Sin-No More? A Feminist Re-Visioning of a Christian Theology of Sin
McDougall, Joy Ann
There is a largely unquestioned consensus in North Atlantic feminist Christian theology against speaking of sin either as a ruptured relationship or refusal of a transcendent God’s will for humankind. In contrast, this article explores what a feminist theology of sin might look like, if it is rooted in humanity’s dynamic relationship to a radically transcendent gift-giving God. In what follows, Daphne Hampson’s “After Christianity” exemplifies the position that Christianity’s classical symbolic order is incompatible with feminist views of selfhood and equitable gender relations. Second, Hampson’s claims are contested by the view that a radically transcendent God can be a source of human empowerment, as shown in Kathryn Tanner’s theology in “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.” Finally, the author demonstrates how Tanner’s concept of sin as “blockage” or “blindness” to God’s gift-giving, once “rhetorically re-dressed” in feminist terms, can overcome the gender troubles with the classical Protestant paradigm of sin as pride.
Whatever Happened to the Feminist Doctrine of Sin?
No doctrine in Christian theology has proved more vexing to contemporary North Atlantic feminist theologians than that of sin. In the early seventies Valerie Saiving and Judith Plaskow touched off an initial feminist protest against the doctrine by challenging the paradigm of sin found in the works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Saiving and Plaskow argued that Niebuhr and Tillich’s versions of the Protestant paradigm of sin as pride-in Paul’s terms, being boastful or puffed up in one’s faith-hardly fit the lived experience of women, who suffered more from exaggerated humility and self-subordination than from self-exaltation.1 Defining sin in terms of the rebellious will (or in modern terms as the self-inflated ego) presumed a notion of autonomy and agency that many women do not enjoy. Not only does the sin of pride or self-exaltation miss the mark in identifying the source of women’s alienation, but also such sin-talk has proven complicit in women’s gender captivity. For many women, sin-talk functions as a “rhetoric of otherness”: a cultural mechanism that assigns to women false guilt and self-blame, and in so doing traps them on the underside of the economy of gender relations.2
While feminist theologians may speak with one voice against the root paradigm for sin as pride, they propose highly differentiated hermeneutical, sociopolitical, and rhetorical strategies in reconstructing Christian discourse about sin.3 One way to analyze what has happened to the feminist doctrine of sin is to observe the various migrations of the doctrine from its locus within modern theological anthropology.4 With that in mind, let me provide a brief typology of three such migrations: first, to the doctrine of redemption/liberation; second, to the doctrine of creation; and third, within theological anthropology itself.
For many of the pioneering Christian feminist theologians, reconstructing the doctrine of sin meant identifying patriarchy as the original sin from which both men and women need liberation. In the early eighties so-called second-wave feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, and Sallie McFague exposed the symbolic and social order that supported patriarchal relations of domination and subjugation.5 Each sought to liberate humankind and indeed all of creation from their bondage to this patriarchal social order, by offering alternative models of right relations built on equality, mutuality, and friendship. These feminist proposals were more than socio-ethical programs of liberation. They were full-scale programs for reforming the Christian tradition. Along with analyses of sin and redemption, each proposed distinct linguistic strategies for reforming Christian God-talk and its gender anthropology, so that women might gain the agency to shape their own notions of God, self, and world.
Building on these pioneering analyses of patriarchy as original sin, a second group of feminist theologians took a different path to redressing the gender trouble with sin. In the late eighties and nineties feminist process theologians such as Catherine Keller, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Marjorie Suchocki, as well as religious ethicists such as Wendy Parley and Kathleen Sands, challenged the Christian Wests over-preoccupation with sin.6 They criticized Western theology’s explanation of the problem of evil as the fallout from original sin and, therefore, as humankind’s rightful punishment. Moreover, they questioned the metaphorical landscape of sin-talk in the West with its juridical and penal imagery. Such a theology of sin heaped needless shame and false guilt on women while doing little to address concrete human suffering.
This second group of feminist theologians proposed a radical cure: abandon the Augustinian creation and fall narrative and with it the whole notion of original sin. They replaced this dominant narrative with either a process or else a tragic account of creation, in which the world was tainted with violence and vulnerable to the wound of sin from its inception. Each criticized the equation of divine power with omnipotence, and in so doing, treated the possibility of sin and evil in the world as an original cosmic flaw. Through these reconstructed accounts of creation and theodicy, they sought to relieve women from sin’s burden of shame and guilt. At the same time they proposed concrete ethical measures in the Christian life that urged all human beings to ameliorate the suffering and man-made violence in their midst.
Finally a third group of feminist theologians took the doctrine in yet another direction; they reformed the notion of sin within modern anthropology itself. With the help of psychological, moral, and sociological analyses, they took the modern paradigm of sin as distorted selfrelation and reconfigured it in feminist terms. Feminist practical theologians and ethicists such as Mary Potter Engel, Linda Mercadante, and Carol Hess-to name just a few-exposed the unhealthy forms of self-denial and damaging forms of interpersonal relationships that thwart individual women’s agency and their full flourishing.’ These feminists created a litany of new terms to speak about sin, such as “triviality,” “hiding,” “anguish,” “sloth,” as well as “violence” and “abuse of the vulnerable.”8 Through these creative acts of re-signification, they illuminated the troubled landscape of women’s lives in terms of their compromised moral agency, psychological well-being, and bodily integrity. Moreover, they proposed pedagogical, psychological, and social strategies in order to free women from this gendered bondage of sins, and to cultivate instead personal agency, self-care, and mutually beneficial relationships in their families, churches, and the public square.
Without minimizing the fruits of these feminist labors, I contend that Christian feminist theology finds itself once again at a crossroads on the doctrine of sin. Will it risk re-visioning a theological concept of sin, that is, a concept defined in terms of human beings’ relationship to a transcendent God s beneficent will for humankind? Or will it sacrifice such a concept of sin, in my view prematurely, in the name of advancing a feminist theological agenda? I pose this challenge based on two critical observations about the state of contemporary feminist discourse about sin.
First, despite their divergent approaches to the doctrine, many of the feminist theologians noted above maintain a largely unquestioned consensus against speaking of sin either as a ruptured relationship to or refusal of a transcendent God’s will for humankind. They steer clear of appeals to a transcendent God on the assumption that this would reintroduce hierarchical notions of the God-human relationship and return women to dangerous structures of divine domination and dependency. As a result, feminist theologies of sin have become radically immanentalized. They define sin either as wrong relations in human society and its institutions (the first migration), as flaws and vulnerabilities endemic to the fabric of creation (the second migration), or else as distortions in the human beings psychological and moral development and gender socialization (the third migration).
Now such immanent analyses of sin are a welcome corrective to the highly individualistic and spiritualized notion of sin in much of early twentieth-century theology. Nonetheless, I question whether a certain “pragmatic atheism” has seized hold in contemporary feminist discourse about sin.9 With this term I am not arguing that feminist theologians have given up on the concept of God. Most have not. Rather, I am contending more pointedly that the providential agency of a transcendent God has become superfluous to many feminist analyses of sin. Either the notion of the human being’s dependency on a radically transcendent God disappears altogether from feminist theologies, or if it does appear, this relationship does not actually fund the authors analysis of sin.10 If this theological observation is correct, I would argue further that feminist theology has forfeited its distinctive explanatory power, beyond that of other feminist disciplines, be it psychology, philosophy, or sociology, for diagnosing and remedying distortions in the human condition. Feminist sin-talk may lend moral urgency or personal piety to secular critiques of women’s oppression, but it has ceded the theological grounds to critique the idolatry of the patriarchal order.
Related to this first critique is a second troubling theological question: Have feminist theologians underestimated the degree of distortion and self-deception that is involved in human relations, and thereby overestimated their capacity to diagnose and to remedy the problem of sin? Stated differently, has feminist theology too quickly rejected the creature s relationship to a transcendent God as the inviolable source of a woman’s true self-knowledge, her freedom, and her creative agency over and against such distorted human relations? If so, I would argue that feminist theology has cut itself off from its ultimate source of hope to heal the brokenness of women’s lives. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, for Christians the language of sin should be a “hopeful word . . . that leads from guilt into grace with a reliable promise of new life to all those with the God-given courage to speak of sin.”11 I contend that sin-talk (when accompanied by a robust theology of grace) can be a hopeful word again to feminist theology today. A feminist theology of sin can empower women to break free of unhealthy gender relations and to claim God’s promise of new life for themselves and for others in the human community.
Given these theological concerns, this essay beckons feminist theology back to this crossroads of the doctrine of sin, and invites it to take a different path. I explore what a feminist theology of sin might look like, if the doctrine is rooted in human beings’ dynamic and dependent relationship to a radically transcendent and gift giving God. Might this beneficent God’s inviolable covenant with all of creation supply the grounds for a critique of the subjugation of women’s agency and the silencing of their voices? Further, what possibilities might such sin-talk open up for affirming God’s enduring presence in women’s lives? Can dependency on a radically transcendent God at once empower women’s agency and engender for all persons a feminist vision of new life?
In posing this theological thought-experiment, let me clarify one aspect of my feminist standpoint up front. Despite my quarrels with the current direction of feminist discourse about sin, I am not calling for a return to the Protestant root paradigm of sin as pride. Given women’s ongoing gender socialization toward self-sacrifice and subjugating their needs, desires, and will to others, the sin of pride (understood as the self-exalted ego or the “will to power”) in my view still widely misses the mark of most women’s lives. Rather, I am seeking a new theological language for sin that responds directly to feminist concerns, namely, by offering an empowering notion of selfhood and a more equitable economy of gender relations for men and women alike.
In what follows, I turn first to engage one of Christianity’s most rigorous feminist critics, British theologian Daphne Hampson. Hampson’s 1996 work, After Christianity, is well suited to my project for several reasons. First, her project is a feminist tour de force that intersects all three migrations in the feminist doctrine of sin that I sketched above. She synthesizes the linguistic and the sociological, the moral and the psychological criticisms that feminists have raised against Christianity’s symbolic order. Second, Hampson takes the feminist path that I questioned above. She abandons a concept of sin rooted in the human being’s relationship to a transcendent God’s beneficent will. For Hampson, Christianity’s classical symbolic order of a radically transcendent God and absolutely dependent humankind is fundamentally incompatible with feminist views of selfhood, equitable gender relations, and mutual self-realization. Indeed, Hampson’s critique of this transcendent God-concept is a primary reason behind her becoming a post-Christian theist. Finally, Hampson’s work is provocative, because she does not settle for easy theological compromises between feminism and Christianity. She argues on historical, moral, and symbolical grounds that Christianity is irrevocably bound to patriarchal social order. Therefore, she challenges feminist theology to break free of the Christian belief system, if it is to affirm women’s moral agency and create a just economy of gender relations.
Once we have Hampson s feminist position in sight, I will take my theological thought-experiment one step further: How might a human being’s dependent relationship on a radically transcendent God support a feminist agenda? In particular, what might a feminist theology of sin look like, if it begins with an explicitly theological concept of sin as a ruptured relationship with a transcendent God?
As a resource for my feminist proposal, I turn to Kathryn Tanners book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity.12 Although Tanner does not directly take up feminist theologies of sin in her book, she develops a theology of creation and providence that I will take in an explicitly feminist direction. In particular, I appeal to Tanners concept of a radically transcendent gift-giving God in order to contest Hampson’s claim that belief in a transcendent God is incompatible with feminist freedom. Not only does Tanner’s theology demonstrate that divine and human freedom do not compete with one another, but it displays how dependency on this gift-giving God is the source of human empowerment. To conclude, I suggest how Tanner’s concept of sin as the “blockage” or “blindness” to God’s gift-giving can help overcome the gender troubles with the paradigm of sin as pride. Here I point to ways that Tanner’s concept of sin must be taken a feminist step farther so that it can name and redress the particular vicissitudes of women’s lives.
Dangerous Dependencies and Feminist Identities: Hampson’s Critique of Christianitij’s Symbolic Order
In After Christianity, Hampson challenges Christianity at its theological root: its symbolic order of a supreme and transcendent male God and a weak and sinful humanity often depicted in female terms. Hampson agrees with postmodern feminists and philosophers who describe such a symbolic order as a “totalization” or “absolute ‘presence’ ” that demands an “other” who is excluded in order for itself to become absolute. In this kind of “transcendent monotheism” humanity, and particularly woman, occupies the place of that excluded “other”: “She is the supplement, that which is left outside, which cannot be incorporated.”13
On closer look, Hampson’s critique of this divine-human symbolic order proceeds simultaneously in two directions. First, she casts a harsh spotlight on Christian notions of divine sovereignty and omnipotence: “God is conceptualized as ‘free’, ‘able to do anything’, ‘autonomous’, as acting ‘according to no discernible rule or law’, ‘the source of everything other than itself, not needing to ‘take into account anything else whatsoever’. . . . What a nightmare (p. 124)!” Such images of God are indeed a feminist nightmare. Why? Because such images portray a supreme God who exercises unilateral power and arbitrary rule over that which is not God, namely, humankind and the world of his creation. Such a concept of God establishes a dangerous pattern of divine domination and debilitating human dependency. This God is of dubious moral worth, since he appears to exercise his absolute will without regard for either the freedom or the good of his creation.
Hampson not only criticizes the morality of this divine-human hierarchy, but she alerts us to the gender dynamics at work in it. The God of Christian monotheism is usually depicted as a superior male figure, for example, as the king, lord, or judge, while human society and nature are pictured in inferior female terms as that which is weak and needs to be tamed. Once masculine and feminine genders are positioned asymmetrically in this symbolic order, Christianity lends a sacred legitimacy to a patriarchal social order. Men remain free to mirror God and humanity, while women are subordinated to the underside of this divine-human hierarchy.
Hampson challenges this gendered symbolic order as a form of Christian idolatry’. This symbolic order projects onto God “the hopes and aspirations, the needs and the fears of men,” and in so doing sets men up as objects of false worship (p. 119). In support of her idolatry critique, Hampson synthesizes an array of diverse arguments drawn from feminist developmental psychologists such as Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan, and feminist poststructuralists such as Luce Irigaray and Rosi Braidotti. Most simply stated, these theorists argue that religious concepts (or else moral goods) reflect the different psychological, moral, and linguistic development that men and women experience. On the basis of these gender studies, Hampson questions the androcentrism implicit in Christianity’s symbolic order: Is there not “a certain vocabulary for God and for God’s relation with humans, which is somehow taken for granted as axiomatic, and which pervades the language of sermons, prayer, liturgies and hymns” (p. 131)? Do these cultural constructs not mirror the psychological or sociological imperatives of men?
Hampson is cognizant of the risks of psychological or sociological reductionism in offering this sort of gender critique. She acknowledges the complexity of the historical materials in Christian thought, and the impossibility of drawing direct inferences from such cultural artifacts to the male psyche or its linguistic or moral development. And yet she invokes this sort of feminist hermeneutic of suspicion against major Christian motifs throughout her work, lest the sexism of Christianity’s symbolic order remain unexposed.
At the end of the day, however, Hampson does not stake her feminist critique of Christianity on this sort of projection critique. What actually carries her argument forward is her moral argument against Christianity’s symbolic order, namely, that it prescribes to humankind, and disproportionately to women, a dangerous dependency on a dominating God. As grounds for this moral charge, Hampson points to several motifs central to the Judeo-Christian traditions. Chief among these is the foundational concept of covenant (pp. 135-141). On Hampson’s reading, the Judeo-Christian notion of covenant is a law of absolute obedience to the divine will. Sin is positioned in this rule of law as disobedience to the divine will. If humankind exercises its moral autonomy, it is threatened with divine punishment for its hubris and willfulness.
Let us look for a moment more closely at Hampson’s moral argument. First, she contends that this divine-human covenant is heteronomous to human freedom, because it does not admit moral agency and equitable partnership to humanity. This sovereign transcendent God requires unquestioned and perfect obedience from the human partner. As such, the Christian God deprives human beings of their moral decision-making power and the exercise of their free will. Beneath this first charge lies Hampson’s fundamental premise, namely, that the Judeo-Christian covenant pits divine and human freedoms against one another. In other words, she assumes an inverse and competitive relationship between the divine and human wills, so that the more divine freedom increases, the less freedom humanity possesses. Given this zero-sum equation, Hampson concludes that the exercise of divine freedom must come at the expense of humankind’s autonomy.
To this moral argument, Hampson sounds a feminist warning hell. She reminds us that women have long been socialized to fulfill the needs of others, rather than to defend their own agency, personal desires, and hopes. “The problem is that women have so frequently lacked either the power base from which to establish their rights or sufficient sense of themselves to be able to do so. They have been socialized to put themselves second and enjoined to be gentle, patient and forgiving (p. 112).” In other words, due to their gender socialization, women are already set up to sacrifice their agency and subjugate their will to that of others-divine or human.
Here Hampson adds what 1 take to be a persuasive rhetorical argument to her less convincing moral argument. Given the fact that women find themselves always already on the underside of the economy of gender relations (and continue to be socialized into this secondary role), unquestioned obedience to a transcendent God is an especially dangerous moral dictate for women. It sacralizes a model of human dependency on an authoritarian divine will that trickles down all too easily into the economy of gender relations. In this way, Christianity’s divine-human hierarchy threatens to cement women into unhealthy forms of self-denial and the loss of personal agency in relationship to men.
Many contemporary Christian theologians (some feminists included) look to the doctrine of the Trinity as a response to the critique that Hampson raises against Christianity’s transcendent God-concept. The Trinitarian God of Christianity is a God of supreme relationality and self-giving love. Such a Trinitarian God, so the argument goes, replaces the divine economy of domination and subjugation with one based on reciprocal love. Such a relational ontology liberates humankind from a patriarchal social order, in which sovereign lords protect their power and autonomy at all costs.
For her part, Hampson remains unconvinced that the doctrine of the Trinity offers an alternative model of relationality to that of patriarchy. For one, she contests that the doctrine of the Trinity and the related concept of the Incarnation-concepts predicated on eternal relations of “self-giving” or else on the “outpouring of self “-really undo the masculinist self. Are they not a thinly disguised representation of “the male embodied subject” that seeks to break free to others in kenotic form (pp. 157-159)? In other words, Hampson charges that Trinitarian and Christological concepts are predicated on a gulf between God and humankind that must be bridged through a sacrificial self-giving to another. Such a pattern of relationality exemplifies the masculine order of things, in which a weak and unstable ego alternates between utter self-enclosure and self-dissolution in relationship to others.
Hampson questions further whether the parental imagery usually invoked in the doctrine of the Trinity does not return women to the heteronomy of a childlike dependency on the supreme will of another. Such a return to dependency contradicts women’s claim to autonomy: “Women who are feminists and have struggled to overcome heteronomous relationships to others (in particular to men) are unlikely to be prepared to rescind their moral autonomy in a relationship to a transcendent God” (p. 154). Furthermore, if sacrificial self-giving remains the archetype for the Christian life, this could only serve to undermine women’s hard-fought claim to selfhood and their ongoing quest for egalitarian relations.
With this combination of idolatry critique, moral charges, and gender analysis, Hampson concludes that Christianity’s symbolic order is irreconcilable with a feminist order of things. Therefore, she places before feminist theologians an either/or ultimatum. If they are to affirm a vision of God, self, and world that supports the feminist values of women’s agency, mutuality, and friendship, they should abandon Christianity. Feminists need a wholly different symbolic order: “The only way forward,” she proposes, “is to break the paradigm open, so that its bi-polarity gives way to what we may call a heterogeneity, in which there is no longer that which is the One and consequently the ‘other’ to it” (p. 7).
For Hampson, the way forward is an impersonal theism that can support a different model of selfhood and of right gender relations. Despite all their manifold differences, feminists have a different construal of the “self-in-relation” from that of classical Western theology, and especially from the model of the individual ego which plagues modernity. In this so-called masculinist order of things, the self and the other compete with one another and are therefore perceived as a threat to one another. For this reason, the Enlightenment self is cordoned off from relations to the other in order to protect its fragile ego boundaries.
As her feminist alternative Hampson proposes a model of selfhood as “centered in relation,” that is, a self that both possesses its own integrity and centeredness, and at the same time is always in relationship to the other (p. 106). This feminist self does not oppose the other in order to secure its identity; nor is the self defined strictly in terms of its relationships with others. Here the self’s freedom and that of another do not stand in an inverse competitive relationship to one another. Each establishes its integrity and its agency in proportion and relationship to the other: “in the self-other relation, which is held to be typical of women, the self still defines itself with reference to the other, but in this case there is the possibility of mutual self-realization” (p. 101). In this feminist order of human relations, the values of equality, reciprocity, and friendship prevail.
With this proposed model of the feminist self, Hampson positions herself critically to feminist theorists and Christian theologians alike. On the one side, she warns contemporary feminists against abandoning the Enlightenment model of subjectivity in favor of a radically destabilized postmodern view of female subjectivity. Women who have yet to come into their own subjectivity or to enjoy social equality can “ill afford to forego rhetoric of rights” (p. 7). Aligning herself with feminist philosophers such as Sevla Benyhabib, Jane Flax, and Iris Marion Young, Hampson supports a model of selfhood that is built on an individual self’s integrity and her equal relations of love (philia) to others. She agrees with these theorists that feminism cannot and should not go back behind the Enlightenment paradigm of selfhood, but rather must progress beyond it.
On the other side, she challenges those Christian theologians who criticize feminist theologians for speaking of “self-actualization” and “self-realization,” as if they were “promoting some kind of Fichtean egoism” (p. 114). Such a critique misses the mark, because it treats feminist discourse about rights and self-actualization as if it were a return to the Enlightenment order of things. Hampson adroitly turns this anti-feminist critique on its head by exposing its implicit narcissism. It amounts to looking into a feminist mirror and seeing only a reflection of the masculinist self: “It is taken for granted that such a concentration on self must be at the expense of others. Male egoism has indeed frequently been at the expense of women, as men have seen women only in relation to themselves and not as having their own subjectivity and independence” (p. 114).
Not only do such critics of feminism fail to see past their own reflection, but they are also blind to the fact that women might actually require a different discourse about selfhood, autonomy, and rights than that of men. Hampson explains:
What men (and non-feminist women) need to grasp is that in constructing a discourse about assertiveness, rights and autonomy, women are starting from a different place from that which privileged men have occupied. Self-deprecation is still the lot of most women, including women who to all appearances have outwardly achieved in a ‘male’ world. It is within such a context that women’s talk of empowerment should be understood (p. 114).
Here again Hampson mounts what I view as a powerful rhetorical argument on behalf of women’s need for a discourse of empowerment, rights, and self-assertion. Given women’s “different starting-place,” that is, their social positioning on the underside of the economy of gender relations and its history of damaging effects, women need a healthy dose of such rights rhetoric, if they are to right gender relations and come into their own subjectivity.
I will have reason ahead to question Hampson’s either/or between Christianity’s symbolic order and a feminist agenda. With the help of Tanner’s construal of divine and human agency, I will in particular challenge Hampson’s claim that human dependency on a transcendent God always proves heteronomous to feminist models of selfhood and agency. At the same time this does not invalidate many of Hampson’s insights into the androcentrism of Christianity’s gendered symbolic order and its dangerous history of effects upon women. Given women’s different starting place in relationship to the Christian tradition, Hampson’s critique of the language of obedience, sacrificial self-giving, and the like remains potent. Moreover, her spirited defense of a feminist discourse of autonomy, self-assertion, and equitable gender relations provides central clues to how a feminist theology of sin and grace must be re-visioned if it is to move women forward into freedom.
Divine Beneficence and Sinful Realities: Tanner’s Theological Structure of Things
In response to Hampson’s feminist critique of Christianity’s symbolic order, I would like to turn to the 2001 work of Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. To recall, I am interested in Tanners theology of creation and sin for two feminist purposes. First, I look to Tanners notion of a radically transcendent Cod in order to contest Hampson’s claim that such a God-concept is incompatible with feminist models of autonomy and agency. Second, I turn to Tanner s work for a theological concept of sin that can support a feminist theology of sin.
The fundamental premise of Tanners theology is her vision of God as the “giver of all good gifts, their fount, luminous source, fecund treasury and store house.”14 For Tanner, Gods entire providential purpose in creating the world and humankind in particular is the communication of divine goodness. Quoting Earth, Tanner describes divine self-giving this way: “Gods glory really consists in his self-giving, and that this has its centre and meaning in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and that the name of Jesus Christ stands for the event in which man, and in man the whole cosmos, is awakened, and called and enabled to participate in the being of God” (p. 37). In other words, the whole of God’s creation finds its telos, its true and proper end, in unity with and dynamic participation in the divine life of self-giving.
From this first theological premise Tanner develops two intertwined principles that structure her theology’ of creation and providence. The first is that God and human beings exist in a noncompetitive relationship to one another. This means that divine agency operates on a different order or plane from that of humanity, and therefore the two do not conflict with another. In this non-competitive theological structure, humankind’s dependency on this transcendent God, the giver of all good gifts, does not come at the expense of its creaturely integrity. On the contrary, the greater one’s dependence upon God, the more we receive for our good. As Tanner writes: “the creature does not decrease so that God may increase. . . . The more full the creature is with gifts the more the creature should look in gratitude to the fullness of the gift-giver. The fuller the giver the greater the bounty to others” (pp. 2-3).
This first principle of non-competitive relations between God and the created order rests on Tanner’s second theological principle that God is radically transcendent of the creaturely realm. Here Tanner recalls the classical notion of divine transcendence, namely, that God is the source of all goodness. Again Tanner: “The creature in its giftedness, in its goodness, does not compete with God’s gift-fullness and goodness because God is the giver of all that the creature is for the good” (p. 3). Since divine agency operates on a wholly different plane or order of causality than that of human beings, God transcends rather than competes with the power of humankind.
At this point we can already see how Tanner’s theology of creation and providence overturns a fundamental premise in Hampson s work, namely, that dependency on a radically transcendent God always comes at the expense of humanity’s-and in particular women’s-agency. In Tanner s theological structure of things, the divine-human relationship is certainly unilateral; God is utterly self-sufficient, while human beings depend entirely on God’s beneficence for their very existence. Yet, this divine-human relationship does not involve divine domination, that is, divine power exerted over and against the finite agency of human beings. In Tanner’s schema, the divine-human hierarchy is founded upon God’s gracious and ceaseless gift-giving-God’s communication of his infinite stores of goodness to humankind. In such a schema, dependency on a transcendent and beneficial divine will does not jeopardize finite freedom and integrity. On the contrary, the human beings’ dependency on this gift-giving God is the very source of human empowerment that issues forth in thankfulness for the gifts received, and in the finite agency to share these gifts with others. As human beings created by this gift-giving God, we are called and enabled to shine forth the goodness of God-to be an image of God-in and through our beneficent relations with others (pp. 69-70).
Lest Tanner’s picture of the human being’s condition appear all too rosy, let us consider the nature of sinful realities in her theological framework. Unsurprisingly, Tanner develops a theological notion of sin that corresponds to her vision of God: sin is the denial of or opposition to the transcendent God’s gift-giving nature. In sin, human beings enact the very opposite of this divine self-communication of goodness; they either intercept or block the gratuitous flow of divine gifts to themselves or to others. In Tanners words, sin is a “deliberate failure of humans to reflect God’s intentions for the world, the human refusal of God’s hopes for the world as a place where God’s perfect triune self-communication of goodness might be imitated. Human beings in this way sin, by closing their eyes to and blocking the reception of God’s gifts to themselves and others” (p. 46).
Here and elsewhere Tanner invokes two major metaphors to describe the reality of sin. Her primary metaphor is that of blockage. Human beings block divine gift-giving by refusing to receive the gifts, by separating themselves or others from the gifts, or else by refusing to share God’s good gifts with others. In all these ways, we stop the free flow of God s plenitude. Tanner’s second metaphor for the reality of sin is that of blindness or closing one’s eyes to the reality of God’s good gifts. Here sin assumes the form of a profound mistake or a self-deception about our creaturely status and our true identity. In sin, human beings blind themselves (or are blinded) to the boundless receiving of God’s good gifts and to their vocation to distribute these good gifts to others. With this second metaphor of blindness, Tanner reminds us that sin is a lie or a delusion about our true condition. Of course, it is not the case that God halts the flow of God’s gifts. God continues to shower us with good gifts regardless of whether we deserve them or receive them with gladness. Nonetheless, human beings blind themselves (or are blinded) to this ceaseless divine communication of good gifts.
On my reading of her work, Tanner’s theological concept of sin as the denial or opposition to the transcendent God’s gift-giving along with her twin metaphors of blockage and blindness are a powerful theological structure through which to describe the complexity of sinful human realities. For one, her theological concept captures at once the active and passive dimensions of sin-the fact that human beings actively refuse or block God’s gifts, at the same time that they are also refused or blocked from receiving God’s gifts by the acts of others. In the common parlance of our day, human beings are both sinners and sinned-against. Second, Tanners concept of sin addresses both the individual and the social or structural aspects of sin without privileging one as the source of the other. On the one hand, sin describes the individual soul who either blocks or is blocked from the reception of God’s good gifts. On the other, sin refers to the communities, social institutions, and structures that either block or else are blocked by others from the reception and distribution of God’s good gifts.
Finally, in Tanners theological framework, the consequences of human sin are deadly serious: “Our sins interrupt the reception and distribution of the free flow of divine gifts, bringing suffering and death in our train” (p. 86). Such suffering and death are not, however, divine punishment for our actions. Rather, these are the natural consequences of our ruptured relationship to or separation from God. We bring suffering on ourselves or others through blocking the reception of Gods beneficence. Indeed, in the midst of our dire circumstances, God continues to heal our situation by showering us with good gifts. As Tanner writes, “Despite the fact that our lives do not reflect God’s gift-giving, God still gives and is willing to give more. . . . Again God gives unity with Godself in Christ even to sinners, indeed especially to them; they ‘deserve’ these gifts simply because they need them” (p. 86). Here as elsewhere Tanner stresses the utter gratuity of God’s gift-giving; God gives us what we need regardless of our deserving it.
Before I consider how Tanner’s theology of sin might be developed in an explicitly feminist direction, let us first note how her construal of the divine-human relationship responds to some of Hampson’s moral charges against Christianity. First and foremost, Tanner demonstrates that belief in a radically transcendent God need not be at the expense of the human being’s agency and integrity. Tanner’s transcendent gift-giving God not only does not dominate over humanity, but in fact always acts to empower human persons. Second, Tanner’s description of the divine-human relation as one of constant giving and receiving contests Hampson’s version of the divine-human covenant in Christianity as one of absolute divine rule and perfect human obedience achieved through the annihilation of the human will. In Tanner’s schema, we are called to obey the divine will not by annihilating our will, but by aligning it with God’s beneficence. Human beings can certainly disobey God’s will by refusing or blocking God’s good gifts, but there is no threat of divine punishment for this fall into sin. God’s response to human disobedience is to shower us all the more with good gifts to remedy our situation.
Re-Visioning a Feminist Theology of Sin
I would like to conclude by suggesting how Tanner’s gender-neutral concepts of sin as the “blockage” or “denial” of “God’s gift-giving” might be appropriated to constructive feminist ends. How might her theological concept of sin address the gender troubles that feminists have identified in the classical paradigm of sin as pride? And what further theological steps might be needed so that her theology of sin might address the particular vicissitudes of women’s lives?
First and most obviously, Tanner’s theological concept of sin as “refusal” or “blockage” of “God’s gift-giving” responds well to feminist critiques of the root paradigm of sin as pride. Tanner does not anchor the problem of sin exclusively in the interior space of an individual’s relationship to God. Although an obstniction or else a denial of God’s good gifts might very well be a problem of the individual human heart, it need not be so. Moreover, Tanner’s proposed metaphors for sin as “blockage” or “blindness” to God’s gift-giving do not define sin narrowly in terms of an individual’s self-exaltation or the self-inflated ego. Rather, the notion of sin as “blockage” or “blindness” to God’s gift-giving are capacious concepts that admit a variety of individual and institutional, relational and indeed social interpretations of actual sins. In this light Tanner’s concept is initially well poised to address various sinful aspects involved in the economy of gender relations.
Second and just as importantly, Tanner’s notion of sin admits of both active and passive interpretations. One can speak both of “sinning” and “being sinned against,” of “refusing” and “being refused,” “blocking” and “being blocked” from God’s good gifts. Such elasticity in one’s root paradigm is more than a rhetorical flourish in a feminist theology of sin. Passive and active constructions of human sin allow the theologian to speak about the complex power dynamics that are often involved in the economy of gender relations, in which it is often all too difficult to determine agency and, therefore, to assign personal responsibility. In particular, the language of “blockage” or “blindness” offers Christian feminist theology a promising language for speaking about the gendered bondage of sin, in which men and women often appear simultaneously as sinner and sinned-against, the perpetrator and the victim.
Third and finally, Tanner’s conceptuality overcomes the burden of guilt and shame that many feminist theologians rightly criticize in the classical paradigm of pride. Tanner’s root metaphors for sin as “blockage” or “blindness” and her corresponding metaphors for the work of grace (for example, purification and healing) do not rely on a forensic model of sin and justification. Here sin is not defined as disobedience to a moral law; nor is there a judgment and punishment (even a stayed one) by a divine lawgiver. In Tanner’s “theological structure of things” there is surely serious talk about sinful realities. Humankind is wholly trapped in the bondage of sin, but there is no legal court established to decide humanity’s case. In response to sinful realities, whether they are individual or structural, this radically transcendent and beneficent God keeps on showering good gifts on creation so as to heal humankind so that they may receive, more fully enjoy, and share God’s blessings.15
Having said all this in favor of Tanner’s conceptuality, her theology of sin needs still to be developed further, given the prevailing economy of gender relations. In particular, Tanner’s root metaphors of sin as “blockage” or “blindness” to God’s gift-giving must be rhetorically re-dressed, so as to name the particular forms of oppression that women experience, and in which they often become complicit. Let me conclude by proposing three ways of en-gendering such a theology of sin.
First, a feminist theology of sin must specify the particular forms of blockage or blindness to which women fall prey. In what concrete ways do women both refuse and are themselves refused God’s good gifts of grace? Here both feminist theorists and theologians play a critical part in exposing those gender specific forces that obstruct women’s self-development and social flourishing. Second, a feminist theology of sin must specify forms of purification and healing that women require in order to move forward in faith. It must ask what forms of healing (such as empathy or self-assertion) might be required in order to remove the specific forms of blockage or blindness, refusals and being-refused, self-deception and being deceived that women undergo and engage in. Moreover, what kind of structural or institutional changes need to accompany such individual changes in order to clear women’s vision and support their full flourishing?
Third and finally, Tanner’s feminist theology of sin, which turns on an economy of self-giving, must take into account how the language of self-giving has functioned negatively in women’s lives. Here Hampson’s insights return with full force. A feminist theology of sin needs to formulate (or qualify) carefully the call to imitate divine self-giving so as not to be confounded with dangerous notions of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Tanner does go a long way herself in distinguishing the kind of self-giving that human beings are called to live out from a dangerous self-sacrificial ethic. Nonetheless, if her theological proposal is to be put to feminist ends, it needs, as Hampson argues, to include explicitly an aspect of self-assertion and self-empowerment within its framework of self-giving.
With these initial proposals I lay the groundwork for my own feminist re-visioning of a Christian theology of sin, a doctrine that is explicitly theological in nature and unapologetically feminist in its agenda. Lest I be misunderstood, such a feminist re-visioning is not aimed at women only. My intent is to reform the terms of sin-talk altogether, so that feminist visions of God, selfhood, and the Christian life reverberate with significance for Christian theology and the life of the church today.
1 Valerie Salving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Journal of Religion 40 (April 1960): 100-112; Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (Boston, Mass.: University Press of America, 1980).
2 Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000), 96.
3 For the purposes of this essay I include only white feminist theologies of sin in my typology. This is not to suggest that there are not significant proposals on the doctrine of sin and on the related issue of theodicy among the wide circles of womanist and mujerista theologians and feminist theologians from other parts of the world outside of the Christian West. Rather, I have abstained from including such proposals in my typology, so as not to subsume hegemonically their distinctive concerns within my feminist discourse. Since race and class always intersect with gender dynamics in any cultural context, further theological work is needed in order to draw my feminist proposal into critical conversation with womanist, mujerista, and other women theologians’ reconstructions of the doctrine of sin. Given the tremendous diversity among such proposals, such discussion lies behind the scope of this essay.
For an introduction to womanist theologies of sin, see Jacquelyn Grant, White Woman’s Christ and Black Woman’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Responses (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1989); Emilie M. Townes, ed., A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993); Emilie M. Townes, ed., Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001). For mujerista theologies, see Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha: A Hispanic Woman’s Liberation Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993). For a provocative example of a Latin American feminist theology of sin, see Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2002).
4 This is a feminist play on David Kelsey s questioning of modern theology in “Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Sin?” Theology Today 50 (July 1993): 169-178. In this essay Kelsey traces three migrations of the doctrine of sin away from the doctrine of creation to theological anthropology, redemption/liberation, and Christology. In this essay I am pursuing an analogous strategy by tracing three migrations of the feminist doctrine of sin.
5 See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1983); Lett)’ Russell, The Future of Partnership (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1979); Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1987).
6 See Catherine Keller, From A Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1986); Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988); Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum, 1994); Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); Kathleen Sands, Escape From Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1994).
7 Carol Hess, Caretakers of Our Common House: Women’s Development in Communities of Faith (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1997); Linda Mercadante, “Anguish: Unraveling Sin and Victimization,” in Anglican Theological Review 82 (Spring 2000): 283-302; Mary Potter Engel, “Evil, Sin, and Violation of the Vulnerable,” in Susan B. Thistlewaite and Mary Potter Engle, eds., Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row, 1990).
8 Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, 111.
9 For the term “pragmatic atheism,” see Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 10.
10 For the first strategy, see, for example, Daphne Hampson’s After Christianity (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996); for the second, see Sallie McFague’s Models of God as well as her more recent book, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993).
11 Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2000), 5-7.
12 Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001).
13 Hampson, After Christianity, 6. Subsequent references will be included in the text of this section.
14 Tanner, Jestm, Humanity and the Trinity, 1. Subsequent references will be included in the text of this section.
15 For Tanner’s further development of this point, see her recent essay, “Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice: A Feminist-Inspired Reappraisal,” Anglican Theological Review 86 (Winter 2004): 35-56. Here Tanner demonstrates how her incarnational Christology responds to the just criticisms made by feminists and womanists of the Western traditions forensic atonement theories.
JOY ANN MCDOUGALL*
* Joy Ann McDougall is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. This paper was originally presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians, San Antonio, Texas, in November 2004. The author thanks her colleagues at Emory University, Elizabeth Bounds, Wendy Parley, Tom Long, and Steffen Losel, for their criticisms of earlier versions of the article, and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion which provided her with a summer grant to complete this project.
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