Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Janet Soskice - Blood and Defilement

Ready for some talk about periods? I thought so. Janet Soskice is a (amongst other adjectives) Catholic feminist theologian. She taught at Cambridge when I was there, and used to wear a lovely green suit. She has written a bit about feminism and Christology, on which more below:

The Problem
Jesus was a man – perhaps surprisingly, no one has yet suggested that, on that point at least, the Bible got it wrong. But why did God choose to become incarnate as a man rather than a woman? Theologians have given various answers, but until recently, they've mostly gone with Aquinas who said that: “because the male excels the female sex, Christ assumed a man’s nature.” Both conservative and post-Christian feminists have often, as a result, assumed that the language of maleness and hence of patriarchy are inextricable from the biblical text. Uh oh.

The Assumptions
"Antifeminist” and “post-Christian feminists” share some assumptions. They tend to assume that religious symbols are unchanging through historical theology and through the biblical texts, so that words like “father” have a static meaning, that our understanding of the differences between genders are unchanging throughout history and that gender symbolisms are always connected to biological sex. All of these assumptions are problematic – actually, biblical texts and the writings of theologians are often happy to use a whole range of sexed images when talking about God, sometimes in deliberately contradictory ways in order to disrupt the idolatrous idea that God is male or female.

The Application: Blood and Defilement
Can we find the feminine in the story of Christ, then? The cross is a good place to start. Traditionally, the piercing of Jesus' side and the outflow of blood and water has been read as an image of the crucifixion as childbirth (that is, Jesus giving birth to the Church), and the blood of Jesus poured out as feeding us, connecting Jesus' body with the female body. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, women were seen as much more physical than men, and while this was often used to argue that they were rubbish, it also meant that they were seen as closer to Christ, the physical side of God.

In the medieval period, it was generally assumed that everyone was male in one sense (see [link] Aristotle on the female as defective male), but female in another sense, because the soul was always seen as female in relation to God (this is probably where CS Lewis gets it from). Jesus was often discussed using female language because the physicality of mothers – bleeding, feeding, and giving birth – was connected with his saving role. The imagery of blood, death, food, birth and milk is often found in various places in the New Testament.

But what, then, do we do about the Levitical emphasis on blood as a source of uncleanness and defilement, which often excludes women, as the more bleedy gender, from the holiest places and greatest closeness to God? Let's take the story of Jesus' healing of the woman with irregular bleeding, which goes with story of Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead. Both stories deal with issues of defilement and death, of fertility and new life. Jesus restores fertility and wholeness – a new creation. The impurity that comes from bleeding isn’t because bleeding is sinful, but because of the holiness of blood and birth and life. Women are excluded by bleeding which should be to do with fertility but doesn't yield life (e.g. menstruation). Early Christian legend and art identifies the bleeding woman with St Veronica who wiped Christ's brow on his way to Golgotha: there's a parallelism between the cloth of Christ’s garment, which stopped the flow of the woman’s blood, and Veronica’s cloth which stops the flow of Christ’s blood. As woman’s flow of blood is stopped and her fertility restored, so Christ’s flow of blood is turned from death to “new life.”

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Making Sex

Tee hee. Sex.

Sorry. Let's talk about Laqueur. He's interested in the way we understand the difference between men and women. Contemporary writers have often distinguished between sex (the biological difference between men and women) and gender (the culturally constructed roles we assign to men and women). Laqueur's basic argument is that it's more complicated than that, and he traces the history of the different ways people have understood sex in order to argue that the way we see biology is inextricable from our culturally constructed ideas about what it means to be men and women. He writes about three different ways of understanding the male/female difference: the ancient one-sex model, associated with Galen; the ancient two-sex model, associated with Aristotle, and the modern two-sex model.

Galen's idea (Galen was one of the earliest doctors) was that there's basically only one sex, and that women aren't fundamentally different to men but are just weaker versions of men. Part of the reasoning behind this was the idea that female genitalia were just the inverse of male genitalia, which came from the physical similarities between them: so the ovaries were roughly equivalent to the testes and the vagina to the penis (if you draw it right, it does look a bit like and inside-out penis). His idea was that men were hotter than women (temperature-wise, that is), and the greater heat in their bodies pushed their genitals out, and also for the fact that they were, generally, better. It also meant that the boundary between male and female was fluid, and men were always threatened with the danger of becoming female (so had to make sure they acted sufficiently bloke-ish to avoid this), and that if girls behaved in inappropriately male ways, they might become men (Laqueur relates some funny folk tales about girls acting like boys and then - whoops! - a penis suddenly appearing).

Aristotle, on the other hand, advocated a model which saw men and women as essentially different. He associated men with soul and reason, and women with matter and physicality. In his biology, it was the sperm which gave life, and women were just the receptacle. His account is less funny, but no less misogynistic. Are you starting to see now how we read culture into biology?

Laqueur's main point is that, around the 18th century, a new model for understanding the male/female difference emerged. It saw men and women, for the first time, as "opposite sexes". This was very much related to new discoveries in biology, though these too were very much culturally interpreted. For example, around this time the first drawings of the female skeleton emerged. No one had bothered to draw a female skeleton before, because everyone had assumed that male and female skeletons were pretty much the same, but now people became determined to find the differences because they became convinced (before the emergence of any evidence that would force this view) that men and women we completely different in every part of themselves. For a while, it was thought that women's skulls were smaller, suggesting (naturally) that women were stupider. Then it emerged that, proportional to their bodies, women actually had larger skulls. Aha! said the scientists. We all know who else has a big skull proportional to their body - children! Women, then, must be childlike - i.e. stupider than us. Nice. It was this sort of reasoning which led to the study of racial differences in biology, an interest which waned in popularity since - I wonder why?

The key point is this, though: science is never culturally neutral. It always interprets, and can never be fully disentangled from ideology and prejudice. What's the difference between men and women? Now there's a question. Maybe we'll come back to it later.

Monday, 8 December 2008

"We come to know love only in the context of failure."
- Christos Yannaras

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Heretics: Montanism

Montanism is/was a funny heresy, because it's not entirely clear what it was about and why it was deemed to be heretical. It's especially interesting for modern charismatic Christians, because the problem with Montanus seems to be something to do with his belief in prophecy, which might raise the question: is the modern charismatic movement Montanist?

Montanus started causing problems in the mid-2nd century in the Asian church. According to the sources (unlike many early heresies, we don't have anything written by the Montanists to tells us what they thought, so pretty much everything we know about them comes from people who disapproved of them), Marcion was a recent convert who, wanting to be important, "let the devil in" and started prophesying: "moved by the spirit he fell into a state of possession...and abnormal ecstasy, insomuch that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds, that is to say, prophesying contrary to the manner in which the Church had received from generation to generation by tradition from the beginning." He began to attract a following, including two women who also began to prophesy.

The local church got together and decided that Montanism was decidedly non-U, what with its "new fangled" teaching (isn't "fangled" just a brilliant word?) and "madness of the soul." They were kicked out. With them, at some point, went Tertullian, one of the early defenders of Christianity who started off as part of mainstream Christianity and subsequently went off with the Montanists.

Self harm, drugs, and rock'n'roll
So, what was the problem with Montanism? It could be simply that the claim to prophesy was at this point in the church's history considered beyond the pale. However, it looks to me like there are two things in particular that might have been the root of the church's problems with Montanism. First is the manner of the prophesying. An anonymous source talks of the frenzy, babbling and ecstasy of the Montanists' prophecy. This sounds a lot like the sort of prophesying common to the Ancient Near East, but generally not so popular with Christians and Jews. Prophets would whip themselves up into a state of ecstasy, often using music, drugs, or even self-harm to enable them to achieve this, and then go on to prophesy. You find this sort of prophecy in the biblical story of Saul's prophetic frenzy and the prophets of Baal when they have a competition with Elijah to see who can call down fire. In contrast, most biblical prophecies seem to be delivered by people who are rather more compos mentis. So that's one possibility.

The other possibility is that Montanus was claiming to have either new revelation from God or new and authoritative interpretations of traditional teachings. He was prophesying before the formation of the canon of Scripture, and may have been one of the factors prompting the church t come up with an official list of authoritative books in order to rule out new and unorthodox teaching.

Interesting questions, then, for the charismatic/Pentecostal churches: what are the limits of acceptability in terms of prophecy? Where is the border between biblical prophecy and more suspect altered-state prophecy? To what extent is it possible/desirable to create a particular atmosphere/mental state among Christians in order to facilitate hearing from God (particularly, where does music cross the line from helpful to dodgy)? How do we balance prophecy with the teachings and traditions of the Church? Try it: ask yourself or your favourite Pentecostal, "Are you a Montanist?"

Friday, 5 December 2008

Walter Brueggemann - Faith at the Nullpunkt

Walter Brueggeman is an Old Testament scholar. One of the things he writes about is the eschatological (i.e. to do with the “last things”: judgment, the new heavens and the new earth etc.) hope we find in the writings of the Old Testament. He says that for Israel, eschatology comes in at the point where it seems like God's promises to Israel have failed, after Jerusalem has fallen and Israel has been taken into exile due to their sin. For Israel, this is the point at which it's hardest to see how what God has promised can ever come to pass, and Brueggeman says that here, Israel has two tasks: to relinquish what has gone, to acknowledge what God has ended; and to receive the gift of hope that he inexplicably and unnecessarily offers to them. Israel is caught between the end of the old and the beginning of the new, and it's in this context that their eschatological hope emerges.

Brueggeman identifies five things that we see at this nullpunkt, this turning point in Israel's history, where they are caught between exile and homecoming; chaos and new creation; complaint and praise:

  1. The turn from exile to homecoming is lyrical, imaginative, and exuberant. Israel is expectant, but it doesn't know exactly what the future redemption will look like. Their hope isn't reasonable, controlled or precise, but wildly exuberant and creative.
  2. Israel’s imaginative exuberance about the future it will receive from Yahweh is informed and shaped by Israel’s memory of his previous generosity and fidelity. The images of exodus, creation, the promised land all shape how Israel thinks about its future.
  3. This way of imagining the hoped-for future, that transposes remembered miracles into anticipated miracles requires a way of thinking that is open to a myriad of images, figures, and metaphors. No single image is adequate because reducing hope to only one image would turn lyrical expectation into description and prediction, something Israel will not and cannot do.
  4. Israel won't and can't give a precise definition of what they are hoping for, but at the same time insists that their hope is about real life in the real world. Because their hope is for the real world, to hope doesn't mean simply to wait around until God acts, but to live in a countercultural way that challenges and subverts their existing sociopolitical situation.
  5. Israel's hope is theocentric, Yahweh-centric. It isn't something they can bring about themselves, but something which they hope and trust that God will do.
This isn't just an interesting perspective on Old Testament eschatology, though - it relates to us, to the Church. As the people of God, caught in many ways between death and resurrection, between Jesus' ascension and his return, Israel can offer a model for us in imagining God's promised future, the kingdom of God.