Saturday, 15 December 2012

Advent Women 7

‘We have no female trinity. But as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own… If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a god who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity’
Luce Irigaray, 'Divine Women''

A friend told me a while back (2nd hand), that Luce Irigaray was not a very nice person. I found this really disappointing. She is a great writer and, more unusually, a writer whose writing has done a lot of good. One shouldn't pay much attention to gossip, I suppose, but that sort of thing always colours how I see people. Sometimes it works the other way. Anyone who has met, say Denys Turner or Janet Soskice, would be more inclined to read their work. I imagine many have struggled through After Writing or Theology and the Drama of History purely on the basis of a well placed crush. 

What is most pleasing about Irigaray's work is the pragmatic and imaginary slant. She takes a work like Fiorenza's In Memory of Her, a feminist biblical attempt to reclaim the position of women in the gospels, to recover the equality of women in Christianity, but then asks the important question: equal to whom? In a way this cuts to the heart of the question of women bishops. Equality, after all, has two opposites: inequality and difference. Inequality is obviously a problem but the question of difference brings us into a difficult area. Difference can suggest gender essentialism, it can smuggle in inequality by the back-door, but without difference the political voice of women is lost, the distinctive ways of being are in danger of elision and the battered ark of feminism is run aground. 

Feminism's work is not done. 'Slavery is ours, not in a merely symbolic sense but absolutely. Woman is, from birth, a slave until she is able to decide for herself as a civil person. this is how it still is for us today.' That means, even if you fear that a great deal of femininity is passed as natural when it's cultural, you cannot give up women and you need to keep listening for their voice. But Irigaray takes this further in setting sexual difference as the preliminary test for opening ourselves to all forms of otherness: 'Sexual difference is perhaps the hardest way, but it is also the key, to achieving civil coexistence between other forms of difference. An apprenticeship in respect for the other at the most instinctive, emotional level, leads to peaceful coexistence with all forms of otherness.' Some might object to setting feminism as the basis for all social inclusion but it kind of makes sense.

Once you accept this insistence on difference, the next question is how do women redescribe our world. For theology the question is vital - can such a male God save women? Can He even speak to them or for them? But the point at which I think it gets really interesting is when we start clearing away our presuppositions, when we try to begin theology from a different place. This is an ethical task: 'I also ask how we can rethink our tradition, particularly the religious one, in order to be able to love each other here below, making of the other a horizontal transcendence, an absolute which cannot be gone beyond insofar as it is irreducible to oneself', but also a theological one: 'Man sets the infinite in a transcendence that is always deferred to the beyond, even if it be the beyond of the concept. Woman sets it in an expanse of jouissance here and now right away'. Like Cixous earlier who is breaking in a female voice across all different genres, appropriating and transforming, Irigaray begins to look at what a female theology might look like. Now I can see the proverbial Dean of Peterhouse wagging his finger intoning "heresy, heresy, heresy", but it needn't be. There are of course many ways in which doing theology in this way could deteriorate into some sort of New Age nonsense, or shallow political correctness, or some embarrassing wishy-washy materialism. What could be discovered, however, is a way of expanding how we think about the divine, a critique of prevailing mythologies and a new vocabulary for saying something about God, humanity and the world. This is exciting and should be what theology is all about rather than a bunch of stale old men shrouded in cigar smoke discussing Barth. It might even bring a spark of life back to the academy. After all who could disagree with Irigaray that ‘sociology quickly bores me when I’m expecting the divine’. 

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