In part II of She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson discusses the sources she’s going to use for her project of theological reconstruction, or as she puts it: “resources for emancipatory speech about God” (p. 61). These are women’s interpreted experience, the Bible, and classical theology. It’s hard not to be reminded of Hooker’s “three-legged stool” of reason, scripture, and tradition or Wesley’s quadrilateral of reason, Scripture, tradition, and experience. The idea is that theology and the life of faith draw from multiple sources, though there is debate about which of these, if any, are the controlling factor.
Regarding experience, Johnson writes:
Consulting human experience is an identifying mark of virtually all contemporary theology, as indeed has been the case at least implicitly with most of the major articulations in the history of Christian theology. Listening to the questions and struggles of the people of an era, their value systems and deepest hopes, gives theology of the most diverse kinds an indispensable clue for shaping inquiry, drawing the hermeneutical circle, revising received interpretations, and arriving at new theological insight. (p. 61)
It follows straight away that theology is always, to some extent, provisional. The questions, struggles, values, and hopes of one era and place will be different from others. Theology is always, therefore, to some degree “contextual.” Only an extremely simplistic understanding of the theological task would deny this.
To complicate matters further, though, Johnson points out that there is no simple and universal “women’s experience” to which we can point. Johnson doesn’t take a strong stance on the nature/nurture debate, but it’s clear that women’s experiences and how they interpret them vary widely across social, cultural, religious, and other locations.
However, there are common, if not universal, experiences to draw on. Johnson focuses on what she calls the experience of “conversion,” by which she means “a turning away from trivialization and defamation of oneself as a female person and a turning toward oneself as worthwhile, as in fact a gift, in community with many others similarly changing” (p. 62). Following Karl Rahner, Johnson interprets the self as being in an inextricable relationship with the other, including the Divine Other. Therefore, changes in how one perceives oneself will change how one perceives the other. Consequently, when women come to experience themselves both as victims of oppression and as persons of value with moral agency, this is bound to affect their understanding of religious symbols and language. “The shock of the negative in traditional, internalized devaluations of women, known in the surge of self-affirmation against it, is at the same time new experience of God as beneficent toward the female and an ally of women’s flourishing” (p. 66).
Johnson goes on to discuss some of the implications of feminist thinking for ethics and for the doctrine of the imago Dei. A feminist ethic of relationship and mutuality will have different implications for how we characterize divine perfection than a traditional ethic of rights that defines the self over against the other. The recognition that women are created in the image of God just as men are gives impetus to using female images for God.
One might worry here, as has often been worried about “liberal” theologies, that “experience” becomes an independent source and norm for theology and threatens to crowd out revelation. I think Johnson’s answer is indicated by her statement that “the experience of God which is never directly available is mediated, among other ways but primordially so, through the changing history of oneself” (p. 65). We can’t step out of our own skins to achieve an unmediated experience of the divine. Our theologies are always colored by our experience, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. To the extent that women “reject the sexism of inherited constructions of female identity and risk new interpretations that affirm their own human worth” (p. 62)–and to the extent that men join them–their understanding of God will be affected.
The question comes down to whether the Christian tradition should be thought of as a hermetically sealed ark of salvation, which contains all truth and outside of which is only darkness and chaos, or as a more porous vessel–a tradition that can be nourished by insights originating elsewhere. I think it would be historically dubious to assert that advances in moral thought–not only feminism but abolition, civil rights, animal welfare, and others–owe their success primarily to Christian theological truth. While these movements can certainly claim religious support and sanction, Christianity was often late to the party if not actively resisting. And not only did these movements change Christian moral practice, they often changed the way Christians thought about God.
But I don’t see why this should be particularly worrying. If, as we believe, people are God’s good creation, then we should expect that they are capable of attaining moral and spiritual insight, even outside the boundaries of the church (and sometimes in spite of the church). And rather than distort, these insights may open to us new ways of understanding the tradition, discovering truths that were previously obscured by an equally context-bound interpretation of faith.