Thursday, May 08, 2008

Review: Powers and Submissions

[Sarah Coakley. Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.]

This book -- in contrast to most of the others that I have been reading as part of my arbitrary and very partial exploration of feminist theology for professional purposes (even though I myself do not identify as Christian) -- is, as far as I can tell, theology for theologians. It is thoroughly academic. Like much academic work, it assumes facility with a particular set of technical vocabulary and familiarity with some otherwise esoteric background material. In this case, they are a facility and a familiarity that I largely lack. However, I am a firm believer in dealing with a new area of learning by jumping in and figuring it out as you go, and this certainly helped me to do that.

My reaction to reading this book was quite mixed. On the one hand, though I may not have understood everything and certainly am not invested in many of the debates in which it intervenes, I did appreciate its sophistication and its willingness to engage not just with theology but also with material from non-theological philosophy and theory at various points. It is also closer to what I expected all of my reading in this area to feel like than has been the case.

On the other hand, there were important elements of the place from which Coakley was writing and of the stance she takes up that made me uncomfortable -- unfairly so, at least to a certain extent. For one thing, paying careful attention to this text allows you to get a sense of the author as being embedded in academic institutions and in religious institutions, but not really of organic connection to social spaces constituted by feminism-as-movement. This is not necessarily a problem -- I've learned plenty from people who are not themselves part of social movements -- but it is in striking contrast with some of the other things I've read in this area so far. In combination with the observation that this is the most recent volume I have yet read, it adds weight to my impression that the evolution of the relationship between theology and feminism parallels the relationship between the academy and the New Left movements more generally, i.e. a tendency over time towards professionalization, institutionalization, and some combination of individual disconnection from movement-as-base and demobilization of important parts of those movements.

I also got the sense of being put in the position of antagonistic other in my reading of this book. There was something in its tone that projected a mild sense that non-Christians are not just people grounded in different traditions with whom there is a responsibility to find ways to collaborate for justice and liberation, but are in some ways opponents. Admittedly, this may just be an instance of my indifference to religion being troubled by resonance with past observations of faith-based, self-righteous, sometimes-oppressive, in-groupery that occurred in a much different context. That is to say, I recognize that it may be unfair of me to react like this. The fact is that I want people whose work I read to be totally up front about what they consider to be the strengths of their analysis, and if they think that Christianity has something to offer, I want to hear about it. But there was something about a couple of the book's engagements with non-Christian thinkers that left a bad taste in my mouth. The examination of (secular queer feminist theorist) Judith Butler in conjunction with Gregory of Nyssa, a writer from the early centuries of Christianity, is intriguing, and I'm glad Coakley does it -- this "unlikely pair of interlocutors" would be interesting to relate to one another at greater length, despite the many centuries that separate them. However, I'm not sure her reading of Butler and her use of that reading to make some rather broad points about late 20th century and early 21st century theorizing around gender are entirely fair (not that I'm claiming more than a very superficial sense of what Butler has to say myself). As well, Coakley's treatment of post-Christian feminist theologian Daphne Hampson in the first chapter of the volume, though entertaining, is positively vicious in its own academic way. And I got the sense that part of why Hampson and Butler were found lacking is because they seek answers that do not include Christ.

I also thought it was hypocritical of Coakley to level the well-worn charge against Butler and post-modern theory more generally that it has contributed to conditions that make it harder for immediate, material struggles for justice to get cultural purchase and make progress, in contrast with older socialist narratives and the like -- I'm not sure too many activists on the ground would find Coakley's own brand of rarified theology to be much more directly useful to their work than Butler's opaque texts.

And that got me thinking about the project of theology more generally. From the perspective of concrete social change, I'm not sure what the point of theology is, or at least theology-for-theologians. I suppose it plays a role along with other discursive and material factors, in organizing the practices of religious institutions and, through that, of believers themselves. It is therefore a terrain of struggle than can have an impact. But it also made me think of various people I've known through the years who identify as Christian, and who may or may not have any truck with radical or progressive politics themselves. With one or two exceptions, I'm not sure very many of them would have any interest in theology of this sort, or feel any particular connection between it and their everyday practices and experiences of their faith. I'd be interested in hearing what theologians who prioritize justice and liberation, including feminists, have to say about that disjuncture.

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hysperia said...

For the relationship between Xianity and social practice, have you ever studied "liberations theology"? Here's a good place to start for some resources:

For a more accessible feminist theology I kinda like Rosemary Radford Reuther.

As for obscure theologians critisizing postmodernist theory for its transformative capacity, I'm not sure why its obscurity means the critisism is wrong.

Scott said...

Hi hysperia!

Yes, I'm aware of liberation theology. Thanks for the link! And I've only read one essay by RRR, but I agree that she seems to have interesting things to say.

And I agree that obscurity does not necessarily mean that criticism is wrong...I don't think that's what I said, or at least it's not what I meant. I disagreed with some but not all of her take on Butler, certainly, but thought there was valuable material in there as well. That was separate from my observation that it was kind of hypocritical for a writer so inaccessible and disconnected from social change (at least as far as one can observe from this book) to be making a big deal out of Butler's (admittedly substantial) inaccessibility and disconnection.

tcarter said...

Re Coakley's chapter critiquing Hampson's position, it is worth noting that that chapter first appeared in a collection of essays edited by Hampson, in which she gave a very able defence of her position.