REFLECTIONS ON SPIRITUALITY AND GENDER
by Ursula King, Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education (Spring 2010) pp. 3-13
Spirituality is often discussed in such general terms that no attention is given to either women or gender. If spirituality relates to all of life, then one of the most significant markers of human life is gender, and the difference it makes to spirituality. As in most other areas of life, men have usually defined what counts as spirituality, who can practice and teach it, who holds spiritual authority, and what the spiritual life is all about. And this has had a deep impact on the spiritual lives of women.
Although ultimately gender-transcendent, spiritual ideals are far from gender-neutral. They are shaped by deeply embedded patriarchal structures and androcentric (male-centred) thought that has affected all traditional spiritual practices and teachings. On first encounter, spiritual advice appears to be quite neutral and seems to refer to apparently asexual beings of no specific gender. But on closer examination such advice frequently turns out to be anti-body, anti-woman, and anti-world.
Past and present spiritualities are often deeply dualistic. They divide the world of women, work, body and matter from that of the spirit. The contemporary renewal of spirituality, by contrast, seeks holiness through wholeness. Nowhere is this more evident than among contemporary women, in the diverse forms of feminism, and in the creative re-imaging that has occurred in the women’s spirituality movement and also in the emerging men’s movement. To unpack the complex ideas associated spirituality and gender, I shall explore these topics in four successive steps:
1. Spirituality and gender – what is the connection?
2. Men, women and spirituality.
3. Some examples from women’s history.
4. Gendering the Spirit: a silent revolution and global transformation
Spirituality and Gender – what is the connection?
What does “gender” mean? It is often, quite wrongly, simply identified with women. But gender is a specifically constructed analytical category that is not synonymous with women; it relates to both women and men, and the different ways in which the sexes have been understood by different religions and societies. Gender therefore concerns both women and men; it relates to their identity, their relations with each other and the power and influence they hold over each other. Critical gender thinking on our part is not a ‘natural’ given, it has to be acquired. Modern gender studies have developed out of earlier women’s studies and feminist theoretical developments that have also influenced the more recent thinking of critical men’s studies. Gender studies are a transdisciplinary field that has led to many new insights and changed practices, although gender thinking has impacted on religion much later than on many other areas. Yet in spite of these developments many people connected with religion remain ‘gender blind’ while some of the secular feminists are still ‘religion blind’, so that a double transformation needs to take place.
Whatever one’s own position, it is important to realise that gender thinking is now a global development that affects religions and spiritualities worldwide, revealing the mutual embeddedness of religion, spirituality and gender. Much new research has been produced on this, as I have explained at length in other writings on some of which I have drawn here to highlight a few major aspects (see King 2009, 2005, 1993a). It must also be mentioned that in practice far more gender studies remain concerned with women than men, given the urgent need for the equal representation and participation of women in all areas of social and religious life, an aim that is far from being realised and that requires the close collaboration of men and women.
Men, women and spirituality
Our understanding of God, of ultimate reality in whatever form, and of ourselves as persons is deeply interconnected. Since we are always embodied selves patterned by different genders, male and female approaches to spirituality have been profoundly influenced by their respective embodiments through which the life of the Spirit flows and expresses itself. Contemporary awareness of gender differences has given new expression to spiritual life and the flourishing of new spiritualities among women and men.
In western theology God has often been described as the ‘wholly Other’, but today we hear far more about ‘the other’ as another person from a different culture, country or religion. Yet there is also a strong gender dimension to ‘otherness’, for women have been ‘the other’ par excellence in much of human history and culture. Sexually different from and other than men, women have in the past been mostly defined by men, often without a right to their own voice or to an independent role. Religions have frequently assigned women to a position of inferiority and subjugation. Within Christianity it is only in the modern period that the biblical teaching about both man and woman being created in the image of God, each representing the imago dei, has been interpreted in a truly egalitarian sense that affirms equality and partnership. This important teaching, linked to the recognition of the full humanity of women, has had a considerable influence on the first wave of the women’s movement in the mid-nineteenth century and on some feminist thinking ever since.
Traditionally, spirituality has been the official prerogative of human males. It was primarily among men that spiritual disciplines were developed and passed on from one generation to the next. Not that women did not have their own spiritual practices and devotions, but they were usually of a more domestic, private and folk nature rather than being part of official religion. The search for spiritual perfection and holiness was often closely related to men’s contempt for their own bodies, but also the bodies of women, and the body of the world. In most societies and religions, women occupied an inferior social position and were kept dependent on men. Women were largely valued in their primary social role as wife and mother, for which they were as much praised as denigrated. Traditional spirituality often separated men from women, from each other, and from wider society.
In the past, spiritual practice was mainly developed by particular social and religious elites such as ascetics, monastics, yogis, pirs, gurus, holy men, and occasionally also holy women, who possessed the necessary leisure and ability for pursuing paths of spiritual excellence and attainment. Most models of holiness were male models based on men’s experience. The global history of renunciation and religious asceticism remains still to be written, but we already know enough to recognize that asceticism is responsible for a great deal of misogyny found in the teachings of many world’s religions.
Many traditional stereotypes continue to influence people’s attitudes when thinking about spirituality. Most pervasive are the customary associations with masculinity and femininity that are still deeply rooted in western culture. Masculinity is often perceived to be linked to reason, transcendence and divinity, whereas femininity is associated with body, immanence and humanity. Such stereotypical associations provide some, though not all, explanations why women were often deemed unable to reach the exalted, transcendent heights of the spirit. This is not only true in Christianity and Judaism, but also in most other religions. The widespread perception that women are inferior to men, characteristic of so many religious teachings, has meant for a long time that women were excluded from the realms of spiritual authority and from the spiritual hierarchies of established religious institutions.
Following the feminist reinterpretation of traditional religions and the rise of feminist, ecofeminist, and goddess spiritualities, there now also exists a growing movement of new male reinterpretations of religion and spirituality. This is similarly concerned with issues of embodiment, sexuality, the deconstruction of traditional masculine roles and images, and new approaches to the Divine. However, these are grounded in the specific experience of men rather than women. New forms of masculine spirituality reclaim the male body as a positive element in male religious identity. This line of thinking was pioneered by the American theologian James B. Nelson (1988; 2001) especially in his book The Intimate Connection. Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality; it has since been taken up by other writers and different men’s groups. So far, the much younger male spirituality movement has remained a largely western phenomenon whereas the women’s spirituality movement and the feminist critique of traditional forms of religion have spread around the globe, and now include the work of many women from non-western religions.
Looking at women and religion, three overall perspectives are helpful in gaining a more discerning understanding of their interconnections, moving from external to more internal criteria (these can also be separately applied to men and religion, providing in each case different results):
- What are the status and role of women in specific religions – their participation or exclusion from religious rites and authority, their access to sacred texts, their possibility of founding their own religious communities?
- What are the images and symbols associated with women in religious thought, writings and sacred scriptures? How are female images connected with teachings on creation and salvation or with the understanding of sin and evil? A close study of exegetical history reveals a profound ambivalence here, pointing for example to biblical texts that express the subordination of women whereas others teach their equivalence with men (Borresen 1995). Christian exegesis has rightly been characterized as ‘une exégèse masculinisante’ by a French biblical scholar. But this tendency can be found in many religious traditions, as is evident from the texts gathered in Serinity Young’s Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women (1994) as also from many articles in her two-volume Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion (1999).
- What is women’s spiritual experience? How far do women’s spiritual autobiographies or the writings left by female saints and the mystics of different religions testify to women’s spiritual agency, autonomy and authority? How far are their language and images different from those used by men? How far do women mystics express a mysticism of love rather than a mysticism of being? What is women’s spiritual heritage, and to what extent does it reflect their spiritual equality?
Pursuing these and other perspectives has led many women to a strong critique of traditional spiritualities as created, dominated and controlled by men. Women from many different faiths have raised voices of protest, but also of promise, in seeking more holistic, inclusive and integrated life-affirming spiritualities (King 1993a).
Christian feminist theologians like Nicola Slee (2003), Joann Wolski Conn (1996), Katherine Zappone (1991) and many others have expressed this ‘hope for wholeness’ in very creative and helpful ways. In her book Faith and Feminism NicolaSlee lists among the feminist critique of spirituality its institutional control, the hierarchical and dualistic models of spirituality, and the hiddenness and repression of women’s spirituality. Feminist spiritualities, by contrast, seek a recovery of the body, of eros and the material realm, a strong emphasis on relationality and interconnectedness, and an orientation towards justice and life (2003: chp. 9).
The goals of modern feminism and the perennial human quest for spirituality seem at first to have little in common, at least not when each is understood in a narrow, exclusive way. When both are approached from a wider, more inclusive perspective, then all sorts of connections can be discovered. ‘Feminist spirituality’ in its widest sense means the spiritual quest and creativity of contemporary women, whether pursued in more traditionally religious or non-traditional, secular ways. In a more specific sense ‘feminist spirituality’ refers to a new spiritual movement that has arisen out of second wave feminism, and exists outside traditional religious boundaries and institutions. Feminist spirituality is the reclaiming by women of the reality and power designated by ‘spirit’, but it is also a reclaiming of female power, of women’s partaking in the divine, and their right to participate in shaping the realm of spirit by fully participating in religion and culture.
Feminist spirituality is deeply rooted in women’s experience and oriented towards bonding among women; it creates an ever larger web of relations that connects with others, the cosmos and the Divine (Isherwood and Bellchambers 2010). It believes in the inherent goodness of matter, body, and the world, thrives on ecological sensitivity, and re-images the Divine. It has created new rituals and liturgies, drawn from Wicca and folk traditions celebrating especially life and nature cycles, but it is also based on the imaginative reinterpretation of traditional religious rites and texts.
Contemporary women’s spirituality is a tapestry of many strands. Prominent among them is women’s discovery of their own self and agency, the experience of networking and sharing, the new awareness of empowerment from within to work collaboratively for personal, social, and political changes. Many of these themes are reflected in contemporary women’s culture which, through poetry and fiction, through songs, music, film, art and theatre, explores different aspects of women’s spiritual quest. This includes their experience of loss and pain, oppression and freedom, intimacy and mutuality with others, and the multiple connections between sexuality and spirituality.
Some examples from women’s history
Contemporary women’s involvement with spirituality has truly prophetic and radical features. This is evident among women of faith as well as secular women. The whole modern women’s movement has sometimes been described as a spiritual revolution. In fact, it can be argued that contemporary feminism as a social and political movement possesses an implicit spiritual dimension, even when this remains veiled or is explicitly denied. The feminist search for liberation, equality, peace, justice and the full humanity of women can be understood as not only linked to social, political and economic goals, but also to spiritual goals (King 1993a).
The development of women’s spirituality took off in a big way in the last decades of the twentieth century, but women’s interest in spirituality goes back to the first phase of the modern women’s movement in the nineteenth century. Women then not only toiled to change their social, legal and political position, but strove to take a more active part in the religions to which they belonged. Religious motivation and spiritual aims played an important part in the lives of many early women campaigners for social and legal reforms. This is evident from the biographies of such well-known figures as Mary Wollstonecraft, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Jocelyn Gage. Historians of the modern women’s movement have only recently begun to pay closer attention to the many religious elements and spiritual ideals drawn from Christianity that helped to shape the thinking and actions of these and other women reformers.
An interesting example is provided by the first ever interfaith event, the celebrated 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago. Often mentioned in interfaith dialogue circles today, the considerable presence of women participants and their contribution to this event is far less often acknowledged. It was mainly Jewish and Christian women from the liberal Protestant traditions (but not from among Catholics) who took part in this first ecumenical assembly of faiths in world history. Significant women leaders were involved in the organisation of the Parliament and spoke at its opening and closing ceremonies. Nineteen of the plenary addresses were given by women, that is to say 10 % of the total. Many more women were active in numerous committees and parallel events, so that the Parliament was rightly claimed as a breakthrough for women in religion. Their hopes were high in forecasting the equal participation of women in religious offices and institutions. Sadly, this remains a goal not yet reached in our own time, over a hundred years later.
A particularly fascinating case of a woman’s dedication to religion and spirituality is provided by Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a Unitarian minister who was the first Christian woman to be ordained in 1853. She carried out her ministry for many years, combining it with marriage and the upbringing of six daughters. At the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 she could look back on forty years’ work as a Christian minister! Reflecting on this extraordinary experience, Blackwell spoke on ‘Woman and the Pulpit’, a speech wherein she mentioned ‘the opposition still felt by very excellent persons to the presence and the wise, helpful teaching of capable women in the Christian pulpit’. Yet she also felt that the arguments against women preaching had long been answered, and ‘that the sex of the worker is not a bar to good work’. She strongly argued that the world needs ‘more women in the pulpit’, and that women will become ‘indispensable to the religious evolution of the human race’ (quoted in King 1993b).
This was not merely wishful thinking but a prophetic vision that has taken on more concrete form since then. Blackwell included statistical information in her lecture, stating that over 200 Christian women had been ordained by 1893. Later, in 1921, when Antoinette Brown Blackwell died, it was calculated that there were more than three thousand Christian women ministers in the United States, belonging to the Free Churches. It took many more years before more established churches would ordain women. Today it is mainly the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church that refuse to accept fully ordained women ministers in their midst. Yet in both churches women carry out numerous pastoral and spiritual tasks, whether as women religious (nuns and sisters) or as lay women. They act as women chaplains in hospitals, prisons and educational institutions, and carry out much pastoral work in parishes and church organisations.
Another inspiring nineteenth century example is Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Contrary to her stereotypical image as the ‘lady with the lamp’ associated with hospital reform and nursing, she has been rediscovered as ‘a radical theologian’ (Webb 2002), showing that her social reforms were not the primary goals of her life, but the consequence of her deep Christian faith and commitment, driven by a revolutionary theology looking for a new concept of God and a new understanding of divine presence in human life and action. When she was in her seventies, she wrote ‘When many years ago I planned a future, my one idea was not organizing a hospital but organizing a religion.’ Florence Nightingale’s religious ideas anticipate some of the more recent feminist challenges to patriarchal society and religion. She argued that the family was too narrow a space to develop a person’s immortal spirit, whether this person was male or female, and she longed for a woman saviour, a ‘female Christ’, but society was not ready for this. Nightingale searched for a spirituality of her own and said to the women of her time:
Jesus Christ raised women above the condition of mere slaves, mere ministers to the passions of the man, raised them by his sympathy, to be ministers of God. He gave them moral activity. But the Age, the World, Humanity, must give them the means to excercise this moral activity, must give them intellectual cultivation, spheres of action.’ (Webb 2002, 106).
Today women across a wide variety of denominations inside and outside the churches and in different religions across the globe call into question many traditional forms of spirituality. They reject past spiritual ideals of submission and obedience that hold little attraction for them. Instead, they seek alternative patterns of a new, more embodied and immanent spirituality, more attuned to their own experience, more actively engaged and concerned with contemporary social and personal problems. They also draw on women of past ages who, in spite of numerous obstacles, struggled to follow their own spiritual quest within the religious and cultural constraints of their time.
4. Gendering the Spirit: a silent revolution and global transformation
The creative tensions that exist in the field of spirituality and gender, and the new spiritual ideas, rituals and practices that are emerging out of the women’s and men’s movement in religion, bear witness to much zest, energy and fresh creativity. They can be read as signs of the spirit in contemporary culture, pointing toward profound transformations and perhaps new beginnings. This process of transformation is not just happening in the West but is a global phenomenon. Instead of being defined and confined by traditional religious teachings, women are now taking more and more part in helping to redefine religion and spirituality everywhere. This is not only true of Christian, Jewish or secular women from Europe and North America, but around the whole world. The Pakistani scholar Durre S. Ahmed has forged the brilliant expression ‘Gendering the Spirit’ (2002) for this transformation. Her book of this title brings together a collection of essays on women’s alternative approaches to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Catholicism in South Asia. It provides plenty of evidence that there is a ‘silent revolution’ going on among women of faith around the world, so far little noticed among outsiders.
Throughout history, particular women have struggled, often against great odds, to pursue a spiritual path against the wishes of their families, friends, and religious authorities. The histories of Jain, Buddhist, and Christian nuns provide ample examples of women following extraordinary paths of spiritual devotion and attainment. Women had to struggle to create their own religious communities, and their gender always provoked male resistance to women’s claim to autonomy, independent power and spiritual authority. Thus women’s activities remained in most cases constrained and controlled by male religious hierarchies, and this is still the case today. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in the richly documented history of Christian nuns and sisters, in whose cloisters and convents appeared countless women scholars, mystics, artists, activists, healers and teachers over many centuries of western history. This is a most precious heritage for women today. Whether Christian or not, all women can be truly proud of this as they can be of the spiritual achievements of women in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths.
Looked at from yet another perspective, the rich female imagery and symbolism in different world faiths, though often profoundly ambivalent, also provides numerous spiritual resources for women. We can ask of all of them: Where are the symbols and images of a feminine Divine, of female figures of wisdom? Of the Spirit? Reading religious texts from a specifically female gender perspective can lead to surprising new insights into the human experience of the Divine, whether in gendered patterns of mystical experience, sometimes with marked differences between men and women, or in the intimate presence of the Spirit within our bodies and in the natural world.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Parliament of Religions had stressed the new opportunities for women in religion, but also the need to study the sacred languages and scriptures for themselves. Since that remarkable event over a century ago, an ever growing number of highly educated Jewish women rabbis, Christian women ministers, female theology and religion scholars are playing their part in shaping contemporary religious practice and scholarship in the West and help to develop the rich spiritual resources of their traditions.
Similar developments can now be observed in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the world. Women around the globe are fast acquiring both scholarly and spiritual competences; they are gaining new knowledge, agency, authority and public visibility, sometimes only reluctantly acknowledged or even strongly resisted within their own communities. Contemporary Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu women and many others who have acquired a critical feminist awareness, often also possess an activist inclination to work for change in their own communities and in wider society. This transformative process can only happen when women gain full access to literacy and education at all levels. With regard to the religious heritage this not only means the ability to read and write, but to understand and interpret religious thought, offer spiritual advice with discernment, authority and wisdom, and to acquire full ‘spiritual literacy’. By now women have recovered many rich resources for the development of spirituality, whether in Christianity (Wolski Conn 1996), Judaism (Umansky and Ashton 1992) or addressed to a wider audience (Harris 1991), to mention three random examples from a large field of spiritual literature.
Contemporary thinking has moved on from an exclusively feminist and woman-centred approach to a more inclusive re-visioning of gender relations which will have a radical impact on spiritual practice. We must not forget that we are still only in the early stages of this process. If we seek to ensure not merely the survival of the human species on planet earth, but human flourishing for all peoples in East and West, South and North – a flourishing that is closely dependent on the advancement of greater peace and justice around the globe – then it is imperative that women’s spiritual commitment and dedication play a full part in this process, but also that we understand more clearly the complex connections between spirituality and gender. Only then will we be able develop spiritualities that will truly nurture and support the lives of individuals and communities around the globe.
Ahmed, Durre S., ed. (2002). Gendering the Spirit. Women, Religion and the Post-Colonial Response. London and New York: Zed Books.
Borresen, Kari Elisabeth (1995) Subordination and Equivalence. The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House [first edition 1968].
Harris, Maria (1991) The Seven Steps of Women’s Spirituality. New York: Bantam Books.
Isherwood, Lisa and Bellchambers, Elaine, eds (2010) Through Us, With Us, In Us. Relational Theologies in the Twenty-First Century. London: SCM Press.
King, Ursula (2009) The Search for Spirituality. Our global quest for meaning and fulfilment. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
King, Ursula (2005) ‘Gender and Religion: An Overview’ in Lindsay Jones, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition, vol 5: 3296-3310. Farmington, Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA.
King, Ursula (1993a) Women and Spirituality. Voices of Protest and Promise. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press. Second edition.
King, Ursula (1993b) ‘Rediscovering Women’s Voices at the World’s Parliament of Religions’ in Eric J. Ziolkowski, ed., A Museum of Faiths. Histories and Legacies of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 325-343.
Nelson, James B. (1988) The Intimate Connection. Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Nelson, James B. (2001) ‘Masculine Spirituality and Addiction: A Personal Journey’ in Ursula King with Tina Beattie, eds, Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 93-106.
Slee, Nicola (2003) ‘The hope for wholeness: spirituality in feminist perspective’ in N. Slee, Faith and Feminism. An Introduction to Christian Feminist Theology. Chp. 9.London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
Umansky, Ellen M. and Dianne Ashton, eds. (1992). Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality. A Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon Press.
Webb, Val (2002). Florence Nightingale. The Making of a Radical Theologian. St Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.
Wolski Conn, Joann, ed. (1996). Women’s Spirituality. Resources for Christian Development. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. Second edition.
Young, Serinity, ed. (1999) Encyclopedia of Woman and Religion (2 vols). New York: Macmillan References USA.
Young, Serinity, ed. (1994). An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women. New York: Crossroad.
Zappone, Katherine (1991) The Hope for Wholeness. A Spirituality for Feminists. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.