Saturday, November 24, 2007

On Retreat

I am on retreat the week of November 26. Next post will be made in the first week of December.


IV Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

However, in Christianity, paradox functions in addition as a descriptor: it describes something empirical. Paradox, not contradiction. They are not the same. Paradox is a gateway; contradiction is a dead end. For example, ‘Who loses life shall gain it’. First, the mind initially can’t get round the sentence and is given a tantalising nano-second of silence, freedom—salvation—from the tyrannies of the diabolical 8-track tape-loop that is our self-conscious discursive mind, which, we must add, is distinct from consciousness taken as a whole. Second, it is describing an empirical process: when the tyranny of self-consciousness is by-passed, the rest of the mind, which in a theological context includes far more than what we casually call ‘the unconscious’ can come more freely into play.

Language can effect this shift. In the 21st chapter of the Apocalypse, the mind is doubly stopped in v. 21 when it is first confronted with pearly gates—the surface of a pearl is apophatic in the sense that light and dark play on it without image and again give the mind brief quies. This is immediately followed by a description of streets of gold—the second most dense metal—that are somehow translucent. My colleague and I call such images ‘apophatic images’, and one of the functions of such images is to release the person from the linear into the multidimensional, from the three-storey universe into the holographic quantum universe, from the earthly kingdom of time and noise and syntax into the apophatic, the ‘kingdom of God’, the ‘world to come’. In order for texts to function in this way, the reader must be willing to be subject to the ‘wyrd’ or fate of the text, to be carried through its passages into the ineffable. In order to escape time, one must first be subject to it. In order to be able to interpret a text, one must first enter into it. If the text draws from the chaos of life chained by time, then one must find meaning by imposing a syntax that can fetter time, still the noise and set one free. For Christians, that syntax is Christ.

These same principles can be observed in painting. If you go to rooms 54 and 55 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery you can see the progression from the Byzantine to the insertion of horizons into perspective in the 14th century, when multidimensionality was lost, and religious art, like the doctrine that was its cultural context, ceased to have the transparency and multivalence of icons, and took on the opacity that arises from the illusion of control over three dimensions. As David Hockney pointed out at his recent exhibit in Bradford, perspective dislocates the person outside the painting; it is only when perspective is reversed that the viewer is surrounded by infinity.

And fluidity of perspective is absolutely vital to sacred signs. One element that makes visual or verbal texts timeless and enduring is that they are not bound by culture, but their context is rather within the reader or viewer, and in the case of icons, in their painters as well. Icon painters attest to the need for purification of self-consciousness as a prerequisite for their task, thus reflecting the same motion they require from the observer, who allows the mind to be focused by the icon. The icon is a catalyst for the suspension of self-consciousness, while the paintings that insert horizons are reflexive, seeming all too often merely to advertise the cleverness of their creators. In addition, they trap the viewer into the linear.

Fra Angelico’s work indicates an exact understanding of this principle. His public paintings are, as my colleague puts it, full of bells and whistles, whereas the frescos in San Marco, done for presumptive contemplatives, lead the eye into apophatic surfaces from which figures barely emerge, and into which they elide.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

III Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Language changes, the continuity remains. What is so difficult, especially for us today, is that these laws are utterly simple, even if practicing them is not easy. What is difficult is that, being apophatic, the process is essentially non-verbal, because language and syntax are linear and subject to time, and the apophatic begins at the intersection of time and eternity. Language is needed to point in the right direction, and every generation has attempted to apply its own language.

What makes talking about the progression from self-consciousness to the apophatic yet more difficult still, is that the simpler it gets, the less verbal it becomes, even by analogy. Religious language and models of God have limited usefulness, and they are useful only as they point beyond themselves, not at themselves, and this must always be kept in mind as we read, write, interpret and use religious and theological texts.

To summarize briefly: we noted above that discursive consciousness is but a small fragment of what we commonly refer to as ‘the mind’. In order to become present to the apophatic vision of God, this discursive mind must somehow be stilled, side-stepped, got out of the way, and this is arguably the primary purpose of religious language. It is only from this stillness that a theology can arise which is relational and organic, and not merely some sort of mind-game. Silence is the initiator of language and its goal.

The silencing of the discursive, the relinquishing of self-consciousness, can be done only indirectly, as Marvin Shaw has shown in his seminal book, The Paradox of Intention. One must somehow find a way to be neither acting nor reacting, but in a place of utter stillness. Or, to illustrate from complexity theory as Chris Langton has shown in his work on artificial life, between the extremes of stasis and the chaos of noise there is a ‘phase transition’ as it is known in dynamical systems, a narrow band of silence where intelligent life and creativity can emerge.

The suspension of self-consciousness is part of and distinct from ordinary consciousness and occurs many times a day without our being aware of it. But there are ways to trip the mind into silence, and for our purposes, one of the most important of these is through paradox. In other words, paradox is the gateway to silence.

Zen koans function in this way and towards a similar end, albeit with different linguistic tropes, and from a different base and context. Koans are not necessarily descriptors; the language works indirectly, which is appropriate for Buddhism, which is more a philosophical psychology than a religion.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

II Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Eleven days before her death, Elizabeth [of the Trinity] wrote: “I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them to go out of themselves in order to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence...which will allow God to communicate Himself to them and to transform them into Himself.”

If I have disregarded the word ‘feminist’, I do want to say something about so-called spirituality. I hate the word. It implicitly casts slurs on the body. It casts slurs also on those who think that there is more to the mind than the merely discursive, which psychologists tell us is only a very small portion of what is called ‘mind’, and this issue of the role of the discursive—that is, the issue of self-consciousness even more than the issue of post-enlightenment thinking which, has exaggerated the importance of the discursive and therefore of self-consciousness—is arguably the most ignored fundamental element in theological and religious discourse.

The medieval understanding of ‘intellect’ or the Hebrew understanding of ‘heart’ are much more apropos, and involve an integral view of the entire person. Or, as the 12th century philosopher, Bernard Sylvestris put it in ‘De mundi universitate’, famously commented on and translated by Helen Waddell, ‘St Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of the dungheap of the flesh: Bernard Sylvestris saw in their strange union a discipline made for greatness, and the body itself a not ignoble hospice for the pilgrim soul. The spirit is richer for its limitations; this is the prison that makes men free.’

If I hate the word ‘spirituality’, the term spiritual theology is no better, for it implies that there is some theology that does not have psychological, sociological, and anthropological implications—and every theological statement has these implications whether or not they are admitted. When they are not admitted, one ends up trapped in a circle of relentless linearity, logic that is illusory, grotesque, and highly destructive. And the word ‘salvation’ in one of its most primitive usages in Hebrew, means being sprung from traps, coming into an open spaciousness.

No one I know of has used the term theological psychology, or psychological theology, both of which would be equally grotesque, and the term ‘mystical theology’ is out of fashion, quite rightly so, given some of the peculiar work done in its name. The term ‘speculative’ theology which seems to have taken its place, is not earthed in the incarnate. My colleague in the English faculty, Vincent Gillespie, and I sometimes use the term ‘apophatic theology’, which includes all the traditional meanings of ‘apophatic’ as well as some new ones. It is admittedly something of an oxymoron, if not slightly redundant, but it does distinguishes what we do from other disciplines that go by the name of theology.

My first question is very blunt: why are we doing theology? Why are we spilling barrels of ink to print millions of words while killing millions of trees to publish what is often not worth reading; why are we fragmenting ourselves into groups and subgroups in the name of theology and what do we mean by it? Is everyone who is interested in this field, but particularly in so-called feminist theology, aiming at the same goal? If not consciously so, then why is the debate so heated?

But I want to take a different tack: instead of rehashing these arguments, I want to talk about what is common to our humanity irrespective of gender: what are the laws of the mind and of the human person that don’t change very much from century to century, however culturally vulnerable their expression may be? Why, in spite of so-called patriarchy—to call it an adolescent-archy would be more appropriate, as we shall see—have the Hebrew bible and the Christian scriptures proved useful to women for nearly two millennia in spite of the destructiveness attendant on this ‘patriarchy’? Are the attitudes incautiously grouped under patriarchy peculiar to men?

I would like to project the central Christian vision from the textual base of Phil. 2,5-ll and Heb. 2, 14-15.

‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him....’

‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.’

The vision of God I am talking about is apophatic: it is hidden, it is beyond language, it is beyond thought, not in an anti-intellectual way: nothing is denied. What is apophatic is coronal, it is what happens when the intellect in its broadest and deepest sense must be transcended. What is apophatic is self-forgetful, it is ‘wholly other’. It is beyond gender-language and it begins when every human resource has been exhausted. It is only at this point that we can begin to use the word ‘faith’ which has nothing to do with a deposit of dogma, or assent to creeds, but is ‘going beyond without end’, as a contemporary Carthusian author has put it. And this entry into the apophatic is subject to a set of psychological laws which early Christian authors seem to have understood very well and which still apply today, even if we seem to have forgotten them.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Contemplative Eucharist—Clarification

Recently there has been a lot of interest in the Rite for Contemplative Eucharist [published January 2006 in this blog], and also some questions.

It is not mandatory for a layperson to say the epiclesis, but it should be an option. The rite is used by groups that do not have the sort of hierarchies that the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches have, although it is also used by these latter groups.

However, there is no reason the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians should not have the lay-epiclesis option, as the RCs will regard the Rite for Contemplative Eucharist as "para-liturgical" (although recent breakthrough documents by the Dutch Dominicans [available at the National Catholic Reporter website] call the "para" into question).

The Episcopalians, however, have no strictures—and no excuses—about admitting the excellent scholarship that shows that such hierarchies are untenable, even if some choose to turn a blind eye. [See my "Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity", recently re-published with a new Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu by Seabury Books.] There is no reason that a lay person should not say the epiclesis when this rite is held in an Episcpalian context.

It is fifteen years since the Rite came into being; lay attitudes have evolved. Episcopalians are limited only by attitudes of rigid clergy control that should be called by its proper name, that is: clericalism.

It is because of clericalism and its infantilizing agendas towards the laity (such clergy want the laity to be more infantile than they are in order to justify and support their own infantilism) that institutional religion is in so much trouble. The Rite for Contemplative Eucharist is a way of restoring balance and perspective and inviting all people, ordained or not, to spiritual maturity.

While lay presidency of the Eucharist is a live issue throughout the Anglican Communion, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, this rite has no president except the silent Christ present in all his people; there only an animator who is mostly out of sight.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

[This lecture was given at Oxford University, sometime in the early '90s, in a "Women's Theology" series organized by Graham Ward. Over time, the word "feminism" has taken on many, sometimes conflicting meanings, so the lecture must be read with this in mind.]

‘The sky is dark with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.’ —Alan Bennett

I am going to make some highly critical comments today, but I want to emphasise that however they relate or do not relate to what I consider the central task of theology, the issues raised by feminist theology must continue to be explored, even if they cease to be theology, properly speaking, and for the infinite number of reasons suggested in this lecture series.

It is not perhaps irrelevant to begin by telling you that my other name is Maggie Ross, nor is it irrelevant to say that I am not sure who M. Ross is, because this is one way of asking who is the final author of this or any other text that bears my name. Who, finally, is the author is a fundamental question of hermeneutics, as those of you attending Graham’s lectures will know, and because Christianity is a religion of the Book, Christian life is necessarily one of interpretation.

It might be useful for you to know where I ‘stand’ on feminist theology.

Only one person to my knowledge has ever called M Ross a ‘feminist’ theologian, and that was John Cobb; in the same time-frame and in reference to the same book the Bishop of Durham was careful to say that M Ross was most assuredly not a feminist theologian, which only goes to show the relevance of Pam Anderson’s remark about ‘all the feminisms’.

I both agree and disagree with Luce Irigeray that while it is important for men and women to explore who they are as men and women, I disagree that this task can be accomplished by isolating men from women. In the first place, there is too much that is shared in common among human persons. In the second, the desire for men to find out who men are in isolation from women and vice versa is, as I hope this lecture will show, an exercise in futility, a presumption in the strongest British sense of that word: an imposed, arrogant ignorance.

Briefly, sex, gender and sexuality are all areas in which the old adage, the more we study, the less we know, applies. What seems most obvious may be most equivocal. We know now, for example, that the foetus may change its sex several times before it settles on one or the other—if indeed it does settle. In addition there have been verified examples of lactating men and partheogenic women. In our age to change one’s sex is now possible as never before. Gender is perhaps the most mutable, to what extent remains unknown. And virtually the only thing that can be said about sexuality with any certainty is that it is the animator of intention, whether it is my intention to pick up this glass of water, to procreate, or to behold in contemplative union with God.

This is not to say there are not different personality types, but phrases such as ‘women’s sins’ referring to self-encapsulation and self-victimization, obsessive centripetal thinking, self-hatred and excessive guilt apply equally to some men—seen, for example, in the creepy resemblance between some of the most vociferous advocates of women’s ordination and their most extreme opponents. And anyone who has some experience of listening to men and women talk about prayer soon realises that approaches to God that can be grouped by family resemblance do not differentiate along the illusory fault line between ‘male’ and ‘female’.

To sum up my position: I am working towards the goal when, to quote Graham, the fact that it is a woman doing theology is irrelevant; towards the time—and these are not Graham’s words!—when men and women simply regard each other as ‘persons’ without first checking out the physique—their own or the other’s. Only God is true person; we are but faint fragments of personality. And it is our task to discover the indwelling divine person within each fragment.

So, to answer the question that is this lecture’s title: yes, I most certainly do think feminists are asking the wrong questions.