Reinhold Niebuhr and the Feminist Critique of Universal Sin
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Reinhold Niebuhr and the Feminist Critique of Universal Sin

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of universal human sin. Some feminist critiques suggest an understanding of sin needs to be gender specific. Valerie Saiving’s essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” became a defining argument in the feminist movement after Judith Plaskow commented on it in her 1980 study Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.1 Saiving herself entered deeply neither into the tradition out of which Niebuhr wrote nor into the type of detailed logical argument that characterized Plaskow’s later work. Saiving had suggested the role of woman in Western civilization had left her closer to nature while pushing the male into a role more transcendent of nature. The male drive for completeness left him more prey to the sin of pride than the woman whose underdevelopment might better rest in her acceptance of her identity with nature. These factors left the dilemma of the woman to be the opposite of the males, and this difference, according to Saiving, had been missed by theologians, particularly Niebuhr and Anders Nygren. Saiving was certainly correct that Niebuhr had not emphasized the extent to which women’s experience might require a less universal view of sin. I think of the two poles of his view of sin in The Irony of American History, sloth and pride, as both expressing options of resisting God grounded in unbelief and concepts to explain the myth of original sin while recognizing that actual sin appeared in many forms and mixtures.2

Saiving’s criticisms were put gently, but they did suggest the need for a new model to explain women’s reality beyond that which Niebuhr was using. Judith Plaskow built on Saiving’s insight and considerably advanced her arguments. Indeed, Plaskow is one of the few authors who has explored the intricacies of both Tillich’s and Niebuhr’s respective theologies. However, the breadth of her dissertation meant that she could not present the experience of the men she was studying, nor could she explore the experience of their most intimate relationships with women. Neither Tillich nor Niebuhr regarded “experience” as a primary source of theology. Because Plaskow treats “experience” as a primary determinate of the adequacy of theology, her method becomes determinative for the criticism of Niebuhr and Tillich. Thus women’s experience controls the argument and the experiences these men had of women were not very relevant. Plaskow’s model of women’s experience is drawn from many sources, particularly feminist writings that neither Tillich nor Niebuhr consulted. One source she cites is Doris Lessing’s early novel Children of Violence. Plaskow argues that [End Page 91] the character Martha is not universal woman, but a particular woman.3 Still, she uses her as an “image of a twentieth century woman-person.”

Martha is a thinly disguised reference to the early historical life of Lessing, who became one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Of course, in the context of Christian theology, Martha is also the woman of the New Testament who busied herself with the details of domestic life and protested her sister’s dalliance with Jesus’s conversation (Luke 10:38–42). In that story, Jesus seems distressed over Martha’s obsession with domestic details. Mary had chosen the better part by pursuing her ultimate questions. Lessing, like Plaskow herself, became an intellectual influencing many. Lessing, the school drop-out, colonial white woman raised in Africa and Nobel Prize winner, did not remain stunted by her oppression; she overcame. Lessing did not remain the Martha of Plaskow’s 1980 book; she flourished. She could even refuse Queen Elizabeth’s honor of making her a Dame of the British Empire because there was no longer a British Empire. All of this is to say it is hard to build a lasting argument on personal experience before the trajectory of the personal experience is complete or nearly complete. How does one write a dissertation on women’s experience critiquing male theologians without examining, explicitly, one’s own experience or the experiences of one’s original sources?

In concluding...