Never Liberated, Always Liberating: Feminist Theology, 3

Feminist theologians have made it a key point that words do fail us. The Western religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are religions “of the book.” That is, they are based on particular texts. In these traditions, authority derives from certain words, and ultimately from two underlying ideas:
  1. There is a fixed canon. Certain texts have the authority of scripture, and all other writings are permanently excluded.
  2. There are correct and incorrect interpretations of these authoritative texts.
A crucial point of feminist theology has been that the very expectation that words will stay put in their meaning, and that words won’t fail us, has been a problem for us. Authority must be de-centered, they say. No finite text can save us. Liberation of both women and men depends upon opening up creative possibilities of meaning.

We must make the sources of authority open ended. Let us bring in new texts from other world traditions, write new stories, and make new interpretations of the old ones. Let the language which speaks to us, which has power for us, which is our scripture, be infinite and not closed off. For the same words that once liberated can come to oppress.

What matters is context, intent, purpose – and tone of voice. There is no grand narrative that will always give everyone her due. Any story becomes oppressive if it becomes fixed and canonical.

The feminist project, then, is not to replace one “master narrative” with another, but to encourage the proliferation of diverse stories undermining the possibility of any “master narrative.” Any canonized set of words will always fail us, so feminist theologians remind us to look beyond the words to the context.

In the pattern of the 12-steppers who say, “never recovered, always recovering,” we might say, “never liberated, always liberating” – meaning that liberation is not a particular state of being, but an ongoing process that always requires going the next step. Every story has its particular and limited point of view, so all we can do is keep telling more stories, compensating the limited perspective of one with diverse other, albeit also in their own way limited, perspectives. The instant that process stops, the instant we canonize a finite text, in that moment we give up on further liberation – and liberation ceases.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to religion is a feminist theology in this most basic way: it avoids any closed canon. As James Luther Adams said:
“Liberal religion depends first upon the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”
We say religion isn’t about what we believe – and therefore it is not about the words that we might feel like asserting. Religion is about experience, and about how we live, and about relationship. In this way, Unitarian Universalist theology is feminist theology.

Perhaps, then, my embrace of the label “Unitarian Universalist” has, over the years, slowly made it seem less urgent for me to also proclaim myself “feminist.” I’m as feminist as ever, even if I don’t say so as often – because, for me, saying I’m Unitarian Universalist is saying I’m feminist.

We want, ultimately, a world of peace, prosperity, and justice. And how do we get there?
  • Pay equity for women,
  • Gender balance in positions of power,
  • Reducing domestic battering of girlfriends and wives, and
  • Ensuring reproductive choice
These, I think, are requirements of justice in their own right -- and also would be particularly instrumental toward realizing a world of peace overall.

The “Because I Am a Girl” website reports that:
“70% of the one billion people living in extreme poverty are women and girls. Girls are 3 times more likely to be malnourished than boys. Globally, 65 million girls do not attend primary or secondary school. Girls and women in the world's poorest countries are the most vulnerable members of society, denied the same rights and opportunities as their brothers."
Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, observed,
"research is also clear that when girls reach their full potential, through improved status, better health care, and education, it is the most effective development tool for society as a whole. As a country's primary enrolment rate for girls increases, so too does its gross domestic product per capita."
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This is part 3 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 4: On the Side of the Dance
Previous: Part 2: Words Fail Us
Beginning: Part 1: I Was a Teenage Feminist
Photo courtesy of "Because I Am a Girl", becauseiamagirl.ca

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