A man experiences a sudden, severe pain in his upper arm accompanied by excessive perspiration. Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack, he has a coworker call 911, and is rushed to the hospital where he is immediately admitted for treatment. A woman, after a week of unusual fatigue and an upset stomach, finally makes a visit to her primary care physician. She tests negative for the flu, and is sent home where she goes into cardiac arrest three hours later.
In recent years, medical researchers have begun to realize the shortcomings associated with the age-old practice of treating male patients as normative [End Page 96] and have started to study the differences between the experiences of men and women with heart disease. Women often miss the signs of a heart attack because they fail to exhibit the “classic” heart attack symptoms of pain in the chest or upper arm, sweating, and nausea. They are more likely to experience unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, or indigestion.1 Making women aware of their distinctive indicators of heart disease has become a priority of the medical community, as early detection of a heart attack is key to successful treatment.
What the medical community now realizes—that the unique and particular experience of women matters—was brought to the attention of the theological community in 1960 by Valerie Saiving. Saiving’s essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” was monumental in challenging Christian theology to consider the biases of doctrines written exclusively by men.2 In her essay, Saiving criticized Christian theology’s failure to test its doctrines of sin against the experiences of women. The brunt of Saiving’s criticism, as well as those of the many feminists who followed in her footsteps, was directed at Reinhold Niebuhr’s insistence that pride is the quintessential human sin. Saiving’s experience taught her that women rarely suffered from delusions of grandeur or a will-to-power that sought to dominate the other, but were more likely to sin through a social permeability, a tendency toward triviality, or a failure to take responsibility for themselves. This critique of theology’s androcentrism provided a new entry point for female theologians to find their own voices in the Christian tradition.
Saiving’s essay was pivotal in my own self-development as a feminist theologian. Encountering “The Human Situation” as a seminarian in my midtwenties, I found numerous parallels between Saiving’s depiction of female sin and my own struggles navigating graduate school, marriage, and impending mother-hood. The idea of gendered sin so fascinated me that I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on Saiving’s criticism of Niebuhr’s hamartiology, only to discover that my choice of topics was not met with resounding enthusiasm from many of my professors. “Hasn’t that already been done?” I was politely asked more than once. After all, Saiving’s criticism of Niebuhr had been repeated and expanded by many feminists after her, including Judith Plaskow, Susan Nelson Dunfee, and Daphne Hampson.3 Was there any more room at this crowded discussion table? And was there anything left to be said? [End Page 97]
I persisted in my research goals and completed my intended dissertation because of my deep-seated conviction that the Niebuhr-Saiving debate over the nature of sin needs to be revived in the twenty-first century and brought back to the table. I believe this for two reasons. First, I am convinced that Saiving’s depiction of female sin is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and needs to be highlighted afresh for a new generation of women. Second, I believe that Niebuhr’s insistence on the primacy of pride is ultimately correct, despite Saiving’s insights into the unique ways women manifest sin.
Let me comment briefly on the first point. While women have made great progress toward equality with men since Saiving’s essay first appeared, I believe we are still struggling against the same sinful tendencies to hide in relationships and escape responsibility for the full development of our potential. Young women today expect to have equal opportunities in the workplace, but...