The following is part of a series first introduced here.
Forever ago, I got an idea for a series of blog posts that would seek to describe various phases of a woman’s life in different terms; at least, different from what many of us are given through Christian culture. In church we are allowed to be pure, innocent devotees from childhood into college. Then we are expected to find just the right spouse (matchmaker, matchmaker), so that we can then start putting our bodies to work bearing children. Because children (not God, apparently) are the beginning of wisdom. Only after years of service to kids and various moms groups, only then are women allowed to return to themselves and find a vocational hobby. And it must be a hobby—clothed in self-righteous, missional language—because family still, always, comes first. How many well known, admired women in ministry (“ministry,” mind your p’s and q’s, not “leadership”) begin their litany of qualifications with the number of years they’ve been married and the successes of their children? It seems that no one is qualified to speak at a women’s conference unless she has passed through the fires of matrimony and motherhood. At least, those are some of the messages I’ve absorbed.
If this is a flattened, caricature rendering of Christian womanhood (which it is), it is because this was not my experience, and my observations are flawed. I should also note that I know women who did follow the path of matrimony and motherhood, and they are among the most courageous, bold, wise women on the planet. While some of us found ourselves wandering around aimlessly for a time after college, searching for ourselves or a purpose, or whatever, my married friends were an anchor and I, for one, will always be grateful for their grounding. Yet the thing about caricatures is that they are modeled on a recognizable image, and this is one that haunts the North American church personally and politically. The categories of daughter, wife, mother, grandmother/matron endure, no matter how much we problematize and push back, and they continue to fall into systems of patriarchy in ways that are absolutely soul crushing. For this reason I continue to search for alternatives even as I seek to delve into deeper understanding of the way things are.
“At the level of myth, the hero makes the woman inert and makes his world out of her (fleeing immanence at any cost, let alone co-creativity). He then passes her on to the level of classical ontology, where the philosopher receives her as already deactivated and can fantasize the superior value of the active male seed. …the God of Genesis emerges as transcendent…literally creates—the other as Other and stands independently over against it…While God may come and go in his world at will, he is not ontologically in it, not a part of it, not immanent.” (From a Broken Web, 78-79, 81)
Lately I’ve been reading some Catherine Keller—specifically her early work, From a Broken Web: separation, sexism, and self (1986), and her most recent, A Political Theology of the Earth (2019). There is an edginess in the earlier work that, while still sharp in the Political Theology, is somewhat rhetorically smoothed over. Time spent with language, having allowed ideas to flow makes the more recent work aesthetically contoured. Yet the basic premise of the separative self (the Western masculinist ideal) over and against all (chaotic) Others remains. In her later text it’s evident she has had time to extend the conflict to the nonhuman world, and appropriately so, given the troublesome linkages between the feminine and nature.
Keller draws from psychoanalysis and Greek philosophy to trace the genealogy of sexism through Western culture, demonstrating how the feminine principle is foreclosed in myth, philosophy and Freudian psychology. Furthermore, Judeo-Christian tradition similarly participates in her annihilation by having no apparent vestige of female divinity, except perhaps with a generous reading of “made in our image, male and female.” Hence, the linguistic reconstructive work Keller undergoes with Tehom is significant as it maintains gender within its scope and as a central orienting factor. Her argument pivots on the claim that the tohu of Genesis 1.1 is related to Tehom, or “deep,” and “is in turn the Hebrew rendition of Tiamat,” the name of the overthrown Mother deity from the Enuma Elish (From a Broken Web, 82). Of course, the only vestige of gender found in Genesis is grammatical, in the feminine article preceding tohu. Nonetheless, from the beginning women, the feminine, is present but obscured; and not just obscured but intentionally segregated from the process of creation. According to Keller’s thesis, it is the process of separation upon which patriarchal sexism relies.
Admittedly, as I read From a Broken Web, I find myself getting angry. Or, perhaps I am remembering anger from my twenties, when many of the same conversations that we see hashed out on social media today were occurring then, at a much slower pace. Today’s conversations have gained some complexity, thanks to writers paying attention to intersectionality and making an effort to draw together race, class, gender, ethnicity, and even religion. When it comes to the work of demythologizing, I find Keller’s description of the separative self still fundamentally helpful.
What raises my ire while reading this is the observations she makes—that are still true—regarding how women, the first othered Other, end up appropriating the normativity of the separative self even as our full humanity is and continues to be denied. In other words, to be ‘successful’ within the universe of the separative self requires either a high degree of self-denial or all-out violence against any- and every-one deemed Other within that universe. As Keller states, “The heroic agency of the masculine principle still reverberates…in the modern ideal of an autonomous subject. Women understandably adopt this ideal in order to elude our own insubstantiality, our monstrosity.” (From a Broken Web, 79) In other words, according to classical tradition, to be human is to exercise Promethean ambitions—until a woman attempts the same feat. We see this double standard echoed back to us in sociological workplace studies; the very characteristics that will get a man promoted are seen as degenerate in a woman. We see this in academics; women scholars must know arguments from every angle lest our work is considered deficient. Yet rarely are we able to explicitly state that the barrier is gender.
I especially see this separative logic still at work across a large swath of the church in North America. It isn’t that women have any kind of intellectual or spiritual deficiency keeping us from meeting arbitrary qualifications to teach, to preach, to pastor and serve at high levels of leadership. Rather, the battle can be reduced at base level to anatomical bias. According to men of a certain tradition, women’s bodies cancel out their legitimacy as full human persons. How do I even begin to contest that? This is what makes me monstrously angry. And, frankly, I have been waiting for at least ten years for other nice (white) church ladies to get angry too.
Enter John MacArthur’s foot/mouth.
Perhaps you have not yet heard the latest moment of misogyny earlier this month when John MacArthur—playing a bizarre game of free association with two other bros at his own special event—responded to the name Beth Moore with, “go home.” He then proceeded to proclaim all women everywhere as illegitimate for preaching, teaching, governing, or practicing any sort of profession outside the house. (I hope never to read his interpretation of Proverbs 31.) Of course, this is not news, really. But, that he would so cavalierly brush off a woman who is highly respected and artfully navigates leadership echelons within the Southern Baptist Church is. . . a gift, really. If Beth Moore is disqualified—who, Lord, who can stand? Sarah Bessey sums it up well, “It’s emblematic.” It is one thing for conservatives to dismiss the likes of Nadia Bolz-Weber, who stands as wholly other; it is another matter entirely to invalidate by fiat the work of one who has spent decades in ministry inside the trenches of conservative Christianity. In this way, I see his action as laying bare the misogynistic paterfamilias theology that has driven and will always drive that particular side of the body of Christ. (Now can we call it sexism and move on?)
According to the Christian male leader of the modern church, once again we are in an era that requires someone to remind us that “Truth Matters.” We need a hero to slay the monsters of culture that infiltrate God’s chosen community. That the monsters often seem to appear decidedly female (or become feminized) is no coincidence. As Keller observed in the mid-1980s, “Human ‘heroes’ imitate and incarnate divine ones, and soon even the matter of myth or of theology becomes irrelevant, unconscious, whether accepted or rejected…The defeat of the ‘female thing’ eventuates in the paradigm of the radically separative self” (From a Broken Web, 88). The He-man must always come out from under someone else’s tutelage (or skirts) to prove himself as the sole victor, utterly reliant upon his own strength, skill and knowledge. While some postmodern protagonists are rendered with an edge of vulnerability and dependency, the appearance of interrelationality is soon undercut when they ultimately face a final trial alone. In the Christian tradition the person of faith is always haunted by the spectre of personal sin—if I can just get over myself / my issues / my past, then I will be triumphant (in Christ). This is the definition of transcendence.
Immanence, therefore, is incomprehensible in the schema of the separative self. God with us, God within us, within creation, requires a profound permeability that threatens to dissolve one’s self—or so says the ego. But what if immanence, the very experience of radical perichoretic communion, is precisely what we seek? What if immanence is the path to liberation and transformation? And not just for us humans, but for all life on the earth? What if the experiences of pregnancy, miscarriage and even barrenness are crucial for apprehending trinitarian interpenetration, so as to transport us from dualistic theologies that harm to more open and dynamic theologies that generate life? Radical interconnection goes beyond the superhero and his posse by requiring us to be in relation with one-and-other at every step. It requires an openness to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to the point of potential discomfort. Furthermore, it requires an openness to neighbor and community that borders on invasiveness.
Rejecting the separative self is like choosing to embark upon a search party with little more than a flickering lantern and a rough idea of where not to look. After centuries of individuation and dualistic identities, we’ve inherited poor maps at best, encircled by terra incognita. But, what might it look like when we who have been Othered begin to enter into our own ‘monstrosity’? And what can we learn from those who are actively rejecting gender binaries? These are the theological queries that I believe are worth pursuing. Some excellent groundwork has been laid when it comes to integrating the feminist principle of experience as source to theologies of embodiment; now the question is, how far are we willing to go?