian) admitted as she lamented that “androcentric theology is the center of orthodoxy”: “Women have introduced ‘heresy’ . . . [as they challenged] militarism, racism, ableism, classism, ageism, colonialism and guilty-ridden theology that has ruled for a very long time.”
Mollenkott condemned the traditional “Christian claim that we alone possess the way to salvation.” Feminists, instead, emphasize that everything about God is “metaphorical.” And, to combat injustice, unhelpful metaphors that portray God as a male, all-powerful, rich king, lord, and master must be overthrown.
“We said all metaphors are socially constructed. None are ultimately true,” Mollenkott explained. “Logically, we can’t say metaphors of other religions are not true.” She stressed that “faith may be celebrated through a variety of religious experiences.”
Quoting another theologian, Mollenkott warned that “worldwide mayhem is caused by idolatrous allegiance to male metaphors.”
A major barrier to justice is a “binary society” that insists on “gender constructs” and “exaggerated differences between men and women,” Mollenkott complained. To confront this, she is pushing for an “omnigender society to correct gender assumptions.”
The dominant paradigm in society insists there are just two sexes, Mollenkott rued. The transgender movement is a protest against that assumption. “How will we define gender?” she wondered with glee, once the transgender or omnigender mind-set prevails. “Will it be by chromosomes or how you pee?”
“Binary gender constructs are wrong on every count. It doesn’t account for cross dressers. They are compelled to do it. They must do it. Their creator must have made them that way.”
Mollenkott mentioned a friend of hers who describes her sex as “otherwise.” She urged human rights for “every gender and sexual orientation.” “Let people be who they feel they are,” she implored, calling this new gender understanding “polymorphism.”
“Instead of correcting Her [sic] mistakes, let’s understand what they’re intended to tell us,” Mollenkott enthused. “Apparently the Creator likes diversity a lot more than most people do.” Indeed, she warned the opposition not to question the omnigender approach, as “What God has made clear you must not make profane.”
Mollenkott lashed out at the “religious right” for touting a constitutional amendment defining marriage. “Access to civil marriage is a part of the right to pursue happiness which our Constitution guarantees,” she asserted, though it seemed to be the Declaration of Independence that she was actually quoting.
“Religion must stop making sexuality a focus point,” Mollenkott declared. “Jesus didn’t do it. Moses didn’t do it. Muhammad didn’t do it.” She called for sex education for children that focuses on sexual orientation and “safe sex.”
“Stop circling around the few Scriptures that condemn people,” Mollenkott implored, as she urged “transreligious solidarity.”
Sounding a similar theme (but with more careful language), United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison said, “We need to hear new melodies that God is sending our way.” “More and more people are having trouble reconciling our faith with their own experiences,” Morrison fretted. “The church is trying to hold folks to traditional values that disconnect with reality today.”
“We’ve become outmoded, irrelevant, and often obstructionist,” Morrison said of the traditional Church. We need to “dance with the light” instead of “sulking judgmentalism.”
Morrison is a prominent advocate of homosexuality within her denomination, and her comments seemed aimed in that direction. “Why aren’t we excited and positive about change in the world instead of sulking in a corner?” she asked.
“We’re laying on legalisms that create the disconnect,” she continued. “Britney Spears is more threatening to marriage and covenant than two people of the same gender who have been together for 50 years.”
The bishop complained that “Our creedal issues become means of control and exclusion,” as she urged openness to “new realities.”
“There’s a whole church full of transgendered people,” Morrison noted of a congregation under her jurisdiction. “They’re beyond gay. They’re leading us.”
Morrison fretted about “litmus tests for seminary professors” and the embarrassment of spending so “much time on sex issues” while the real issues are being neglected by the Church, such as the “growing gap between the rich and the poor.”
Feminist theologian Mary Hunt, a Roman Catholic lesbian activist, hailed the many female clergy present, such as Morrison, and announced with a smile, “My ordination day is pending!”
Hunt lamented an “erosion of reproductive choices,” citing proposed bans on partial-birth abortion. And she bemoaned the “demeaning debate” on same-sex “marriage,” a practice she described as a universal “right.”
Hunt also hailed feminist progress in the churches, citing the role of feminist theologians in challenging “structures of lordship” such as “heterosexism” and colonialism. She hailed a societal shift away from a “Christian base” to growing religious pluralism. And she cited progress in the ordination of women and lesbians in some denominations, including a lesbian minister in the United Methodist Church who recently defied a church prohibition on homosexual clergy.
“In the Roman Catholic Church lesbian priests would make children safer,” Hunt opined. She condemned her church for using women such as Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon to argue against abortion rights and same-sex “marriage.” “The Vatican has learned that pitting women against women works,” Hunt warned.
Even within feminist circles, Hunt complained, poor women are excluded, “transgender” women are still “on the outside,” and too much of the conversation is in English.
Joining Hunt in urging greater sexual and theological freedom was United Church of Christ minister Susan Davies, who teaches at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine. Davies described herself as a “reflective crone,” incest survivor, divorced woman, and out-of-the-closet lesbian.
Davies underwent her croning ceremony, a Wiccan rite-of-passage ritual for middle-aged women, at age 60. As a young woman, she had felt shame for having been a childhood victim of incestuous abuse. “Structures in society have condoned and permitted such assaults,” she regretted.
Divorced in 1971, Davies had “internalized her homophobia.” She eventually embraced lesbianism after being “closeted” for many years. “Closets are lovely places for storage but not places for spiritual growth,” she commented with a grin. “We as women bring a sexuality that threatens the church and threatens male religious authority.”
Combating male religious authority and symbols was also a theme for Korean-American Hae Sun Kim. “What an angry woman I was in those days!” recounted Kim, who is a United Methodist minister and a consultant with the New York-based United Methodist Women’s Division. She was recalling her message to the “Women and the Word” conference of 16 years ago.
In seminary, Kim had learned how to “deconstruct the patriarchy of the church” and relied on the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” She is now “glad” those days are over and that “anger is now no longer consuming” her.
The world has not changed, however, and the same “discrimination” continues against women and minorities. Kim now conducts empowerment workshops and holds on to a vision of the “new heaven and the new earth.”
Presbyterian minister Unzu Lee, also Korean-American, wondered about the effectiveness of traditional Christian spiritual practices, especially reliance on “written text and preaching.” “Scripture is the site of our struggle,” Lee said. “By giving such authority to written text, we lose our ability to intuit and listen to signs around us and be compassionate.”
Lee wonders “if Scripture is helpful in sexual orientation,” expressing her doubts about the Bible. Just celebrating the empowerment of women in the Church is not sufficient, she warned, if women are not working against racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia.
“We are not doing a good enough job in fighting those who are corrupting the language,” Lee warned. Specifically, she was concerned about conservative women using the language of “diversity” to argue for the inclusion of a pro-life perspective in the women’s caucus of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
United Church of Christ minister June Goudey also had doubts about scriptural authority. “Heresy means choice,” she noted, observing that heretics were simply people who had made different choices. “Women have been called heretical, but the choices we’ve made have saved our lives,” Goudey enthused. “I explore what is my truth and I follow it.”
“I can speak my truth, but it may not be everybody’s truth,” Goudey added. “Feminism can’t say it all.” She asked the audience to consider images in the Church that have helped to shape racism and homophobia. For example, “Look at our liturgy.”
Observing the subversive nature of “Women and the Word” and of feminist theology in general, Goudey concluded: “A lot of people don’t want us to be here. They fear diversity.”
Eliminating sex distinction, justifying exotic sexualities, and interpreting Christianity as merely an instrument for overthrowing perceived social oppressions are all major themes in America’s liberal seminaries. In many cases, those seminaries have ceased to be training schools for Christian pastors and have become therapeutic stations for self-discovery and training academies for radical social change.
If the crowd at “Women and the Word” was any reflection, however, the preoccupations of liberationist religion will fade as the generation of the 1960’s and 70’s retires to its omnigender Valhalla, freeing the seminaries to return to their original purposes.