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God doesn't need transcendence, we do.

Feminist theology and spirituality are often seen as claiming an immanent understanding of the divine. This is most typical of those who see themselves as worshiping a "goddess" or female-imaged deity. "She is in us and in all things" is the common view of the goddess. But Christian feminists also often lean toward the immanent in their understandings of an inclusive deity.

This emphasis on immanence is also being used as a key charge against feminist theology by the conservative heresyhunters in the churches. In their view the authentic biblical God is transcendent and masculine, and so any immanent and feminine conceptions of deity are ipso facto not Christian. Therefore, feminist theology, even when it claims the Christian tradition, is to be defined as post-Christian, even anti-Christian.

I would like to suggest that what is going on here is a fundamental confusion about the theological meaning of immanence and transcendence shared by both feminists and antifeminists that allows feminist thought to be caught in the underside of the same dualisms that it seeks to oppose in its emphasis on the immanence of God. Basically what feminists seek in claiming the immanence of God is an understanding of the divine as holistic, a God who is not seen as mind against body, spirit against matter, but who is the source of all life and reality in its fullness. They also seek a liberating God who can free us from patriarchy.

I would suggest that in order to reach out to such a holistic and liberating understanding of the divine, we need to break free of the mind-body, transcendence-immanence, outside-inside dualisms and also the implied identification of masculinity with the transcendent and femininity with the immanent sides of this polarity. The transcendence of God has nothing to do with being the external-mind-masculine side, nor does immanence have to do with being the inside-bodily-feminine side of these dualisms.

Rather, God's transcendence means God's radical freedom from all human systems of sin and lies, and God's immanence means God's liberating presence to us. These two are ultimately the same; that is, God is liberating as the one who is radically free from our systems of sin.

The god who is the apex and arche of systems of domination, who is seen as creating such systems and standing as their founding principle is, by definition, not the transcendent God but an idol of human systems of sin and lies. This means that the patriarchal god, the god who is masculine-mind-externality, by excluding the feminine-body-internality, lacks authentic transcendence. Such a god is the creature of human ideologies and systems of power that justify the dominance of men over women, the powerful over the powerless.

Women and oppressed people must reject this god of false transcendence, but they are not helped by simply embracing the underside of these same dualisms. Such immanence is dangerous for victims because, by implication, it naturalizes the systems of domination and sacralizes them as the work and will of God. Rather what victimized people and all of us need is the God who can free us from the systems of sin and their sacralizing ideologies.

Perhaps, as feminist theologian Rita Gross declared in a paper given at the recent American Academy of Religion conference in Washington, we should think of transcendence and immanence as, first of all, characteristics of religious experience rather than definitions of God.

Transcendence as religious experience means that experience of exaltation that enables us to soar beyond the trivial and oppressive patterns of daily life and touch transforming and liberating alternatives. Those who are directed to locate themselves solely in trivial and oppressive realms as their primary sphere of life desperately need experiences of transcendence.

What are the experiences of transcendence? These can come in many forms: experiences of beauty in nature, art and music that lift us beyond the ordinary; and jarring experiences of social dissonance that shake us out of the assumption that such social patterns are normal. They can also be the cultivated experiences of prayer and attentive social relationships. Such experiences are both grace or unexpected happenings and call for our appropriation of them and reflection upon their meaning.

Gross suggested that only when we have engaged in a long and profound journey of transcending religious experience and have sorted out in a mature way what is authentic and life-giving from what is deluding and violent, only then can we risk the experiences of immanence - that is, the experiences of the divine as the sacred presence of daily life in and around us. Premature immanence is dangerous to women, to all of us, because it risks sacralizing the oppressive patterns from which we need to be freed.

The understanding of God in feminist theology, in liberation theologies, must be radically transcendent, in the sense of being One who is radically free and the source of freedom from all systems of sin and lies.

Only when we are deeply in touch with the transcendent God of freedom can we also know God as the One who is more present to us than we are to ourselves, the One who is the source of all life and newness of life in and around and under all things. This is the One who truly creates and redeems the world.
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Title Annotation:feminist theology
Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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