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.”


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