Experience and Relevance: Continuing to Learn from Niebuhr and Saiving
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Experience and Relevance: Continuing to Learn from Niebuhr and Saiving

Scholars of contemporary theology still regularly include Valerie Saiving’s article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” on their syllabi when they teach.1 But do they teach it well? Have they been staring into her text so long that they no longer actually see it but only the reified assumptions of conventional reflections about it? Have they turned her text into a cipher and Niebuhr into a convenient fall guy? On the occasion of its fiftieth “birthday,” I want to trouble the standard reading of Saiving’s article and, therein, one of the standard feminist criticisms of Niebuhrian anthropology. I do so, however, not so much to defend Niebuhr—whose errors Saiving made apparent and who does not lack for advocates today in any case—but to suggest that Saiving and Niebuhr both have things to teach that are being missed in conventional approaches to their work and in which feminist theologians, in particular, should be interested.

Encapsulated, the conventional reading and criticism go something like this: by assuming that their perspective was normative for all people, male theologians have ignored the ways in which gender structures theological reflection [End Page 102] and discourse. In gender-differentiated Western cultures, women do not experience sin as the product of anxiety-inducing pride but as “underdevelopment or negation of the self.”2 As a result, the response to sin prescribed by male theologians like Niebuhr—namely, love as self-sacrifice—fails to describe and actually exacerbates feminine expressions of sin—namely, self-effacement and hiding. It follows that theologians have both the scholarly and moral responsibility to refine their understandings of sin and sanctification in light of women’s experiences. Toward that end, Saiving provided us with a set of tools by which to criticize the deficiencies of the implicitly masculine theology described by Niebuhr and others. Among these tools are attention to women’s experience, the use of cultural anthropology, and a set of oppositional terms (for example, masculine versus feminine, sin as pride versus sin as self-negation, love as self-sacrifice versus love as creative), each of which continues to find a place in our students’ continued theological development.

My argument runs thus: First, for two scholars often pitted against each other, Niebuhr and Saiving share a remarkably similar understanding of what it means to be human beings relating imperfectly to the world around them. Among these similarities are: (1) a shared vocabulary, which discloses (2) a common vision of human life as lived within a spectrum between the two poles of limitation and freedom—or as Saiving might name them, the poles of being/nature and becoming/spirit, (3) the tension between which promotes anxiety in human beings, and (4) leads, almost inevitably to sin, which is the consequence of moving too far (or being moved too far) toward either end of the spectrum. Second, a few of their followers have noticed this similarity and commented on it as a way to extend the conversations Saiving initiated in 1960. These followers have, likewise, accepted the freedom/limitation spectrum, albeit with modifications to the poles. Third, this spectrum presents as many problems for Niebuhr, Saiving, and their followers as it does solutions.3 Finally, one way to get out from under the problems that this spectrum presents is to return to a final similarity between Niebuhr and Saiving: namely, their mutual emphases on the theological relevance of philosophically rich conceptions of experience. Or, to be more specific, I suggest that what they both got right (an emphasis on particular understandings of experience as relevant to good theology) corrects what they both got wrong (a dualistic view of the relation between human freedom and limitation), and that the fruit of that correction can nourish both the teaching of theology and also students’ intellectual and professional lives.

Before moving forward with defenses of experience and relevance, though, [End Page 103] I want to briefly flag an important advantage for feminist theology in making such a move. In giving closer attention to the significance of women’s experiences of life than to an ontology of that life, my...