Thursday, July 5, 2007

Theology, ideology, and disciple making

My first post on this blog was An Evangelical Consideration of Feminism and Feminist Theology. It was based upon an article I wrote for a layperson's Christian apologetics resource to be published in the next year or so.

My interest in feminist theology began before this article, however, and has been growing for some time. At first, I knew not why I was collecting feminist volumes at Half-Price bookstores, but I think the Lord knew I would need such resources to satisfy my curiosity as my interest grew. Perhaps it is the "danger" involved that excites me--the sense that this subject matter is what all my undergraduate professors warned me about. Perhaps I am sympathetic with the social concerns of feminist theologians (which I am). Perhaps it is the deception of the Evil One leading me astray (said with tongue in cheek). Whatever the reason, I have been thinking deeply about feminist theology and feminist theological method in particular for some time.

Perhaps the best criticism I have read of feminist theology comes from theologian Donald Bloesch. He argues in The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language that feminist theologies, along with other liberation theologies, have become “consciously ideological” (84). That is, their driving agendas overshadow their theologies to such an extent that theology has become ideology. Bloesch explains further: “When a theology becomes consciously ideological, as in some forms of feminist and liberation theologies, it is bound to lose sight of the transcendent divine criterion, the living Word of God, by which alone it can determine the validity of its social valuations."

Let me explain this in other words: Broadly speaking, feminism is a global movement and social program that directs its efforts toward the emancipation of women. This is accomplished primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder the process of women’s liberation.

In feminist theology, this feminist commitment to women's emancipation is the ultimate authority, even more authoritative than the Bible or the person of Jesus Christ. As a result, women’s experience, a relative and subjective conception (even though immensely valuable), becomes the norm for theological inquiry and construction. Bloesch argues that in their rejection of all sources of authority outside of women’s experience, feminist theology turns into ideology—an intellectual system based on a social program. Feminist theologians affirm allegiance to gender-equality as their foundational premise and then subject God and the Bible to this commitment.

I agree with Bloesch's crticism of feminist theology. It is conciously ideological and I have yet to find a feminist theology that does not lose touch with the central commitments of Christian tradition (especially the person and work of Jesus Christ). It would seem that any theology that has a social program or commitment as its driving and controlling agenda risks turning into an ideology instead of a Christian theology.

That said, I wonder to myself if its possible to do theology without some driving and controlling motivation, commitment, or agenda. I don't mean to sound like a postmodern skeptic, but is there any Christian theology that is void of an agenda of some kind? Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez argues in his A Theology of Liberation that all theology arises out of praxis (practice) and that it should arise out of praxis. (In his case, of course, the praxis is the liberation of the poor and underprivileged.) I think I agree with Gutierrez that that theology and praxis have an interdependent relationship. For example, the early church's practice of the Lord's Supper informed their theology about the Lord's Supper (and not only their theology of the Lord's Supper, but also their Christology, soteriology, and other important issues). Moreover, our view of Scripture affects our reading/study of Scripture and vice versa. Praxis and theology are mutually influential.

So, why does this matter? Even though I agree with Bloesch's criticism of feminist theology as "consciously ideological," I am skeptical of the possibility that any Christian theology can be without some measure of ideology. If an ideology is defined as "an intellectual system based on a social program," then Christian theology does have an ideology of sorts. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ to make more disciples of Jesus Christ, submerging them in the Trinitarian reality and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. This is in order that they may live rightly under the rule of God, which broke into history in the person of Jesus Christ and exists now as the "divine conspiracy" (thank you, Dallas Willard) that is working to redeem all of creation. In this sense, all Christian theology should be ideological in some sense. If the call to make disciples isn't the primary motivation and control for our theology, then what is? I see no way around it.

Perhaps the problem with feminist and liberation theologies is not that they are "consciously ideological," but that they have the wrong ideology. As I consider a career in theology, I have to wonder if being a theologian is worth anything at all if those who are reading my work or sitting in my classes are not spurred on to be better followers of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is here. I must encourage all who will listen to live in light of this truth, with hearts submitted to the leadership of Jesus. This is my "social program," if you will. This is my "ideology."


Endlessly restless said...

I agree with your analysis and conclusion. I am now left reflecting on my own 'ideology'. But I'm also concerned and challenged about how conscious, or not, we are of our 'ideology' and the ongoing effect that it could have in turning people away from Jesus. I also wonder if the real 'ideology' of my church - and me - is really about maintaining cosy/affluent, Western, middle class social groupings.

Do we all need to compromise our ideologies to enable God's kingdom to flourish?

Maybe our ideologies become idols?

Thank you for prompting these thoughts.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Endlessly restless,

You ask some good questions.

I would add something else to the mix. We tend to think that orthodox doctrine (whatever our definition of that may be) is essential to following Jesus. Yet, with all our doctrinal wars in Protestant life in the past 50 years or so, why haven't we seen more devoted followers of Jesus because of it? This is not to say, of course, that theology doesn't matter. (I am pursuing a career in it, for goodness sake.) But, I wonder if our understanding and teaching of theology is really making disciples of Jesus.

It may be that our focus on doctrinal purity is a part of that "Western middle class social grouping" you describe. I know this may sound heretical, but does it really matter if someone understands the hypostatic union or the economic Trinity if they still walk according to the flesh, producing fruit that comes from a "bad tree"?

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Have a great weekend,


Boyd Luter said...

Emily (AKA smartest human I know),

As usual, a thought-provoking discussion! Without question, feminists have a "conscious ideology." However, I strongly suspect that anyone who has a faith commitment to whatever position and has thought seriously about it and what practical implications it should have has at least a sub-conscious ideology.

Mega-blessings to Ron and you,