Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 99 (1997) 63-67



Feminist theologies for life

Denise M. Ackermann

Faculty of Religion and Theology, University of the Western Cape


In a recent edition of Feminist Theology I came across this quotation from British psychologist Chris Brand: ". . . and the next menace to be tackled is feminism".[1] I felt a tinge of anger at the preposterous nature of this statement, delight at the fact that feminism has invoked such a wild response, and a sense of melancholy that after so much time such responses still exist. I want to explore this mixture of emotions by way of a few notes in the margins on where feminist theologies,[2] both inside and outside the academy, are today, and conclude with some brief remarks on a way forward for feminist theologies in South Africa.


Feminist theologies: inside and outside the academy

As feminist theologies have their genesis in liberation theologies, which in turn are part of the larger unfinished dimensions of theology, their future is crucial to the future of the entire theological project in southern Africa. There are disturbing signs that in the evolving scenario for tertiary education in South Africa theology’s survival as a critical academic subject is in jeopardy. Sweeping reductions in monies allocated to universities are inevitably leading to the shrinking of academic courses, to the reallocation or retrenchment of teaching staff, and to a radical re-designing of curricula. Sadly, the study of theology, despite its centuries-old tenure as a valid academic enterprise and its contradictory yet formative influence on our history, is not high on the list of planning priorities at our universities. It has in fact become a ‘soft target’ in the drive to cut expenses. The time of the ‘corpus christianum’ as a subject for academic study appears to be over.

The demise of eastern-bloc socialism and the present conservative world mood are also antithetical to the critical, analytical base and utopian hope of liberation theologies. The victory of the marketplace and the dominance of the drive for a global economy have largely replaced discourse on social justice, ethics, and morals. Hope is vested in development, and development is seen as the [End of 63] concern of business, politics, and technology. The ‘free market’ has become the economic metaphor for intellectual life, overshadowing the study of liberation theologies and their praxis.

For radical-thinking theologians—whose concerns over the past decades have centred on poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism, and the despoiling of the earth—it is all too often tempting to feel disappointment, even despondency. We may wonder whether our theologies have not merely been words on paper, leaving untouched the world in which we write. Are liberation theologies, including feminist theologies, a spent force? Has the radical hope, the critical analysis, the energy and passion which characterized so many of these theologies, exhausted itself?

A further challenge to liberation theologies comes from the culture of postmodern thought. Visions of social justice, so much a part of liberation theologies and affirming the need for everything that makes human dignity—including a job, a roof over one’s head and bread on the table—are indeed utopian. They are antithetical to postmodernism’s style which, in Terry Eagleton’s words, is "depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic".[3] The philosophical notion of historical progress coupled with the idea of human equality is firmly modernist and is a notion which has taken a beating in present times. This is not surprising. On the one hand, the liberal view of progress measured in expanding capital growth and increased happiness has failed in the face of continued poverty and two world wars. On the other hand, the historical-materialist view of progress towards a classless society in which all partake in ownership of the means of production has also failed. We walk a tightrope between the legitimate concerns of postmodernity—a healthy suspicion of grand narratives and classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity—and the concerns of liberation theologies for a healed world. Fortunately, however, in this country we have known historical progress. The dismantling of apartheid shows that, though hard to realise, progress is indeed a worthy goal.[4] Utopias that have no grounding for justice in present praxis are indeed suspect. But holding on to a vision of a just world serves to remind us of what we are fighting for even when such a vision, because of unrealistic high-mindedness, may defer its realisation.

Against this background, feminist theologians in South Africa ask, What have we to show for over a decade of writing and teaching? In some respects, the answer is not encouraging. Feminist academic theologians are still a rare species in southern Africa. The number of women involved in post-graduate studies in feminist theologies is small. Deeply ingrained sexist attitudes in the academy anand in the Christian churches are taking time to change. Women’s chances of employment in these sectors are too limited to warrant significant numbers becoming engaged in the study of theology. At the same time, it is a source of won[End of 64]der that women continue to study feminist theologies and that greater numbers of male students are interested in taking courses that teach critical perspectives on gender and religion.

I believe, however, that despite these obstacles feminist theologies have contributed significantly to the academic theological enterprise as well as to social change. As critical theologies of liberation, they begin with systemic analyses that take the experiences of women and marginalised people into account. These analyses lay the ground for the "constructive exploration and conceptual transformation"required by theologies concerned with human liberation.[5] By identifying misogynist attitudes in Christian scriptures and traditions, and by employing new ways of reading our source documents, feminist scholarship has become a major player in the hermeneutic debate. The continuous questioning of Christian doctrines, the search for inclusive theological anthropologies, new understandings of the Trinity and Christology, have been a breath of fresh air in the hallowed halls of systematic theology. The challenges feminist theologians pose to conventional God-language and their re-conceptualising of church liturgies offers new insights into Christian spirituality and embraces new ways of thinking about and worshipping God.

By rooting themselves rigorously in the contextual experiences of women, critical feminist theologies are compelled to grapple theologically with the effects that war, displacement, poverty, sexual violence, and the degradation of the environment have on the lives of women, children, and the poor. These deeply contextual issues are also profoundly theological. Their impact on feminist scholars is seen in the search for new theological theories for transformed praxis to meet the needs of present times. Reflection on praxis shapes our theories that, in turn, translate into renewed praxis for healing. All this activity has had some impact on the male academy where it is now fairly common to hear references to the critical analyses and reconstructive work of feminist theologians.

The small but growing number of women writing theologies that grapple with the issues of our continent is further cause for satisfaction. The founding of the Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians by Mercy Amba Oduyoye in 1989, and the subsequent establishment of chapters in numerous places in sub-Saharan Africa, have played a pivotal role in encouraging women in Africa to write theology. This has given rise to books such as The will to arise: women, tradition and the Church in Africa[6] and Groaning in the faith: women in the household of God.[7] Increasingly, the voices of southern African women are [End of 65] also being heard. Women hold up half the sky: women in the Church in southern Africa,[8] was the first book which gave women who had hitherto not appeared in print the opportunity to tell their stories. An encouraging departure from the male dominance of the festschrift genre is Archbishop Tutu: prophetic witness in South Africa, in which seven of twenty-two contributors are women.[9] These writings demonstrate women’s ability to discern the theological moments in their experiences as they address the tricky interface of patriarchal traditions with liberating traditions and praxis in Christianity.

The answer to the question of where feminist theologies stand in relation to academic theology in South Africa is thus "both, and neither." On the one hand, feminist theological scholars are still scarce in the academy and their work is not central to theological curricula. On the other hand, there are signs of progress and change as more male scholars are challenged by a small but growing band of women studying and writing theology from a feminist theological perspective.

Understood in their widest sense, feminist theologies concerned with unmasking sexist practices in the church and in theology and which explore hope, love and faith in the search for liberation and well-being, are beginning to bear fruit outside the places of academic power and privilege. First, I never cease to be surprised by the many ‘lay’ women who read articles and books published by feminist theologians and who give such lively and insightful feedback. That academic feminist theologies can and do engage a wider audience than the world of academia is a tribute to their methods of communication, relevance, and contextuality. Second, the praxis of feminist theologies happens whenever women, bridling at the constraints placed on them in their communities of faith by sexist practices, devise strategies of resistance.

The phenomenon of small, interdenominational groups of women doing weekly Bible study in their homes is one such instance. Studying the Bible without clergy or academics to tell them what to think, these women read ‘for life’. A reading ‘for life’ hermeneutic examines the scriptures by asking, What does this story/text/poem/teaching mean for me? Such a hermeneutic has both its moments of suspicion, when texts are found to be exclusive or discriminatory, as well as moments of creative reconstruction, when relevance and meaning dawn. Reading ‘for life’ has the power to challenge dominant readings. It is also a source of consolation and strength for ‘ordinary’ women who are aware of and resistant to sexism in the church and Christian tradition. Reading ‘for life’ is materially orientated and leads to new praxis, such as going out and starting a shelter for battered women. [End of 66]


A way forward

Feminist theologians know that being on the periphery of theological discourse has distinct advantages. It reminds us that theology should be a modest enterprise. This is so because modesty characterises our foundational story, which is in dialogue with our own stories and experiences. It is a story from the margins of a particular society at a particular time that was fulfilled ultimately in mystery. The life of Jesus, the Christ, who died as a victim of an oppressive state and was resurrected, gave rise to a movement with modest beginnings, a movement on the margins. Sadly this did not last. Once Christians tasted the power of the coalition between church and state, the centre became the norm.

Feminist theologians also know that the view from the margins offers a perspective which is absent in the centre. It recognises the places of exclusion and pain because it knows them; it sees where the core has gone soft, like some of the giant oaks near my home, and it distinguishes more easily between need and want because it is not trapped in power games. I recommend the view from the margins as a modesty of necessity. Feminist theologies, however, require vigilance in regard to the seductions of inhabiting the margins. Instead of being a place of freedom from the constraints of the centre, the margins can become a trap for those who value a kind of victim status that they find there. The margins can also acquire a sense of permanency, a fact that would merely serve to reinforce the power of the centre. Lastly, if the margins become a place of isolation, an academic metaphor for women doing theology, we will find that we have become removed from the need of others on the periphery.

I suggest that there are two pressing issues at present that should be central to women doing theology in our part of the world. The first is the endemic nature of sexual violence against women and children. A war is being waged against the bodies of women and children in this country. This is both a theological and a pastoral issue—one on which the church’s silence is obscene. The second is the widespread degradation of our environment and its effects on present and future generations of South Africans. In addressing these issues, theologies from the margins need to be fuelled by passion, even anger, which comes from a profound longing for human wholeness. We may not lose our vision of justice. Feminist praxis is the link between passion and justice. Only when feminist theologies turn to praxis can they overcome the dilemma of academic irrelevance or irrelevant academicism. Only praxis can avoid the dangers of isolation on the margins. Grounded in the concrete and material experiences of women and marginalised people, feminist theologies move to theology and then back to praxis in the passionate longing for a better world.



1 See Dorothea McEwan, "Editorial," Feminist Theology 14 (January 1997): 5. The remark comes from Chris Brand, The G Factor: General Intelligence and Its Implications (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996). McEwan comments that the publishers had to withdraw this book from their publication list after a media storm over Brand’s view on IQ and race. [Back to text.]

2 The term ‘feminist theologies’ serves as an umbrella term for the variety of women's theologies from diverse contexts. [Back to text.]

3 Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), vii. [Back to text.]

4 Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, 44. [Back to text.]

5 Elisabeth Sch?ssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Ekklesia-Logy of Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 254. [Back to text.]

6 The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition and the Church in Africa, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1992). In this book a number of African women write on African culture, African sexual practices, and the church in Africa from their perspectives as theological scholars living in different parts of Africa. See also Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995). [Back to text.]

7 Groaning in Faith: African Women in the Household of God, ed. Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, and Nyambura J. Njoroge (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996). [Back to text.]

8 Women Hold up Half the Sky: Women in the Church in Southern Africa, ed. Denise Ackermann, Jonathan A. Draper and Emma Mashinini (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 1991). [Back to text.]

9 Archbishop Tutu: Prophetic Witness in South Africa, ed. Len Hulley, Louise Kretzschmar and Luke Lungile Pato (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1996). [Back to text.]