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Friday, November 5, 2010

On why I appear to be a feminist theologian

Of all the theology I've read in the past two months, and that's rather a lot, no theories or "schools" have struck such a major-key chord with me as has the feminist theology of Mary Grey. (Let me assure you if you're outside such discourse, that her work has nothing to do with deciding which gender God is.)

Funny how people you've never met can 'speak' to you.

Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. After all, I'm married to an academic with some considerable professional form as a feminist, am the father of two daughters (for one of whom I was a single-parent dad for many years--see the August post "So much depends on a crappy old bike"), and have been fortunate enough to number many strong, independent women among my close friends for most of my life. In touch with my feminine side? I'd have to say, more or less, yes I am.

So the soil was fertile to begin with. But as you, dear reader, will know, much of my reflexive response to Christo-centric theology has been characterized by resistance, rebellion, and subversion. To a mind trained philosophically, many theological arguments offer a "target-rich environment" of false dichotomies, questionable premises, and subtle evasions. But a purely rational approach, as I am becoming aware, is essentially an arid pursuit. No theology of, say, suffering, is ever going to wholly satisfy, unless you accept the premise of a detached God's essential goodness. To me, that's far from demonstrable, so maybe we need to look at divinity from a more remote perspective, one that compasses creation and destruction a la the Hindu gods, and the ultimate purpose of our suffering so far beyond human understanding as to render it a "mystery", which is in any case, where we start from. "Take it on faith," we are told.

In my own feeble and un-informed attempts to deal with the problem of suffering (in addresses to my congregation in Australia), using only the human tools of philosophy, grass-roots experience, and reflection, it seems that I unwittingly struck on themes which Grey takes up in the work I've been reading. In my address, "Eating Dirt", I reflected on why a God worth worshipping would visit such suffering on the innocent, in particular on the people of Haiti through the recent earthquake, people who were already reduced to eating "mud cookies" to stay alive.

In a cruel irony, the collapsed buildings, lacking any costly structural reinforcement, were shaken into their constituent dirt, and buried the occupants in that dirt, filling their mouths (and ears, and noses, and eyes) yet again. It seemed to me that, while the earthquake itself was an 'act of God' (or nature if you prefer), the deaths were largely an act (or lack of action) of man. These deaths were evidence not of a cruel or indifferent God, but of the broken and distorted relationships between people and nations that so reduce fellow humans to such grinding penury. Global corporate capitalism, colonialism, exploitative and abusive patriarchal 'governments', and international indifference to severe, endemic poverty right on the doorstep of the most affluent cultures in the world.

One of the key elements in Grey's theology is "right relationship'; that is, the task of realising God's work as truly our own in creating full, nourishing relationships--inter-personal, social, ecclesial, and political. Certainly how Haiti got to be more vulnerable to an earthquake than a country with decent infrastructure has a lot to do with its colonial history, corporate exploitation of its resources, and the indifference of its neighbors. In Grey's terms, these are all conditions that grow from traditional patriarchal relationship--dominance, exploitation, treating 'equal' human beings as a means to an end. Right relation, nurturing the full worth of every person, is reflected in traditional maternal values and the essence of Jesus' life and teaching. Right relation, an immaterial energy rather than a concrete entity, may then be understood as the very presence of God. We come to know God in relations of self-transcending love. The kingdom of God is not so much in each of us, as kind of between us, in the shared dimension of mutually nurtuing relationship.

The vulnerability that necessarily happens when risking relationship is he subject for another entry, but is no less fascinating and urgently real.

I can think of at least two other addresses where I explore the same theme of suffering in different contexts. But moreover, it has been those times in my life where I have been most sure of the divine presence, have been in moments of self-transcending love in all its forms--eros, philos, you name it. "The awful daring of an moment's surrender that an age of prudence can never retract" as Eliot said.

But it's more than discovering that I've unknowingly endorsed such theological views--"ah! I see her theology is meaningful because it perfectly accords with my own." It's that it also has wonderful internal coherence, which defuses and resolves troublesome and conflicting dichotomies of spirit/matter dualism. (This is perhaps a subject for another blog entry, and more technical, but take it from me!)

So internal coherence that resolves many of the logic problems of other theologies, plus an accordance with my own lived experience, equals a compelling theology (for me at least), and it gives me joy to be able to say that. As to whether is corresponds to the way the universe is actually set up, who can say? But for once, I don't care if I can say or not. The proof comes in the living of it.

FLASH: Even as I write this in my miserable room in a cold, wet, alien Manchester, the fireworks from Bonfire Night are bursting outside, in full view of my window over my laptop, filling the room with extravagant light in an insanely joyous display that mirrors how I feel having written this, having finally found something to say YES to rather than "no". (The video gets good around 25 seconds in. The timing of this moment is proof of something, but I'm not sure what.)

Right relation? Love? An end to the aridity of pure Reason? Feminist theology?

Yes, I said Yes I will YES!

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