Tuesday 27 September 2011

Augustine's Embarrassing Bodies

There are accounts in pagan history of certain monstrous races of men ... some of these monsters are said to have only one eye ... others have the soles of their feet turned backwards behind their legs; others have the characteristics of both sexes ... Then there are men without mouths, who live only by inhaling through their nostrils; there are others whose height is only a cubit ... We are told in another place that there are females who conceive at the age of five and do not live beyond their eighth year. There is also a story of a race who have a single leg attached to their feet; they cannot bend their knee and yet have a remarkable turn of speed ... There are some men without necks, and with eyes in their shoulders.

What am I to say of the Cynocephali, whose dog's head and actual barking prove them to be animals rather than men?
City of God 16.8

Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together. Others without moving the head can bring the whole scalp ... down toward the forehead and bring it back again at will. Some can swallow an incredible number of various articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm, can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. There are others who imitate the cries of birds and beasts and the voices of any other men, reproducing them so accurately as to be quite indistinguishable from the originals, unless they are seen. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region. I know from my own experience of a man who used to sweat whenever he chose; and it is a well-known fact that some people can weep at will and shed floods of tears.
City of God 14.24

Via Virginia Burrus and Karmen MacKendrick's article in Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation and Relationality

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Bataille, Balthasar, and sexual violence

Georges Bataille is a French philosopher and novelist who thinks that we need to go so deeply into mystical experience (he prefers 'inner experience', which doesn't have such theological connotations) that we go beyond any dogmatic ideas about God existing or being trinitarian or good or whatever. He rejects the idea that self-denial or chastity are routes to this inner experience: instead, we get there by plumbing the depths of anguish, by going to extremes of laughter, eroticism, sacrifice and poetry.

He says this:
Access to the extreme limit has as a condition the hatred not of poetry but of poetic femininity (the absence of decision; the poet is woman; invention, words rape him).
Hans Urs von Balthasar was a Swiss theologian and priest who also thought we should go deeply into mystical experience, though he was much more of a good Catholic, who believed in the Trinity, in Jesus, that God was good and so on. He thinks that the Church is exemplified by the figure of Mary, who gives us a model of 'active reception' which we should all imitate in our relationships to God.

He has Christ say this to the Church:
I dared to enter the body of my Church, the body which you are ... my Spirit has overpowered my unruly and recalcitrant flesh ... (Never has woman made more desperate resistance!) ... our blood-wedding, the red wedding of the Lamb - is, already, here and now, the white bridal bed of divine love.
As Tina Beattie points out, this basically compares the love between Christ and the Church to an act of rape.

So, both Bataille and Balthasar present women as essentially rapeable. Bataille thinks this is a reason to reject femininity; Balthasar thinks it's a reason to imitate it. Which is worse?

Friday 9 September 2011

A theology of breastfeeding

Two months later, we finally have the internet in our house. Woop!

And what better way to re-start blogging than with a post about boobs? Boobs boobs boobs boobs boobs. Ah, that's better. They are, in case you hadn't noticed, political, especially when they're involved in the rearing of children. Does bottle feeding your baby mean you're a slave of capitalism? Does breastfeeding limit your ability to take equal place with men in the world of work? Or does it mean that you've been sucked into unhealthy ideals of the 'perfect mother', who is always implicitly white – might bottle feeding be a form of resistance to racist ideals of what it means to be a good mother? Whenever you read about breastfeeding though, it's almost always portrayed as a decision made by the mother as an individual. Does breast or bottle feeding make that individual woman a good or a bad mother?

Rachel Muers' article 'The Ethics of Breast Feeding' asks, what if motherhood is about a more complex set of relationships? What if the decisions mums make about how they feed their babies are about the networks of relationships to which they belong? What if the role of children within breastfeeding isn't simply passive? What if the Christian images of breastfeeding used to talk about the way that we learn from and are nourished by God or by other people gives us a more complicated model of what it means to feed and be fed?

We sometimes talk as though the role of the mother is to protect her child from every bad thing in the world. But vulnerability can be a strength: mothers pass on their acquired immunities to their children, and through the imperfect shield of their mother's body, a child slowly becomes acclimatised to their environment. But the vulnerability of mothers also means that bad things get passed on: HIV/AIDS, poor nourishment.

What, asks Muers, might a feminist theological ethics of breast-feeding or infant feeding look like? Mothers know how hard it is to ignore their babies' cries; they learn how much human beings depend on one another and feed off one another. To think theologically about breastfeeding, says Muers, is to think about what it means to apply these lessons to thinking about all of the relationships that a mother and her child are involved in: with their immediate family, with their social context, and with God.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP