Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: A Just & True Love

[Maura A. Ryan and Brian F. Linnane, S.J., editors. A Just & True Love: Feminism at the Frontiers of Theological Ethics: Essays in Honor of Margaret A. Farley. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2007.]

This book is the last in my initial random sampling of works of feminist theology, as part of my background preparation for writing a chapter of this (and coming from this non-Christian personal place with respect to the issue).

The book is dedicated to one Margaret A. Farley, who has done important work on theological ethics and taught in post-secondary institutions for decades. She is also a Roman Catholic nun. The contributors do not all themselves identify as feminist or even as working specifically in theological ethics at this stage of their careers, but all have been influenced by her work.

I approached this volume with a certain degree of excitement. After all, theological ethics is where theology is most directly related to acting in the world, and feminist theological ethics implies theological ethics that are politicized in a particular way. I figured there was a good chance of finding material in this book that was not just useful for the reasons directly motivating me to read it but also material of more personal political interest.

The picture of Margaret Farley that I got from the book was one that I liked a lot. Much of her work has been around developing a theological ethics that focuses on the autonomy but inherent relationality of human persons, which I think is are important ideas to foreground, and doing so from a specifically feminist perspective. She has been relentless in advancing some quite progressive positions in the context of Roman Catholicism, which have often been contrary to official doctrine. I think there is lots that she and I would disagree about, though. For instance, I think some of the principles that she has used as a basis for an ethics of sexuality and relationships are quite useful, and I respect her use of them to support same-gender relationships as deserving the same fundamental respect as other-gender relationships, but I think there are other ways in which she goes from the principles to more concrete applications that are excessively conservative and not open to as wide a range of human relating as I consider necessary. However, I really got the sense that this was someone with whom I could have a deep, meaningful, engaged conversation that would challenge me and push me to think in new ways, and that I would come away from that experience not just respecting her but genuinely liking her.

The ground covered by the essays in this anthology was perhaps even wider than in most multi-author collections, because the unifying factor was having been influenced by a particular thinker rather than some shared core analysis or common field. There were certainly a few that touched me -- that felt to me like they were speaking in what I think in left Christian circles would be understood as a "prophetic voice." For example, though they were about contexts of which I shall never be a part, I thought "Transnational Feminism and the Rhetoric of Religion" by Serena Jones and "Postcolonial Challenges and the Practice of Hospitality" by Letty M. Russell were both powerful because of their difficult, honest reflection and calls for justice. I also really liked Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz's piece "Justice and Love Shall Kiss" -- it occasionally felt a little meandering, but contains potential insights about the affective dimension of struggles for justice that anyone can learn from, regardless of faith. My identification with Anne E. Patrick's "'Framework for Love': Toward a Renewed Understanding of Christian Vocation" was more partial because its insights were not quite as transferable to non-Christian contexts. Still, there was some scope to extract meaning from where I sit, and I am intrigued by the notion of "vocation" as it is used in some Christian contexts. I also was glad to be introduced to Frederick Buechner's definition of "vocation" as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

Most of the essays in the collection were not as compelling for me, however, probably because of where I am coming from in reading it. A couple I had trouble identifying with at all because they placed such heavy emphasis on purely theological concerns. Several applied Farley's thought to contemporary issues within the Roman Catholic church. These were of some political interest to me -- it's an institution that has always fascinated me -- but in a fairly general way. There were also a couple of what I would take to be more traditional ethics papers, where analysis is applied to a particular conundrum at the personal level. These, again, are not quite as directly relevant to my own interest, although in one of these a particular kind of framework was built using works of Thomas Aquinas that could be extended to some important and radical insights.

I think the overall weaknesses of the collection for me were exemplified by the essay "Human Rights and Women's Rights: Initiatives and Interventions in the Name of Universality" by David Hollenbach, apparently a senior academic with a longstanding interest in theories of human rights. This is not a shallow treatment of questions of universality, specificity, and intervention, but it is one that is fundamentally compromised by its entrapment within liberalism. For about two seconds I was inspired to take the three or four hours it would take to write a detailed response showing how this essay is sensitive, thoughtful, and totally misses the point, with potentially destructive political outcomes, but I decided it would be a pretty silly use of my time. Nonetheless, this essay makes quite visible the ways in which many of the essays in this collection are not made less useful or less interesting to me because of their commitment to Christianity, but rather because of their commitment to liberalism as a framework. I had been hoping to find more rabble rousing, liberation theology-based pieces.

Though it is of little general significance, my own immediate concern is how to proceed after this initial wave of relatively random readings in the field. I now know enough that, if I thought it was useful, I could construct a reading list that would last me six months or more, but I don't need to develop that kind of expertise. So I am going to go back to the interview that will form the basis for the chapter that I am working on, read it thoroughly and begin to put together some ideas of what to use from it and how to organize it, and then reassess what further research I will need to do. In the meantime, I will read a couple of books that are unrelated.

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

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