She Who Is
Christian theology interpreted in a Feminist Light,

with further feminist asides on Lolita and Thomas Covenant.

Whew, I've been bizzy bizzy bizzy. You know the new school season has started when the new crop of colds make the rounds, though this one is actually courtesy of fez, where f2tE has been experiencing the joys of having a real job that actually pays money.

Apart from recovering from a cold, I've also been plowing through what is for me some fairly heavy reading—started with Lolita, which took the library forever to recall from their main branch, evidently because I was in a queue for the one (of three) copy they have remaining, and which I wanted to read because f2tE, inspired by the goth-lolly movement's adoption of the eponymous character, wanted to read. Well, the household rule is the kids can read anything in the library, but even I squicked to the point that I told f2 I wanted to read the famous novel about childhood rape and incest first.

The first half of the book details the narrator's lust for a pubescing child, what he calls a ‘nymphet’, in loving detail; the second half, which I've almost now finished, tracks their wanderings once he's achieved his primary object (sex) and even given his self-absorbtion, it's obvious the guy is a rapist. My real complaint is with the publisher, which had the effrontry to put on the cover such trash as ‘only true 20th century love story’. Humbert does not love Delores, which is her real name—Lolita is one of the many pet-names by which he diminishes her agency—he merely glories lustfully in what he sees as the perfection of her physical form. Her actual intellect and interests he constantly and ruthlessly derides, in between cuttingly funny critiques of modern (1950s) pop culture.

(Also, a hint for the unwary reader who is seeking a break from the book: do not read the stupid Martin Amis introduction to be found in the fancy hard-backed edition with the lovely ribbon bookmark, that I plucked right off the shelf from the other library at which I've got a card, at least not till you've finished the story, because he, stupid idiot, starts that useless intro with a major plot spoiler, and then goes on to justify Humbert's abominable behavior by claiming that bad as he was to ‘Lolita’, the author was infinitely more cruel to his main character who, it should be frankly noted, deserved it, and is no doubt one of the reasons why Nabokov is considered a great writer. Which, if I were equally rude in invoking same plot spoiler, I could easily make the case that that Mr. Amis is spewing cow manure.)

But, see, this is why all those do-gooding types tell us parents to participate in our children's consumption of literature, film and the like. Usually, the problem is the other way around: Mom! you gotta look at/listen to this or that or the other [anime/song]. If plowing through the admittedly beautifully written but nevertheless painful-to-read Hummy's lust was slow, Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, a treatise on feminist theology, recommended by my sib, was even slower. Moreover, the book was an ILL, which meant I had three weeks to go through its 275 pages, and I needed all of it.

My sib told me, and I believe, that this was not particularly challanging as academic theological texts go (sib read for a class) but I'm out of practice, and I found the introductory material, which the author allowed as how experienced folk could skip (not an assumption I felt I could safely make) particularly numbing. Part of the difficulty was the vocabulary. Voracious reading will make up for a lot, but every once in awhile a book comes along with a lot of words I simply don't know.

This one had a good many terms particular to theological jargon—kenotic, praxis, heurmenutic, eschateology, soteriology, all of which I find terribly difficult to remember the definitions of for more than about 5 minutes even when I dutifully look ’em up—as well as a lot of weird formulations like perdure and ecclesial, which evidently don't mean quite the same thing as endure or ecclesiastical, and neither of which appeared in my dictionary, though the latter does at least return google hits, not to mention honest-to-goodness words I'd never encountered before (surd).

(Interestingly enough, surd evidently started out as a mathematical term, and though my understanding of calculus is poor, it was exposure to concepts like differing levels of infinity that I used to visualize the [early Hebrew Kabbalistic?] concept of God withdrawing Its infiniteness to allow our limited universe to come into being.)

My first experience as an adult with this sort of humbling vocabulary was reading the Thomas Covenant novels, which from my point of view were so bad I read them stacked, novel upon open dictionary on my lap the latter thus ready to hand when yet another unknown word came up. How many of those words eventually joined my vocabulary I couldn't say, though ‘gloaming’ (dusk) stands out. —Nowadays, I expect the books would be bad to the point of being wall-bangers primarily owing to the main character's personality flaws, but I was more patient with self-absorbed rapists back then.

My sib, of course, effortlessly plucked out the most striking quote in She Who Is, pretty much as an aside for the paper written to sum up the course for which the book was assigned, in the chapter on Jesus-Sophia:

“If in a patriarchal culture a woman had preached compassionate love and enacted a style of authority that serves, she would most certainly have been greeted with a colossal shrug. Is this not what women are supposed to do by nature?” (p. 160)

Which of course explains why there've been precious few great female religious founders. This quote is also trenchant:

"Benevolent paternalism in the church and society waxes eloquent about the values of this ideal of motherhood. But such romanticizing, while definining the role positively, actually limits and effectively subordinates women.”

—from the chapter ‘Mother-Sophia’ p. 176

This strikes me as pretty strong evidence for the feminist point of view that ‘abstinence-only’ education, and the denial of contraception are far more about sex-shaming for women rather than saving the sanctity of life. As I said, this book made me very angry, not because I wasn't aware of the arguments, but because there's no excuse for the current backwards thinking policy on sex ed and contraceptive availability in this country—except as a reason to punish women. And the religious know it, and won't admit their unchristian, unloving attitudes.

Sib thought I'd like the book because of the feminism, and I liked that part just fine, except for getting furious at having 200+ pages of documentation of the Roman Catholic Church's consistant suppression of female imagery, let alone agency, in their religion (they get it particularly cuz that's what I was raised with, so the betrayal is kinda personal, here). While they were busy evicerating all female contributions to the church, medieval theologians were famous for attempting to integrate classical Greek-based philosophy with Christian theology. I got hints of this in the book (as well as dim memories from my Old Testament class, when one of the points Frank Frick made that stuck vividly, was that Hebrew very much lends itself to active, verb-based metaphors. The dualism of classical theology would come later, and was not originally part of Abrahamic concept of god.)

Theologians evidently accept that humankind's understanding and concept of god has changed radically over millennia, but explicitly teaching that history to the masses (like the strong feminist elements of the early Church) was certainly nothing I was ever exposed to. I suppose then they'd have to reconcile the perfection of God's word as represented by scripture with the obviously imperfect (since changing) human understanding of God, which would seem to indicate that God's initial efforts were less than wildly successful.

The theology bits, particularly those having to do with the triune nature of what nevertheless is supposed to be one god, struck me much the way the old epicenter theory of planetary movements must've struck those who initially and happily adopted a sun-centric solar system: as an awful lot of fussing about when a so-much-more sensible (if unpopular in some quarters) system was beckoning round the corner.

Every once in a while the author would break out with some rather sharply phrased observations, which I duly appreciated; she also deserves a great deal of credit for acknowledging the ultimate difficulty with a god that is both omnipotent and benevolent:

“The depth of wrong in the history of the world goes beyond human comprehension. In the face of this tremendum we have been weighing the viability of language about the suffering God in feminist theology. [...]The dark side of such language is its potential to play into women's passive victimization by glorifying suffering. Only when set carefully and consistently within the context of a God who is utterly committed to the humanum, whose glory is the human being and, specifically, women, fully alive, does the symbol of the power of suffering love to resist and create anew.

In no way is this theological speech intended to yield a literal description of God. The rule of analogical language applies here in full strength. Even less does it attempt even remotely to reconcile the mystery of suffering and evil with the holy mystery of God. Such a conceptural solution is not possible. The most astute theodicies pale beyfore the depth of torment in the history of the world. Evil is indeed the surd which shatters every rational system of thought.”

p. 271 (italics original)

You'll note this excerpt comes nearly at the end of her book. In effect she says that there is no good explanation of suffering and evil. —Well, unless you're an agnostic, and then it's easy, cuz our basic philosophy is that ‘life's a bitch and then you die’—in other words, any beauty, goodness, and justice in the world, we must recognize and/or create ourselves. As for god (feminine or otherwise), I don't have a problem with folks calling the physical laws that dictated the Big Bang the creator (though I don't think they're even conscious, let alone benevolent) or the God is Love as the mehta (loving-kindness) which folk create amonst themselves and the world, though it certainly isn't omnipotent.

But that's just me. There's no question, I think, of the appeal of an omnipotent, benevolent being loving one unconditionally, so I can understand why people are loathe to give that up. The problem, I guess, is when they seek easy resolutions to the big paradox of god's love and omnipotence with the presence of suffering and evil, they push answers like Biblical inerrancy and Calvinism (which my spouse calls the ‘we are all wormspit’ version of theology) both of which seem to be making a big comeback, and are having deletrious effects, not only on, say, the science teaching in our society, but also upon what I see are the most critical goals of all right thinking religions themselves: justice, mercy, and goodness (e.g. extension of one's potential) for all.

file created (roughly) 29sep06; minor cleanup 06oct06