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.


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