Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-8tfrx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-31T13:50:54.239Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

‘Our bodies, our selves?’ The body as source in feminist theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2007

Jane Barter Moulaison*
Faculty of Theology, University of Winnipeg, 515 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 2E9,


This article is, in part, an effort to come to terms with the ubiquitous celebration of embodiment in feminist discourse, and particularly within feminist theology. It will begin with a brief introduction to some of the key concepts in feminist theology and its use of the body, beginning with the body theologies of those who might now be called ‘second-wave’ theologians – Carter Heyward and Beverly Harrison. From here, I will consider postmodern feminist challenges to the reified and essentialised body as I examine what I call the subversive body in third-wave or postmodern feminism, both secular and theological. Finally, I shall move from these to an alternative construal of the importance of the body through the consideration of Christian bodily practices. Such an alternative will allow me to reflect upon what it is to become a specifically Christian body through church practices. I shall then endeavour to return to the critical concerns raised by feminism about the subjugation of women's bodies in the church as I consider the resources that might be available within the tradition itself for critical and emancipatory practices toward women and other strangers within the Body of Christ.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2007

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See, for example, Warren, Karen J., ‘The Power and Promise of Ecological Thinking’, in Tong, R., Kouranay, J. and Sterba, J. (eds), Feminist Philosophies (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), p. 455Google Scholar. ‘Women are identified with nature and the realm of the physical; men are identified with the “human” and the realm of the mental. Whatever is identified with nature and the realm of the physical is inferior to (“below”) the realm of the mental; or, conversely, the latter is superior to (“above”) the former. Thus women are inferior to (“below”) men; or, conversely men are superior to women.’ Or, as Annie LeClerc writes, women's bodies are subordinated for the sake of male desire itself. The task at hand is to assert women's difference in the face of such bodily deprivation and denial: ‘You have poisoned my life. For centuries. Deprived of my body, I only knew how to love through you. Badly, hardly living. Slaving away, enduring, being silent and being pretty. My body there for work and for pleasing you; never for me. Mouth sewn up, face made up. Vagina open when you want it, closed up with Tampax. Scored, scraped, made hygienic, deodorized and re-odorized with rose-smelling perfume, it's too much, it's stifling me, I need my own body. That is what I mean by living’. Annie LeClerc, ‘Woman's Word’ in Tong et al. (eds), Feminist Philosophies, p. 438. For an explicitly theological account of the problem of dualism within Christianity, see Rosemary, Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983)Google Scholar.

2 Goldenberg, Naomi R., Resurrecting the Body: Feminism, Religion and Psychoanalysis (New York: Crossroad, 1993), p. 211Google Scholar.

3 Yet even Naomi Goldenberg does not wish to get rid of transcendence altogether. Indeed she claims that there may well be resources for psychological well-being which are implicit within the symbol itself, once it is divested of its patriarchal and ‘deathlike’ content. ‘A transcendence with body, a transcendence that is life-oriented, would involve feelings of connection instead of separation. It might be possible for transcendence to refer to a state of knowing oneself to be part of other human lives – to knowing that one's life is linked with other lives. Feeling part of an enormous effort at social reform such as that of the women's movement has been an experience of transcendence for many of us. The feeling of participation in the body politic not only provides a tie to a present collective community, but also links our lives to the lives of those who lived before us and those who will live after us. Such transcendence has a quality of the here and now – a feeling that is part of the present moment and that provides a significant tie to human history and society. It fosters feelings of being alive’. Ibid., p. 212.

4 Carter, Heyward, Touching our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 45Google Scholar.

5 Beverly, Wildung Harrison, ‘The Power of Anger in the Work of Love’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36 (suppl. 1981), p. 48Google Scholar.

6 Schleiermacher, F. D. E., On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John, Oman (London: Kegan Paul, 1893), p. 36Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., p. 39.

8 Mary, Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002), p. 122Google Scholar.

9 The appeal to the significance of bodily experience, like the appeal to experience itself, is not also deeply invested with meaning arising out of a nest of presuppositions that are peculiarly modern. As George P. Schner writes: ‘The rhetorical appeal to experience is thus both a maintenance of the Enlightenment desire to set aside the tutelage of any group or text so as to exercise reason in full freedom of inquiry, and also an instance of the displacement of authority from the dominant community to the individual or to particularized groups within the community. As the history of philosophical, psychological, and social criticism confirms, this form of an appeal to experience must itself be subjected to critique and is never literally a disinterested appeal. That is not to say that it is purposely ignorant, let alone ill willed. Rather, it points out that an appeal to experience as the authorization of the status of a given opinion is dependent on a theory of rationality, of human nature, of the relation of the individual to society and history, and of language and all other forms of mediation.’ ‘The Appeal to Experience’, Theological Studies, 53 (1992), p. 45.

10 Touching our Strength, p. 247 (italics added).

11 Ibid., p. 94.

12 As Butler writes: ‘To enter into the repetitive practices of this terrain of signification is not a choice, for the “I” that might enter is already inside: there is no possibility of agency or reality outside of the gender practices that give those terms the intelligibility that they have. The task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself. There is no ontology of gender on which we might construct a politics, for gender ontologies always operate within established political contexts as normative injunctions, determining what qualifies as intelligible sex, invoking and consolidating the reproductive constraints on sexuality, setting the prescriptive requirements whereby sexed or gendered bodies come into cultural intelligibility’. Judith, Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 148Google Scholar.

13 Lisa, Isherwood, ‘Indecent Theology: What F–ing Difference Does it Make?’, Feminist Theology 11/2 (2003), p. 147Google Scholar.

14 See also Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler, ‘The Professor of Parody’, The New Republic (22 Feb. 1999), pp. 37–45.

15 Feminist philosopher Vicki Kirby identifies lapsing into essentialism even, or perhaps especially, when one attempts to escape its grasp, a perennial feminist pitfall: ‘Rethinking essentialism, then, is not a dispute about its meaning, at least not within the order of its commonplace understanding. The weight of that understanding is the burden in its lived reality is not in contention here. If anything, what is being questioned is how we can pretend to bear this burden so lightly. It is not so much the meaning of essentialism that requires further consideration, but “the how” of that meaning. How is “essence” entailed, made proper, installed “as such” and naturalized within our thought and being? How does it congeal into an already embodied reality? If we assume that when we locate essentialism we identify it and corral its dangers the better to determine the virtue of our own practice, then we have merely embraced another of essentialism's many mutations and one that finds us right inside the belly of the beast.’ Vicki, Kirby, ‘Corporeal Habits: Addressing Essentialism Differently’, Hypatia 6/3 (Fall 1991), p. 9Google Scholar.

16 Body theology's intellectual proximity to Nietzsche's valorisation of the body over mind should give pause for critical revaluation of this standpoint. Similarly, as Sartre wrote, turning Descartes on his head: ‘The body is what I immediately am . . . I am my body to the extent that I am’. Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, cited in Anthony, Synott, ‘Tomb, Temple, Machine and Self: The Social Construction of the Body’, British Journal of Sociology 43/1 (March 1992), p. 100Google Scholar.

17 Marcella, Althaus-Reid, ‘“Pussy, Queen of Pirates”: Acker, Isherwood and the Debate on the Body in Feminist Theology’, Feminist Theology 12/2 (2004), p. 158Google Scholar.

18 As Charles Taylor efficiently characterised our cultural preoccupation with expression of our authentic selves: ‘each of us has his or her own way of realizing one's own humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one's own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority’. Charles, Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 83Google Scholar.

19 Note that Paul himself does not contrast body (soma) to soul (psyche), but flesh (sarx) to spirit (pneuma). Flesh (sarx) refers to the body and soul in rebellion against God, whereas spirit (pneuma) signifies sanctified life. As Kallistos Ware helpfully reminds: ‘the terms “flesh” and “spirit” indicate, not components of the person, but relationships embracing personhood in its totality. “Flesh” is the whole person as fallen “spirit”; the whole person as redeemed. As Paul sees it, the mind can become “fleshly” or “carnal” (Colossians 2:18), just as the body can become “spiritual” (I Corinthians 15:44)’. ‘The Body in Greek Christianity’, in Sarah Coakley (ed.), Religion and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 93.

20 ‘A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a pre-existing self or of pre-conceptual experience’. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 34.

21 Ibid., p. 18.

22 ‘Sacramental practice seems to speak most clearly of loss, dependence and interdependence, solidarities we do not choose: none of them themes that are particularly welcome or audible in the social world we currently inhabit as secular subjects. We are told, in effect, that the failure to see ourselves and find ourselves in one another kind of corporateness is a failure in truthfulness that is profoundly risky. Our liberty to choose and define ourselves as individuals or as limited groups with common interest is set alongside the vision of a society in which almost the only thing we can know about the good we are to seek is that it is no one's possession, the triumph of no party's interests. The search for my or our good becomes the search for a good that does not violently dispossess any other – and this not on the basis of rights whose balance must be adjudicated, but because of a conviction that the creative regard calling and sustaining myself is precisely that which sustains all’. Rowan, Williams, ‘Sacraments of a New Society’, On Christian Theology (Malden: Blackwell, 2000), p. 219Google Scholar.

23 ‘The postliberal method of dealing with the problem (of apologetics as translation) is bound to be unpopular among those chiefly concerned to maintain or increase the membership and influence of the church. This method resembles ancient catechesis much more than modern translation. Instead of redescribing the faith in new concepts, it seeks to teach the language and practices of the religion to potential adherents. This has been the primary way of transmitting the faith and winning converts for most religions down through the centuries.' Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, pp. 131–2.

24 Indeed, one could read the entire Pauline corpus as an extended effort to create and shape Christian bodies. As Douglas Harink writes: ‘For Paul, the spiritual and moral space created by God through Christ's triumph over the powers in the cross is also the space in which a new human community is created, a community that is called to embody the reality of the powers conquered, redeemed and reordered. In this community the new creation is announced, enacted and celebrated through Spirit-enabled practices that reveal in concrete ways that the rule of the rebellious powers has been broken in Christ – practices of identification and incorporation, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of sharing earthly goods, of building up the corporate body of Christ through gifts of service, of giving everyone a voice in the discernment of corporate direction. Through these practices the church becomes God's people, a body, a polis, that reflects the way of Jesus Christ amid other peoples, bodies and cities’. Paul Among the Postliberals (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), p. 149.

25 ‘The . . . church is fundamentally identified and characterized by its story. Images such as “body of Christ”, or the traditional marks of “unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity”, cannot be first defined and then used to specify what is and what is not the church. The story is logically prior. It determines the meaning of images, concepts, doctrines, and theories about the church rather than being determined by them’. Lindbeck, George A., ‘Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation’, in Green, Garrett (ed.), Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 165Google Scholar.

26 Rowan Williams, ‘Incarnation and the Renewal of Community’, in On Christian Theology, p. 232.

27 See George Lindbeck, “Theories of Language and Religion and the Permanence of Doctrine.” Unpublished Saint Michael's Lectures given October 15–16, 1974, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. Courtesy of the George Lindbeck archives, Yale Divinity School University Library, on the irreducible diversity in such shaping: ‘[I]t can be argued that the adherents of different religions do not diversely thematize the same experience; rather, they have different experiences. Buddhist compassion, Christian love and, if I may cite a quasi-religions phenomenon, French Revolutionary fraternité are not diverse modifications of a single fundamental human awareness, emotion, attitude or sentiment, but are radically (i.e., from the root) distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented towards self, neighbour, and cosmos’. ‘The Saint Michael's Lectures’, p. 13.

28 Pierre, Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1977), p. 215Google Scholar.

29 There is some hermeneutical circularity in the relationship between habitus and field in Bourdieu's writing. As Bourdieu writes: ‘The relation between habitus and field operates in two ways. On one side, it is a relation of conditioning: the field structures the habitus, which is the product of the embodiment of the immanent necessity of a field (or of a set of intersecting fields, the extent of their intersection or discrepancy being at the root of a divided or torn habitus). On the other side, it is a relation of knowledge or cognitive construction. Habitus contributes to constituting the field as a meaningful world, a world endowed with sense and value, in which it is worth investing one's energy. Two things. First, the relation of knowledge depends on the relation of conditioning that precedes it and fashions the structures of habitus. Second, social science is necessarily a “knowledge of a knowledge” and must make room for a sociologically grounded phenomenology of the primary experience of the field or, to be more precise, of the invariants or variations of the relation between different types of fields and different types of habitus’. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 127.

30 Notice how women in this pragmatic account are not lumped together based upon the ideological canons of a ‘common nature’ or a ‘feminine epistemology’ or even by ‘women's experience’; but rather through the concrete manifestation of their bodies, still excluded from church practices and often with an internalized self-deference before male authority within church structures. It is here, within this small space, located squarely still within the common practices of the church, that it becomes possible to speak of the importance of women's bodies within the church in a manner that is not abstraction from the Christian form of life, while it does not impose an abstract unity upon the diversity of women's experiences.

31 Sarah, Coakley, ‘“The Woman at the Altar” Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?’, Anglican Theological Review 86/1 (Winter 2004), pp. 8990Google Scholar.

32 It is for this reason that I would argue for the importance of feminist rituals that are rooted within the Christian tradition which give greater voice to the experiences of women, such as the ‘Churching of Women’, an ancient rite in which women are welcomed into the church after having a baby. Although one might wish to avoid the concern over a women's ‘impurity’ after childbirth, the significance of marking women's postpartum experience seems evident. As Natalie Knödel writes: ‘From a feminist point of view I want to argue for a new liturgical appreciation of the female experience of giving birth and motherhood. Within Christian feminist writings there are a number of examples of feminist rituals for the birth of a child, but I find most of them unsatisfying because they often lack confessional identity as prayers of a church which calls itself Christian. I maintain that the latter is necessary as the churching rites are prayers of and for the whole congregation . . . . [H]istorical evidence shows that the churching can in fact be understood as an example of women making liturgical space for themselves and their own experiences’. ‘Reconsidering an Obsolete Rite: The Churching of Women and Feminist Liturgical Theology’, Feminist Theology 14, (January 1997) p. 123.

33 Rowan Williams, ‘Incarnation and the Renewal of Community’, p. 236.

34 Sarah, Coakley, ‘The Eschatological Body: Gender, Transformation, and God’, Modern Theology 16/1 (Jan. 2000), p. 70Google Scholar.