Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review: Becoming Divine

[Grace M. Jantzen. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.]

As I have made a point of repeating at the beginning of each review, I am currently reading a sampling of works in the field of feminist theology. This is not because I identify as Christian but for reasons related to my social movement history project.

Becoming Divine is a bit different from the other books I have read so far in that it is not feminist theology but feminist philosophy of religion -- I had not stopped to consider that theology and philosophy of religion were different, but of course they are. In the English-speaking countries, philosophy of religion has historically been almost entirely focused on Christianity, almost entirely occupied with demonstrating that various theological tenets of Christianity are or are not rationally justified, and by and large written by class-privileged white men. Jantzen aims to turn this on its ear, as her project is explicitly feminist, and it draws heavily upon philosophers in the continental European tradition -- Irigiray, Derrida, Levinas, Arendt, Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva, and others. Given the idiosyncratic trajectory of my political reading, my familiarity with these thinkers varies widely and is largely a result of what I have taken from various oblique encounters with them in the works of others. This book significantly contributed to that familiarity for a number of them. Beyond her appropriation of these continental theorists, at various points Jantzen also looks to feminist theologians, feminist philosophers of science, standpoint theorists, and medieval Christian female mystics, and of course draws exhaustively on the work of the traditional Anglo-American philosophers of religion whose field of activity she is trying unsettle and transform.

She begins by pointing out how traditional philosophy of religion assumes the existence of an unproblematic self, a la the autonomous, atomized individual of classical liberalism. She draws on the psycholanalytic work of Lacan and Irigaray (and Freud) to demonstrate how the self is produced. In some ways, it was this early section that I had the greatest difficulty accepting. I find it plausible that our selves are produced (at least in large part) by our entry into language, and that such an entry means joining a symbolic order that is organized in oppressive ways. I also appreciated Jantzen's insistence that this oppression is not absolute -- that the phallus is not a universal signifier, but one that has appropriated dominance, to use the language of the field. However, other supposed insights from psychoanalysis seemed a lot more dubious to me. Perhaps it just displays my own ignorance, but it seems to me that at least some of these "insights" are fanciful stories about things we simply cannot know, and whose main recommendation is a particular, academic kind of aesthetic appeal. But this hesitation did not undermine Jantzen's work for me.

She then moves on to appropriate Derrida's idea of deconstruction for use in her own way on traditional philosophy of religion. I particularly enjoyed her approach to the binaries "theism/atheism" and "religious/secular." She argues that simply rejecting the existence of Christianity's God or refusing to explicitly invoke Christianity in private or public life does very little to address the ways in which patriarchal religious imagery deeply structures our Western discursive and symbolic landscape. She argues that our inherited understanding of the divine plays a huge role in structuring our symbolic whether we as individuals happen to believe in the divine or not, and it is important for both secular and Christian feminists to be concerned about the ways in which this perpetuates gender and other oppressions. Her vision for a feminist philosophy of religion, therefore, is one which transforms our imaginary, our shared symbolic order, in liberatory ways.

An important part of this for Jantzen is dispensing with what has historically been the main task taken on by Anglo-American philosophers of religion, which is evaluating the truth status of various elements of Christianity using supposedly rational philosophy. She turns a critical eye to philosophy of religion more generally, and at least begins the task of showing how it denies that its institutional and disciplinary boundaries and mandates are in any sense socially constructed or infused with questions of power, though this is a task she says she wishes to continue in another book. She talks about how the obsession with defending or attacking various Christian truth-claims leaves intact the symbolic order that does so much to structure the space we have to think and talk about the world.

Instead, she argues that we should attend to desire when it comes to questions of divinity. This does not assume either a theist or an atheist position, but it deemphasizes that particular question. How we conceptualize the divine, whether we believe in it or not, expresses our vision of what is great and good and important and valuable. By challenging the masculinist assumptions that structure our vision of the divine and being deliberate about projecting more liberatory desires into the divine, it is possible to begin creating a new religious symbolic that is liberatory and that serves to support our own quest to, in her words, "become divine."

After a useful discussion of the complex possibilities for grounding this new imaginary in women's experience (including dealing with some key points relating to epistemologhy, standpoint theory, and the workings of power that I see as key as well to anti-oppression politics) Jantzen sketches out in more detail what she understands of our current religious symbolic and what she hopes a feminist version will include. In particular, the Western imaginary in general and Christianity in particular are heavily invested in imagery related to death -- it is the next world that matters, not this; spirit and flesh are separate and spirit is superior.

Whether in the traditional religious form of looking towards heaven and treating this life merely as a preparation for the better one, or in the secular form of space-flights and telescopes, or even in the intellectual form of preoccupation with the possible worlds of modal logic, all this attention to the worlds of the beyond distracts attention from the actual world in which we live, and our responsibilities to it and to one another. When this is coupled with the age-old linkage of the fmela with the material and the male with the rational spirit, the sexist nature of the desire to master and ultimately to escape from matter is evident. [130]

Instead, she encourages an imaginary based in natality. By glorifying birth and what follows it rather than death and what may or may not follow that, we begin from a place that focuses on living, on groundedness, on attentiveness to experience and interconnectedness. Natality

is not a matter of a romantic exaltation of women as mothers; still less is it a reduction of 'woman' to the function of mothering. Rather, it is the shift of Gestalt that recognizes that the weaving of the web of life to which each person enters in virtue of our natality means that we are connected with all other persons, female and male. Our sexuate selves, born of women, are the basis both of our similarity to and our difference from other sexuate selves, the foundation both empathy and of respect for alterity. This connectedness with all others, while allowing for great diversity, can therefore be recognized as the material basis of ethical responsiveness, a responsiveness which must be grounded in the imaginary and worked out in symbolic and social structures. [150]

An important part of her understanding of an imaginary of natality is that instead of focusing our attention of salvation, its limits, and its possibilities, as in our current imaginary, it instead draws our attention to the importance of "flourishing." Instead of an atomized individual that will or will not be saved based on individual beliefs and/or behaviours, we would see ourselves as individuals-within-networks who value our own flourishing and those of others, and precisely because we see ourselves as contextual beings, our own flourishing requires that we be attentive to the flourishing of others.

From what I have said above, it might seem as though the model of flourishing would lead one to emphasize only the public and the political at the expesnse of the private and inner life. Closer attention to the metaphor, however, shows that that would not be the case. A plant which flourishes does so from its own inner life, 'rooted and grounded' in its source. If that inner life is gone, the plant withers and dries up, no matter how good its external circumstances may be. What is different from the model of salvation, however, is that the inner and the outer are not separable: there is no flourishing 'soul' of the plant while its 'body' withers in intolerable material conditions. A philosophy of religion built on the model of flourishing is one whose spirituality is holistic, rather than the privatized, subjectivized spirituality so characteristic of contemporary Christianity. It is therefore one in which natality is deliberately evoked in the task of becoming divine. [170]

After a further consideration of language and how it relates to philosophy of religion, Jantzen gets into the important issue of criteria for evaluating possible philosophies of religion. We are often told we must choose between universal, supposedly objective evaluation of "truth", a la traditional philosophy of religion, and complete relativism, in which there is no way to evaluate or critique anybody's claims to anything. Jantzen advances the idea that we must base a philosophy of religion on contextual bases, and see our criteria not as ontological but as ethical and political and consciously partial, embodied, and situated. She recognizes that philosophy of religion as it currently exists is based on values, emobidment, and situatedness in community, its practitioners just refuse to admit it. She says that we just need to be open about that, and to move forward based on criteria of trustworthiness, accountability, and a recognition of the partial nature of our truths. In this discussion, she touches on a lot of issues relating to politics of knowledge that are of great importance beyond just philosophy of religion.

In the second-last chapter she appropriates ideas from Emmanuel Levinas and puts them to feminist uses. In particular, she uses his notion that we must begin to understand the world not from ontology but from ethics as a tool "for a feminist religious symbolic which is neither reductionist nor fixated on an onto-theological realism centred in the 'god called God [253, references in original]." She closes the book by examining more closely the "becoming" part of "becoming divine." She reinforces the idea that "the divine cannot simply be the 'god called God', the static divinity whose attributes traditional philosophers of religion discuss in endless debates on the 'coherence of theism.' Divinity in the face of natals is a horizon of becoming, a process of divinity ever new, just as natality is the possibility of new beginnings. And it can never be immune from response to suffering in the face of the natals and of the earth. [254, references in original]"

She concludes that such a philosophy of religion must be pantheistic -- that is, it must see the divine in everything. She argues that this allows for us to overcome the immanent/transcendent binary by assuming a transcendence that emerges from the immanent. "To have the capacity for transcendence does not entail having the capacity, now or in the future, to become disembodied, but rather to be embodied in loving, thoughtful, and creative ways. [271]"

She concludes,

[T]he western masculinist symbolic has been constituted and guaranteed by the postulation of a locus of being and truth outside the world, from which the world and all that is in it is derivative. The world functions, on this economy, as the sign of an absence, an absence which is overcome by reason's access to a disembodied and mastering truth. Now if we take instead a pantheist symbolic in which that which is divine precisely is the world and its ceaselessly shifting bodies and signifiers, then it is this which must be celebrated as of ultimate value. It is within the world, not in some realm beyond it -- whether in Platonic forms, a heaven that we might reach after bodily death, or other galaxies that we might fly to in a spaceship -- that the horizon of our becoming must occur. Instead of a gesture of necrophilia, a pantheist symbolic supports a symbolic of natality, a flourishing of the earth and those who dwell upon it...From the discussion of this chapter it is possible to see how this is all of a piece with the wider aim of becoming divine, and responding to the divine in the face of the Other.

But still, why call it pantheism? Would it not be more honest just to admit that what we have here is an abandonment of theism, a thinly disguised secularism? After all, this is hardly a postulation of an omni-everything Lord God, its only difference from classical theism being that this God is embodied in the material universe. I have argued elsewhere that the tenets of classical theism would indeed be compatible with the doctrine of God embodied in the universe; but my suggestion here goes much further. The idea of divine embodiement can be seen, I have argued above, not merely as an adjustment to classical theism, but as a disruption of the dualistic and hierarchical western symbolic, which western secularism largely leaves in place.

The insistence upon pantheism therefore returns to the importance of the symbolic and the urgency for a feminist recognition of the divine as a feminist recognition as a horizon of becoming, exploring the embodied, earthed, female divine as 'the perfection of our subjectivity.' Hence, as Irigaray reminds us, there is strategic value in rethinking religion rather than in acquiescing in an already masculinized secularism, not 'awaiting the god passively, but bringing the god to life through us' -- through us and between us, embodied, transcendent, the projection and reclamation of ultimate value, the enablement of subject-positions as women, natals becoming divine. [pp. 274-5, emphasis as in original, references in original]

Despite, or perhaps because of my own ambivalence towards religion, this book very much impressed me, though it left me with a lot of political and theoretical questions. I take to heart its point that all of us have a reason to be concerned with transforming the current symbolic order, with its saturation in death and masculinist domination in ways tightly tied to traditional Christianity, whatever our position with respect to specific truth-claims made by this or that form of Christianity. At points, anyway, I felt some resonance with things I said about my own relationship to religion in this post. For instance, my reluctance to take a side in the Christian vs. atheist binary was connected to an undertheorized sense that however much I might not identify with the former, embracing the latter would still be in some sense defining myself in its terms. I also found the glimpses of an imaginary based on natality to be very inviting, and I can see how working towards such a symbolic order can be part of more obviously material and less discursive efforts to transform the world. And, self-educated lefty book nerd that I am, I appreciated the chance to get acquainted with a few more corners of the works of big names from Europe.

Some of the more obvious and simplistic critiques often levelled at the traditions from which Jantzen draws in this work include the idea that the emphasis on omnipotent discourse renders resistance impossible, and that it denies the relevance of the material by sucking everything into discourse. She explicitly rejects both of these, though her claims to do so are more compelling in the case of the former, I think. She argues quite forcefully that though the symbolic order is organized in very fundamental ways in the service of domination, it is still possible to create spaces of ambiguity from which never-simple resistance can begin and can ultimately create transformation. This made me think of John Holloway's writing about being within-and-against capitalism. The erasure of the relevance of the material world is also something in which she refuses to be complicit, but how exactly she sees the relationship between the discursive and the material, and how that should inform our actions in both spheres, is not at all clear to me.

One minor point that caused me a bit of anguish was her dismissal of interest in other worlds as inherently tied up in masculinist flight from the body and denial of and desire to dominate the current world. I certainly know what she means -- there is certainly lots of science fiction that is easily understood as using technology instead of God to provide a sort of external-to-humanity salvation that supports a social order that is treated as benign or even idyllic when an attentive reading reveals that it assumes domination of various sorts. But that is far from everything that can be found in fiction that looks to other worlds. Such fiction can also stimulate the imagination about what a better this-world might look like, and sharpen our desire to make it so. It can be one way in which our imaginary saturated with death and domination can be undermined a little bit, for a moment, in ways that advance our capacity to imagine different ways of thinking.

I also am not sure how to understand the text's relationship to oppressions other than gender oppression. On the one hand, there are places where she considers the multiple and interlocking nature of oppressions in considerable detail, and plenty of others where she at least mentions it. But there are still plenty of times where the language she uses seems to fall into a privileging of gender. If, as sometimes seems to be the case, gender is used as an example and metaphor of complex, multifaceted, interlocking dominations in discourse (which are, in ways not really explained, tightly bound to material oppressions), then it makes a certain sense, but that doesn't seem to be explicitly stated and I'm not sure what to make of it. Why on earth use language that at times seems to be gender-only or gender-first, when you give so much evidence of knowing it's a lot more complicated than that at other places in the text?

And finally, I always have questions about how useful intense theory like this really is. I mean, I read it and I found serious challenges and useful new ideas and cause for hope, but this is not a book that very many people are going to read. And if that is the case, what impact can it be expected to have? And perhaps more importantly, how should I or anyone else who reads this book but is not themselves a theologian or philosopher of religion relate this to what we do? How should we relate it to what is most urgent about the ways in which Christianity is currently done in the world? Or to the ways in which the secular version of the same overarching symbolic contributes to domination?

I just don't know. But perhaps, as I do various kinds of writing in the coming years, the good hard kick to the symbolic that this book delivered will perhaps inspire me to do things a little differently, to play with language and ideas in ways that contribute at the microscopic level to birthing a symbolic of natality from the interstices of our current symbolic of death and domination.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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