This was written for my Feminist Theology class. Node your homework.

Is Versus Ought: Metaphysical Realism and Feminist Theology

The question of atheism has been a perennial one for Western humanistic thought, particularly with those individuals who were most concerned with the dynamics of power, such as French satirist François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) or Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:

. . . all the tormentors, all the oppressors, and all the exploiters of humanity; priests, monarchs, statesmen, soldiers, public and private financiers, officials of all sorts, policemen, gendarmes, jailers and executioners, monopolists, capitalists, tax-leeches, contractors and landlords, lawyers, economists, politicians of all shades, down to the smallest vendor of sweetmeats, all will repeat in unison those words of Voltaire: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." For, you understand, "the people must have a religion." That is the safety-valve. (Bakunin)
Insights such as these are keenly felt by feminist theologians, who are motivated to use theological God-talk not to serve Bakunin’s “exploiters of humanity” but instead to liberate those who are disadvantaged within the patriarchal (Bakunin would say capitalist) condition. But the question then arises: does patriarchy “invent” God as an instrument of oppression? And if so, can feminist theology do the same in order to have God as an instrument of liberation, and still remain intellectually honest?

Feminists, then, are faced with a dilemma: they can either accept or deny the existence of the patriarchal God. If they accept Him in His entirety along with His history of gender inequity, feminism becomes a doomed project. If they deny Him, they must answer Who/what it is, exactly, that they are denying as well as what/Who, if anything, is left. For obvious reasons, there are very few feminists of the former sort; among the latter, there ranges from evangelical feminists (who claim that the tradition is liberatory but misapplied) to Mary Daly (who claims that the word God itself as a reference to the divine cannot be preserved), to secularists (who believe that religion and feminism cannot be reconciled). This is where issues of feminist epistemology and feminist metaphysics come to the forefront. After all, the criterion or criteria for truth a feminist assumes will fundamentally affect the way she or he chooses to address these issues. To paint in absurdly broad strokes, these feminists can be divided into two metaphysical camps: realists and antirealists.

Metaphysical realists including Elizabeth Johnson, Amina Wadud-Muhsin, and Brian Wren tend to be the more conservative camp, with an image of God bearing much resemblance (or so it seems to their more radical critics) to the patriarchal God: S/He exists outside the realm of human experience, has revealed Hirself to humans, and can meaningfully be said to perform such anthropomorphic actions as knowing and loving (Wren 149-153; Johnson 226). Among the antirealist camp are thinkers such as Delores Williams, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Kathryn Tanner who reject this concept of a metaphysically real God in favor of an alternate conception of the divine.

Which of these two camps a particular feminist theologian falls into, then, will in many ways determine what it is that she or he will have to say about God, and about how she or he views the landscape of feminist theology. “Any feminist theology,” writes Sheila Briggs, “needs to be clear on whether it wants a God which also exists independently of human experiences in the social worlds we inhabit. How one decides this issue determines what sort of history of theology one will develop” (176). Many other factors are also contingent on that single choice.

One of the advantages of the realist camp is clear: it is more acceptable to the conservative religious establishment, more accessible to the people at large, and many times may be in resonance with what the feminist may feel the core of his or her tradition to be. Realist theologies show that it is not necessary to give up a belief in a metaphysically real God in order to work for social justice and stand against inequity. It should be unsurprising that many of the members of this camp come from liturgical Christian rather than mainstream Protestant traditions (such as Catholic Elizabeth Johnson or Anglican Brian Wren) or from non-Christian traditions which are struggling to retain their identity in the face of Western hegemony (e.g. Islamic feminists such as Amina Wadud or Riffat Hassan). In fact, under my prompting Sa'diyya Shaikh was willing to speculate that if Islamic feminists were to be removed from the context of an oppressive conservative establishment, it might be the case that they would be more able and willing to take on the radical character of the antirealists. Similarly, when Serene Jones attacks “phenomenological” accounts of women’s experience by feminist theologians as too “universalizing” (i.e. rooted in essential truths), the thinkers she chooses as representative are Johnson and another Roman Catholic, Catherine Mowry LaCugna (Jones 35).

Of course, in a situation of apologetics, these are often the very elements which allow feminist theologies to gain credibility. For Johnson or Wadud to take a stance such as antirealism that is obviously outside the traditional borders of the Catholic Church and of Islam would be to destroy their own credibility within their traditions. Indeed, in She Who Is, it is incredibly difficult to pin down any specific place where Johnson is demonstrably realist. Could it be that she or the Islamic feminists are simply closet antirealists and know better than to admit it?

If this is the case (and I do not claim that it is), there is something troublingly disingenuous about the strategy. Metaphysical antirealism is too important a doctrine to simply omit through negligence, and if she is deliberately misrepresenting her position through these omissions, one has to ask if this is intellectually honest.

Furthermore, regardless of the usefulness of such a strategy in apologetic scenarios, the truth is that this language always concedes that an anti-feminist theology is both conceivable and coherent, simply not the case. In my opinion, this is conceding far too much, especially in regards to those traditions (which include all of Western monotheism) in which the patriarchal interpretation certainly seems to be the least hypothesis when using a realist hermeneutic.

There are strong feminist motivations, then, for adopting a position of metaphysical antirealism (or, rather, rejecting the doctrine of metaphysical realism—-no strong/positive belief is required!): patriarchy can be seen as functioning through a process of legitimating its own epistemological processes by grounding them in a supposed (but ultimately fictional) metaphysical world. This is patriarchy’s strongest weapon, and unless the landscape of the metaphysical battleground is changed, feminism will remain an uphill battle.

A second “advantage” of the realist position, however, is related to the first: it may be right (or so its proponents believe). Metaphysical realists tend to subscribe to a correspondence theory of truth. Under such a representationalist account, if there were a metaphysical realm, and if a God inhabited such a realm, then and only then would the statement “God exists” be true. Analyses of the oppressive character of such a God would then be irrelevant, for they would not be able to affect the truth of the statement “God exists” (Clark 34-36). Those feminists attempting to (from this perspective) over-politicize the theological process, as opposed to merely removing the patriarchal politics which have distorted the core message, would then be possibly well-intentioned but nonetheless incorrect.

But there is no reason for a feminist to commit herself or himself to such a hermeneutic. A feminist who uses an epistemology other than the correspondence theory need not search for a posteriori rationalizations (which may or may not be in short supply) as evidence for a feminist-friendly God; however, such an epistemology would by its nature commit that feminist to metaphysical antirealism. This, I think, is a benevolent move, as it is the move for which I argue here.

Part of my argument is not narrowly feminist. Feminist theory and theology are by necessity committed to a search for truth similar but not identical to traditional conceptions of philosophy. Feminism thus has an obligation to make sure its theoretical underpinnings are coherent and tenable. Metaphysical realism, I would argue, is neither of these things: it presumes an extralinguistic world using linguistic terms (for what other terms, in the end, are there?). This is a broadly philosophical argument, however, and not immediately convincing: the anti/realism debate remains among the most controversial issues of contemporary philosophy. When combined with the feminist motivations for adopting metaphysical antirealism, however, I think a very strong case can be made.

What, precisely, are the features of this alternate epistemology? The answer to this question is far from clear, and to discuss and critique all the potential options is beyond my current ability as a philosopher/theologian. What I can and will do, however, is briefly re-examine some theologians of this type.

Delores Williams, in her Sisters in the Wilderness, presents a conception of God which is radically fluid, whose nature changes to whatever it needs to be in order to be liberating. “Jesus is [the oppressed’s] mother, their father, their sister and their brother,” she writes. “Jesus is whoever Jesus has to be to function in a supportive way in the struggle” (203). There is no concern that Williams is misrepresenting God in this process, or to be “playing God” herself by arbitrarily dictating His nature; God is implicitly assumed to have no extrinsic, independent essence.

Ada Maria Isasi Diaz, in a similar way, sees her Mujerista theology as posing a deep challenge to patriarchal notions of what theology is and how it is done. “One of the key elements of traditional theology,” she claims, “is its so-called objectivity, its so-called imutability, its sense of being official, of being the only perspective that is correct” (77). Mujerista theology challenges this objectivity which, after all, presumes metaphysical realism. Instead, it focuses on the contemporary forms of Latina (mostly Catholic) religious life, particularly popular religion (75). Indeed, she claims that scripture is not incredibly (directly) important to many Latinas, a fact which would seem a travesty to many more conservative (but even feminist) Catholics. This move only makes sense as an antirealist move.

Both Williams and Isasi-Diaz are constructive theologians, fashioning new theologies (i.e. new varieties of Christian doctrine) to serve and liberate their intended communities. Kathryn Tanner, in her essay “Social Theory Concerning ‘New Social Movements’ and the Practice of Feminist Theology,” functions as what I would call a “meta-theologian,” i.e. a theoretician providing an intellectual framework which outlines how theology should be done. The nature of her meta-theology is poststructuralist and thus antirealist in nature, making the following assumptions:

(1) cultural forms are only loosely referential, and meanings are fluid and shifting rather than fixed;
(2) coherence is the always temporary and contingent distillate of a lot of hard and ultimate futile rhetorical work; and
(3) social and cultural relations are fields of forces which are “normally,” that is, apart from efforts to have things otherwise, dispersed, discontinuous, and unsynchronized. (Tanner 181-182)

These claims are meta-theological in the sense that Tanner has not yet articulated any type of constructive theology, but they commit her to a very specific conception of God-—that of the metaphysical antirealist. Any constructive theology which is done under the rubric of her meta-theology, then, would by necessity be antirealist itself. Isasi-Diaz and Williams, then, would fit relatively easily under Tanner’s meta-theology, while Johnson, Wren, and Wadud all would not. Indeed, Serene Jones puts Isasi-Diaz and Tanner together in her article, under the category of “cultural-anthropology accounts”: theologies which broaden “the emancipatory potential of Christianity by noting the shifting cultural functions religious beliefs serve in different Christian communities” (47). She recognizes their complimentary rôles of meta-theologian and constructive theologian, claiming that

If Tanner provides an example of a theologian using a cultural-linguistic framework to chart grand maps, then Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz provides an example of a theologian using the same framework to opposite ends, using it to explore the particular, uneven and conflicted terrain of a specific community’s lived experience. (49)

But, having rejected metaphysical realism and the correspondence theory of truth, how exactly do these thinkers construct their meta/theologies? Shelia Briggs observes that “Historians of theology, like historians of science in their discipline, need to advance some argument about what verifies or falsifies theological claims” (176). Certainly this is no less true for the contemporary meta-theologian or constructive theologian. Tanner outlines the type of process that she, Williams, and Isasi-Diaz all use: a set of “symbolic resources” for a specific community is identified, and then those elements are explained, ranked, and interwoven (Tanner 186). Obviously, the theologian performing this problem would not act on whim or through random chance (say, by casting lots); instead, she or he would act on the principles of feminism and liberation. In this way, religious epistemology becomes socialized, politicized, and ethicized.

Of course, there is the ever-present question of where the norms from which the feminist theological process gains its directions originate (and by extension, why those norms should be considered authoritative). By rejecting metaphysical realism, feminists give up any opportunity of grounding reality in metaphysics. Feminists typically are not upset by this state of affairs; it bears too much in common with the type of “God is on my side” arguments typically made by the patriarchy, either by invoking the metaphysically real God Himself or by deifying Reason (e.g. the foundationalism of Immanuel Kant). Where norms should come from, however, is the issue of contemporary feminist philosophy, whether it be feminist ethics, feminist epistemology, or feminist theology. (Considering how much these fields overlap, this should not be surprising.) In her essay “Theorizing Feminist Theology,” Rebecca S. Chopp traces some of the ways feminist theologians navigate this issue.

There are other reasons why this approach to theological construction is not unproblematic. For example, it is not completely clear that “symbolic resources” are as fluid as Tanner would like. The resources of African Americans and Latinas, in the hands of Williams and Isasi-Diaz respectively, turn out to be well-disposed to this project. But we have already seen resistance among liturgical communities and non-Christian faiths to this type of antirealism. Isasi-Diaz perhaps escapes this type of resistance by focusing on popular forms of religion, which of course form a large part of the symbolic resources that Tanner imagines, but a conservative community, such as Evangelical Christians, might not be as conducive to this type of project as Tanner’s article implies. While Tanner is undoubtedly correct in that the symbolic resources of a community are constantly being re-interpreted, the line between resource and hermeneutic is not as clear as Tanner makes it out to be. In many cases, a set of symbolic resources is self-interpreting or at least provides tools to its own interpretation, such as the writings of Wesley and Calvin or of the early Church fathers, which (seemingly) are incommensurate with Tanner’s meta-theology. Even if it cannot adequately interpret all sets of symbolic resources, however, I think Tanner’s meta-theology can motivate a set of normative claims as to the type of symbolic resources a religion should have. What she would not be able to provide in that case, however, would be an account as to why a religion with different symbolic resources and, presumably, a different sense of ethics, should accept those claims. Feminist commitment would be a necessary given. (This is in many ways the current theological situation, with conservatives and liberals talking past rather than to each other.) It is worthy to note that Johnson’s theology is capable of providing such an account, which is why her methodology may prove to be superior in situations of apologetics.

Taking feminist commitment as a given, however, metaphysical antirealism escapes many of the traps which have plagued patriarchal thought since the birth of philosophy. It defuses mind/body dualism by asserting a strong monism, albeit neither an idealism nor a materialism. It discourages the formation of dogmatism. And more than anything else, it allows for the advancement of feminist theology by moving the focus away from a posteriori battles over the “truth” of a tradition and so allows for truly liberative theology to develop and change. The static reality of metaphysical realism is a poor competitor.

Works Cited
Bakunin, Mikhail. God and the State. 1871. Trans. Benjamin R. Tucker. 22 April 2004.
Briggs, Sheila. “A History of Our Own: What Would a Feminist History of Theology Look Like?” Chopp 165-178.
Chopp, Rebecca S. and Sheila Greeve Davaney. Horizons in Feminist Theology: Identity, Tradition, and Norms. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
Clark, Maudemarie. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1990.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon, 1978.
Hassan, Riffat. “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam.” After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of World Religions. 39-64. Eds. Paula M Cooey et al. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992. Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. Westminster: John Knox, 1996.
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1992.
Jones, Serene. “Women’s Experience Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Theologies in North America.” Chopp 33-53.
Keller, Catherine. “Seeking and Sucking: On Relation and Essence in Feminist Theology.” Chopp 54-78.
Nelson, Lynn Hankinson. “The Very Idea of a Feminist Epistemology.” Is Feminist Philosophy Philosophy? Ed. Emanuela Bianchi. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern U P, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1968.
Pinnick, Cassandra L. et al., eds. Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 2003.
Shaikh, Sa'diyya. "Transforming Feminisms: Islam, Women, and Gender Justice." Progressive Muslims: on Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Ed. Omid Safi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.
Tanner, Kathryn. “Social Theory Concerning ‘New Social Movements’ and the Practice of Feminist Theology.” Chopp 179-197.
Wadud-Muhsin, Amina. “Qur’an and Woman.” Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. 127-138. Ed. Charles Kurzman. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998.
Williams, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenges of Womanist God-Talk. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993.
Wren, Brian. What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

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