Wednesday, January 02, 2008

VII Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Theology as I understand it is a function of the apophatic, and, in the apophatic, with its goal and criterion of the vision of God, so-called feminist theology is not only becoming irrelevant, it is also becoming destructive, because it doesn’t understand the basic principles that underlie religious language and much theology—the theology, say, of Origen and Augustine, of Gregory of Nyssa and St. Thomas, of Julian of Norwich and Marguerite Porete, of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hugo Rahner, even though these theologians themselves may not self-consciously be aware of these principles. According to the criterion of an organic and relational theology, which is sometimes called ‘feminist’, Hans Urs von Balthazar and Karl Rahner may be the most ‘feminist’ theologians of our age.

Let us look at the example of inclusive language. Because all useful sacred signs efface themselves, as we noted with the Eucharist above, clumsy inclusive language is often more opaque, more of a barrier than a help to the pursuit of the apophatic, of the vision of God, because it refocuses the attention of the worshippers on themselves and on their politics. Thus some of the problems with ‘mother’ used on its own outside of metaphor or analogy.

As many writers have noted, use of feminine language in reference to God is nothing new, and the Semitic pronoun for the Holy Spirit, and for Wisdom, is ‘she’. However, we need to be aware of the context in which this language is used. Sometimes, as in the Odes of Solomon, the strategy is to displace stereotypes without introducing a new monolithic stereotype, as too often happens with mother-language today.

A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the kindness of the Lord.
The Son is the cup,
And he who was milked is the Father,
And the Holy Spirit milked him;
Because his breasts were full,
And it was not desirable that his milk should be emitted without reason;
The Holy Spirit opened her bosom
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father,
and gave the mixture to the world without their knowing;
And those who receive it are in the fullness of the right hand. (Ode XIX)

I should add here that there is much in Syriac literature that is sympathetic to the difficulties we face today. Here is the 4th c writer, Ephrem, on metaphor:

It is our metaphors that He put on—though he did not literally do so;
He then took them off—without actually doing so:
when wearing them,
He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts one on when it is beneficial, then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that he strips off and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor does not apply to His true Being
because that Being is hidden, he has depicted it by means of what is visible...

For this is the Good One, who could have forced us to please Him,
without any trouble to Himself; but instead He toiled by every means
so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will, that we might depict our beauty with the colours that our own free will had gathered....

It seems to me that feminist theologians and their opponents alike are far less concerned in respecting free will than God, or their forebears of sixteen centuries past.

Traditional language and imagery have other strategies that today’s revisers seem not to be aware of. While it is certainly salutary to get rid of phrases such as ‘us men’ and ‘all men’ and language about abhorring wombs, to say in the context of the Eucharist ‘our brother Jesus’ as opposed to ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ (to cite only one example) is theologically questionable, because the focus of the Eucharist is on the historical Christ, not on the historical Jesus, a historical Christ who dissolves the shackles of time and syntax and bears us to the Father. In the historical Christ there is neither male nor female.

‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’ focuses on Christ as the metaphor for a process, a process which is ritually enacted in the liturgy and provides a seamless meeting place, a union, between the God who is self-outpouring, and the worshipper who ideally mirrors the divine self-outpouring. It is equally the worshippers’ body and blood which are offered on the altar to the Father in union with the Christ who both indwells and transcends them. The historical Christ is a performative text.

Changing ‘Lord’ to ‘Brother’ also misses the point that the word ‘Lord’ does not refer to hierarchy per se but is a signifier for transcendence. More profoundly, such a change in language destroys the paradoxes necessary to contemplative prayer, i.e., the Lord who becomes a servant, the God who becomes a human being; divinity that is epitomised in lowliness; and, if one requires a feminist twist, the paradox of a prodigally self-outpouring, humble God signified by a male pronoun.

Further, to change ‘Bridegroom’ to ‘friend’ (e.g., in the Advent hymn, ‘Wachet auf’) obliterates the use and transfiguration of eros, of sexuality, which is vital to prayer and the pursuit of the vision of God. There are very good psycho-spiritual reasons that mystical language is often profoundly erotic. Prayer involves the entire being, and even as eros or ‘sexuality’ is the animator of intention, so self-consciousness is similarly suspended in this specialised way only in orgasm and death. It is not an accident that Eros is the child of Hermes, traveller, guide of the dead, creator of resonances, bestower of fragments of truth.

How were these fundamental understandings lost, especially as regards the working of the mind in prayer? Principally through lack of praxis. As just mentioned , the suspension of self-consciousness—not to be confused with consciousness itself—is linked to the little death of orgasm and to mortality. For the early church, death was a daily reality. Theology was costly; its ordinary mode had to focus on the threshold of heaven, the living-out of the resurrection at the intersection of time and eternity, the apophatic. With the decline of martyrdom, a remnant went to the desert to try to continue to live in this vision, shunning the stampede for clerical preferment—and the consequent loss of hermeneutical insight based on praxis—which it engendered.

Loss of understanding also came through the contradiction, not the paradox, that developed with the growth of church as institution, and particularly with the elaboration of hieratic orders. As paradox can be the gate to the ineffable, so the contradiction manifested by the clerical system and its human exponents slams worshippers against an opaque wall of oppression and degradation. It throws them back on themselves, and much of the recent debate over these matters seems to have been about who will be allowed to intrude their egos between those who seek God and their apophatic goal.

One senses two motives behind the doctrine of ex opere: a profound exasperation that attempts to shut its eyes and bypass the problem, retreating into God’s inviolable mercy; and an invitation to license by abstracting, fragmenting and compartmentalising incarnational theology. ‘Ex opere fails to take into consideration the profound impact of psychological signals vital to the transformational context of the liturgy.’ (Pillars p. 24) While the operation of grace in itself may be unaffected in a purely abstract, artificial and disincarnate world, the ability to receive grace, which is always cooperative, may be profoundly impaired, especially by invasive, unspoken signals coming from a self-serving celebrant, especially given that the liturgy dissolves distinctions between outside and inside, thus bringing the context of the liturgy within the worshipper. Grace is by nature inherently relational.

Please note that everything I have said so far about the human person, about the mind, about paradox, language, prayer and the apophatic, applies without respect to sex or gender. While the more superficial aspects of a beginner’s approach to God may need to be focused individually, the deeper aspects are universal. And generally speaking, today’s theological agenda, feminist or not, seems to be stuck at a very superficial level indeed.


Blogger Ian said...

When you refer to "ex opere" are you referring to "ex opere operato" or "ex opere operantis?" I'm a bit thick .


2:44 pm, January 03, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

"ex opere operato". Thanks for asking!

10:21 am, January 04, 2008  

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