In the Beginning Was “Power”?
Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation
By Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
Publisher: Orbis Books
Pages: 229 pages
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
When Catholic feminists publish a book, they often refer to or cite Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in their footnotes, as if she were a perfectly acceptable authority. She is not. The Gospel of St. John opens thus: “In the beginning was the Word.” Schüssler Fiorenza, however, declares in Democratizing Biblical Studies: “In the beginning was not pure reason, but power.” Power, not Logos, is her ultimate reality.
Born in Romania and educated in Germany, Schüssler Fiorenza arrived in the U.S. in 1970, at age 32. She taught at Notre Dame and later at Harvard Divinity School. In Wisdom Ways she says she writes from a “Catholic Christian location.” Not so, for she treats the Bible with stunning disparagement. For instance, at the start of her class, she says that her students show “fears and anxieties” because they’ve been “socialized into trusting and obeying G*d’s [sic] word.” As the class progresses, some of them “suffer from anxiety attacks, break out in cold sweat, or shake and tremble when they engage in a critical reading and evaluation of the bible [sic],” such as the method she teaches, while others have “an overwhelming experience of loss.” Schüssler Fiorenza assures them that the Bible does not deserve such “trust, devotion, and reverence.” She admits that she too once accepted the Gospels as “accurate accounts of what Jesus really taught and did,” but now she sees them as “constructs.” In her mind, biblical interpretation is a battle waged on behalf of “the oppressed” in the “global struggles for radical democracy.”
Schüssler Fiorenza asks us to adopt new words in order to resist the “linguistic violence” of current “male-centered language.” Among them is wo/men with a slash, a term inclusive of both women and “subordinate men.” She rejects Bl. John Paul II’s teaching that men and women have complementary natures because, she says, this view leads to “heterosexism,” which is “an essential element in the maintenance of structures of domination.” Another word she invents is kyriarchy, defined as the great pyramid of oppression, with wo/men at the bottom. The only reason the Bible has survived until now, she says, is because it has been “legitimized” by “kyriarchal power constellations.”
When it comes to biblical interpretation, she explains, the kyriarchy is divided into two camps, “canonical and scholarly” — those who say their readings are “universal divine revelation” and those who say their “scientific data” cannot be questioned. Both camps have marginalized Schüssler Fiorenza’s method. In Democratizing Biblical Studies she laments that the “scientific” biblical scholars have more “authority” in academe than she has, though they are “patently kyriocentric and Eurocentric.” She resents having to remain in her “little niche of identity politics” at Harvard Divinity School while these malestream (another neologism) scholars ignore what she writes. No matter how many books wo/men like her publish, they still remain “academically muted persons.”
Yet another of Schüssler Fiorenza’s neologisms is ekklesia. She defines the Church as a slave-holding society headed by a father, but ekklesia as a loose aggregate of egalitarian communities. She also substitutes Christian Testament for New Testament, to avoid implying that our Lord was the awaited Messiah. Her ekklesia is a place where everyone is free to determine the “public and personal meanings” of the Bible and be accountable only to a “global citizenry,” not to the Church or the academy. She promises that ekklesia will let wo/men “reclaim the human and divine qualities that rightly are theirs but which have been stolen from them in and through andro-kyriocentric language, culture, and religion.”
Still another of Schüssler Fiorenza’s coinages is conscientization, defined as seeing through the “myth” of superiority and realizing that social inequality means “oppression and dehumanization.” The Bible is her tool for conscientization, and her starting point is “wo/men’s experience.” She alleges that for millennia the Bible was used to subjugate the masses, but now wo/men’s experience can be used to determine whether or not a given biblical text gives priority to “wo/men’s struggles against multiplicative oppressions.” She admits that she is not interested in finding the “correct and true interpretation” of Scripture — any interpretation will do, so long as it helps overturn the “structures of domination.”
Schüssler Fiorenza treats Scripture as time-bound “rhetorical discourse” that must be updated so wo/men can reclaim their “freedom for self-definition, self-determination, self-respect, self-esteem, and self-affirmation.” Note that the word “self” occurs five times in the foregoing sentence. The pursuit of wo/men’s power culminates in pride. In fact, Schüssler Fiorenza declares that, for wo/men, “pride should not be considered a sin but a virtue that needs to be cultivated.” Nor does she allow dissent on such matters. In a worksheet at the end of a chapter, she instructs readers to “explain what conscientization means and how you will practice it.” Note that she says how, not if. Though she advocates egalitarianism, she sounds like a sergeant leading an army drill. Evidently, in ekklesia, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.
Schüssler Fiorenza wants wo/men in her Bible classes to “deconstruct, debunk, and reject the kyriocentric politics of the canonical text” and then to overturn the “institutionalized religion that has excluded wo/men from leadership positions.” By using a “radical egalitarian imagination,” they can “resist the summons” of the Bible, identify with “dissident voices,” and defeat “kyriarchal mystification and dehumanization.” Her goal is to smash the “master’s house” (the Roman Church) and use its pieces to build up ekklesia as the “new and different house” of Sophia. Schüssler Fiorenza compares this rebuilding to making a quilt — hardly an activity that the “subordinate males” included in wo/men would enjoy. Schüssler Fiorenza says that wo/men will become “history makers” by re-creating the past “in terms of their own experience and vision of the real.” Not so. They will be creating historical fiction.
Schüssler Fiorenza won’t be satisfied until the walls of kyriarchy have fallen and been replaced by Sophia’s house of seven columns without walls. Until that time, Schüssler Fiorenza will lead the “spiraling dance,” teaching wo/men to look closely at “the relations of power inscribed in the text and its functions in contemporary contexts.” When St. Paul says that “women should keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34), wo/men interpret this as not allowing for “women’s ordination into positions of power” and can see that his “rhetoric of love” in 1 Corinthians 13 has turned into “violence.” Schüssler Fiorenza considers Catholic priests as holding “positions of power,” not as exercising sacrificial service, and calls it “violence” for wo/men to be barred from the priesthood.
When a woman-pastor in Switzerland adopted Schüssler Fiorenza’s method of Bible study, she reported that her students initially wanted to understand the Bible “correctly,” but they soon learned how to distinguish “liberatory” from “oppressive” texts and to resist “the pressure to derive all decisions from the bible [sic] or the attitude of Jesus.” In other words, Fiorenza’s method quickly de-Christianized them. Her method can be observed in a nutshell in a worksheet in Wisdom Ways. She writes, “Service and suffering are often seen as redemptive. What are the problems with such an understanding? When does a statement such as, for instance, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ become oppressive? How should we deal with oppressive texts?” It takes her five sentences to undermine a core tenet of Christianity.
“Focusing on the figure of Jesus, the Son of the Father, ‘doubles’ wo/men’s oppression,” Schüssler Fiorenza warns, and she accuses St. Luke of introducing the character of the bleeding woman (8:43) “to enhance the authority and power of the male protagonist.” The implication is that Luke is writing fiction with Jesus as the heroic lead character. She finds something sinister in Luke’s emphasis on healings: “Many wo/men mentioned in the gospels are wo/men who have been healed by Jesus and their stories underscore how powerful Jesus is. The author or narrator thus uses a wo/man character to gain power over readers so that they will agree that Jesus is a powerful teacher and prophet whose work fulfills the words of the prophets.” Again, the implication is that Luke is making up stories to showcase male power. Far from being the Incarnate God, Jesus is for her only a fictional character made to look as if He fulfills Old Testament prophecies. Has any atheist expressed more contempt for our Lord and the Gospels?
Schüssler Fiorenza declares that a disabled wo/man who reads the stories of Jesus’ healings would be “doubly self-alienated” at the realization that “she can never be like Jesus.” Why would a disabled woman feel alienated by our Lord’s healings? It would make more sense for her to pray to be healed too. She can indeed be “like” Him by embracing His humility and becoming His disciple. Oh, but that’s right, wo/men are to repudiate humility and seek only power for themselves.
Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that when wo/men read the Bible they should pretend that the male Apostles were wo/men and that Jesus was “a female Messiah.” They will thus “undo the text’s ideological power of persuasion” and “resist the prescriptive rhetorics and attempted identity formation.” She even urges wo/men to play with our Lord’s words by composing “wisdom sayings in the ‘I am’ or ‘But I say to you’ style.” When our Lord says, “I am,” He is attesting to His divinity, and when He declares, “But I say to you,” He is establishing His new Kingdom. But Schüssler Fiorenza reduces these statements to rhetorical gambits. She even jokes that instead of the beatitude “Blessed are the poor,” wo/men should write, “Blessed are the rich for money rules the world.”
For Schüssler Fiorenza there is only one kind of sin, “structural sin,” which is so deeply embedded in our culture and religion that people think the resulting “oppression and dehumanization” are normal. Structural sin does indeed exist, but it’s found chiefly in the global abortion industry protected by wicked laws and court decisions. Schüssler Fiorenza never once mentions abortion as a sin. In fact, she supports wo/men’s “reproductive rights” while condemning heterosexism and homophobia as structural sins.
After four decades of ranting, it’s time for Schüssler Fiorenza to repent. But how likely is that? She despises humility and urges wo/men to cultivate pride, the very sin that led to Satan’s fall from grace. She has made a career of treating the Bible sacrilegiously, and she proclaims her ultimate reality to be “power.” It’s a shame that she persists in calling herself a “Catholic Christian” and has attracted followers among Catholic priests and nuns, for she is neither Catholic nor Christian.
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