Radicalism of Indian/Asian Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics & Theology

Posted: July 29, 2011 in General

[Sr. Pauline Chakkalakal, DSP, of the Daughters of Saint Paul, holds a Doctorate in Biblical Theology. In addition to her theological education, she has obtained Diplomas in Library Science, from Delhi Library Association, Journalism & Public Relations, from Media Centre, Bangalore. She is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), Indian Theological Association (ITA), Catholic Biblical Association of India (CBAI), Society for Biblical Studies, India (SBSI), Indian Women Theologians' Forum (IWTF) & Satyashodhak, a Mumbai-based feminist group. She is associated with Bombay Urban Industrial League for Development (BUILD), the Forum of Religions for Justice and Peace, and several secular and church-related women's organizations].

The Bible, written from the socio-cultural perspective of male authors, as well as its interpretations, has legitimised women’s subordination in Christian traditions. Women have appeared in patriarchal teachings as types: virgins, temptresses, seducers, but not real women. This experience of stereotype makes women suspect the validity of a ‘biblical revelation’ that has come to us solely through male categories. Therefore, a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ should inform any reading of biblical texts and commentaries, and reconstruct them in terms of praxis for liberation of all.

As all theological articulations are based on a particular understanding of the Bible, feminist scholars emphasise the need to scrutinise the androcentric and patriarchal/kyriarchal elements in biblical texts and retrieve the position of women and their partnership with God in the story of salvation. In other words, “the hermeneutical principles that we choose to employ are determined by our theological stands operative in exegesis and interpretation.” [1]

The feminist demand is for a re-structuring of thought and analysis in view of developing a holistic approach to Divine-human realities. Far from rejecting the Bible because of its androcentric and anti-women characteristics, and the many discrepancies within the text, Indian/Asian women are engaged in exploring new insights into methodology and hermeneutics. Making use of the tools of historical criticism on the one hand and the hermeneutics of liberation on the other, women scholars continue to make substantial contributions to the ongoing research in the field. This is evident in In God’s Image, journal of Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology.

It is important to reinforce our conviction that Indian/Asian feminist hermeneutics should not be viewed as an extension of Western feminist scholarship. While acknowledging the pioneering and commendable work of our sisters in the US and UK, Asian women are committed to pursue our ongoing search for adequate hermeneutical principles to reflect on the complexity of structures of oppression in our specific contexts, and develop an empowering and life-affirming approach to Bible and Theology.

This, however, has many hurdles with no easy solutions. One major difficulty is the absence of a common language among Indians/Asians, except for the colonial language English. Another is the lack of financial resources which makes writing and publishing a luxury for many. A third reason has been attributed to inadequate non-formal teaching resources to educate women, who form the bulk of non-literate persons in all Asian countries.

Rooted in the sufferings, struggles, hopes and aspirations of the silenced and silent women and the marginalised in all strata of Indian/Asian society, our hermeneutical method has necessarily to challenge the socio-cultural, religio-political and economic systems, and caste and gender based oppression of a patriarchal society. It is equally important to denounce the prejudice of male chauvinistic prescriptions on women’s sexuality, as well as to question the prevailing exclusive male God symbolism and sexist language for God and humanity. Simultaneously, we have to promote a life-affirming, change-oriented, eco-friendly and contextual reading of the Bible and theologising.

Religious pluralism being a fact of history, particularly with reference to India/Asia, it is imperative that we also search in the Scriptures of other great religions for liberative streams and engage in dialogue with women and men of other faiths. Undoubtedly there are prophetic voices in every religion and devout people, who are as eager as we are to “move into a healthier, more just world after patriarchy”.[2] My experience of interreligious activity since 1992 in our locality at Bandra, Mumbai, has deepened my conviction that followers of other religions are not mere objects of theological discourse, but partners in our common search for Truth.

To wind up my brief reflections, let me reiterate our commitment: Applying the feminist hermeneutics of liberation with its ingredients: “a hermeneutics of experience, domination and social location, suspicion, critical evaluation, creative imagination, remembering and reconstruction, and transformative action for change”[3], we continue to unearth the lost ‘feminist coin’ from biblical tradition and assume the task of hearing the silenced voices within the text. In the process, we retrieve women’s position in biblical story, particularly in Jesus’ movement and recapture the original vision of  Jesus for the Church to be a community of ‘discipleship of equals’ (Gal 3:26-28; cf. Gen 1:26-27). It must be underlined that the qualifying word equals does not mean sameness, but “equality in diversity”. It underscores the fact that all disciples – men and women alike – have equal standing, dignity and access to the gifts of “Divine Sophia-Spirit.”

Notes:

[1] M. J. Melanchthon, “Indian Women and the Bible: Some Hermeneutical Issues,” in P. Kumari, ed., Feminist Theology Perspectives and Praxis (Chennai:Gurukul Lutheran Theological College,1998), p. 281. For a discussion on ‘hermeneutics’, see Clodovis Boff, “Hermeneutics: Constitution of Theological Pertinency,” in R. S. Sugirtharajah, Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (London: SPCK, 1991) pp. 9-35.

[2] Lina Gupta, “Kali the Saviour”, in Paula Cooey, et al., eds., After Patriarchy: Feminist Interpretations of the World Religions, Faith Meets Faith Series (New York: Orbis Books, 1992), p.15.

[3] E. Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), p. 167; Cf. Jen-Wen Wang, “Tracing the Ways of Our Foresisters” in Telling Her Story: Introduction to an Asian Feminist Re-reading of History – Book 2 (Kuala Lumpur: AWRC, 2006), pp.159-169.

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