This roundtable dialogue began as a conversation between two colleagues wanting to both celebrate and call attention to the fiftieth anniversary of Valerie Saiving (Goldstein)’s 1960 article, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.” Although the piece gained some attention immediately after being published (and republished at least twice in 1966—in Pastoral Psychology and Student World), Saiving’s article lay mostly dormant in theological discussions for nearly twenty years. By the 1980s, though, her ideas had stimulated many scholars, particularly women, to awaken and articulate their own distinctive feminist theologies. No one can deny what Saiving accomplished: she clearly identified the neglect, misunderstandings, and mischaracterizations of women’s experience by a vast and overwhelming majority of male theologians. She called into question theological anthropologies and views of sin, redemption, and love promoted by twentieth-century white male theologians, particularly Reinhold Niebuhr. And she shaped a pattern for feminist theological criticisms of modern theology—one that attends not only to women’s experience but also to the construction of identity and nontheological disciplines—that continues to this day.
Since the late 1970s, Saiving’s work has received considerable attention among feminist theologians and in academic discussions. The importance feminist theologians have attributed to her work alone justifies revisiting Saiving’s essay at the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. However, other events also provide an impetus to revisit the debate between Saiving and Reinhold Niebuhr that “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” introduced.
On one side, Reinhold Niebuhr has received an increased amount of academic, [End Page 75] media, and political attention in recent years. In April 2007, Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, told New York Times columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.”1 Other political leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and even John McCain, have claimed to be influenced by Niebuhr.2 Many historians, theologians, and religious leaders have lamented the loss of a public theologian like Niebuhr or challenged our politicians, even our president, to live up to Niebuhr’s ideals during these strained economic and political times.3 Several recent commentaries and publications have emphasized the importance of Christian realism and Niebuhr’s perspective on human nature and sin as rich resources for solving problems concerning the global balance of power, unequal distribution of wealth and other resources, and competition that characterize our twenty-first-century world.4 Seldom, if ever, do these commentaries include references to women’s experiences or feminist perspectives on sin, redemption, and love. Indeed, none of the three best-known and most highly regarded biographies of Niebuhr even mentions feminist criticisms of his ideas.5
Returning to an uncritical acceptance of Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, love, and redemption dismisses not only the importance of Saiving’s essay but also more than fifty years of thought intentionally reflecting upon the importance of women’s experiences as a valuable and valid source of theological reflection. The recent public attention that Niebuhr has received, accompanied by the lack of knowledge among politicians, commentators, and many academic publications concerning the importance of women’s experience as a resource for deepening our collective understanding of sin, love, and redemption, should be enough to give feminists pause. It is likely Niebuhr will never make it to the [End Page 76] top of the charts for feminist scholars, but Niebuhr’s emphasis on the reality of evil in the world, his recognition of the limitations of human institutions, and his arguments about the importance of balancing power in the world also warrant closer examination among feminists. Revisiting and deepening the debate between Saiving and Niebuhr bears the potential to influence a larger public conversation where the well-being and flourishing of women and men around the world is at stake.
On the other side, Saiving’s groundbreaking work has achieved the status of a classic among feminist scholars. By 1999, Mary Bednarowski could write, “I am not hesitant to estimate that three-fourths of all the books of women’s religious thought I’ve read mention this article.”6 It is doubtful that Bednarowski’s statistic has changed much in the...