Resisting the Kingdom: women in the gym, theological optimism, and the liturgical deformation of inclusion.

Optimism is clearly a condition of the Radical Orthodoxy imagination. This confidence is evident in the exegesis of theological tradition[1], the apologetics of Christendom, and especially in the efficacy of the Eucharist and liturgical formation. The claims regarding the Eucharist proffer a particularly high view of the ontological significance of Eucharist for the church. For instance, William Cavanaugh suggests it is ‘the Eucharist which makes the Body of Christ’.[2] Graham Ward pushes transubstantiation to the point that the Eucharist is the form of God’s liberative action in the world. He argues: ‘for it is not that Jesus, at this point, stops being a physical presence. It is more that his physical presence can extend itself to incorporate other bodies, like bread, and make them extensions of his own. A certain metonymic substitution is enacted, re-situating Jesus’ male physique within the neuter materiality of bread (to arton). The ‘body’ now is both sexed and not sexed’[3]. At a glance it seems that radical orthodoxy has indeed something radical to say about gender, sexuality, and bodies. And yet, in my view, it is precisely here that radical orthodoxy falters in its reading of the Eucharist and liturgy.

Proponents of radical orthodoxy nearly always assume a posture of pure theology, as if their claims stand outside the realm of ideology. Correspondingly, the patterns of worship are established as the divine antipode to the world ‘out there’; as counter-philosophy, as counter-narrative, and as counter- liturgy. That traditional patterns of worship have been experienced as highly problematic and oppressive for women (as with many marginalised people groups[4]) is nearly always inconsequential to the confidence placed in the liturgical narrative of radical orthodoxy. Ironically, despite radical orthodoxy’s critique of modernity’s atomizing of the subject, the actual bodies participating in the Eucharist seem immaterial (it may even be that the ontological importance of the Eucharist is purely rhetorical).  

Consider James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies series. In Desiring the Kingdom[5] Smith seeks to analyse prevalent cultural liturgies (the primary example being participation in the shopping mall) and show how these liturgies have deformed humanity. Smith argues that because ‘worship’ is a fundamental mode of engaging the world, dominant economic liturgies – outside of the church – have captured the Christian’s imagination and distorted the individual’s formation. He claims: ‘But I want to adamantly contend that describing the mall as a religious site is not merely a metaphor or analogy….we can at once appreciate that the mall is a religious institution because it is liturgical institution, and that it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution’. Christians fail, as do Christian institutions, when they fail to articulate adequate systems of resistance, often because they have misdiagnosed the threat of these quasi-liturgies[6]. Thus Christian worship becomes the right pedagogy (of desire), as Smith argues that the church offers a counter-liturgy, one that can shape and form the right kind of citizen of God’s kingdom.

In part two of Desiring the Kingdom Smith shows just how the patterns of Christian worship provide a strategy of resistance against dominant cultural liturgies. As an apologetic for the social imaginary embedded in Christian worship, this section of the book exemplifies the optimism of radical orthodoxy, and even more, the assumption of ideological neutrality.  Certainly Smith offers a variety of cautions for would be practitioners and communities. However, the movements of the worship event are described and defined in relation to their formative efficacy with virtually no reference to the questions raised by feminists and those working from the margins. For instance, Smith describes the Eucharist as a ‘normative meal: by showing us a foretaste of how things ought to be, the practice of the Lords’ Supper carries norms in it, and these norms constitute both a basis of critique of the present order, as well as hints as to how the church order itself as a polis that is itself a foretaste of the coming community’[7]. Contrast this to a statement by Natalie K. Watson regarding the reception of bread and wine: ‘even if we (women) kneel before God, the physical posture we are asked to assume can be reminiscent of having to make ourselves small before others’. [8]

Rather surprisingly, Smith never seems to ask the obvious question: ‘what if Christian liturgies de-form people’? What if the patterns of worship experienced in the church do not simply provide a counter-liturgy, but rather act as mirror in which culture and church both mirror the ideologically de-formations of the present age? Smith’s habit of contrast between cultural and Christian liturgy is one way to examine this.

Consider the worship space and liturgical patterns of the gym in regards the inclusion of women. In recent decades fitness centres across the globe have made the transition from an almost exclusively male domain to spaces of inclusion. The ritual performance of gym attendance has likewise transitioned to include women in the liturgical patterns familiar to those who ‘work out’: the acquisition and enrobing of ‘gym’ clothing and paraphernalia, the rhythms of seasonal calendars and key events, the budding allegiances with gym gurus or ‘trainers’, the movements from warming up to stretching out, and being sent back into the world on guard lest your commitment to the gym backslides through a failure to discipline the body. Each of these themes has obvious points of resonance with Christian liturgy. And what’s more, in both the gym and the church, the transition to ‘inclusion’ (of women, but also of bodies outside the ‘norm’) has become gendered in an unprecedented manner. Though the gym once excluded women, it has moved towards inclusion with incredible enthusiasm. In welcoming women, the gym – and the broader fitness community – have aggressively participated in the social construction of women. Now there are women’s classes, women’s work out clothes, specialist for women personal trainers, women’s protein powders, and an entire liturgical order for women to participate in the gym. Likewise with the church. Now, we are lucky enough to have women’s bibles, women’s worship music, women’s vestments, women’s preaching ‘styles’,  and ultimately, an entire liturgical order for women to participate in the church. All of which – in both spaces – fashions the middle class and white ‘yummy mummy’ as the ‘included’ women exemplar.  In the gym, as with the church, the inclusion of women into liturgical practices employs a rigidity of gender that betrays deeper ideological commitments. That is, ideological commitments to sexuality class, race, ability etc.

If James Smith is right in suggesting that Christians fail when they fail to articulate adequate systems of resistance (because they have misdiagnosed the threat of liturgy), then it seems a far greater scrutiny must be placed on the liturgical patterns of the church. Theological accounts of liturgy (and especially in regards Radical Orthodoxy; the Eucharist) must push beyond immovable optimism and interrogate the ideologies that deform us from within the church. This is not to suggest the Christian tradition simply lacks potential to resolve contemporary philosophical questions, but it is to deny the confident claims of Christian rhetoric that ignores real bodies and real oppression.


[1] Over and against ghastly nihilistic modern philosophy which allegedly and inevitably fails in the post-modern context!

[2]  William T. Cavanaugh, “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A Theology, ed. Catherine Pickstock John Milbank, and Graham Ward (New York: Routledge, 1998), 182.

[3] Graham Ward, “Bodies: The Displaced Body of Jesus,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology,, ed. Catherine Pickstock John Milbank, and Graham Ward (New York: Routledge, 1998), 168.

[4] For a recent publication that explores a number of themes around liturgy, see Presiding Like a Women, ed. Nicola Slee and Stephen Burns (London: SPCK, 2009).

[5] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: worship, worldview, and culture formation. (Grand rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

[6] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 126.

[7] ibid, 200.

[8] Natalie K. Watson, “Receiving like a woman,” in Presiding Like a Women, ed. Nicola Slee and Stephen Burns (London: SPCK, 2010), 141. Pararnetheiss added.


18 thoughts on “Resisting the Kingdom: women in the gym, theological optimism, and the liturgical deformation of inclusion.

  1. Excellent critique of the rather idealist panegyrics that are so common among contemporary orthodoxies, as if Christian worship has a (super)natural immunity to ideological infection. Ask Amos about our “solemn assemblies” (5:21ff.), or Paul about our eucharistic celebrations (I Corinthians 11:17ff.): both witness to the fact that our actual ecclesial practices may insidiously embed and promote rather than unmask and repudiate injustices and exclusions. You anticipate a “doodling” of mine coming soon at “Faith and Theology” in which, reflecting on the pope’s recent homiletical broadside against “Christian ideology”, I suggest that even “the holy of holies itself may become an ideological charade – indeed an ideological cover-up.”

  2. Thank you for this – it’s a very well articulated description of the problem. That, in itself, isn’t an easy thing to do.

    One initial thought, that relates to the Church’s liturgy as a ‘counter-liturgy’ to ones we find in the world, at the mall, the gym, the dining table, academic ceremony etc: Catherine Bell’s text, ‘Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions,’ was very helpful to me a few months ago. In there is a chapter, ‘Characteristics of Ritual-like Activities’ that places ritual on continuum. It seems pretty basic, to see e.g. the family meal on a continuum with the Eucharist, but the funny thing was that for me, steeped for almost of all my life in consciously counter-cultural forms of religion, it wasn’t. Needless, Bell offers much, much more than just this, and quite frankly I’d love to read the result of your mind encountering hers.

  3. Is “radical orthodoxy” still a thing? I hadn’t realized.

    Anyway, I appreciate the push back on this point. I’m not sure I’ve entirely followed your concern, but it seems to me that DTK, pp. 152-153 (esp. n. 44) are relevant to your critique, but not addressed above (along with Imagining the Kingdom, but I won’t fault you for not having read that). DTK, p 208n.115 (about “trumping” liturgies) might also be relevant, though this will be developed in much more detail in volume 3 (in partial response to Jeff Stout’s critique).

    I clearly take it that there are norms for the practices of Christian worship, and I take those norms to be “catholic,” as the accrued wisdom of the body led by the Spirit in light of the Scriptures (more on that in ITK). I suspect we probably disagree on that (no doubt this sounds “reactionary,” “conservative,” etc. to those who’ve embrace “liberation,” etc.). This makes it difficult to adjudicate our disagreement.

    So my claims about formation and deformation are rooted in the criteria carried in the tradition (one could run a MacIntyrean analysis here, not that that would excite you). But at least I know that you also are working with some norms since you’re able to recognize “when Christian liturgies de-form people.” I’d have to know more about the criteria/norms against which you measure de-formation. I would say that some of the sorts of literature you fault me for not engaging has generally just assumed criteria/norms that I don’t see as consistent with this “catholic” tradition. In order for us to know what counts as de-formation we need to know the criteria/standards for “right” formation. And if we disagree on those, then one person’s formation is another de-formation. In other words, without those norms articulated we wouldn’t know what to resist.

    In any case, I don’t think “optimism” is quite right; I would say it is more a matter of hope, rooted in a sense of the promises made to these practices. In ITK, for example, I suggest that the sacraments are practices to which Christ makes a promise. Hope is not optimism, just as the liturgical practices are no guarantee (which I also try to point out in ITK).

    FWIW.

    • Is James KA Smith still a thing?

      It’s interesting that you sort of try and pretend you’re not a reactionary here, when your twitter feed revels in how you are a reactionary. Talking about posters with conservative ten commandments being awesome, how people who compare colonialism to rape are just the PC police keeping James KA Smith out of their conferences, supporting certain reactionary policies regarding sexuality,etc. What you aren’t able to do, and I have never even see you try to do, is speak to the construction of norms. While I realize you have now been tossed on the waves towards Brandom and Sellars (yet too more atheists you are dragging to church, for what purpose, who knows, but one does have reason to worry), your sense of norms here is really no different from ideology. The task, translated from theologisms, seems to be, how can “we” establish an ideological horizon that can be replicated generationally. Janice’s post does a nice job of calling you out far beyond just your reactionary nature, but down to the very theological basis of your project (which seems to me to be fascinated and enthralled by culture war).

  4. Thanks for your response, though I must admit it does confuse me (especially the allusion regarding those who embrace “liberation” not affirming norms in the scripture).You are right that I have not read Imagining the Kingdom. I tried to read ITK but it just seemed more of DTK which, as I have already said, I had major problems with.

    I do find your comments about formation and de-formation carried within the tradition intriguing, especially because as far as I can tell a MacIntyrean analysis would in fact raise serious questions about the truth claims of liturgical formation (and again, puzzled that you are informing me what would or would not excite me????) when there are many who have experienced the ‘norms’ of Christian formation as oppressive and therefore not-truth.

    In any case, I am not sure you ever actually define these norms, which, in your response, you seem to be saying is necessary. And to say that any norm that dis-forms is not really ‘catholic’ is hardly an adequate response to those voices who question and critique the parameters around such definitions. Are you suggesting that you are not interested in engaging with anyone who does not define ‘catholic norms’ in the same terms as you? It sounds like that. And to me, it seems hopelessly ‘optimistic’ because it imagines a discourse disengaged from the experiences of oppression that have been shared by so many around the world and, disengaged from the reality of human bodies being de-formed. It is not enough to say ‘well that isn’t catholic’.

    • Hmmm…I don’t quite recognize my response in your reply here. But these questions are prompting me to try to think through some issues I need to address, so let me try once more.

      I don’t think I said “any norm that deforms is not really ‘catholic.'” You’ve turned my point into something else. I said something more like this:

      1. One could only judge a practice as de-formative in light of some set of norms. [Can we agree on that premise?]

      2. Since we could be working with very different sets of norms, we could evaluate the same practice as deformative or “rightly” formative. So I might see practice X as “good” formation based on the norms I’m assuming, whereas you, assuming a different set of norms, evaluate practice X as de-formative.

      3. Therefore, before we could really have a discussion about whether Christian liturgy could be de-formative we would have to “make explicit” (per Brandom) the norms against which we would make such a judgment. (The notion that practice X is deformative because person q “experiences it as deformative is an incredibly slippery criterion it seems to me.)

      4. We can’t be without norms, and nobody has un-traditioned norms. So I’m just trying to be explicit that I’m working with norms which, I believe (and you can disagree, obviously), are the working out of norms implicit in the biblical narrative, as elucidated by the body of Christ led by the Spirit. (That doesn’t preclude critique or reform or innovation.)

      As for the “catholic” point, two things: (a) I would want to blunt the idiosyncratic claim that to think like this is some tic of “radical orthodoxy.” I would think one could find pretty much the same basic take in Benedict XVI’s Spirit of the Liturgy. (b) By “catholic” I just mean to suggest that the relevant norms for judging the de/formative nature of liturgical practices is ultimately sourced by a substantive confessional tradition. So I was thinking of MacIntyre’s point that excellence is always relative to one’s submission to the authority and tradition of the practice.

      I see nothing in this that is essentially “disengaged from oppression.” We’re talking about how we can judge what counts as oppression. If the answer to that question is, “Whenever I tell you I feel,/i> oppressed!”–then, um, yeah, I have no idea how to continue such a conversation. (I’m not saying you’re saying this, fwiw.)

      • Yes I agree that we may very well be working with a different set of norms. But here is the larger point I am trying to make: You say ‘So I’m just trying to be explicit that I’m working with norms which, I believe (and you can disagree, obviously), are the working out of norms implicit in the biblical narrative, as elucidated by the body of Christ led by the Spirit. (That doesn’t preclude critique or reform or innovation.)’. This still seems like a very loose description. The critique I have against part two of DSK is that all references made to the movements of Christian worship are offered as if these movements and practices are unproblematic. You have not done the work of defining what exactly is normative and what is not. ‘Biblical narrative’ and ‘tradition’ do not define a singular method of interpretation, nor lead to one set practice (obviously I know you know this). It seems to me that if real people have raised lots of questions about these movements then some work is required here to justify norm claims. Perhaps you don’t care to do this, that is fine, but I really don’t think you can legitimately defend a failure to engage this critique as a simple disagreement over norms and ignore the ideological bias .

  5. My upcoming article in the JSCE addresses this issues from within Eastern Orthodoxy theology. I posit norms which include the recognition of the irreducible uniqueness of human persons as essential by and within the ecclesial community as an essential aspect of both individual and communal theosis. Similar to Janice, I then argue that Orthodox declarations regarding the formative nature of the liturgy are indeed ‘optimistic’ (well, I don’t use that word, but she is spot on) and that their ritualistic and theological reductions of women to particular roles and functions are de-formative of both men and women.

    In short, the very norms which dictate the exclusion of women and form the liturgy are deformative according the theological anthropology which supposedly undergirds liturgical practices. It is the experience of women and the voicing of that experience which helps bring to light this deformation, and which calls into question liturgical optimism, whether it is Zizioulas, Schmemann, Ward, Cavanaugh or Smith (who I admittedly have not read).

  6. I agree with Alasdair Macaglan. While I honestly agree with Jamie Smith on pretty much every point here, and share his evaluation of this response to his work, it must be said that his tack on this and other internet locales betrays a certain propensity to conversational vice, which representatives of the Colossian Forum would in other places speak against.

  7. How offensively undiscriminating. Arguing on some blogs may be “bad for your career”, but in my experience this fine blog certainly isn’t one of them. The posts are consistently intelligent, challenging, and deeply humane; the comment-threads courteous and ad rem. Not to mention that career advancement strikes me as a rather shallow motive for responsible intellectual engagement.

  8. Hooray for the comment posted by Anthony Paul Smith say I. Any and everyone who is a Calvinist is by self-definition a misogynist reactionary.
    His blog is easily the most consistently intelligent site in the Christian blogosphere.

  9. Pingback: OUR SUNDAY LINKS - GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine : GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine

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