After Christianity

by Daphne Hampson, SCM Press (0-334-02640-7)

Reviewed by Anthony Freenam, UK, in SOF NZ Newsletter #22, July 1997

Still a professional theologian and a feminist, Daphne Hampson has ceased to be a Christian. She now believes that Christianity is both immoral and untrue -- in that order: "Once people form the ethical judgment that Christianity is a masculinist religion . . . they have clear eyes to see that Christianity cannot possibly be true."

If only she had written this book as if she really believed that! Had she just guided her readers to make that ethical judgment for themselves, and then stood back to let the scales fall from their eyes, this could have been a great work of conviction and conversion. For she makes her case powerfully, and the central chapters should be compulsory reading for all clergy and thinking lay Christians who have so far avoided the bare-knuckled feminist critique of their faith.

Take the Trinity, for example. The whole edifice is presented as a masculine construction designed to answer a male agenda: "Christian theology is a therapy designed to alleviate fear of the father. . . . Trinitarianism allows for the resolution of the relation to the father: for the son will one day come to have an equality with him." Since this is a purely male psychological hang-up, Christianity is shown to enshrine the solution to a problem women do not even have. At the same time it fails to satisfy a need they most certainly do have: "What the male symbolic order lacks (exemplified well by Christianity) is the image of a woman as the adult equal of man." In Christian symbolism, God is to man as man is to woman. So the man is weak and sinful in relation to God, but he is strong and upright in relation to the (even weaker and more sinful) woman. Woman is always at the bottom of the heap. So Christianity is morally bankrupt.

The corruption is there in the very fabric and structure of Christian theology, and no good can possibly come of cosmetic changes, such as renaming "the Father and the Son" as Parent and Offspring, or even Mother and Daughter. Still worse is the temptation to apply feminine attributes (such as motherhood) to a masculine God. Such efforts serve only to exalt the male further by implying that he has no need of the female to complement him. It bolsters the false idea that a male is a complete human and a female a deficient one.

Unhappily Daphne Hampson does not show the courage of her convictions, and she pays dearly for her lack of nerve. Instead of leading off with her strongest suit, she plays into her opponents hands with two opening chapters of defensive and bad-tempered wrangling about the nature of Christian truth. At best they are poorly argued; at worst they are frankly embarrassing.

In chapter one, for instance, she sets out "to explain what I mean when I say that Christianity cannot be true". Yet all she manages is to show that "Christian belief becomes a matter of faith". The Archbishop of Canterbury could have told her that! It has nothing whatever to do with the claim that Christianity cannot be true.

The second chapter attacks liberal and feminist writers who agree that historical Christianity is a masculine religion, but who try to rehabilitate scripture and the tradition by fresh "readings". This is a tactical mistake on Hampson's part. Whether their theology is right or wrong, the very existence of such Christian feminists is fatal to her claim that acceptance of the feminist critique entails the perception that Christianity is false. They should have been kept out of sight until her readers' hearts had been won over.

There are other weaknesses. The author denies defining Christianity in a narrowly conservative way, but she does so all the same. She lays down with papal confidence what Christians must believe, and then declares invalid any form of Christian discipleship which does not conform to her own imposed standards. This enables her to draw on the insights of her former faith without compromising her new non-Christian status, and to deny the name "Christian" to any liberal or radical theologians who might challenge her claims about the faith they still profess.

Although totally opposed to western monotheism ("I have wiped the slate clean of an anthropomorphically conceived God"), Hampson does call herself a theist. She writes "of there being more than meets the eye; of there being that on which we can draw", and to this dimension of reality -- which is for her a matter of empirical fact -- she gives the name God. This gives her theology an objectivity which is lacking from many contemporary forms of belief. As she says, "I clearly think the word God to have a reference. It is not simply to be de-mythologized."

This attitude gives the clue to what, in my own view, is the most unsatisfying feature of her book: its inconsistencies and breaks of logic. These stem from the author's unwillingness to grasp the twin nettles of historical relativism and the human construction of theology, and her consequent inability to follow her arguments through without contradiction.

Relativism says that the way we perceive and express Christian truth is bound to change with time. So feminism may offer new insights today, but without denying the value in its own context of all that has gone before. Hampson rejects this approach, insisting that "whatever God is . . . God has always been". It follows that if her feminist understanding of God is true now, then it always has been and always will be true. And all other views are eternally false. But she is not consistent about this.

Earlier in the book (when criticising Bultmann) she has herself invoked a favourite relativist slogan of my own: "To say the same thing in a different age is to say something different!" If this is so, then whatever she says about God today, the same words would have meant something different in the past, and will do so again in the future. In such a situation, what does she mean by saying "whatever God is . . . God has always been"? What is the cash value (as we used to say) of an hypothetical unchanging referent for the term God, if our language about it cannot also hold its meaning?

This is not a rhetorical question. I very much want to know the answer.