Monday, December 10, 2007

VI Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

It is not difficult to see where this is leading: academic theology and the feminist debate which has issued from it are stuck in the merely linear and often, in consequence, in the merely historical. Academic theology trains out of people the natural ability, evidenced in myth and story, to think in a multidimensional way using paradoxes that are descriptors of empirical experience, and language that enriches and effaces by layering meaning; trains out of people the ability to write the sort of texts we spend most of our time studying, and thus destroys their ability to interpret such texts at a deep level.

If we do not engage in the praxis of routinely disposing ourselves to experience paradox and multidimensionality, to the sort of transformation and transfiguration (they are not the same) that every great religious tradition speaks of, if we do not routinely dispose ourselves to have our self-consciousness suspended (some people would call this prayer but that is an embarrassing word in academia—and it is not something we can make happen, we can only dispose ourselves for it) is it any wonder, then, that in the feminist debate and in academic theology in general we spend our time arguing over issues that throw our attention back on ourselves and trap us once again in the diabolical 8-track-tape-loop of our merely discursive minds?

Would we allow someone who knows only arithmetic attempt to teach it? The result would be highly distorted. To teach arithmetic, you need to know algebra, calculus, and have some understanding of pure mathematics. But by doing theology without praxis, we are encouraging people to teach arithmetic who know only arithmetic, and the consequence is the dead-end of theology in which we find ourselves today, summarized by the work of Richard Swinburne.

The Word did not become a merely discursive mind. The Word did not become flesh to save the discursive mind alone, trapped in one-dimensional time and syntax. The Word became flesh to free us from the limited perception and distortions of the discursive mind, to push it beyond its limits and to humble it by its limitations so that it might have access to the infinite ineffable; so that it might be transfigured. Paradoxes are not illogical: they are much more rigorous to work with than mere linearity, and within their clusters, use of logic is critical.

I frequently hear members of faculties of this University quietly disparaging the process of larding otherwise clear and comprehensible papers with academic tat to make them more acceptable to colleagues, to make them seem more ‘objective’ or ‘scholarly’. But, trapped by a system intent on saving appearances at all costs, they continue to do so, in service to a myth of objectivity most scientists have long abandoned. Gödel's theorems put paid to any notion of knowledge that is 'purely empirical'.

The destructiveness of this post-enlightenment artifice, particularly to women scholars, particularly to women theologians, is self-evident. Yet the rejection of the myth of objectivity has nothing to do with feminist vs androcentric approaches, which confusion is a classic example of how the search for truth by women can deteriorate into gender wars, and everything to do with how the world in fact functions. It is hubris that has created a confusion between the illusion of objectivity and the empirical. Truth, somehow, seems to have been lost sight of.

The fact is that we cannot stand apart. We cannot even look at an object without changing the charge of some of its photons, thus changing its materiality. We cannot perceive any particle without forcing it out of its mutable multivalence into three dimensions. Nor can we claim, even about history, some scientists suggest, the absoluteness of ‘facts’, not if there are parallel and interactive universes; not if there is dark matter; not if there are black holes, not if there is implicate order and holomovement. Not of all experience is interpretation.

Much of theology today is an exercise in mere cleverness and ego decoration that has little to do with reality of any sort. This of course does not mean either that we should not continue to do theology or to be as objective as possible. It does mean that we should be more honest about what we are doing as theologians, and it does mean that we have to reexamine both our goals and our methodology with an eye to the laws of the mind through which God, in whatever form, is perceived. Otherwise we are simply engaging in a lot of noise. As Robert Runcie once remarked, 'The Church is like a swimming pool: all the noise is at the shallow end.' Contrast this tatement with the antiphon on the Magnificat for second Vespers of Christmas: ‘When all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leapt down, out of your royal throne.’

It seems to me that much of the search for feminist theology/‘spirituality’ is missing a great opportunity. This quest is arising primarily from reaction, and thus, in a typical Girardian loop, it is adopting precisely the strategies it claims to abhor. This search has not been fruitless, because, as I said earlier, the issues raised by feminist theology and criticism need to be examined thoroughly by both men and women alike. And it is also true that when we are given the gift of self-forgetfulness, the suspension of self-consciousness, the imagistic and linguistic, and above all the affective content of our minds is absolutely critical. It's not like a computer: garbage in, garbage out. But if we put garbage in, particularly if we attempt to control the outcome, the transfigurative process is impeded; the struggle to penetrate the layers of persona is rendered far more difficult than it need be.

There is not time to expand here on the effects of mental transfiguration in the silence, but it has to do with the whole debate about morality, the media, and related issues, all of which influence the organising vision of the human person. If that vision is of a loving and generous, self-outpouring God, then there is a certain inevitability and inviolability about the morality that will emerge from this vision, not because a template of law has been imposed from without, but because of the empirical laws of the interaction of mind and grace that operate from within.

By contrast, if the organising vision is of the CEO of a multinational, for example, whose negligence and lack of respect for the biosphere causes environmental disasters in a pristine environment, while he laughs all the way to the bank; if these disasters destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, irrevocably degrading common human archetypes and lowering healthy inhibitions, the morality that emerges produces such figures such as Saddam Hussein and the murderers of James Bulger, all of whom were preoccupied with causing a major disaster. The degree of destruction becomes the criterion of celebrity.

[This lecture was written more than a decade ago. In December, 2007, we are all too well aware of the frequency of this phenomenon.]


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