Radical theologian Mary Daly died Sunday at age 81, ending one of the most interesting and tragic careers in contemporary theology. Known for her exaggerated outspokenness, Daly took theological feminism to what she believed was its rightful and logical conclusion — to the absolute rejection of Christianity and all theistic conceptions of God.
In the first phase of her career she was known as a Roman Catholic, and she taught at Boston College for many years. Her tenure there could only be described as controversial. At the beginning her teaching career was marked by a fight over tenure. At the end she left Boston College after refusing to allow male students in some of her classes in feminist thought.
Her critique of the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of patriarchy, expressed in her 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, was extended to the entire Christian tradition. She rejected Christianity’s focus on a monotheistic deity and what she attacked as its intrinsic patriarchy. She asserted that Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ was just another dimension of its patriarchy — a Savior in a male body.
As Margaret Elizabeth Kostenberger explains, Daly’s “complete rejection of Scripture” on the basis of its “irremediable patriarchal bias” took her far outside the Christian faith. While other feminists called for the adoption of female or gender-neutral language for God, Daly attacked those efforts as half-measures that fail to take the phallocentricity of theism seriously.
Her famous dictum, “if the God is male, then the male is God,” stood at the heart of her radical revision of religion. She accused Christianity of “gynocide” against women and suggested that all monotheistic religion — and Christianity in particular — is “phallocentric.”
She referred to feminists as “pirates in a phallocratic society” and preached her version of feminist liberation, describing herself as a “radical lesbian feminist.” She rejected the biblical notion of sin and called for a celebration of lust and the breaking of all sexual rules. She attacked heterosexuality as inherently patriarchal and championed lesbianism as a means of the liberation of women from the “phallocratic” power system of the culture.
In her later years, Mary Daly identified herself as a “post-Christian” — a term that was, if anything, an understatement.
In the end, Mary Daly will be remembered for the radical lesbian feminist that she was. She must be given credit for her honesty in accusing theological liberals of lacking the courage of their convictions. As she saw it, they were clinging to the furniture of Christianity long after rejecting its central beliefs. She saw the entire structure as hopelessly patriarchal and called for a complete break with Christianity and theism.
In the largest sense, she was undoubtedly right in arguing that the logic of radical feminism is diametrically opposed to the truth claims of Christianity. She was, as she claimed, taking ideological feminism to its logical conclusion.
Interestingly, Mary Daly also serves as a reminder that radicals are seldom so comprehensively radical as they consider themselves. Daly was criticized by transgender and transsexual activists for her failure to see transsexuals as anything other than “death-loving Frankenstein monsters.” Womanist author Audre Lorde complained that Daly, though a radical feminist, did not recognize the role of race in patriarchy. Even the most radical thinkers among us apparently have a hard time keeping up.
According to The New York Times, Mary Daly died of “declining health,” not “gynocide.” Her intellectual work lives on among the radical feminists, but her influence extends far beyond those who would identify themselves as “post-Christian.” Many of today’s liberal denominations and seminaries have absorbed and accepted her basic critique of Christianity, but lack her boldness and intellectual honesty.
In one of her later books, Daly said, “There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard. . . . Let them be assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination.” The story of Mary Daly is, by any Christian measure, a tragedy. And, we must add, a tragedy with lessons we dare not miss.
Margalit Fox, “Mary Daly, a leader in Feminist Theology, Dies at 81,” The New York Times, Thursday, January 7, 2010.
Recommended Resource: Margaret Elizabeth Kostenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is? (Crossway Books, 2008).
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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