As a theologian I found myself particularly interested in Mary McAleese’s statement about the hierarchy having reduced Christ “to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion”. This has been misinterpreted by the usual suspects as meaning that McAleese is attempting to singlehandedly change Church doctrine. That this is not the case is clear from her most recent statement that she has not yet decided how she will vote in the abortion referendum due to the complexity of the issues involved. McAleese’s point refers to the depressing habit that the hierarchy has of remaking Jesus of Nazareth into their own misogynistic, dogma obsessed image and likeness, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. I defy any woman to read the Gospels and not be struck by the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women, all the more remarkable considering the time and place in which he lived and the notably patriarchal and sexist attitudes towards the female sex displayed in the Old Testament. Indeed his treatment of women was so radical that it transcends time and place.
I also defy anyone, man or woman, to read the Gospels and not be struck by the fact that as regards moral teaching, Jesus was in no way judgmental, nor did he leave behind a list of ‘thou shalt nots’ . On the contrary, his emphasis was positive, concerned with love of others, especially those on the margins of society, or considered ‘other’. This included the very kind of women who have been so mistreated in Ireland for falling foul of Ireland’s deeply embedded double standards towards women, women who all too often found themselves shunned or even worse condemned to places like the Magdalene Laundries or Tuam style mother and baby homes. In misrepresenting Jesus in this way, the hierarchy is, as McAleese pointed out, “keeping Christ out and letting bigotry in”. I have no doubt that Jesus would have opposed abortion in non-medical circumstances, but he would also have strongly condemned the way in which women are universally made to carry the can for male sexual irresponsibility. The ultimate answer to the problem of abortion is not to penalize women, but to transform male/female relationships for the better.
McAleese also makes a very important point about the clericalism endemic in the Church, and the exclusion of women from all authority and decision making. While I personally am not hung up on the view that the only solution to this is to ordain women to the priesthood (which could exacerbate clericalism since women would have to fit in with male power structures) it would certainly be possible to create forms of authoritative ministry that would unleash female gifts and female perspectives into the hitherto male-dominated Church. This could only have a revolutionary effect for the good. For me, equality between the sexes should not mean sameness, but complementarity. Equal representation of women in the Church should ideally bring about a harmonious balance between the best male and female characteristics, with women keeping male clerical egoism and arrogance in check. I am also of the opinion that it is time for feminist theological insights into the life and ministry of Jesus to be brought to the fore. It was his female disciples who stood bravely and loyally with Jesus during his passion and crucifixion, while his male disciples including even Peter deserted him. The men were incapable of seeing strength in weakness, whereas the women fully understood his sacrifice in a way that I’m convinced only women can. I am therefore fully in agreement with McAleese’s opinion that the Church cannot move on and progress without female insights and authority, and I would extend this to the theological sphere.
Interestingly, the fact that McAleese has the power, influence and status to mount such a critique of the institutional Church is due to the great political gains that Western women have made, albeit that there is a long way to go. Women’s voices are being heard publicly, and this can have a significant impact on the Church, as our former President is demonstrating. Ironically, this raises the astounding possibility that the Church could be the new powerhouse as regards the true liberation of women. It has the power to appoint women to influential positions, they don’t have to be voted in. If such a process was undertaken in good faith, Catholicism could be a beacon to the world in demonstrating what a world in which women have an equal voice could look like. As McAleese said, quoting Ban Ki -Moon, it is ‘the pulpit of the world’, powerfully influential. Guided by authentic Gospel values, it could transform itself from acting as “a powerful brake in dismantling the architecture of misogyny” into the direct opposite, and become a vehicle for defeating women’s oppression that would be a true reflection of the spirit of its founder. The liberation of women from unjust structures will also of course bring about the liberation of men, an important feminist goal. Hard as it may be to imagine now, we may be on the brink of a politically inspired ecclesiastical revolution that will have a reciprocally transformative effect on the political domain.
If you read part 1 here’s part 2
So what exactly is religious indoctrination? Well first of all it’s important to note that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible prior to the rise of modern science that properly began in the seventeenth century with Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism. Most notably, the rise of science precipitated the development of secularism in the Western world. In particular, the new power over nature effected by machine production had a profound impact on religious and theological thought. Natural phenomena that had previously been attributed to the inexplicable workings of a divine mind were now known to be governed by laws that could be harnessed and used for the benefit of humanity. Philosophers were enabled to imagine humanity as self-sufficient, no longer dependent upon an all-powerful deity. Their opinions soon spread to the general public and were quickly assimilated. Belief in a God or gods became optional in the West and with it the possibility of atheism. Prior to this great leap in understanding of material reality brought about by science, religion was as much about superstition and magic as it was about genuine spirituality. Indoctrination into belief in a transcendent dimension of existence was unnecessary, since nature itself was thought to be permeated with its own magic and mystery.
In the modern era therefore religious indoctrination is associated with the presupposition that there is a supernatural dimension to existence, and that a God or gods exist. Denominational religious education that focuses on faith formation is often criticised for being a form of religious indoctrination. In Ireland most schools are denominational, with Catholicism being the biggest denomination due to our history as a nation. To understand what the specifically Irish form of religious indoctrination is, a quick look at the historic rebellion of Martin Luther will put us on the right path.
As is well known, it was Luther’s criticism of Church corruption that sparked the Wars of Religion and the Reformation, although the appetite for reform had been growing in Europe during the previous centuries. He was brought up during the outrageously corrupt papacy of the Borgias at a time when Christianity was characterised by a strong emphasis on hell, damnation and how to avoid it. During the medieval era in Europe Christianity was rather like what Islam is now, a political and powerfully cultural force as well as a religious one. The safest route to salvation was held to be the religious life, at that time considered vastly superior to all forms of lay existence. Luther, a sensitive child, suffered from religious terrors. As a young man he showed no desire to enter the religious life; he was exceptionally clever and enrolled to study law at the university of Erfurt. His father, a miner, expected that the young Martin would do well and support him in old age. Fate, however, intervened and Luther’s life took a dramatically different course. Returning to university after a weekend visiting his family, Luther was struck by a bolt of lightning. Terrified that he would die, he prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, to save him, and promised to enter the religious life if she did. Having survived the lightning bolt, Luther swiftly entered a strict Augustinian order and began to study for the priesthood. His religious terrors did not leave him however, and he was dogged by a constant sense of unworthiness before God. Years of spiritual struggle followed, which even included a trip to Rome to gain an indulgence.
Luther was eventually saved from his torment when his confessor and the vicar of his Augustinian order encouraged him to study theology and take the chair of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg At that time Bible study was not an important part of theological formation and it was inaccessible to the vast majority of Christians due to the fact that it was written in Latin. His studying of the Bible would change Luther’s life for ever, and was the catalyst for his posting of his 95 theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. But it was his encounter with the humble, compassionate and socially radical Jesus that reassured Luther and healed him of his spiritual travails. It also caused him to cast a critical eye on his Church, which now struck him as falling very far short of the Christian ideal epitomised by Jesus, since it instilled fear rather than love. Perhaps most of all, Luther developed a heightened awareness of the hierarchical nature of the Church especially in relation to the clerical-lay divide. At that time the monastic/clerical state – largely due to the requirement for celibacy – was considered to be both spiritually and morally superior to the lay one, which gave rise to an elitist clerical caste and a passive, religiously inferior laity. Luther’s encounter with the Bible also convinced him that every individual Christian should have access to it and via the text to God, without the need for a priestly intermediary. This powerful conviction led him to translate the Bible into German (creating modern vernacular German as he did so) and to abolish, in his reformed version of Christianity, celibacy and along with it religious orders both male and female. Liturgical celebration became a Service rather than a Mass, the priestly celebrant a minister or pastor, and there was a greater emphasis on the word of God and the preaching of it than on the Eucharist. Luther still held to the real presence of Christ, but his theological approach was that this occurred due to the action of the entire congregation rather than the celebrant alone. Drawing on scriptural texts such as 1 Peter 2:5 (“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”) Luther in fact declared the priesthood of all believers. The idea that every Christian believer is a priest means that there is no hierarchy with regard to a person’s role in life; laypersons and clergy have equal rights and responsibilities to proclaim the good news of the Gospels. God calls us all according to our gifts so it is not necessary to work in ordained ministry to bear witness to Christ.
Long before he initiated all of these changes, however, Luther’s calling out of the Church hierarchy on the corrupt practice of selling indulgences along with his new theologies brought him to the attention of Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. When he refused to recant his writings, he was excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw of the Empire by Charles. This meant in effect that anyone who wanted to could kill him without threat of punishment. Fortunately for Luther he had a powerful ally in his sovereign Elector Friedrich the Wise of Saxony; the latter staged a false kidnapping of Luther and the beleaguered monk was enabled to recover from his trauma in Wartburg Castle where he remained for about a year. In standing up to the two most powerful men of the era at the risk of his life and reputation, Luther had certainly embraced the risks that authentic Christian faith can entail.
Vatican 2 was, in many ways, a belated recognition of Luther’s reforms. This can be seen above all in its new emphasis on Christology, on the importance of the Bible in religious education, its abandoning of the Latin Mass in favour of Masses said in the language of the people, and in its permitting the laity to be ministers of the eucharist and to hold the host. Prior to Vatican 2, only the priest was allowed to touch the host, which meant placing it on the tongue of the recipient. Lumen Gentium, a document of Vatican 2, highlights the importance of the role of the laity in the Church and emphasises the priesthood of all believers. The main difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches on the matter is that the many of the latter reject the ordained priesthood. Overall, the trend initiated by Luther in the medieval period harks back to the early Church, when there was no clear demarcation between priests and bishops on the one hand, and laypeople on the other. The former tended to live in the same way as everyone else, tending to their livelihoods, marrying and rearing families. It was only when the Church became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine that strict demarcation between both classes emerged along with elaborate ecclesial structures.
Due to its mix of Christian denominations, the U.S. is perhaps the best present day example of what Luther had in mind. My first trip there was an eye-opener for me as well as something of a culture shock. The sight of lay preachers on tv – even female ones – almost made me feel that I had arrived on another planet. Protestant denominations like Methodism, for example, have male and female lay preachers, a revolutionary development that goes back to its founder, Wesley; In the States evangelical Christianity also fields lay preachers and then, of course there are the televangelists. These ministers can be attached to a Church or self-proclaimed, and many of them – like Billy Graham, Gerry Bakker and Jerry Falwell – become very famous, even if not always for the most wholesome of reasons. There are also famous female televangelists, such as Joyce Meyer, Marilyn Hickey and Aimee Semple McPherson. The latter, who became famous in the early 20th century, was a pioneer, especially in the use of modern media, and even founded her own Church. Founding one’s own Church in America is not unusual; indeed most of the first black churches founded before the 19th century were begun by free blacks.
My visits to the US, which included two summers spent at Fordham, a Jesuit University in the Bronx, introduced me to a kind of dynamic Christianity that I had never before encountered. This includes the Catholic denomination also; as one of my lecturers, the leading religious education theorist Gabriel Moran explained to us, in the US Catholicism has been so influenced by the denominational mix in the country that it is something of a hybrid in practice. No doubt the strict separation of Church and State where religion is concerned has also contributed to the unselfconscious, non-pious enthusiasm regarding Christianity that I found so refreshing and so different to what I was used to here in Ireland where proclaiming and/or preaching about one’s religious beliefs is considered to be the exclusive province of professional religious and is generally restricted to liturgical settings. To understand the difference between here and somewhere like the US, you only have to think of the sensation caused when Marty Morrissey recently gave an inspirational talk at a Knock novena, an event that became a national talking point and sparked a great deal of outrage. In the US, no one would have batted an eyelid at such an occurrence.
As should by now be clear, religious indoctrination where Christianity is concerned relates, not to the religion itself, but to Christian ecclesial institutions when they become ends in themselves. As Christians, our faith should be in Jesus of Nazareth and not in an institution. Jesus himself lived simply and dressed as others did. Is there really a need for the elaborate costumery that characterises some Christian denominations, most notably perhaps Catholicism? Whenever I see yet another newspaper article on the Church that is illustrated by pictures of red hatted and elaborately dressed cardinals I feel like saying “With all due respect to the good and necessary administrative and liturgical work that you do, could you move aside please? This isn’t really about you, we’re here to see someone else”.
As regards the legalistic straitjacket of rules and norms which is as closely associated with Catholic Christianity as are its elaborate ecclesial structures, in this area too the Church is very far removed from the simplicity of the Nazarene. Jesus delivered an uncomplicated message which can be briefly articulated: love others, be kind to the less fortunate, stand up for the underdog, be peaceful, honest, humble and forgiving. He saw himself as a reformer of the ultra legalistic Judaism of his era, and preached against the tyranny of overly strict rules. This is not to say that Jesus was an anarchist or dismissed rules as unimportant, in his own words he had come ‘not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’. This means living by the spirit, not the letter of the law, avoiding petty restrictions, and knowing when it can be transcended and when exceptions can be made. It also means that the emphasis is a positive one; doing unto others as you would have them do unto you will make negative ‘thou shalt not’ rules redundant.
In Ireland, as a result of our colonial history which involved the oppression of the overwhelmingly Catholic population, the Church gained far too much political power and influence for its own good after independence was achieved. There has also always been an institutional opposition to theological speculation here, the powers that be preferring a passive, acquiescent laity. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 prohibited any state funding to be directed towards theological studies depriving generations of Irish people of any intellectual engagement with theology. Most European countries provide financially for faculties of theology and in the US college students are expected to take either philosophy or theology as a minor. Imposed intellectual passivity along with a homogenous religious environment, has engendered a strong perception here of the institutional Church and Christianity as one and the same thing. The backlash now occurring against it is not against Christianity as a religion, but against an institution that for too long had too much power.
Change however, despite perceptions, is well underway. Although we have yet to see ‘the age of the laity’ heralded by Vatican 2 emerge in any meaningful way, the tide is turning. A whole generation of young people has grown up in Ireland with a religious education programme that emphasises the person of Jesus, and in an environment that is no longer theocratic and overly authoritarian. The backlash now occurring will die out with the present baby boomer generation. By then, the lack of vocations throughout the Western world will have created an existential necessity for lay involvement in the Church, and this trend will contribute to the changes already occurring in the Irish Church. Who knows what the shape of the future Church will be? One can only hope that it will be simple and non-censorious like its founder, with clergy and laity united as one people of God. It should go without saying that women will have to have a far stronger presence in the Church of the future, but this will probably be the greatest battle of all and the most crucial one.
Such a transformation would dispense with any form of religious indoctrination. For a Christian Church that is truly representative of Christianity, indoctrination is impossible. A Christian has to be prepared to take social risks that can involve real loss and sadness, and even share in the contempt suffered by Jesus himself if called upon to do so. The emphasis will turn to the person of Jesus and the question of his divinity. (“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered “God’s Messiah” ). Religious adherence will then result from critical reflection for those who need it, and choice as well as faith.
I happened to see the controversial “Meaning of Life” programme in which Stephen Fry went on a rant about the nature of God. His rebellion was against the idea that he should be expected to believe that there is an all powerful, all knowing, all good God in a world that is full of suffering and evil. He was in fact addressing (albeit somewhat angrily) what is known in moral philosophy and philosophy of religion as ‘the problem of evil’. Philosophy defines two types of evil, natural evil and moral evil. The former relates to the suffering caused by natural disasters, illness and death, the latter to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ so to speak. The view of the Deity criticised by Fry is known as theism, and is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It maintains that despite the existence of evil, God is indeed omniscient, omnipotent and beneficent. This concept of God contrasts with, for example, Deism which is the view (believed by Einstein on the basis of his scientific research) that there is a God who created an ordered universe, set it in motion, and then left it to its own devices. The Deistc God takes no personal interest in us as individuals or as a species. Polytheistic religions such as Hinduism don’t have the same problem in explaining evil due to their belief in reincarnation and the fact that their gods, like humans, are a mixture of good and evil. Evil and suffering are caused by humans to one another, and as punishment for bad deeds they may have done in past lives. Spiritual effort will lead to a state of blissful enlightenment known as moksha that enables the enlightened individual to endure suffering, and which will also break the cycle of rebirth back into this world.
The point is that an important function of religion is to make life meaningful for people and help them to cope with the various evils and traumas that inevitably beset every human existence. One of the clearest markers of the very earliest members of our species in the archaeological record is the burial of their dead alongside symbolic artefacts that intimate belief in an afterlife. Religion existed as a phenomenon from the beginning, undoubtedly precipitated by grief at the loss of loved ones and the hope of meeting them again in another realm. Theistic religion attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with belief in a beneficent deity by using the free will argument. This is that God willed the world to be a good and peaceful one, but he also gave us free will, which means we can choose to do evil. As the saying goes, God created a world with enough for every man’s need, but not enough for every man’s greed. Judaea-Christianity describes the primal moral choices made by the earliest humans in metaphorical terms as the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve.
The ‘problem of evil’ has always been debated and discussed by theologians and philosophers, and has never been more relevant than it is now in our contemporary Western culture where science can explain so many phenomena previously thought to be explicable only in terms of a God or gods. Up until the scientific era religious belief was inextricably linked with superstition, and spirituality with magic. The rationalisation of Western consciousness through science has removed much ignorance and superstition and made belief in a supernatural dimension to existence optional. The problem of evil is therefore more relevant than ever to religious belief and is undoubtedly a major cause of atheism in contemporary Western culture. The reaction to Stephen Fry’s articulation of it is a very convincing argument for me in favour of introducing philosophy as a compulsory subject in secondary school curricula. The fact that an important philosophical topic that is discussed everyday in universities around the world – including Irish Catholic ones – could lead to a possible prosecution for blasphemy in a supposedly civilised European country is surely a wake up call for us here. The introduction of philosophy into our education system might also have the bonus of enabling us to achieve a more informed understanding of Christianity as a religion rather than as an institution, and to remedy the current somewhat unbalanced focus on Church scandals and abuses of power that are a betrayal of Christianity and have caused too many people to confuse the institution with the religion. As things stand, the charge of blasphemy against Stephen Fry risks making a laughing stock of us and will certainly give the comedian material for many years to come.
As I explained in previous posts, the difficulties involved in being a feminist in a religious, patriarchal environment can at times seem insurmountable. And, while I have found it quite easy theologically to reconcile the maleness of Jesus and the Father God with even the most radical of feminist principles, as my theological studies progressed I found myself completely abandoning one of them and capitulating to a form of what, in relation to feminism, would be considered extreme political incorrectness.
In the context of the Judaeo-Christian tradition of hospitality, and Christian teaching on what the ‘Kingdom of God’ will be like, something that I had resented and avoided as much as possible began to assume a different appearance: namely, what is known in feminist theory as ‘women’s traditional work’. There are three main strands of feminism, each with its own theory of why women are oppressed and how this oppression should be overcome. These are liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. We’re going to have to take a little detour through feminist political theory before I can explain its relevance to theology.
Liberal feminism’s view of the role of women in society has been shaped by liberal, capitalist theory generally, which in turn has its roots in the work of philosophers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and, latterly, Rawls. Liberal philosophy and political theory came to the fore during the eighteenth century Enlightenment with its intellectual and physical revolutions, although it emerged initially from the confrontation between capitalism and feudalism that began in the seventeenth century. The rising merchant class had revolted against restrictions placed on travel, manufacture and finance by the feudal system, and against the claim of monarchs to authority by divine right.
Liberalism is grounded in the notion that human beings are essentially rational agents; indeed from Aristotle to the medieval era, the notion of rationality as a defining feature of human nature has been prominent in the Western philosophical tradition. The liberal ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all are based on the conviction that all individuals have an equal potentiality for reason. The liberal perspective on reason, however, presents liberal feminist activism with serious problems. This is because, influenced by Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”, liberal theorists assume that rationality is the defining human characteristic, while the body is inferior to our mental capacities and not a part of the human essence (what makes us human).
This has led to a mind/body dualism in Western society in which occupations requiring ‘mental’ labour are perceived as superior to those requiring mainly physical labour. Non-liberal feminists (socialist and radical feminists for example) criticise the mental/manual distinction since it leads to a dismissive and even contemptuous attitude towards women’s work, which is traditionally physical work carried out in a domestic setting. The elevation of the mind at the expense of the body also militates particularly against women, since it reinforces the hostility toward the body apparent throughout the long Western philosophical tradition. In that tradition women, because of their child-bearing capacities, have always been more closely associated with nature (particularly non-human animal nature) than men, who are identified with culture and mind. Indeed, it is doubtful that any woman could, as Descartes did, base an entire philosophical system on the dictum “I think, therefore I am”. For most of history most adult women have had little time to think. The liberal denigration of the body and its corresponding stress on the importance of a disembodied reason is generated by a male conception of reality; it contains an inbuilt androcentric bias to the effect that women are inferior to men.
Liberals treat morality and rationality as synonymous, and base their political theory on desires which they identify as universal. The most important of these is that, since humans always inhabit environments of relative scarcity, they will be motivated by the desire to gain as large a share as possible of the available resources. Hobbes and Locke maintain that humans are motivated by the desire for almost unlimited acquisition, and Locke regards this desire as moral and therefore rational. Liberal theory also asserts that people generally try to maximise their individual wealth, status and prestige, and that this is rational, and therefore moral. As a result, liberal political theory can be said to contain an implicit assumption of the existence of a universal egoism.
From a Marxist, as well as a feminist perspective, socialist feminists question the liberal account of rationality. Firstly, Marx considered the body to be of equal importance to the mind, and physical labour just as important as mental labour, meaning that there is no sharp distinction or relative importance between mind and body. Secondly, Marxists believe that rationality is most effective when it is operating at the societal and collective rather than the individual level; finally, in Marxist theory competitive individualism is considered irrational precisely because resources are limited. Marxists believe that humans have a boundless capacity for cooperation, but that this capacity is suppressed and discouraged by a political system which protects and legitimates human selfishness. Under socialism, of course, the means of production would belong to the country as a whole; such a revolutionary societal transformation would, according to Marx and Engels, give rise to new developments in human nature. Cooperation would replace competition, egoism would be replaced by generosity, and work would become a vehicle of self-realisation rather than a burden. This general increase in human well-being would also have a trickle-down effect into the family; working men, for example would no longer ape their bosses and behave like petty tyrants towards their wives. Marxists also strongly dispute the liberal ethos that conceptualises human happiness in terms of wealth and social prestige.
Liberal feminists believe, however, that in contemporary society the treatment of women violates the three main principles of liberalism: equality, liberty and justice. Their main grievance is that women are unjustly discriminated against on the basis of their sex; they argue that since rationality is the essential human quality, and since women are also rational agents, women are as capable as men in all fields, and must not be discriminated against on the grounds of sex. They argue that women are, in fact, subjected to several forms of discrimination, the most obvious of which is legal discrimination. Liberal feminist activism has therefore been directed mainly at the repeal of laws perceived as unjust towards women, and the passing of laws which formally grant women equal rights to men with regard to the franchise, education and job opportunities. However, liberal feminists also believe that most discrimination is informal and based on custom. Informal discrimination is typically manifested both in assumptions that women are not suited to certain sorts of work and, conversely, that they are particularly well-suited to other sorts of work. They maintain that feminist progress notwithstanding, even in contemporary society there are strong expectations – often shared by women themselves – that women should take primary responsibility for the work involved in raising children and running the home. These assumptions are carried over into the labour force, where women are expected to provide all sorts of nurturing and menial services to men, women and children. Liberal feminists, influenced by the male philosophical perspective, believe that the work typically performed by women in both the private and public spheres is of little value, since it services the body as opposed to the mind. They conclude that women can be liberated from their oppression only by entering the public sphere and successfully competing with men for highly-paid jobs in business, in the professions and in academia. They fully buy into the liberal capitalist agenda of universal egoism and the equating of happiness with wealth, status and prestige.
Throughout its three hundred year history, the goal of liberal feminism has been the achievement of formal equality in law for women. It was hoped that once all legal barriers were removed, women would rapidly gain substantive equality with men, and any residual prejudice could be overcome by rational argument. While it is undoubtedly true that the liberal strand of feminism has been the most effective in transforming the lives and expectations of women, socialist and radical feminists argue that liberals have gone as far as they can within the existing political system in improving the lot of women. They question the liberal conviction that public legislative campaigns can change private attitudes; the fundamental problem for liberal feminism, as they see it, is its failure to challenge the mental/manual distinction which structures the world of work in contemporary society. The liberal feminist desire for what amounts to an androgynous society devalues women’s traditional work, and accepts the androcentric bias of liberal philosophy in which male values are normative. In maintaining the mental/manual distinction liberal feminist theory, they argue, actually helps to rationalise and perpetuate women’s oppression and domination.
Socialist and radical feminists conclude therefore that women’s oppression cannot be ended without a revolutionary transformation of contemporary political systems, albeit that socialist feminist theory is also androcentric to a certain extent. In Marxism, as in liberalism, the solution for women’s oppression is for women to enter the workforce. This is because Marx and Engels argued that women’s subordination results from the institution of class society and has persisted into the present because the unwaged labour of women suits the interests of capital. As to the historical origin of women’s oppression, Marx and Engels make the assumption that in every society there has always been a sexual division of labour “which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act”. This ‘natural’ division of labour is replicated in the split between household work, carried out by women, and the work involved in producing the means of subsistence, which is traditionally the sphere of men. For Marx and Engels the sexual division of labour is related to the biological constitution of men and women, and therefore biologically determined. Under a socialist regime, the ‘natural’ gender distinctions of the private sphere could be abolished in the market place by drawing women into paid employment in the sphere of production. This would make women independent of men and ultimately transform the ‘sexual division of labour’ in the home. Thus the Marxist solution to the problem of women’s oppression is ultimately the same as that of the liberal approach: androgyny in the public sphere.
Socialist feminism has expanded upon this by arguing that the family should be taken out of the private domain and become an institution primarily under the control of the state; in classical Marxism the family is considered to belong to the private sphere. To effect this theoretical change, socialist feminists have attempted to redefine the family as an economic unit, or – in Marxist terminology – a system of production. Socialist feminists justify this by arguing that humans have material needs other than food, shelter and clothing. Equally fundamental to human survival are the social and individual human needs for the bearing and rearing of children, for sexual satisfaction and emotional nurturance. Since these needs are fulfilled by human labour, the system developed to satisfy them must be a system of production, even if it does not always produce tangible results.
Socialist feminists also point to the fact that the means of satisfying these needs have, throughout history, been distributed and exchanged through the social institutions of marriage and prostitution; such transactions involve, either overtly or covertly, payment with money. Traditionally, wives are financially supported by their husbands in return for housework and the raising of children. Socialist feminists conclude that sexuality and procreation, areas considered in all previous political theory as ‘natural’ and biologically determined, fall within the domain of Marxist political economy and can therefore be transformed through collective decision-making regarding changes in social practice. Sex, as well as gender, they argue, is socially constructed. This is of vital importance to socialist feminists, who believe that women’s oppression can only be ended when ‘the division of labour in the sexual act’, reconstituted in male-female relations throughout the whole of society, is itself abolished.
The political goal of socialist feminism is therefore to destroy “the social relations that constitute humans not only as workers and capitalists but also as women and men…Women and men will disappear as socially constituted categories”. This goal will be achieved by the abolition of normative heterosexuality, marriage and the family as traditionally understood.
It was however twentieth century radical feminism, the most recent of the three strands, that popularised the use of the term ‘patriarchy’. Radical feminism also appropriated the Marxist notion of class, arguing that women are a class defined by sex. The definition of women as a class carries the implication that men gain material benefits from their domination and exploitation of women; within the sex-class system, the ruling class is called ‘the patriarchy’, a term originally used by anthropologists to refer to primitive nomadic societies. Radical feminists use it in a broader sense to refer to a universal system of male domination. Their critique of patriarchy has not only become a focus of academic research, but has also been assimilated into public consciousness via the media and best-selling works of non-fiction and fiction such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. Radical feminists maintain that owing to the universality of women’s subordination, it is the first and fundamental form of domination. It is also the cause of and model for all other types of oppression. They conceive patriarchy as “a total system of domination. Through imperialism, racism, and class society, groups of men seek to dominate each other. Most of all, however, they seek to dominate women….”
The radical feminist political solution to the evils of patriarchy is a drastic one, involving the separation of women from men in order to facilitate the development of a ‘womanculture’. In contrast to liberal and Marxist feminist goals, the ‘womanculture’ would celebrate female values and female qualities such as nurturance, empathy, intuitiveness, flexibility and spontaneity. This would be in marked contrast to the patriarchal culture which typically has prided itself on military prowess, sexual aggression, analytical thinking and emotional ‘cool’. While there is much to recommend the idea of a ‘womanculture’, it would surely be far better for radical feminists to challenge the dominant patriarchal conception of reason, emotion and the relationships between them and instead to develop new conceptions of these relationships in order to transform patriarchy rather than abandon it.
Each of the three strands of feminist theory described above has made important contributions to the understanding and overcoming of women’s oppression: liberal feminism has, thus far, been the most effective, while socialist feminism has been the most culturally influential in challenging our presuppositions about gender. Meanwhile, radical feminism has checked the excesses of the other two strands by rejecting androgyny and gender deconstruction and celebrating what is distinctly feminine.
Now that we have looked at these feminist perspectives on women’s traditional work, it is time to turn from political notions of the ideal society to the predominant values of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus. In all of the ways in which the Nazarene tried to describe what the Kingdom would be like, the ‘banquet’ parables are, for me, the most evocative. The Old Testament background for these parables is found in Isaiah 25: 6-9 which describes a lavish banquet prepared by Yahweh:
On this mountain the Lord of the hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…..
The derivative Gospel story of the Great Banquet (Lk. 14: 15-24 par) must be considered as part of a significant collection of parables set within chapters 14-16 of Luke’s Gospel that are either given within the context of Jesus’ table talk, or inspired by his love of table fellowship; they reveal that the virtues associated with hospitality, especially generosity, humility, and inclusivity, are relevant to salvation and will characterise the warmer, kinder world of the developing Kingdom which will focus on relationships rather than power or prestige. In the Kingdom, everyone will be physically and emotionally satisfied, because everyone will have a place at the table; plenty to eat and drink, conviviality, no loneliness, no one who is considered an outsider. Hospitality and its myriad pleasures are most associated with women, and therefore taken for granted; not all that important in the world at large as compared to, for example, politics, business or the military, which are largely male domains. In God’s Kingdom, however, the female sphere as traditionally understood will be more important and transformative than the male one. Indeed it is within this feminine, domestic context that all differences will be overcome and a universal love and harmony will be achieved. Of the three strands of feminism, therefore, it is radical feminism with, firstly, its insistence that all forms of oppression are interlinked and, secondly, its celebration of the female genius, that is closest to the biblical evocation of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels also validate radical feminism’s insistence that androgyny is not the way forward for women in their attempts to overcome oppression.
This is not to say that women must be confined to their traditional roles; the hope is that the feminine gifts for relationships, nurturing, and conflict resolution will be as transformative in the public sphere as they have been quietly powerful in the sphere of domesticity. Yet the real key to women’s liberation will lie, surely, not in getting women to ape men, but in getting men and, even more importantly, women themselves to appreciate their own gifts rather than take them for granted. What radical feminism calls the ‘womanculture’ must not develop in isolation from the ‘manculture’ but be woven seamlessly into it in a way that will transform existence. How can such a seemingly miraculous transformation occur? I would argue that political activism, while certainly necessary to overcome prejudice in all of its manifestations, is not enough for a task that will demand of us the generous love of neighbour depicted in parables such as the story of the Good Samaritan: the overcoming of the hatreds and suffering caused by prejudice and bigotry is a religious as well as a political matter. The Banquet parables depict an inclusive world in which all who accept God’s invitation into his/her Kingdom are loved and cherished. They bring to mind St. Paul’s Christian manifesto which is radical and revolutionary beyond anything dreamed up by Marx: “….for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).
And so, as a result of my studies in biblical theology, I gained a new perspective on the kind of work I had previously despised and began to immerse myself in the – for me – new found joys of homemaking and domesticity in general. I could do this safe in the knowledge that despite appearances, women’s work in all its forms is somehow transforming the world: no matter how thankless and taken for granted it may often seem in comparison to much more highly valued male achievements, God is using it for his/her purposes in building up the Kingdom. God ensures that not one iota of the love and sacrifice that characterises women’s traditional work goes unnoticed or is wasted; it is all being taken up and constantly incorporated into the developing Kingdom of God. If, indeed – as Christianity teaches – God can bring good out of evil, how much more can he/she bring infinite goodness out of our finite, limited efforts at love and sacrifice. Somehow, in a way that we can’t yet understand, women’s traditonal work has an essential role – even, I would suggest, the most important role- in the building up of God’s Kingdom, in which male and female qualities and virtues will be truly complementary and equally treasured and effective in both the public and private spheres. Right now, it is hard to imagine what such a world might look like, but it certainly won’t be one in which the desire for wealth, status and prestige predominate as now, suppressing the development of harmonious and joyful relationships.
Coda: The history of political feminism begs some important questions, especially in an evolutionary context. Christian tradition talks about some sort of one off ‘primal sin’ that is the cause of all the world’s problems. Due to developments in science, specifically evolutionary biology, we now know, however, that the Genesis story is in large part mythological. Evolutionary theory in fact supplies plausible answers to the causes of women’s oppression, with the debate centering on whether male domination is primarily a cultural or genetic phenomenon. My own research has convinced me that it is mainly cultural and therefore at least partly rectifiable through politics and the social sciences generally. From a theological perspective, of course, there is another question: is there a spiritual dimension to the world’s prejudices and hatreds? Within the theological context of origins it may be asked whether or not moral decisions were made by early humans that had a detrimental effect on our cultural evolution.
Evolution, which is relevant theologically to both creation and morality, is one of those fascinating meeting points between religion and science where common ground has caused much controversy. Many of today’s leading theologians are currently exploring this common ground, especially in relation to evolution and behaviour. Significant progress is being made in this interdisciplinary area – which is the hottest and most cutting edge field of research in the academic humanities – although as yet there has been no doctrinal change or adjustment even in institutional Christianity which is favourably disposed towards evolutionary theory. I am pretty sure, from my readings in both theology – as in the biblical stories discussed above – and in evolutionary biology, that there is indeed a spiritual dimension to the world’s travails.
Resources: Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totawa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983), pp. 64, 135, 255.
“Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), pp. 182-183.
Niamh Middleton “Sacramental Spirituality: The Feminine Dimension” in Spirituality (Dublin: Dominican Publications), Vol. 21, pp. 156-159.
Niamh Middleton: “Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows” in On Religion, Issue 12, Autumn 2015, p. 6.
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