Concepts Of Personhood

One of the first issues to be raised in feminist philosophy of religion and theology in the 'second wave' of the women's movement was put by Valeric Saiving in 1960: is sin the same thing for men as it is for women? As Saiving saw it, the modern theological characterization of human beings as essentially free, and therefore prone to anxiety, pride, and 'the imperialistic drive to close the gap between the individual, separate self and others by reducing those others to the status of mere objects which can then be treated as appendages of the self and manipulated accordingly' (Saiving 1979:26) is much more accurate of men than of women. Because of social conditioning, women are far less likely to find that their besetting sins are pride and the desire for mastery. Instead, women are more likely to be prone to inappropriate humility, lack of a sense of self-worth, lack of centredness or focus, and consequently triviality and diffuseness. Because theology has 'defined the human condition on the basis of masculine experience' (ibid.: 39), warnings against sins and exhortations to virtue are, if taken seriously by women, likely to actually exacerbate what they are intended to rectify. A woman who already has a poor sense of self-worth, for example, is not helped by sermons on the sin of pride and the need to abase oneself in service to God and neighbour. The same theme is expanded by Mary Daly (1985b: 44-68) and more recently by Daphne Hampson, who also points out the extent to which sin has regularly been construed in modern theology as an individual matter, between a person and God. But as Hampson says, for many feminists sin consists not so much in individual actions but rather in structural sin, the injustices of society. 'Thus sin is the sin of the domination of one class by another, and indeed (and perhaps primarily) the sin of sexism—which has gone unrecognized in male theology' (Hampson 1990:125).

Hampson points out, furthermore, that if sin is gender-specific, then so, presumably, must be salvation: we have already seen the implications of this for christology. Moreover, the means by which women and men seek to appropriate salvation may be different. Hampson discusses the Protestant tradition as exemplified by Reinhold Niebuhr, who speaks of conversion in terms of the 'breaking of an egotistical self, which is 'crucified with Christ' and thereby finds its pride shattered (Hampson 1990:127). But if it is the case that women have suffered from too weak (rather than too strong) an ego, then this would be precisely the worst sort of prescription that could be given to women, who need instead to find healing for their brokenness and fragmentation, and strengthening of their inner self. 'If women's ills have been the result of an undervaluation of the self, then their healing must consist in self-actualization' (ibid.).

The lines between philosophy, psychology, and theology are blurred here (and many feminists are in any case scornful of the sharp divisions of disciplines which characterize much male theory); but it is clear that part of what is at issue in the discussion of sin and salvation is a broader question of human personhood and whether it has been correctly described in traditional philosophical and theological thought. As Saiving and Hampson maintain, the concepts of sin and salvation are gender-specific not because of inherent biological differences between men and women, but because of the different socialization which women and men undergo. Other feminists, however, among them Mary Daly, hold that women are essentially different from men, differences which are rooted not in nurture or social conditioning but in nature. From this it would follow not only that traditional theological accounts of sin and salvation are unhelpful to women, but that the whole modern characterization of human beings in terms of rationality and autonomy is alienating to women, who must either betray their own femaleness and think of themselves in male terms, or else confront the emptiness of theory in relation to their own condition.

It is somewhat difficult to see, however, how an essentialist account such as Mary Daly's could ever be substantiated. It is not, after all, possible to get back to any pre-socialized state, whether in our own culture or in any other. As long as there are socially instituted differences in gender roles (which there are in every known culture, though, of course, the content of those differences varies) there is no control group against which a socialized group could be measured, nor is there any group whose essential characteristics could be studied uncontaminated by social conditioning. Furthermore, feminists are all too aware of the ways in which theories of biological essentialism have been used to confine women to their reproductive functions, under the rubric that 'anatomy is destiny'. The recognition of the necessity of gendered accounts of sin and salvation, or, in secular terms, vice and virtue, does not entail the unprovable and dangerous doctrine of biological essentialism.

Very significant work has been done by feminists to challenge the ideology of atomic individualism as it has presented itself in modern liberal thought, and to construct alternative models of understanding human personhood and relationship. Thus for example Mary Hunt, in her book Fierce Tenderness (1991), uses the model of friendship as the basis for theological as well as anthropological understanding. It is only within our relationships with one another that we find fulfilment as human beings: to suppose that we 'spring like mushrooms out of the ground', as Hobbes once said, is to misunderstand the very nature of humanity. But to relate to one another in 'fierce tenderness' it is necessary that we take responsibility for our mutual relationships, that we seek to be adult in our responses. Mary Hunt sees this as a paradigm also of our relationship with the divine. Rather than being the perpetual 'children' of God, acquiescing in infantilization, women and men need to learn to be adult in relation to the divine, taking responsibility and being accountable within the relationship, and expecting the same thing in return. In a world of violence, the 'sprigs of holiness' of good friendships must be fiercely protected: they are the safe places in which connectedness rather than isolation can be fostered. The erotic elements sometimes present in such friendships have also been taken as a source or paradigm of religious knowledge, notably by Carter Hey ward (1989): it is a refreshing change from the suspicion and suppression of the body and sexuality which are a regular part of traditional theological thought. However, voices have been raised in warning against too romantic a notion of the way in which the erotic can be the manifestation or occasion of divine love. For women who have suffered sexual assault or abuse (and while precise estimates vary, it is agreed that that includes a very high proportion of women) it would be much too quick and simple to celebrate sexuality as the channel of divine love and power. Kathleen Sands discusses the significance of the erotic for woman-centred religious thought, and points out that 'to date, the sexual wisdom of feminist theo(a)logy is inhibited by our need to defend Eros, a motive which has taken the place occupied by the defense of God in androcentric theology' (Sands 1992:8); she stresses, however, that women need to bring to this celebration of Eros much wisdom and healing for the many whose experience of the relation between love and power has been anything but liberating.

Although it is obvious from the disputes about essentialism and about the role of the erotic as a source of connection with the divine that there are considerable differences among feminists regarding the understanding of human personhood, most feminists would agree that the traditional split between mind or soul and body is one of the worst legacies of patriarchy. This split is conceived of as only one of a whole series of dualisms: mind/ body, good/bad, light/dark, God/world, male/female, knowledge/ignorance.

From the time of Pythagoras, such sets of opposing terms have been a frequent part of religious and philosophical thought, with the left-hand terms usually being thought of as higher in value than the right-hand terms. The various forms of dualism have been shown to be interlinked. For example, I argued in God's World, God's Body (Jantzen 1984) that cosmic dualism, the idea that God and the world are utterly different and separate, is a large-scale version of mind-body dualism; and if the latter is philosophically and theologically dubious then so must be the former. At the time, I did not appreciate that both of these dualisms also mirror the male— female dualism: men have from Plato onwards been associated with mind and spirit and transcendence, while women have been linked with the body, reproduction, and the material world. These connections have been clearly demonstrated by several writers, notably Rosemary Ruether (1983:72-92) and Sallie McFague (1987:63-9). Whether because of male anxiety deriving from the need of a boy child to separate from his mother to achieve male identity, as Freud and his followers suggest, or whether there is some other cause, male-dominated Western religion and philosophy demonstrate a discomfort with sexuality, the body, and the material world, and have often sought other-worldly alternatives. As Luce Irigaray puts it:

the patriarchal order is based upon worlds of the beyond: worlds of before birth and especially of the afterlife, other planets to be discovered and exploited for survival, etc. It doesn't appreciate the real value of the world we have and draws up its often bankrupt blueprints on the basis of hypothetical worlds. (1993:27)

Feminist philosophy of religion has not only recognized the gendered nature of the various forms of dualism, however, but has also begun to develop more holistic approaches. Some of these have already become apparent in this chapter: the emphasis on justice in the 'beloved community', the recognition of friendship and of sexuality as contexts of divinity, and the emphasis on women's experience, not least bodily experience, as a source of religious knowledge. The most extended feminist treatment to date of the concepts of God, the world, and traditional Christian doctrine from the perspective of the model of the world as God's body and everything within it as radically interconnected is the excellent monograph by Sallie McFague, The Body of God (1993). McFague shows how transcendence, both human and divine, needs to be understood not in contrast to embodiment, but through embodiment, thus enabling the possibility of a new evaluation of bodiliness and a new perspective on such issues as the ecological crisis. Although much still needs to be done in feminist philosophy of religion in exploration of human personhood and embodiment, and although McFague accepts traditional Christian doctrines to a greater extent than many feminists would find congenial, there is no doubt that she has provided a solid basis for future reflection.

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