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  Standing in Seneca Falls: Looking Back at Feminism
by Donna Steichen

This park, dedicated to the birth of the American women's movement, resonates so strongly with failed hopes, unrealized expectations and unanticipated consequences that it bears more resemblance to Wounded Knee than to Concord Bridge, that is, it is more a tragic than a triumphant memorial.

The women who launched the modern feminist movement here at the first Woman's Rights Convention in 1848 envisioned a world transformed and uplifted by the full participation of women. Once women were politically active, voting citizens, those pioneer feminists thought, they would surely elevate society, strengthen family life, protect poor women and children, enlighten the ignorant, educate the illiterate, and bring the world in general into conformity with women's nobler, more civilized, more responsible, more compassionate morality.

But women voters have not been able to prevent the emergence of unforeseen social horrors. On the contrary, while many women heroically oppose them, others -- today's feminists -- have been and are deeply implicated in initiating and defending them.

Though feminism has had a major role in creating today's problems, not all those problems are directly attributable to feminism. But it is obvious that a profound misunderstanding of human nature led the early feminists to assume, mistakenly, that the human race could be perfected by political action. What we have learned -- or should have learned -- from the failure of their vision is the universality of original sin.  Ideological feminism still has not assimilated that lesson.

Looking at our world almost 150 years later, at the close of the 20th century, no reasonable observer could deny that our foremothers' dreams of a more humane, ethical, compassionate world have been disappointed. What we see around us instead would have seemed a night-mare to the early feminists. Western culture seems to be dying.  In the United States, society is convulsed by disorder. Families are routinely broken, dysfunctional or never formed; illegitimate pregnancies and single parenthood have become routine at every social level. Women and children are sexually exploited as never before. Abortion and rape are at all time highs. Abandoned women and children make up our fastest-growing poverty class. Our taxes fund, and cultural leaders defend, obscene and blasphemous art, and hideous music. Schools equip children for sexual aberrations but cannot teach them reading, math or rudimentary virtue.

Gratuitous violence on the streets mirrors the contempt for life exhibited in the abortion chambers where millions of unborn babies -- more than 30 million in US alone -- have died and are dying at their mothers' demand and with the approval of the courts, while those who try to defend them go to jail. In Cairo last month, Clinton Administration officials and UN leaders proposed population control and legalized abortion as universal norms -- racist norms aimed at limiting the numbers of dark-skinned people in developing nations.

Appalled though we are to be implicated in these national and international pathologies, all of them concern the natural order. We face even more bizarre evils in the supernatural order, in the realm of the paranormal. On the doorstep of a new millennium, Christian churches in the English-speaking world find themselves in disarray, their most basic doctrines under attack from within. Over the past 30 years, derelict beliefs like pantheism, polytheism, rein-carnation, spiritualism and witchcraft have been revived -- not by the uneducated but by media celebrities, and even by members of elite theological faculties.   In one of the most extraordinary religious phenomena of the century, occultism has moved from darkened private parlors to lecterns at Theological Unions, university departments of religious studies and meetings of the American Academy of Religion.  Workshops on such mythological notions as goddess- or pantheist- environmentalism (eco-feminism), enneagram personality analysis and neo-pagan solstice celebrations have become a flourishing minor industry. The Judeo-Christian culture from which our nation sprang is no longer regarded as normative in the public square.

Month after month, bewildering examples can be noted in the press:

·        Among "in service" workshops offered to teachers in 1993 by the public          school board of Edmonton, Alberta, was "The Return of the Great Goddess." Promotional materials suggested that patriarchal religion "deprives" children              of knowledge of "the goddess."

In August, 1993, at Wintermoon, an "Earth-Centered spirituality center" in Minnesota's north woods, drums thumped rhythmically while 9 humming women stretched out on the grass in a "resonating circle," bonding with each other and the earth.  "Women and the Planet" was led by Christina Baldwin (author of One to One, a book on journaling) and Ann Schimpf Linnea (co-author of Teaching Kids to Love the Earth). Their retreats, they say, draw Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Methodists, Buddhists and "Earth worshipper-types." In the evenings, retreatants watch the video, Goddess Remembered, or perform a ritual in which they chant, with appropriate gestures, "I touch the earth, I touch my heart, I touch the sky."

A year ago, on October 9, 1993, 700 Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal-ian, United Church of Christ and Unitarian women cast a circle, danced barefoot and invoked "the Spirits of the Four Directions," chanting, "I am goddess, we are goddess!" at the 13th annual "Women and Spirituality Conference" in Mankato, in south western Minnesota. The event is offered each fall, for academic credit, by the Women's Studies Department of Mankato State University.  One speaker, Sister Lucy Edelbeck, a 60-something Dominican nun, explained to reporters, "I'm trying to bring Catholicism and Wicca together, take the best of both."

When asked whether her superiors approved, Sister Lucy indicated that she has no superiors. "I totally ignore the Catholic hierarchy," she said.[i]

On the same day, in Boston, MA, archdiocesan officials declared invalid all the baptisms performed at Boston's Paulist Center by Rev. William Larkin, using the gender-neutral words, "In the name of God our Creator, through Jesus the Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit," instead of the prescribed Baptismal formula, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Among classified ads for summer programs in the  National Catholic Reporter of March 4, 1994 were these two:
Genesis Farm, Blairstown, N.J.  "Workshop on Revisioning the Vowed Life, with [Sister] Miriam Therese MacGillis, OP....for members of religious communities who wish to explore the evangelical vows in the context of our new understandings of the universe, the earth as a living organism, the evolution of Western spirituality and the crises of our times."

Retreat, Pike River, WI: "Goddess Spirituality....We discover the goddess, the Divine Feminine within ourselves, in our Christian tradition and in ancient histories....We celebrate...the goddess as one with the earth and its creatures...invoking the goddess in many of her rich traditions." [Sister] Lucy Edelbeck, OP, leader.

The most unexpected thing about all these odd activities is that most of those involved continue to call themselves "Christian feminists." The term is an oxymoron, that is, a phrase that is internally contradictory because the words used are mutually exclusive.  Other word pairs that contradict each other in the same way are "a peaceful war," or "an icy heat wave."

Many benevolent people want to think there exists  some kind of "good Christian feminism," as opposed to radical feminism, a kind that merely wants to achieve justice for women in the Church and the world. Most of the women who call themselves Christian feminists are no doubt good Christians, but if so, they are not authentic feminists. Typically, they use the "feminist" label because they believe they need it to win a place on the political spectrum, where they won't be welcome if they call themselves simply Christians. 

Some others may even think they really are feminists because they care about justice for women, and feminist propaganda repeatedly tells us that anyone who cares about justice for women is by definition a feminist.

This is not the case. Seeking justice for women is not an exclusively feminist cause; it is a Christian cause.  In perfect conformity to Jesus Christ there can be no injustice.

What are they trying to accomplish, these good Christian people who call themselves feminists but are not? Their admirable first goal, to help women and babies through crisis pregnancies, is not a uniquely feminist one; indeed, it runs sadly contrary to usual feminist practice. 

Their second goal, to see that women are treated equitably and respectfully by churches, and have access to decision-making committees, job oppor-tunities and adequate pay scales, is largely redundant today.  Like every-thing else in this imperfect world, churches are full of imperfect people. But in general, Christian church organizations treat women rather well. It is paganism -- ancient or modern -- that demeans and degrades women, and it was Christianity that raised them from virtual slavery in pagan societies.   Furthermore, on a less idealistic level, caution about possible charges of discrimination makes most church officials today extremely polite and attentive to the feminist lobby (if not always to non-feminist women parishioners).

Most Protestant denominations now ordain women, and assign them as pastors. Women have not been and will not be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. But at least in the United States, 85% of all Catholic "ministry" posts that do not require ordination are now held by women. Indeed, so many women are active in public roles that to see most altars is to wonder whether males are an endangered species in the churches.

The absence of really pressing needs may be one factor in the rapid radical-ization of "Christian feminist" demands, but the chief reason it went astray is inherent in the nature of feminism.

What is religious feminism that makes it impossible to be both feminist and Christian? It is not a justice movement but an ideology -- a social theory with a single structural explanation for all the evils in the world.  Women, it maintains, have been oppressed since the dawn of time by male patriarchy sacralized in hierarchy. In order to throw off the oppressors and build a feminist Utopia, it is necessary to replace traditional belief with a new feminist religion.  That single theory, like blue-filtering sunglass lenses, colors everything.  It is the basis for every position, the solution to every problem, the answer to every question. And its agenda, for feminists, takes precedence over everything else, even over Divine Revelation.

Some of those who call themselves "Christian feminists" are in reality bitter, vicious, conscious enemies of Christianity, using the name "Christian" as camouflage while they work to smuggle goddess worship into the church. But before I give you more mind-boggling examples of their activities, I want to mention the women -- increasingly rare -- who actually are feminist ideologues in principle yet, like the early feminists commemorated here, sincerely want to improve women's lives. I've met some who do in fact want to accomplish good ends, who stand with the Church on specific matters like abortion, yet implicitly deny the authority of the Scriptures and the Christian church because they measure Christian teaching with a feminist yardstick. In judging a proposed action, they don't ask themselves, "Is it consistent with Christianity?" but "Is it consistent with feminism?" They don't defend the lives of unborn babies because Christ says human life is sacred, but because they feel that a true feminist ought to oppose abortion as bad for women and children. They mean well; they may be sympathetic friends and valued allies, we may welcome their assistance when it is offered. But if words mean anything, they are not Christians. They are feminists, and feminism is a rival belief system.

"Christian feminism" is not defined by its concern for women but by its attitude toward Christian doctrine. For a Christian, following Christ is always the primary concern, the first priority. To feminism, the perceived good of women is the first priority. Feminism rejects Christ's authority to tell us what is right and wrong, and thus it is intrinsically flawed. Its concern for women's welfare, however sincere, is not built on the rock that is Christ but on the shifting sand of emotion; thus it is inconsistent, unpredictable, and so ultimately unable to achieve the good it intends. We must pray that well meaning feminists like these will return to their Christian roots, and not follow their feminist colleagues into neo-pagan spirituality. It is because so many have done so that feminists of this kind have become so very rare.

I have been talking here about individual feminists who don't intend the harm they may do. The feminist movement, however, has destruction at the head of its agenda. Movement feminists do not talk about wanting to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Instead, they always talk about empower-ment. What does "empowerment" mean to feminists? It means moral autonomy: the right to determine one's "own truth," unfettered by external rules or standards.

In this age of moral relativism the notion is widely accepted that we can each discover what is true
for us. But no matter how many people think otherwise, in reality truth can only be one. There cannot be your truth, and my different truth and her still different truth, and all of them be true. That is easy to see when we talk about what makes automobiles run. Oswald may think the engine of his car runs on his positive thoughts, but in reality it won't turn over without gas. That's Oswald’s problem, of course, and not apt to make much difference to me unless I’m his passenger.  But if I am facing heart surgery, it makes a great deal of difference not only to the surgeon but to me if he thinks my heart is located at the base of my brain rather than in my chest. You probably would not let him operate on you, either, by the light of "his own truth." Yet when we move from matters of material fact to more essential matters like our obligation to obey God's moral law, many persons today think it would be servile and unimaginative simply to obey a law given from outside themselves, instead of finding their own "truth" within themselves.

When feminism rejects the authority of God's moral law, it sins by disobed-ience. But that is not the end of its errors. The moral law expresses ontological truth, so when feminism rejects its authority, it also cuts itself off from reality, as surely as that hypothetical surgeon would who attempted heart surgery at the base of my brain. Losing touch with reality means feminism has no map or compass to guide its moral decisions, nothing but its universalized ideological principle. It can no longer be sure about the rightness of any particular choice, cannot judge except by feeling what women's rights are, or what would best serve their welfare and the common good. And so uncertain a guide is emotion that "Christian feminism" moved swiftly from the rhetoric of moderate reform to that of self-seeking radicalism and finally to the sheer lunacy of occultism.

Because they no longer see the faith as ontologically true, feminists accept nothing as given by nature (that is, by God). They see everything as an arbitrary invention by those in power to serve their own interests, and as more or less useful to the achievement of political ends.

Is this a contemporary corruption of a saner early feminism? Less so than you might suppose. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's
Women's Bible, published in 1898, proves that not only the seeds but the first blossoms of an entirely recognizable religious feminism were already present when Mrs. Stanton presided over the National-American Women's Suffrage Association in the nineteenth century.  Like today's feminist theologians, she saw the Bible as the tool of patriarchal despots, and said that she had "long repudiated its divine authority." Her declaration that "self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice and should be a woman's motto henceforward" could have been written any time during the past twenty years. The notion that "self-development" or "self-fulfilment" or "self-actualization" is a higher duty than "self-sacrifice" is the very error that impelled feminist nuns to surrender to every impulse in a quest for "growth" and moved contemporary feminism on the astonishing course it has followed.

Prominent feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza exemplifies the same  attitude when she calls the New Testament "a record of the historical winners," selected by "the patristic New Testament church" and so deserving not belief but revision.[ii]

Another such example is Joan Timmerman, a feminist theologian on the faculty of St Catherine's College in St. Paul, MN, who boasts in public that she teaches her students that no act can be defined as intrinsically immoral. 

Feminists like Rosemary Reuther and Mary Hunt, long time members of the board of directors of Catholics for a Free Choice, and CFFC director Frances Kissling, likewise deny that there is anything intrinsically immoral about abortion, insisting that Catholic patriarchs invented the law simply to keep women out of power -- by keeping them barefoot and pregnant.  That same patriarchy, they claim, could change the moral law tomorrow if it chose, making abortion morally neutral or even virtuous.

Similar statements have been put on record by many purportedly "Christian feminist" leaders, and like Dr Ruether, some of those leaders have strongly  influenced the nature and direction of the movement. Yet it isn't feminist leaders who have done the greatest damage to the faith of trusting but naive Christians.

The worst damage is done by less noted but equally zealous feminist followers (male and female) who apostatize in their hearts but refuse to leave the Church because they mean to evangelize within her for a new, non-Christian religion. It is no exaggeration to say there has been a massive apostasy among Church profes-sionals in the past three decades.

"Stay in the Church and use whatever parts you can get your hands on," Dr Ruether has advised them, and "Use the institutional resources that have disem-powered women to re-empower women." In her 1985 book Woman-Guides, this "Christian feminist" leader offered even more ominous direction. "What women should achieve within the church cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible." Women subversives, she said, must insert pre-Christian pagan texts, heretical second century Gnostic gospels, the "Father/Mother God” of Christian Science, Oriental religious writings, and ideas and rituals from invented New Age and Wicca religions to expand the accepted "canon" with materials more compatible with feminism.

All the currents of feminist theology came together in Minneapolis recently, at a conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches and local Councils of Churches, and called "Re-Imagining God, Jesus, Creation, Community, Sexuality, Family, Language, Word, Church, Ethics, Work, Ministry." Surely an ambitious undertaking for one weekend, it was meant to persuade women from mainline Protestant churches to replace Jesus Christ in their worship by "naming Sophia" as a "Scriptural Goddess," called "Holy One," "Divine Wisdom," or "She Who Is." This "Sophia" was worshipped at the conference with song and ritual as "Creator God," and invoked in prayer by the assembly whenever a speaker stepped up to the microphone.

Where did this "Sophia" come from and how can her creators call her a "Biblical" goddess?
Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. Uninstructed Westerners have long supposed that the magnificent 6th century Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia (or Sancta Sophia) in Constantinople [iii] was named to honour a "Saint Sophia." In fact the name means "Holy Wisdom," and refers to an quality of God, not to a person. Feminist theologians have lately taken to exploiting that common mistake, by personifying the figure of Divine Wisdom in the Old Testament Wisdom literature as a Scriptural goddess or a female aspect of the Scriptural God, whose cult, they claim, was suppressed in favour of the male Jesus by sexist patriarchs. Re-Imagining's feminists apparently meant to suppress Jesus in turn. The confer-ence generated an uproar that was a long time dying away.

Where in the world do such bizarre theological notions arise? How do they make their way into Christian churches? Christians pining for the days of "old time religion," would be startled to learn that their churches may well have confronted the same errors a century ago. At the end of the 19th century, the US Woman's Suffrage Association formally repudiated
The Woman's Bible,  but the vote on it was a close 50+ to 40+.   At the same time, the Christian religious establishment was reeling under the joint impact of evolutionary theory, Modernist Scripture scholarship and the lingering fads of occult spiritualism and Eastern mysticism.

Some of the books currently favored by New Agers were appeared then, including Charles Leland's
Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, published in 1899.   Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), was deeply involved in spiritualism and séances.  In 1888, Helena Blavatsky founded her Esoteric School of Theosophy in London, and the Hermetic "Order of the Golden Dawn" also flourished there.

During the 20th century, which was simultaneously a time of remarkable scientific achievement, unprecedented violence and appalling moral degradation, the religious establishment was never able to resolve its conflict over the sources of doctrinal truth.  Beneath the surface level of history's bloodiest era, under its wars and revolutions -- military, ideological and sexual -- below the eye-level of most lay men and women, the theological struggle continued, and in the religious academy, believers lost ground.

Among intellectual elites in prestigious Schools of Divinity today, traditional Christian faith has become a curiosity.  James Brown, executive director of the General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA), stated a dismal truth when he "was heard to wonder aloud what all the fuss [over Re-Imagining] was about since, he said, our seminaries have been doing this sort of thing for years."[iv]

The 18 and 19th century German Biblical critics who first denied the objective truth of Scripture reduced Revelation to the interpretation of private religious experience, setting society on the way to utter subjectivism in doctrine and morality. On the stair-case from faith to resurgent superstition, the step with no floor below it is the belief that God exists only in immanence, that He is not a transcendent Person, separate from and superior to His Creation, but merely the evolutionary force within creation, speaking to men through their own ideas and intuitions.

G. K. Chesterton was quite right when he observed, during that earlier wave of immanentism, "that Jones shall worship the God within soon comes to mean that Jones shall worship Jones." If there is no God but the God within, if there is no objective Revelation, then truth is whatever one says it is. When Jones' truth turns out to differ from his neighbor's, logic tells him there can be no absolute immutable truth, that all belief is a matter of opinion.  Then the "truth" that prevails is the one enforced by power, whether seized by force or won by political strategies.

What occurs at Goddess-Wicca, Eco-Feminist, New Age and Sophia events across the English-speaking world today has little to do with Christian faith, or even with faith in goddesses. It is an effort to seize power by manipulation, by deluding the credulous -- and by enforcement if necessary.

What is this programmed assault on the faith doing to ordinary "folk Christians" in the pews? Their situation in regard to such crises is different in significant ways than it was in the last century. The nearly universal acceptance of philosophical relativism has meant, for many, abandonment of all real hope that truth can be known. New tech-nology makes a much wider audience aware of denials of the truth of Christianity. The so-called "Jesus Seminar," for example, a group of one thousand "Biblical scholars", holds two much-publicized meetings a year to announce to the world which New Testament passages (most, in their joint opinion) do not contain actual words of Jesus. The group’s absurdly arrogant utterances are widely reported in major daily newspapers, news magazines, and television programs.

The 19th century feminists who came here to Seneca Falls for the first Woman's Rights Convention surely didn't intend to contribute to the kind of cultural disintegration that marks our present era. But they were mistaken in looking to politics to accomplish more than politics can do. That doesn't mean, of course, that women shouldn't vote, but the experience of the 20th century provides ample proof that voting means little in the absence of a healthy, coherent, civilizing culture. Far from strengthening the culture, feminism has from it’s beginning -- wittingly or unwittingly -- been instrumental in demolishing it.

Can the flock keep the faith when so many shepherds and teachers have lost theirs? The trust Christians feel for religious professionals makes it hard for many believers to accept the evidence of their own experience. And many have been persuaded that tolerance is more important than truth. 

Steve Wissler, a Methodist layman who saw the effects of feminist radicalism as a pro-lifer in a mainline Protestant church, warns that errors can begin "with a call to over-look doctrinal differences because the law of love requires that we be united. That sounds good. But when love ceases to be united to faith and truth, dangerous trends come in."  One woman pastor, Wissler said, tried to introduce "the softer side of feminism," brushing her congregation's questions aside by saying, "Scripture is confusing."

"But when teaching was divorced from the safeguards of Scripture, the church was reduced to opinion. That situation plays to the low level of instruction among the faithful, many of whom who think doctrine doesn't matter, that all opinions are of equal value," Wissler said. "People responded to the call to love and serve; they tried to accept feminists as disenfranchised victims and tolerate their heresy (of Sophia.) Then eventually, when the pastor opened a service with a prayer to Mother Earth, no one would call her on it because they had all internalized the rule that everybody (including the pastor) has to feel good. But that is not really charity."

"Charity really means knowing the truth, recognizing and reproving the errors, and still being able to love, " Wissler said. "Some evangelicals may be prone to settle for tolerance because they really don't want a firmly formed faith that might cost too much."

That so many Christian theologians and religious professionals have apostatized to bizarre idolatry is a lesson that cannot be ignored if Christian faith is to survive as a major presence in society for future generations. How much responsibility does the feminist movement bear? How much has the professionalization of church workers contributed to this bankruptcy?

We are here today to call for a return to unity, to justice for all, to a pre-ference for the family, to a return to our cultural roots. The current crisis highlights three Christian imperatives for action: First, church authorities must come to see that attempting to appease the rebels fails everyone. Second, doubts about the truth of Scripture must be resolved before any broad restoration of faith is possible. Finally, women must begin rebuilding the Christian culture in their own homes, where it is possible to restore what is lost to the larger society. Believers must immediately take their children's education -- or as a bare minimum, their religious education -- into their own hands. If they fear that they are unqualified, as mere amateurs, they might remember that Noah's Ark was built by amateurs. The apostles were amateurs.

Experts built the Titanic.


[i]Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, "Every witch way to the goddess," London Sunday Telegraph, Oct. 17, 1993.

[ii]E.S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, Crossroads Publications, 1983, 55.

[iii] Hagia Sophia Church has been used as a mosque since the 15th century.

[iv] Terry Schlossberg,"PC (USA) faces moral and spiritual crisis," Presbyterians Pro-Life NEWS, Spring-Summer
1994, 1

Section Contents Copyright © Donna Steichen 2008

Version: 3rd February 2008

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