Theological non-realism: Feminist's dream or nightmare?

Alison Webster gave this talk as a workshop at the 1996 SoF UK conference

I promised in this workshop to 'assess non-realist theology from a feminist perspective, exploring useful common ground and points of divergence'. That sounds like something of a grand statement of intention. 'Nonrealist theology' and 'feminism' are both multi-faceted and plural movements, and it would be stupid to pretend that I could offer anything like a comprehensive account of either of them in the time available --never mind of how they can, might and do interact. So I've decided to offer something of a personal reflection—a story with analysis of how feminism and non-realist theology have coincided in my own religious life, and what this might mean in broader theological terms. I've tried to keep this reflection quite short, as it's really intended as a springboard for your own ideas. I hope that we can use it as a starter for discussion as a group on these two very important trends in modern theological thought, and what they mean to us.

I should say at the outset that this think-piece today comes from one who is both deeply indebted to, but also critical of both non-realist and feminist theologies. This is my focus: what are the questions which non-realist theology and feminism bring to each other—and what questions remain for both?

Let me begin with something of a 'coming out' story. I discovered non-realist theology just before I began to study theology at university. It was at the European Methodist conference in Eire in the early eighties and I remember it vividly. The theme was God in a Changing World. When it came to the theological input, we were all expecting the visiting theologian to get up and say, as is usual at these events, that whilst everything in the world changes, God—our rock and our salvation—does not. Everything changes, but God changes not. But he didn't. He got up and said that God changes too because God is something we create for ourselves. Imagine the reaction! People got very upset and angry at his heresy. But I loved it. This was around the time of Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith series on the telly, and I watched with fascination as he hacked his way through the jungle in the steps of Albert Schweitzer, and chuckled outside the Scripture Union bookshop in Cambridge, saying, 'for some people, faith is a very simple matter . . .' I was in love with a big idea. I knew that when it came to my faith I would never be the same again.

My awakening to feminist issues and feminist theology came a little later. Really only after I'd finished my degree. If that sounds a little surprising, please bear in mind that I studied theology at Cambridge. They'd made a little room for Don and 'his non-realism', (I think that's how they saw it or at least coped with it—as the quirky and eccentric philosophising of one individual) but they hadn't made room for feminists or feminisms. They probably still haven't. After all, there's marginalisation, and there's marginalisation. I seem to remember that feminist theology was covered as one part of one question on one paper on 'biblical interpretation and history'—where it was combined with Latin American liberation theology and black theology: I think the powers-that-be threw all these things together because they considered them all to be 'biased' and 'subjective' theologies to be studied as 'bolt-on' options to real theology.

So picture the scene. It's now the late eighties. I'm working for the Student Christian Movement, so I've been emerging from my Cambridge-induced ignorance of twentieth century political movements. I've been learning about the feminist critique of traditional theology, and as a result, I'm attending one of my first Christian feminist gatherings. This one is in London, and it's on 'inclusive language'. As the debate progresses, two things happen. Firstly, I'm feeling a familiar excitement and anticipation. Unlike my 'Damascus Road' conversion to non-realism, I've been drawn into feminist theology by a more gradual process. In common with it, however, I know at this meeting again that when it comes to my faith, I will never be the same again.

The second thing that happened, however, was that I experienced a growing sense of unease. This was not with what was being said. I was pretty happy with that because it was all about the fact that language isn't of peripheral importance, but takes a primary role in shaping our experience. As a good non-realist I had ingested that 'the limits of one's language are the limits of one's world'. I knew that the linguistic universe we construct creates the reality within which we live. I knew that talk of 'the vicar, he . . .', 'the doctor, he , . .', and 'God, he . . ,' creates a particular set of expectations both of ourselves and in terms of what we assume others are capable of and will become. I knew also that those Christians who were protesting at the time against any changes to God-imagery, the service book, the hymn book and liturgical language on the grounds that it was 'only language' and therefore of no importance so why bother, really subconsciously knew that the opposite was in fact the case. That is, that such linguistic changes were the threshold of a theological revolution. Yes, yes, I knew all that.

What gave me a sense of unease was what was not being said, but was nevertheless being assumed about our collective theology—and the predominant assumptions about God and faith, it seemed me, were realist ones. It struck me then that, philosophically, you can campaign for inclusive language for two very different, some would say diametrically opposed, reasons. If you believe that religion is a human construct and that language is all there is, then one has a particularly acute responsibility to create religious language which is inclusive and non-oppressive if that's the kind of world you want to build. On the other hand, if you believe that God is 'out there'—an objective reality—albeit that God is mysterious and bigger and more complex than we can know, then we need inclusive language to ensure that our God-talk represents an 'authentic description' of what God is like. At this gathering, I realised that most people seemed to be working with the latter set of assumptions. I was working with the former. Oops, I thought. Am I an impostor? Am I in the wrong place? What if I were to say something? I didn't, of course. For in one sense it didn't matter. There was a unity at the level of our political objectives, and that would do. For now. But it did arouse in me the suspicion that Christian feminism was really a realist Christian feminism, that perhaps I was outside its boundaries. That's perhaps why I was initially attracted to Daphne Hampson's thinking. She, you may know, is known for her post-Christian feminist perspective. She proves, to her own satisfaction, that Christianity and feminism are incompatible belief-systems. In short, according to her, you can't be a Christian and a feminist. In many ways, this would have been a convenient conclusion for me to be able to adopt at this point in time. Everything was conspiring to make me feel about myself that 'I'm not really a Christian, am l?' I didn't fit into my traditional Methodist background because of my non-realism and my feminism, and I couldn't feel comfortable with Christian feminism because it seemed to be holding on to too much of traditional realist Christianity, even if feminist theologians were reworking just about everything else. But again there was a snag. In order to prove incompatibility, Hampson has to 'essentialise' Christianity—that is, she has to define a non-negotiable core (in her case, belief in Jesus as a unique and historical figure) but the content of the core is really beside the point), a core that one must assent to in order to call oneself Christian. But from my philosophical perspective, I didn't believe there could be any such essential non-negotiable core. Stymied again. Whilst I could understand exactly why she had taken up her 'postChristian' perspective, I couldn't accept the philosophical premises upon which she based the need to make the choice. I did share her frustration with the kind of Christian feminism which I was encountering within the churches, whose focus seemed to be reclaiming the Bible, church history, etc. There seemed to be a prior question which occupied me, and that was, 'why bother?' What I liked about Hampson was that she said, 'these things are no longer normative for me, so I'm not going to bother.' There is a certain enviable clarity in that approach, don't you think? How non-realists answer the 'why bother' question might be a good focus for discussion later.

Let me reiterate at this point (lest it's got lost) the fact that I have found Christian feminism to be both transformatory and extremely useful. For it was asking some very important political questions, and offering very useful analysis about, for instance, what was happening in institutional churches when women were being kept out of positions of power—out of the priesthood, for instance, and all places anywhere near the top of church hierarchies. It was offering useful analysis about how Christian teaching has developed; how the Bible has been put together, translated and interpreted; about how Christianity has traditionally conceived of God; how this is gendered, and the significance of that. Much of this I found to be of crucial importance. What bothered me, however, as I've already said, was an unexamined confusion about the philosophical basis of all this analytical work.

This confusion is hardly surprising, given that, as I said at the beginning, feminist theology is plural. There are many strands, drawing upon the many strands in feminist theory more generally. There is, for instance, the radical feminist strand which tends to emphasise the essential difference between men and women, and adopts a political agenda focused on celebrating aspects of womanhood which have been denigrated by the patriarchal tradition-particularly, perhaps, motherhood and the nurturing and caring that are supposed to go with that. In theological terms, this has resulted in writings and liturgies with what I call a distinct 'wombish' feel to them. On the other hand, there's the kind of feminist theology which draws upon post-modern secular feminism/s. This is the strand of feminist thinking which I find most useful. Talk here is of the social construction of gender difference, and how that results in disparities of power. Here, the political agenda is how such patterns may be broken, given that they are changeable. In reality, these differing perspectives and emphases rub shoulders within particular political campaigns, as I've already demonstrated through my example of the inclusive language debate.

But don't think that my non-realist tendencies were untouched by the insights of feminism and feminist theology. On the contrary this was, and remains, a two-way interaction. My newly awakened political sensibilities alerted me to the fact that there were aspects of non-realist theologies which I was unhappy with too. The creative quest which was the reinvention of myself as a religious person which had once seemed such an exciting prospect began to look like too much of an individualist undertaking. There seemed to be lots of talk about individual autonomy, but not much about institutional and structural power and our enmeshment in it. It's at this point that I'd like to bring non-realist and feminist theologies into some kind of creative interaction.

An interesting paper given at last year's American Academy of Religion helped me to articulate more clearly what is the central issue here. A feminist theologian, Laurel Schneider, was analysing a recent 'backlash' against feminist theological work in the States. In general terms, she was exploring how boundaries are policed within religious traditions: when is feminist theological work considered to have exceeded the boundaries of what can be called 'Christian'. Who decides, and what is at stake? Anyway, in the course of this, the comment which struck me most forcibly was her observation that feminist theology has, up to now, been overwhelmingly concerned with the function of various manifestations of Christianity and Christian teaching, and has avoided addressing questions of substance. Take the example of God, for instance. Feminist theology has demonstrated how the God of patriarchal theology is very clearly gendered—very clearly male—and it has shown how this functions in a damaging way. This is a huge field, but if we were to try to sum it up in a sentence, then one of Mary Daly's will do, As she put it, 'if God is male then the male is God'-with all that that means for women. Feminists have critiqued various manifestations of God at the level of function, but have left important questions of substance unaddressed.

Now, there are very good political reasons for leaving questions of substance unaddressed. For whilst we, as feminists, can note and critique the damaging effects of what Schneider terms 'foundationalism'—what, I guess, we would call 'theological realism'—we can also see the potentially devastating effects of 'anti-foundationalism'-or non-realism. These dangers are perceived to be especially acute within the ethical sphere. Some feminists hold, for instance, that you can't be non-realist, because as feminists we need to be able to say that some things are objectively wrong: not least sexism, but also racism, poverty and all forms of discrimination and economic injustice. There's a feeling that to expose all forms of objectivity as fraudulent would be self-defeating. In talking of morality in The Long Legged Fly, Cupitt talks of 'the illusion of objectivity' and 'The illusion of immutability': the notion that,... if morality is important then our moral beliefs must be descriptively true, true in a historytranscending, higher-world sort of way, true independently of our social circumstances and our personal make-up, our feelings and our needs'. His focus is, of course, how those who wield religious power use this concept in their own interests. My suggestion is that there is an important sense in which those who lack power in particular spheres: whether by race, sexuality, gender or economics, depend on the guarantee of objective morality too. There's a feeling in the feminist camp that ethics has no teeth without it.

My question, at this point, is this: can non-realist theology offer ways of tackling the question of substance which feminist theologies have, so far, albeit for very understandable political reasons, left unaddressed? I'm not suggesting here that all feminist theologians should be forced to become non-realists—or, indeed, to make their minds up one way or the other. I just feel that some more open debate within feminist theological circles about the whole issue of realism versus non-realism would be useful. As it happens, I think feminist politics demands that we choose neither, and come up with a third option—or more options, at least. But that's another paper. At the moment there's much unexplored territory here.

Non-realist theologies have, of course, never shied away from questions of substance. Non-realists like Don Cupitt have not been afraid to say that it's time to do away with God as an objective being 'out there' and with the objective moral order that goes with it. And, speaking for myself at least, it has been fun and liberating for those of us in relatively privileged positions by virtue of race and education, if not by sexuality and gender, to 'get postmodern': to throw off the shackles of patriarchal theology and reinvent ourselves as religious subjects. But I think there is a sense in which this has led to neglect at the level of function. Again, let me explain.

When it comes to critiquing traditional Christian theology, Cupitt is actually very clear about its function, He speaks of how realist theology functions to keep its adherents spiritually infantile; how it discourages spiritual autonomy—how it imposes a 'harsh communal regime of truth'. We are familiar with this. But when it comes to what we are to create and how we are to go about it, I detect a tendency to leave these very important political considerations behind. Talk is of celebrating 'selfpossession' and autonomy; of a newly born religious subject which is 'blissful and unlimited in its range'. In The New Christian Ethics, Don even talks about the need for an ethic which shows how 'a human being can be a real creator with entrepreneurial drive and flair, someone with the self-confidence and the capacity to conceive and to execute an original work, autonomously—someone who has the force of character to be able if necessary to conscript others to help complete the work.' Now, this is his vision of the new model of a post-modern moral agent—and fair enough. But I don't think it would be mine. It sounds to me too much like a job description, and one for which I'm not sure I have the 'desirable characteristics', never mind the 'essentials'! From a feminist perspective I believe we have to start with 'reality', by which I mean our lived experience: the ways in which we are restricted by our physical location and our positions within political structures. In the light of this, my question is, how can we overcome our restrictions and expand our possibilities? Non-realist theologies as evidenced by their male theological protagonists are in danger of aiming to speak as non-gendered, non-racialised, that is, disembodied beings who assume unlimited freedom either as a starting point or the ultimate aim. That's a kind of theology that doesn't take account of reality, and therefore doesn't ask or answer my questions as someone limited by society's constructions of power around my gender and my sexuality, if not around my class and my race.

But non-realist theology is not just about the spirituality of individuals. It is also about a collective process of building a new religious vision. In Solar Ethics, for instance, Don says that, 'Your only real life is your life of communicative action and collaborative world-building with other people.' Bravo. But I find little awareness of the fact that we are not all the same in a collective, and that that matters. In other words, not everyone's faith reinventions have the same purchase. A bunch of women responding to violence against women can re-envision God and Christ as female to their hearts content, deconstruct theories of the atonement, and rethink the doctrine of forgiveness. Indeed they are. But how ever good their work may be, it will never hit the theological mainstream. Survivors of sexual abuse can devise new liturgies which create new religious realities, but they'll still get barred from performing them in churches. Third world theologians who mix indigenous faith with Christianity are still going to have their resulting theologies denigrated as 'syncretistic'—meaning 'impure' and 'polluted', whilst the mixture of capitalism and Christianity that is exported via white missionaries is deemed 'proper'. Anthony Freeman can redefine what it means to 'believe in God' in non-realist ways, but he'll get sacked. The list could go on. And on. This is political reality.

How does non-realist theology take account of all this? How can it? It is not enough to say 'we each need to reinvent our faith' and stop at that, as though all will be well. We also need to expose and engage with the rationale of institutional power as-it-is. That's what feminism, including feminist theology-in-action has experience of. Because it has focused on the function of religious teaching and practice it brings a wiliness about institutional power from which non-realist theologies can learn. Free-floating self-reinvention must be combined with a self-reflexive, critical edge, which interrogates the dynamics of power—which studies how people get silenced and excluded and, most importantly, finds strategies for resistance.

Now let me conclude. Most of us are brought up with the assumption that there is only one way to 'be Christian'; to accept that Christian teaching as it's given to us is all there is. For me, both feminist theology and non-realist theology challenge the idea that Christianity just is what the church hierarchy decides to say that it is. They both encourage exploration, creativity, taking responsibility for what we believe.

I hope I've shown in this short input how valuable that can be. I hope I've also shown how important it is always to retain a critical edge. To keep our critical wits about us. I've tried to do this by bringing feminism and non-realism into a mutually critical conversation—albeit a short one. I've outlined weaknesses in both, and suggested how each can potentially offer resources to the other in tackling these.

Some very important areas for further exploration remain for me. I want to mention just one here, as it has particular relevance for the over all theme of this conference. In Solar Ethics Don says, 'a post-modern philosophical ethics will take the form of lifestyle-theory. What is it for a human being to come out and put on a good show, and for that matter, what is the best show that can be put on?' Indeed. What is the best show? From a feminist perspective, the best show must be a collective and corporate endeavour, not just an individual one. But the very important question is: how do we develop a collective ethic which is stable enough to have some political bite, but provisional enough not to calcify around new patterns of exclusion; not to impose a new 'harsh and communal regime of Truth'.

That's the question I leave you with.

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