Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review: Feminism & Religion

Reading about religions, their histories and the methods of studying them, is sort of a hobby of mine. The latest book I have read in this genre, Rita Gross's book Feminism & Religion, was the exact mixture of scholarship I was looking for in a book about religion. Most previous books I have read about religion have not discussed, or discussed at length, the male-centrism that is inherent in most (all?) mainstream religions. To read a book dedicated to examining, critiquing, and discussing male-centrism is extremely validating.

So, here we go (all quotes are from Feminism & Religion):

1. Objectivity and Religious Diversity

To begin, Gross talks a lot about the idea of religious diversity and how that relates to a scholar's ability to approach the study of different religions in a neutral or objective manner. Understanding different religions can lead to the challenging of "monolithic or universalistic presuppositions about the world" (13). In a world brimming with religious diversity, I see this as desirable because, as Gross says, we take these different religious beliefs for what they are rather than viewing them as "undesirable deviations from truth." (Ibid.) This doesn't mean that the religious scholar believes that other religions are necessarily "true," but rather, "claims that one's belief is the only truth are no longer as attractive or compelling" (Ibid.).

My main thought on this idea is that, clearly, many religions profess to reveal the ultimate "truth." This religious certitude often becomes problematic in a pluralistic society. Dominionists, for instance, justify their goal of Christian dominion on the basis that fundamentalist Christianity is "true" despite, and perhaps because of, the fact that other people feel just as strongly that their particular beliefs are true. Although it is questionable as to whether any human being has a firm grasp on true objectivity, many religious extremists believe that they alone have special insight into objective reality.

Gross acknowledges that the study of objectivity in religion is complex, perhaps because "all scholars speak and write from a particular point of view" whether or not they admit it (14). Yet, for a scholar to acknowledge that s/he has a viewpoint is an important step in the study of religions. Historically, scholars of religion have held male-centric viewpoints that were passed off as "neutral" or "objective" points of view. The unquestioned, and oftentimes unspoken, assumption was that scholars decided that data about women did need to be included in scholarship. Yet, this limited objectivity has historically been inaccurately conceived of as completely "objective." (14). For, "claims of objectivity from a scholar who is relatively unaware of his biases and perspectives do not obviate or negate his actual standpoint" (15). In other words, just because a male scholar tells himself that he's being objective, it doesn't mean he actually is. What is most ironic is that, because male-centric scholarship is erroneously thought of as completely "objective," scholarship that intentionally includes information about women is often thought of as "biased." (Ibid.).

Anecdotally, I have seen various anti-feminists and "men's rights" advocates oppose feminism in part because the word "feminism" is a gendered word that refers only to women. While I sort of understand the concern, I think the idea behind the word feminism is that it consciously brings "the feminine" into objectivity in a way that challenges the invisible male-centrism that too often passes for neutral "objectivity." Unfortunately, some men insecurely believe that the word "feminism" means that feminists seek to elevate women above men, or make "objectivity" be inherently female-centric in the way that it is currently male-centric.

To conclude this section, Gross makes a valid point with regard to objectivity. In her view, "gender-balanced and gender-inclusive scholarship is far more objective than androcentric scholarship, simply because it is more complete" (16). In the interest of coming closer to true objectivity, as much as that's possible anyway, it is imprudent to discount the experiences and humanity of half of the world's population- whether the exclusion is of men or women. It's unfortunate that so many are threatened by that concept.

2. Application of Feminism to Religious Studies

One of the most fascinating parts of Gross's book are her memories of being a graduate student in the late 1960s as she was trying to develop feminist methodologies to study religion. Not surprisingly, she was met with resistance. She writes:

"A number of female graduate students, myself included, were struggling to develop feminist questions and methods of study. However, our mentors and graduate institutions were usually uninterested in, unsupportive of, or even opposed to our efforts, for feminist scholarship threatened not only the male monopoly on the field, but also its androcentric methodologies, which were even more sacrosanct to the establishment" (46).

Throughout this chapter, Gross describes how she reinvented the wheel with regard to some ideas because of this lack of support and lack of a network of feminist scholars. A network was created after 1971, however, upon the advent of a recurring meeting of a women's caucus in the American Academy of Religion at which people made contacts with each other, distributed scholarly papers, and held discussions (47). Just as the larger area of feminism and women's studies is not monolithic and encompasses many varied opinions, the ideas of feminist scholars have grown in several different directions. Those interested in these detailed discussion, should definitely read the book!

For purposes of this book review, it is clear that the combination of feminism and religious studies has proven to serve the important purpose of challenging male-centric ideas that were, and still are, taken for granted in many religions. And, importantly, feminism has challenged and continues to challenge the male-dominated religious academic establishment.

3. God-dess

Religions in societies where male human beings are viewed as "the norm" tend to take for granted the maleness of the divine and supreme being. In fact, as Gross writes:

"Probably no topic of study has been more profoundly shaped and changed by feminist scholarship than goddesses and estimates of their prevalence. Before the feminist paradigm shift, theologians never discussed the possibility of feminine symbols of the divine, and comparative and historical scholars of religions generally regarded goddesses as exotic, primitive, and unimportant " (85-86).

Let's just all take a collective moment to think about how and whether the feminine divine is depicted in our own religions (if applicable). Personally, having grown up a Christian, it was taken for granted by everyone (yes, everyone!) in my church and community that God was a male being. I cannot think of one single instance growing up where the depiction of god as male was ever questioned. Now, as I have written before, I realize that the presumed maleness of the super-duper supreme being was profoundly isolating to me as a young girl. I definitely felt "less than"- less important, less spiritual, less worthy than- the little boys in my Sunday school classes. I suspect that many women and girls have had similar feelings and, in fact, Gross recounts such feelings of her own.

Feminist scholarship, particularly in the area of comparative religion, "has now erased the possibility of seeing goddesses as an aberration from the norm. More and more people are beginning to realize that if anything needs to be explained, it is not the presence of goddesses in almost all religious traditions, but their relative absence in Western monotheistic traditions" (86). (Emphasis added). Numerous times, I have read expressions of outrage from Christians upon hearing someone refer to "God" in female terms. That outrage, I believe, needs to be seriously addressed and explained if we are all working from the assumption that women are beings just as important, special, and divine as men. For, as Gross recounts, historically and in other faiths, goddesses have existed alongside gods with great importance. And further, there is evidence even in monotheistic faiths of a feminine divine that has been suppressed.

I know. It's probably really difficult to believe that gaggles of religiously powerful men who formed secretive boys-only clubs in which they adorned themselves with fancy titles and robes, worshipped a male deity, and adamantly explained to the rest of us that it was said male deity's idea that women couldn't join the club would suppress the feminine divine.

What could possibly be male-centric about that?

But seriously, feminist scholarship, as Gross recounts, has been useful in demonstrating that male deities are not the universal norm even though the Western monotheistic idea is that the gendered-male "God" is an objective truth. Interestingly, Gross cites an anthropological study of 156 societies noting the strong correlation between a society being male-dominated and its acceptance of its "god" in exclusively male terms (97).

As (say it with me now) "correlation does not imply causation," I don't think Gross is saying that conceiving of "god" in male terms "causes" a male-dominated society. Rather, it's that in such traditions it is also likely that men are thought of as spiritually superior to women, more likely to be thought of as the "ideal believer," the "birth of males is preferred to the birth of females," males hold "most of the roles of authority or prestige in organizations," and women's participation in key rituals is severely limited (106). When males are seen as having spiritual superiority, of course, it sort of makes it easier to make the case for giving men power of women in the home and the rest of society (Ibid.). One effect of the "stranglehold of male language and imagery" with respect to "God" perhaps makes "male domination appear normal and legitimate" (144).

In light of all this, it's not difficult to see how established religions often fail to speak to many people, especially in a post-feminist world. Gross, in fact, discusses how she and other female theologians did not realize how left out of monotheistic religions they have been until they tried to conceive of a female "God." Upon doing so, many of them felt for the first time fully included in human be-ing (144).

To sum this all up, after reading this book, one thing that is becoming more and more clear to me is that even when religions have useful nuggets of moral teachings (which they often do), those who hold power in perpetuating the religion are human beings with all the faults of human beings. Belief in the moral or spiritual superiority of one sex over another is a human failing, not a divine one. If there is a "God," it certainly would not dehumanize and alienate half of its creation by insisting on male superiority via male-only ordination and family/societal domination. As I have said before, any god that would do so is not worthy of devotion. And, any suggestion otherwise is, I believe, more a reflection on flawed and biased human ideas rather than any divine "truth."

For these ideas, I thank scholars like Rita Gross who, even though she was largely unsupported, developed methods that help explain why many religions fail to speak to large numbers of people. If religion is indeed something worth saving, it must be done by those who have the tools to critically analyze how present systems are humanly flawed.

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