Reclaiming women’s part in redeeming
by Mary Grey
Chapter 7 from Redeeming the Dream. Feminism, Redemption and Christian Tradition, SPCK, London 1989, pp. 126 – 152. Republished with permission of the author who has the full copyright.
Professor Dr. Mary Grey has been lecturer at St. Mary’s College, London, and visiting Professor in Feminist Theology at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands. At present she is scholar in residence at Sarum College, Salisbury, Visiting Professor Southampton University and Honorary Professor, Lampeter, University of Wales.
‘A passion to make and make again where such un-making reigns’. Atonement from a Feminist Perspective
It is now time to face the biggest challenge of all. The capacity to operate from within the relational scene, to grasp the connected strands of interpersonal relatedness, to link interior and exterior dimensions of being and acting as well as the awareness of nonhuman aspects as sources of healing have been shown as strengths, emerging from women’s experience. Whether or not historically all women have actually experienced this in their own lives at a conscious level, they have often been holding alive all humanity’s yearning for deeper and more satisfying patterns of relating.
I have argued that this dynamic quality of mutuality-in-relating can be part of divine creative-redemptive energy in the process of world transformation. It has also been seen as the driving energy in the life praxis of Jesus. But whether it can function as a saving force, as soteriological, in the way the traditional atonement theories were meant to, needs to be discovered. Whether it can actually bear the weight of the guilt, evil and tragedy to which they spoke, is far from being proved. In this chapter I will delve for positive roots for this theory, before offering a new symbolism. Finally I will return to the central cross symbol, asking whether it can continue to hold such a powerful and unique position within contemporary Christianity.
But first of all, if we keep the very word atonement it must be reimaged as at-one-ment, as a fundamental drive to unity and wholeness, which itself sparks off the creative-redemptive process. Not to do this would preserve the lingering aspects of guilt and expiation which cling, limpet-like, to the concept (with all the attendant difficulties already described). It would also encourage the criticism that all I am doing is dredging up doctrine from the silt of centuries and giving it a new coat of paint for the twentieth century and the feminist movement, so that feminist Christians can rest content in the Church, without questioning its symbol structure at the deepest level. A t-one-ment itself is a metaphor which evokes the goal of mutuality and the process of achieving it.
But if my claim that this is a strand hidden within the tradition holds water, we should be able to glimpse other examples of mutuality-in-relation in Christian theology and living. I will bring three to light, and use them as building blocks for my theory.
ATONEMENT IN PROCESS THOUGHT
The argument unfolds within a relational world, the world of the systems theory of interlocking, mutually dependent eco-systems described in Chapter 2. It unfolds within a process world of the mutuality of divine and human becoming. So it follows that the first building block will be process thought on atonement. It is to the process thinkers that we owe the challenge to the traditional theories that their focus was on everything but the dynamics of love: ‘What account would be given of atonement’, wrote Daniel Day Williams, ‘if we were to interpret it from the standpoint of the most realistic analogies we know to human love when it deals with broken relationships and the consequent suffering?(1)
It is belief that the focus of creation/redemption/atonement processes should be on the healing of broken relationships which links the strength of the Greek theory of atonement with the criticalliberationist perspective developed here. The process thinkers provide a framework, even if a slightly woolly one, for they do not sufficiently develop their own insights against the politico-social structures.
But it was not Daniel Day Williams so much as Bernard Meland who strikingly drew attention to the unity of creation and redemption, insisting that to separate the two would appear to set Jesus Christ above the God of creation and to particularize faith in Jesus Christ to such an extent that the basic unity of God with all fellow-creatures is weakened.(2) (This is a theme dwelt on by feminist theologians and also by those who wrestle with the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the context of ecumenism and world-faiths.) If we hold together this process, then atonement can be subsumed under the moreembracing, central concept of redemption, which is, Meland writes perceptively, ‘the renewal of the creative act in human life by which the sensitive nature which is God is made formative and fulfilling in our purpose. Whatever happens in life to open up our natures to the tendernesses of life which are of God is redemptive’ (my italics).(3)
Meland was particularly influenced by this idea of the tendernesses of God as redemptive, says Daniel Day Williams.(4) Whitehead’s work itself inspired the theme: he saw that divine redemptive action’. . . dwells in the tender elements of the world, which, slowly and in quietness, operate by love, and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world . . . Yet, where is this tenderness? Converted into jurisdiction, authority, power-structures . . .”
Within a view of life seen as relational, these pastorally-concerned men saw human becoming as response, redemption as being rescued from the structures of individualism through the graced experience itself dependent on the sense of being forgiven – of entering the dynamics of the relational situation, which characterize every event.
The redemptive event, like the creative event which fashioned form from chaos, is a form-giving process, which will create meaning and purpose from the apparent hopelessness, failure and brokenness which threaten to overwhelm us in our personal and communal life. But it is not to be completely identified with the evolutionary process. It is rather an emergence at the level of human consciousness where there is a reaching out beyond egoistic satisfaction, or gratification, to a qualitative meaning of unity deeper than the principle of individual organization alone.
This emergent redemptive meaning cannot happen at the level of evolutionary growth alone because it can often be experienced as the very reversal of growth, as the ‘shattering of the self’ – an idea I have already questioned from the point of view of women’s experience. Here Meland means not so much a shattering of the self as an attraction of the self towards a higher emergence of form. This is the higher plane to which George Eliot’s Dorothea was attracted when she attempted to rise above her own pain in an effort to help others. In so doing she was co-operating with God in ‘widening the skirts of light’ – a mysticism of redemptive mutuality. In a way which anticipated the feminist critique, Meland believed it was a mistake to rely on Christ alone as mediator of grace, as this makes us totally dependent on Christology (thus failing to claim our own power in relation). We also tend to depreciate completely the structures of value contained in our own experience. For example, we fail to discern who in our own life and world is redemptive and liberating for us both as ideal and exemplar, and as subjectively empowering-inmutuality. We are blind as to what resources are available to us here and now as we struggle to claim divine creative grace for today. Could we now rather look back to Christ, says Meland, as an irruption into history in which the good that is in God and the tendernesses of abundant life came into view? Thus the appeal to Christ as a source of faith in this grace he writes, ‘is a return to the concrete depths of his own existence, to the aperture within our nature through which the good is made vivid and actual within ourselves’.(6)
With this interpretation we can see that the Pauline expression of living ‘in Christ’ does not really mean a loss of self but a re-focusing of self-consciousness around a higher centre of value. As we have seen, this is a vital point for women, for whom identity with another has frequently involved both a loss of and victimization of self. Just as female spirituality tries to find accord between inner and outer modes of experience, between bodily and spiritual dimensions, so redemption as Meland envisages it, only advances ‘as we feel into the situation with our bodies such that our feeling self cries out in affection toward the right and the good, so that the feeling of our bodies accords with our conscious awareness in relation to ideas, facts, situations . . .”(7)
We can even find here the beginnings of a theory of power-inrelation, although Meland does not make the identification which Carter Heyward did with God as power-in-relation. He sees clearly that power is an ingredient in the relational situation, and can be misused for autonomous ends ‘without concern for the fact of relatedness’. Yet in the Gospels power arises from an internal ordering of relationships and, presupposing sensitivity, assumes the magnitude of a great force. (This is what Carter Heyward had described as ‘the power which drives to justice and makes it’.) In this combination of sensitivity plus power is the creative possibility of a novel condition of goodness in a particular relational encounter. This can then become – in process terms – a ‘new society of occasions’. Meland calls for more awareness for this kind of power, which he calls – with great insight – a redemptive energy of faith which is the living force of the New Creation.
It might be ob jected at this point that such are Meland’s insights how does the theory I develop add anything new? Have feminist ideas of mutuality already been developed by process thinkers? But the problem with what Meland gives us – with all its sensitivity and vision – is that he does not relate it to the concrete structures of society. He does not enter the process of the radical new naming of good and evil in their specificity. He has not seen where the divine tendernesses are being kept alive, nor what are the dynamics which crush them. Nor has he named, for example, the evil of sexism, which conceals the fact that divine tenderness is barred from society’s structures as long as the myth of the eternal feminine sees tenderness as a personal and private feminine quality to be exercised within the confines of the home. If what Meland means by ‘tenderness’ involves replacing the ethic of individualistic egoism, the ethic of the success of a rich minority at the expense of an impoverished majority, by the values of compassion and justice and an alternative ethic of power, I can only concur. But this needs far more than tenderness: it will also demand protest, action and the raging of the stoic grandmothers!
Daniel Day Williams does take us further in his analysis of the human sin addressed by atonement doctrines, though he sees the latter as a crude hotchpotch of sacrificial and judicial analogies, no longer tenable today. Consistent with the analysis I have been presenting, he sees sin as the disruption of communion. He is aware of the two polarities of the becoming self – of self-affirmation and integration – but he sees them both as aspects of the will to communion. If the will to belong and to be in communion is the key to all human action and feeling, then sin is a blockage of this. He would even see the fury of hatred as born partly from the need to resist in the self what we really crave for in love and communion.
But what I find disappointing in his analysis is that, although he is aware of the feminist analysis of sin as passivity, he does not integrate this into his view of the differing nature of the conversion journeys and repentance which are needed. Conversion he sees – influenced apparently by Niebuhr – as ‘a shattering of the self, particularly with regard to sexuality’.(8) What is wrong with sexuality as it is experienced by both men and women he does not tell us. Nor does he explain – although aware of the tensions between the polarities of autonomy and interdependence – what a detrimental effect the imbalance in society between men and women has had on the possibilities of mutuality between them. But as Williams writes, sin is not, as is often thought, the overstressing of autonomy to the detriment of relatedness but the assumption that our present state of selfhood is the total meaning of existence, so that we refuse the deeper meaning which is both within and beyond the present: here we are back again to sin as the great refusal, the blocking of the relational grain of existence: ‘When that refusal becomes refusal to trust in the Giver of life, and the greater community He is creating, it is sin . . .’(9)
Williams’s great strength is to see atonement as God’s great task of reconciling love actually at work in the life and death of Jesus, so that his suffering is not viewed as penal and sacrificial, but as bound up with communication between persons. Jesus’ suffering both disclosed and opposed evil, but also had a transforming power which enabled people to be changed, in its revelation of a God who suffers with suffering humanity. (If God does not suffer, Williams writes, then God is not involved with the profoundest experience of human love: yet we should speak with great restraint of the suffering God.)
It is his conviction that the Church continues this divine work of atoning and reconciling, which is at the same time the work of new creation. This prompts me to ask whether the contemporary experience of psychotherapy should be regarded as part of the process of at-one-ment which I am investigating.
ROOTS OF AT-ONE-MENT: THE PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC PROCESS
At-one-ment based on the motif of the will to communion, or the dynamic of mutually, has many similarities with the approach of psychotherapy: for example, it also respects the interdependence of many factors, and gives healing value to the quality of empathy.(10) As in the interpretation of Daniel Day Williams, the atonement is seen as God’s work of reconciling love, so that, while what happened in Jesus Christ does bring about real redemption, this does not jeopardize God’s basic order and activity in the world. Again, the traditional theories of atonement are found to be inadequate, and the essence of the therapeutic relationship is described as the cure and change (salvation/redemption) of brokenness in human relationship.(11)
The human situation of lack of mutuality is termed by psychotherapy ‘incongruence’, which can mean estrangement, death, bondage and idolatry. (Here the description of the bondage of sin can be viewed as similar to the Greek view of atonement/redemption which we have seen was typified by Irenaeus.)
The redemptive process according to this model is set in motion by the healing relationship between client and therapist. This will depend on the empathic acceptance of the client by the therapist. This vital factor is known as ‘organismic experiencing’: ‘The essence of this hoped-for therapeutic change is the conscious experiencing and symbolizing of denied, distorted, rejected and disowned feelings.12
The concept of healing empathic acceptance between therapist and client, analogical as it is of the larger structures of society, is appropriately symbolized by the cross and resurrection dynamic, which manifests God’s feeling the depths of sin’s destructiveness, God’s love overcoming hostility by enduring it, but never losing the capacity to receive humanity into relationship. So again there is a similarity with the classical Greek cosmic view: this is because creative/redemptive processes are seen as unified – what is typical of soteriological activity is typical of creative activity. Also, sin, according to the psychotherapeutic view, is not so much viewed as guilt to be expiated (the Latin view), but as bondage or immaturity from which to be liberated. Browning even suggests that empathic acceptance should constitute the image of God in humanity: ‘The mature man’, he writes, ‘. . . would know and understand himself as one whose end is to enter into increasingly larger circles of concourse with the events of the external world.(13)
Clearly this view helps us to see how the relational process can be redemptive. It can àlso be understood as the key to the entire ministry of Jesus, who offered a dynamic process by which a person could come to the experience of healing and wholeness. The story of the healing of the blind man described in John’s Gospel, chapter 9, would be an excellent example of this: Jesus responds to the immediate needs of the man by healing him of his blindness in such a way that his healing is at the same time a re-creation. (Anointing the man’s eyes with clay appears to be a deliberate symbolic gesture evoking the creation story of Genesis.) The healing takes place in the context of other relational needs: the man’s parents, the blindness of the Pharisees, the man’s own spiritual needs. The climax of the story is the man’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the revelation that the truly blind are those who claim they can see, yet remain unflinching in their moral myopic stance.
From a- feminist critical point of view it must first be said that empathic acceptance must be balanced by judgement which holds in tension both a social/political analysis (14) and a humility before the reality of God. For we cannot ignore the importance of authentic value judgements for God. The process model (particularly of a feminist thinker like Marjorie Suchocki) shows how that it is not only the acceptance by God of all our feelings and experiences – including those of lack of self-worth – which is redemptive in itself, but the redressing of the loss, and the transformation of these negative experiences into alternative possibilities. After all, if redemption means anything at all, it means the overcoming of these sinful structures which provoked the breakdown of mutuality. But awareness as to our acceptability, despite our failures and assurance of transformative possibilities, must involve condemnation of sexist institutions and practices which secured our bondage in the first place.
Another warning bell must be rung from a feminist point of view. The women’s movement has alerted our attention to the difficulties of communication which many women experience with some male psychotherapists. Women’s anxieties have often been interpreted as neurotic and unhealthy. Adequate language for their articulation of their fears has not been developed. Again, it is mostly contemporary fiction which has begun to explore the dilemma from a female point of view. For example, Marge Piercy in her novel Women at the Edge of Time focuses on an alternative definition of madness.(15) Doris Lessing, too, through the figure of Martha Quest exposes the superficial approach of psychiatry which frequently offers drugs and hospitalization instead of true healing:
Soon, probably in the next decade, the truth would have to be admitted. It would be admitted with a bad grace, be glossed over, softened. And just as we now say ‘They burned and drowned witches for a couple of centuries out of a primitive and ignorant terror’, soon we will be saying ‘when they stopped torturing and killing witches, they locked people with certain capacities into lunatic asylums and told them they were freaks, and forced them into conformity by varieties of torture’.(16)
Thirdly, this discussion of what is normality raises the question whether the therapeutic process under consideration addresses itself to the deeper problems of the oppression of women. If the psychotherapist/counsellor/priest is himself part of the oppressive structure, how is it possible that he will release the subjugated knowledges referred to in Chapter 1, and the memories which will enkindle the healing processes?
This difficulty forces one to ask if atonement focusing solely on mutuality and the healing of personal relationships can work without a radical social analysis. This I will now investigate.
ROOTS OF AT-ONE-MENT: NINETEENTH- AND EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY THOUGHT
The real question now to be explored is how much we have actually progressed, by beginning to interpret atonement in terms of personal relationships. Historically speaking, the concern for mutuality at the heart of God’s redemptive process is found earlier than the work of both process thinkers and psychotherapists. Pioneering work like that of Moberley,(17) Bushnell (18) and Scott Lidgett (19) were important in the Anglo-Saxon world in drawing attention away from the legal, forensic aspects of atonement to the realm of family relationships. H. H. Farmer developed the personal model of atonement as the polarization of the act which at the same time condemns and saves, judges and forgives, always within a personal context.(20) Because family relationships could now be reflected on in terms of reconciling love, because concepts of parenthood were changing, so the reciprocity of relationality and the mutuality of forgiveness became acceptable as an atonement model. Even the model of encounter became popular as an image of atonement.
But again we have to ring the warning bell. Bringing personal relationships to bear on the atonement doctrine may not make much difference to the redemptive possibilities for women. On the face of it, it seems very moving when a writer like Horace Bushnell compares the atoning work of Christ to that of a mother who bears all her child’s pain and sickness in her own feeling, and takes every opportunity for sacrifice as her own opportunity.(21) But this trend towards feminization of nineteenth-century liberalism, says Ann Douglas, often represents sentimentalizing tendencies, and does nothing to challenge the stereotypical view of women: ‘Strength, as essential to the genuine feminine as to genuinely masculine social structures, is absent, weakness itself, no matter how unintentionally, is finally extolled.’(22) This personalizing tendency itself had the consequence of pushing women further into the private sphere, reemphasizing the qualities stressed by the myth of the eternal feminine, even justifying women’s exclusion from the priesthood on the grounds of Christlikeness.(23)
On the face of it, then, this concern for mutuality and the dynamics of personal relationship seen as the work of reconciling love (as atone-ment) may seem to be an enormous advance on the models described in Chapter 6; it has achieved much in redeeming the very image of God from punitive and vengeful features, and it touches the level of lived experience in its affective dimension. But since the emphasis is on personal healing and wholeness, it leaves untouched those structures of society and Church which prohibit the full becoming of women in the first place. In fact, it may even reinforce their inferior status, by emphasizing the healing value of relational strengths in the private sphere.
So a much more radical re-imaging of atonement images and symbols is required if we are to create a language which speaks to the conscious and unconscious levels which cry out for redemption.
FROM SUFFERING TO REDEMPTIVE WOMAN
Asher Lev’s painting of his mother on a cross, the ‘Christa’ of Edwina Sandys, the murdered concubine of Judges 19 are all images of crucified and suffering women. The abused women who huddle today in the refuges for battered women know this reality only too well. Yet the crucifix in Christian iconography symbolizes victory over suffering and death. What I am trying to do here is to discover whether within Christian tradition there are any images of suffering, crucified woman as a redemptive figure, to be associated with the healing work of Christ. Can women bring forth redemption, Rosemary Ruether asks, from their sufferings on the cross of patriarchy?(24) Can they imitate and image Christ, in the sense of ‘mimesis’ and ‘methexis’ (participation) expressed by the Greek model of Atonement? If there are saving images to be discovered,
they may be the key to the radical re-imaging of at-one-ment processes required here. To see women participating actively in the redemptive process, not as totally passive recipients, requires a new understanding of cross/resurrection within this process.
So my search is not at the level of the significance of the gender of Christ, but whether the cross/resurrection event can be illuminated from a feminist understanding of the dynamic of right relation, and whether, by embracing this dynamic, human beings can be co-agents and co-creators of their own redemption. I am not simply looking for examples of women in ministerial or disciple roles – of which there are many – but examples of women responding to the Christ event through redemptive mutuality, in a way which is both self-affirming, yet self-transcending, which enables the voluntary assumption of suffering for the sake of a higher ideal.
Many early Christian writers witness that in the first two centuries of Christianity men and women – even a woman slave – who became martyrs could be seen as other Christs, Christ could be seen ‘in our sister’. There are two outstanding examples of this. The first is of Blandina, who, during the agony of her martyrdom, is described as alter Christus:
Now Blandina, suspended on a stake, was exposed as food to wild beasts, which were let against her. Even to look on her, as she hung, cross-wise, in earnest prayer, wrought great eagerness in those who were contending, for in their conflict they beheld with their outward eyes itl the form of their sister, the One who was crucified for them (my italics).(25)
The second example is interesting because it is the earliest Christian text of female authorship – or at least partially so.(26) It is a ‘protest’ account of third-century Christianity which dramatically tells the story of the persecution and martyrdom of Perpetua, daughter of a wealthy provincial of North Africa, her slave Felicitas (who was eight months pregnant), Satyrus – who was already baptized – and six others. The editors of this text see its significance in its portrayal of martyrdom as a powerful symbol of human liberation and self-fulfilment, and secondly, as demonstrating the emergence within the Church of a prophetic movement ‘in which women assumed leadership roles indicative of a male/female equality unknown in later periods of Christian history’.(27)
It is termed a ‘protest’ account because it describes Perpetua’s objections to restrictive elements within third-century Carthaginian society, which the editors take to mean her handing back her baby, so that she could endure prison more easily, and her assertion of independence over against the appeals of her old father. So, they say, Perpetua’s liberation was achieved through the transcending of the restrictions placed on female sexuality. Non-violent protests and liberation they see as the two themes characterizing her idealism. Similarly, they make great play out of the fact that Perpetua reconciled herself to God without the medium of a priest and generally seemed to be the instrument of her own salvation.
I think the authors are mistaken in imposing twentieth-century standards of what ‘liberation’ means on a third-century text. Even without this, the text speaks eloquently of the leadership qualities of Perpetual A small group of newly-fledged Christians, in a prison situation, thrown back on their own resources, had no choice but to be reconciled to God without a priest. In any case, the distinction between cleric/lay was not so rigid, nor was the practice of private confession to a priest – in an ecclesial sense – as well developed as it became later.
The glory of Perpetua’s achievement is the redemptive role she played in actively suffering for her chosen ideals. Perpetua’s visions have authority within her community, she has sufficient intercessory power to release her brother from his sufferings, she enters into direct combat with the powers of evil, and – what is notable for my theme – is the way that mutuality-in-community is an outstanding motif of the story: ‘Pudens, the official in charge of the prison . . . admitted many prisoners to our cell, so that we might mutually encourage each other’ (my italics).(28)
They even managed to turn their final meal together into a Christian agape. Both Perpetua and Felicitas are identified with the redemptive action of Christ, and even in her last moments in the arena Perpetua is described as full of concern for Felicitas (who was bruised) and as exhorting her brother and another catechumen to remain strong in faith. Their death was thought of as a second baptism, ritually prepared for by the kiss of peace. In her hour of trial she is described as a true spouse of Christ, the darling of God.
Felicitas’s hour of grace is also particularly moving, and illustrates, as does the story of Blandina, the powerful presence of Christ in the suffering Christian. Felicitas had prayed that her baby be born early: if not, she would not have been martyred with her companions, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women, and she would have been forced to die later, with common criminals. In answer to prayer she found herself in labour:
Because of the additional pain of an early delivery she suffered greatly during the birth and one of the prison guards taunted her: ‘If you’re complaining now, what will you do when you’re thrown to the wild beast?’
She answered, ‘Now it is I who suffer, but then another shall be in me, since I am now suffering for him . (29)
Surely this is an echo of the Damascus vision of Paul, when the voice of Jesus cried, ‘Saul, Saul why persecutes” thou me?’ Felicitas in her suffering is surely actively ‘bearing up God in the world’, witnessing to the extraordinary identification of Christ with all who voluntarily engage in redemptive suffering. She is depicted as passing from one shedding of blood to another, from midwife to gladiator.
So, although in the twentieth century we see redemptive categories as needing to address socio-political categories, we do not achieve anything by imposing our contemporary demands on the second and third centuries.(30) Their witness carries its own power.
Other examples of woman in redemptive, leadership roles against patriarchy are the medieval saints such as Clare of Assisi who defied parents who wanted them to make suitable marriages in order to follow what they believed God wanted them to do. Catherine of Siena is an outstanding example of this. Not only did she repeatedly refuse marriage, she also refused its alternative as a consecrated virgin in a convent. For three years she lived out her chosen role in solitude at home, until at twenty-one she began an external life amid the poor and sick of Siena with a group called the ‘mantellate’, who wore habits but lived in their own homes.(31)
Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel has also claimed that the redemptive role played by women in the early Christian community, in particular by Martha, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen,(32) endures in the brutality suffered by the crucified woman as seen in medieval pictures. Said to have been married by her father to a pagan husband whom she did not love, she betrothed herself to Christ whom she asked to deform her by giving her a beard: whereupon her royal father had her crucified. But, says Elizabeth Moltmann, the interesting thing is that this figure with the beard and the long garment is remembered above all in the Eastern Alps not as victim, but ‘liberatrix, = female liberator, and even now is treated as a legendary, painful, artistic mistake’.(33) What seems to block our appreciation of the liberating role of women in the Christian tradition is partly the artistic/literary/mythological canon that the hero/ saviour/redeemer figure is automatically masculine, women appearing in the great myths only as ‘goddess-ex-machina’ figures, as temptress or earth-mother.(34) This is why the ‘insurrection of the subjugated knowledges’ becomes so important. This is why it is vital to listen to the hidden cry, when the sculpture ‘Christa’ evokes a new element, that Christ will come again, as a woman, a theme already part of Shaker belief:(35)
. . . Today, Christ will come again as a woman, and she will change the female image as a servant . . . If Christ will come again as a woman, she will work as a labourer, as a farmer, and as a housewife of a lower-class family. She will cry with all the women who are suffering under oppression politically, socially, economically, religiously . . . After she will resurrect she will appear to the oppressed children who could not leave from the Calvary of her Cross.(36)
It is this desperate plea from poor and oppressed women, who see themselves as outside the healing power of the redemptive process, who see themselves as un-affirmed by either Church or society – like the situation of black South Africans who call for a new Moses which is the call for ‘another voice’, that of the subjugated knowledges, still concealed on the margins. What re-imaging of atone-ment will call these into the light?
RE-IMAGING AT-ONE-MENT: ‘TO HELP THE EARTH DELIVER’ (37)
I have used the ‘passion to make and make again’ as inspirational for this view of the process of at-one-ment. The first symbol I propose within the re-imaging enterprise is that of the ‘birthing of God’, the «eative energy for wholeness and transformation ceaselessly at work in creation, to which much of the experience of women bears witness.
The first point is that if we are in a position without power we have the possibility of developing a spirituality of devotion and care in the most ordinary of tasks, a sense of worth and reverence for the humblest of activities: the care of a child, cooking a meal for friends, growing vegetables, or simply a rootedness in the changing of the seasons. But we claim these activities not as a retreat into the private sphere, but as important human activities, with implications for the public, political sphere.
Yet where the reverencing and hallowing of creation has occurred in history – for example, quite recently, in Martin Buber’s recovery of Hasidic mysticism – it has often been in an idealizing manner, without the recognition of the contribution which women are making.
Secondly, with this care for the humblest things, comes a spirituality of the awareness of their possibility for transformation as we have already discussed – in, for example, the wisdom of herbal lore, the many arts of healing, cooking and growing plants, trees and flowers. The Findhorn Community in Scotland grows vegetables of immense size and quality on windswept sand-dunes. In the desert of the inner city people of vision transform bomb-sites into children’s play-gardens.
But these are only part of what is meant by the great symbol of’the birthing of God’, which is at the same time the groaning of the universe in travail (Rom. 8. 19-23). As Matthew Fox wrote, ‘Birthing requires the refusal to be victim, and it will help to bring an end to our long living with violence’ (38) This is far from being a call for women to have more children to save the world. Nor is it an over-glorification of motherhood at the expense of fatherhood. What I am arguing is that as Christianity has now had two thousand years of death symbolism, it is at least possible that the slaughter perpetrated in the name of Christendom is related to its symbols of death, blood-guilt and sacrifice, and that an alternative way of encapsulating the redemptive events might stimulate more compassionate lifestyles. The slave-traders, with their ships full of dying Africans, prayed to the God of Christianity, as did the Crusaders on their way to sack the most revered shrines in Constantinople. More recently, both sides engaged in the struggle of two World Wars prayed for victory to the God of Jesus Christ. As long as we carry on over-glorifying violent death, and using the cross event to justify this, it is difficult to envisage any changed perceptions.
After all, how are people changed? Where are the cracks of consciousness which make people open to alternative values? Is it not possible, as Fox argues, that ‘Eros has the power to wake us up, to see passion happen again, feeling return, hope and transcendence come alive . . . Here lie authentic conversions, changes of heart, and work, and lifestyle, so that one becomes committed to socialtransformation.’(39) Perhaps this could this be the shift of emphasis required from the overstressing of the cross event – mentioned earlier in the work of theologians like Küng and Moltmann – so that broader aspects of redemption have been overlooked.
Now it should be clear why I have consistently argued in the last two chapters for an interpretation of atonement which unifies the «eative and redemptive moments. For if creation is about giving birth, then so is redemption, transformation and, ultimately, at-onement. It is also the symbol which unites divine and human activity. For creation is first of all about God giving birth to myriad forms of mutuality, which go far beyond the merely human personal categories. (Hence the insistence in Chapter 3 that ‘Nature, too, mourns for a lost good’ and is both subject and object of redemption.)
As contrasting with a theology of authoritative power, transcendence, absolute freedom and otherness, this birthing of God is an expression of God’s fundamental being as interrelatedness. For in the beginning is the interrelatedness. The idea has been given liturgical expression by Carter Heyward:
In the beginning was God,
In the beginning was the source of all that is,
, God moaning,
God giving birth,
And God loved what she had made.
And God said, ‘It is good’.
And God, knowing that all that is good is shared,
held the earth tenderly in her arms.
God yearned for relationship.
God longed to share the good earth,
And humanity was born in the yearning of God,
We were born to share the earth.(40)
By analogy, human birthing originates in the mutuality between man and women, and itself creates new mutuality, between motherchild, child-parents, family-vis-à-vis dhe wider community. But it is the woman who is in travail for the new creation. The psychological and spirintual implications of the birth-giving experiences of women have never been explored as a resource for official theology.
Secondly, birthing is working, labouring. Thus the idea of divine activity expressed in verbs rather than nouns – together with the notion of the female self as relatedness (41) – is encapsulated by the activity of giving birth to new forms of mutuality, as co-creating with God in cosmic creativity, which Dorothee Soelle sees as the origin of the call to holiness. As Meister Eckhart has written so expressively, ‘From eternity to eternity God lies on a maternity-bed giving birth What does God do all day long? God gives birth.(42)
Sara Maidand has pointed out – in a moving passage which links creation, redemption and atonement width the experience of women that what is often missing from sentimentalizing accounts of childbirth is that it is painful, messy and hard work:
Birthing is the creating of new life through hard work (labour) and blood. Of course men do create life just as women do, and must be held to their responsibility for this . . .; but they do it differently in joy and delight . . . But God also brought new life, Gospel life to birth, stretched out for hours on the Cross, autonomy removed by aggressive experts, the Eternal Word reduced to wordless cries bleeding down into the dark, overwhelmed by the sense of desolation . . . And afterwards the joy and the new life, the sense of mystery and distance. It seems that the creative birthing of God as expressed in Christ’s passion . . . can be given a deeper relating if we can learn to hear as holy the bodily experiences of women, and trust the metaphor of God the Mother (my italics).(43)
But the metaphor of ‘the birthing of God’, far from being an invention of feminist theologians to make the experience of women more prominent, is in fact one of the hidden strands of our tradition which I am trying to reclaim.
Time and time again it is descriptive in the Old Testament of God’s experience with God’s child, Israel. Hosea (13.13) depicts the image of the sin of Ephraim (Israel) being that of missing the chance of birth to new hope, the failure of the delivery of the child. The prophet Micah uses the image of Israel, daughter of Sion, as the image of the woman in travail (Mic. 4.10). Isaiah, too, uses this image in the sense of the Day of the Lord, the day of destruction, when dhey will anguish like a woman in labour (Isa. 13.8). The same idea of labour pains brought on by dhe judgement of God is expressed by Jeremiah (4.31). But a more important aspect of dhe image is God’s travail in bringing forth God’s own people, a context of hope, even if also of labour and struggle (Isa. 42.14-16). We can also link the birthgiving and motherhood of God with that of women, using the metaphor of Jeremiah 31 (15-22):
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are not.
This is the passage quoted by Matthew’s Gospel (2.18) in the context of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children. The development of this metaphor has been traced by Phyllis Trible.(44) Here the motherhood of women is contrasted with that of God. Rachel is the ancestral human mother, lamenting from her grave the subsequent death of her children. ‘Directed to no one in particular, and hence to all who may hear, the voice of Rachel travels across the land, and through the ages to permeate existence with a suffering that not even death can relieve’, writes Phyllis Trible.(45) The suggestion is conveyed in v. 20 that Ephraim, the darling child of Jahweh, is also the child for whom Rachel weeps, and that God is sharing the mother’s suffering. Remembering the child is the hope for Rachel’s future. The triumphant climax of the story is where we move from the desolate lamentations of Rachel to the redemptive compassion of God. Male Israel becomes female Israel and there is an act of new creation:
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman protects a man. (Jer. 31.22b) (46)
Secondly, the image of motherhood(47) as linked with the birthing of new creation and the redemptive task of women is continued in the New Testament, in the context of hope and the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. It is most clearly seen in John 16.21-22, where Jesus explicitly makes use of the intertwining of the sorrow/joy motif as image of the birthing of the Kingdom, suggesting the theme of the present sufferings as the birth pangs of the new creation. If the birthing of the world issues from the compassion of God, then this is another dimension of the motherhood of God manifested by Jesus, a theme explored by many female writers from Julian of Norwich onward.(48)
Thirdly, one of the most startling images of the Book of Revelation is the woman in travail. The woman is depicted as delivering the divine child of the new creation – the anti-type of the harlot in the desert – who stands over against the forces of evil, symbolized by the dragon. But to whom does the woman refer? Frances Young asks whether any precise application should be sought: ‘Is it Mary? Is it Jerusalem? Who is it? Maybe precision of that sort is not intended maybe the emphasis is on the birth taking place, the fact of hope beyond the anguish, that judgement is not the end.’(49)
The woman of the Book of Revelation is a redemptive figure in two different ways. She gives birth to the child of new creation. But she is also in sympathy with nature, symbolizing the holy connectedness of all things. For the wilderness for the woman is not a place of desolation, but a place of nourishment and solace, prepared by God. The earth also comes to her rescue in swallowing the river which had issued from the dragon’s mouth. (The theme of the affinity between woman and earth is reminiscent of the Psyche-Eros myth and has been given a new impetus by the feminist ecological movement.) That the woman does not need to slay the dragon is also interesting and has been commented on by Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel in connection with the legend of Martha and the dragon of Tarascon in south west France.(50) Perhaps what women are showing is that it is possible to cope with evil forces without killing.
Taking all these images together we are confronted by a powerful symbol which takes us far beyond – yet includes – the physiological aspects, comprehending the vulnerability and letting-go of relationality, the basic organic interdependence of all forms of living, as well as a realistic confrontation with evil and suffering. But it is the creation of new forms of mutuality through life-giving processes, not through death and destruction, which is its strength. It is not an obsessive focus on mothering, or a re-identification of women with bodily roles.
But what is difficult to understand is why this symbol needed reclaiming from the Christian tradition. If we could understand why violence and death symbolism has always been more influential in Christendom, its imagery believed to have more saving potential, we might also understand much more why evil has such a powerful grip over human beings.
RE-IMAGING AT-ONE-MENT: THE LOSS OF A SYMBOL
Creative images of birth-giving seemed to have lacked influence in Christianity – apart from a kind of sentimentalizing crib-mystique at Christmas – while in symbols of military destruction (‘Onward Christian soldiers’) have always achieved prominence. This fact deserves consideration. It is easy to see that, once Christianity became accepted in the Roman Empire after the Edict of Milan in 314 AD, the emphasis on military conquest, and the continuing legitimization of the subordinate role of women, would mean that any imagery issuing from female experience would hardly be seen as significant. Also, the gradual loss on the part of women of any formative role in the mainstream Christian tradition or of influence in theologizing or ecclesial decision-making, with a few notable exceptions, would remove childbirth as a suitable symbol of faith. (The veneration of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus has not helped the ordinary woman, since it was emphasized at an early date that this birth was miraculous, extraordinary and pain-free.(51) Yet the level of interest in the birth of Jesus has always remained high, at a popular level.)
It was precisely the physical, messy and laborious nature of childbirth which did not appeal to any spiritualizing tendency in theology. It belonged strictly to a woman’s world, and was part of woman’s socially-sanctioned subordination, vulnerability and procreative obligation – an inferior role compared with that of managing external affairs. The only exception to this was – and is – in royal circles, when a monarch, desperate for an heir to the throne, took excessive interest in his wife’s pregnancy and childbirth.(52)
It is also true that in industrial and post-industrial countries the very experience of childbirth has frequently ceased to be a creative experience for women, because of the over-use of drugs and medication, and the reduction of the active participation of women owing to the control of childbirth by the medical ‘experts’, a problem which healthier attitudes are trying to redress.(53) Women have also suffered from the way the Church took over the legacy of the Old Testament as to the pollution of childbirth and consequent obligation for the ecclesiastical purification of the mother, which was the case in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Ireland before the Second Vatican Council, even when the cultural reason for it no longer existed. In how many homes did it happen, sadly, that a mother could not be present at her baby’s baptism, because she had not been well enough to be ‘churched’, and the obligation for infant baptism meant there was no possibility of waiting?
Yet the Jewish practice of purification – based on Leviticus 12.2-4 – did not itself derive from any moral criticism of the experience of childbirth, or of sexual intercourse: the practice seems rather to stem from the fear and consequent taboo over loss of blood, which signified loss of vitality: ‘The woman’s vitality, linked with her blood, was diminished by childbirth, and by that token she was objectively separated from Jahweh, the source of life, until her integrity was restored.’(54)
While it may be true that the liturgical practice of’churching’ for women in Christianity was not based on the supposed uncleanness of childbirth, when coupled with the devaluing of women, and a certain exegesis of Genesis 3.16 – where the pains of childbirth are seen as punishment for the Fall – the effect has been to devalue both bringing-to-birth as a theological image and also the bodily experiences of women in general. Yet one cannot go to the extremes of Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich – ‘The screams of the woman in childbirth were for the glory of God the Father’ (55) – since a more careful reading of the biblical texts shows a shared responsibility for sin: ‘Humanity brings the disaster of distorted relationships upon itself.(56)
A more serious implication of the reclamation of the birthing image as central to theology is Mary Daly’s criticism that this is in sharp conflict with Christianity’s most important symbol, the death/rebirth symbol of baptism. Patriarchy, she claims, has robbed us of our birthing energies, and cultural rebirthing in a patriarchal sense involves death.(57) This would mean that Jesus’ command, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ (John 3.5-ó) was actually a despising of being-born-of-woman. For Daly the solution is not rebirth or baptism by the Father’s surrogates, for it is this socialized rebirth which is the captivity from which we are trying to escape:
‘Radical feminism is not reconciliation with the Father. It begins with saying “No” to the Father . . . Radical feminism means saying ‘Yes’ to our original birth.’(58)
Feminist writers often try to strengthen this case by appealing to primitive tribal customs, through initiation rites involving a death motif and a separation from the mother,(59) or with examples of ritual killing symbolizing initiation, rebirth or sacrificial ritual. Thus Nancy Jay has written:
The only action that is as serious as giving birth which can act as a counterbalance to it, is killing. This is one way to interpret the common sacrificial metaphors of birth and rebirth, or birth done better, on purpose and on a more spiritual, more exalted level than mothers can do it.(60)
Patriarchy’s insistence on the death-motif is seen by some – like Carol Gilligan – as illustrated by God’s insistence on Abraham’s killing of Isaac (Gen. 22. 12), in spite of recent exegesis suggesting the story is Jahweh’s forbidding of child-sacrifices, in contrast to the practices of other ancient Near Eastern tribes! The link has even been made by Mary Condren between the patriarchal death-motif and the Anselmian atonement theory as submission to the will of the Father:
Submission is pushed so far . . . that we were taught we must be willing to be damned – for the glory of God! Why should so much mental activity have stopped there, and not inquired what glory there was in an omnipotent being torturing forever a puny little creature who could in no way defend himself? Would it be to the glory of man to fry ants?(ó1)
I have developed this point at length to show how it is so easy, when trying to redress an injustice, to go off at a tangent to the other extreme. In the first place, we cannot take on board, uncritically, analogies from other cultures, assuming they have a direct equivalence for Christianity’s images and symbols. (Mircea Eliade himself has been criticized for over-identifying the Christian rites of initiation with, for example, the rites of Sioux Indians or Aborigines, where a ritual death element and a separation from the mother are involved.) Clearly, Paul’s theology of death and rebirth (seen in Romans 6) as the meaning of Christian baptism was influenced by the mystery religions of the time. But though Paul used the motifs taken from them, he did not identify baptism with them. Christianity was always seen as totally new and distinct. (In any case this was not his first image of baptism – and it remains one among many.)
Nor can Jesus be realistically accused of robbing women of birthing energies: he would hardly have used the image of childbirth as illustrative of the in-breaking of the Kingdom if this was the case. There has never been any suggestion in Christianity that there is something deficient about human birthing: on the contrary, the human birth of Jesus has been understood as a validation of humanity – this despite the tradition that it did not affect the virginity of his mother Mary. There is possibly some truth in the argument that it is women’s involvement in childbirth which precludes them from ministerial roles at the altar: but this cannot be the whole truth, since there are so many celibate, theologically wellqualified women who – in the Catholic Church at least – are equally unjustifiably barred from the altar. I think the truth to which these accusations are pointing – though in Daly’s case in a crude, exaggerated way – is that there is a widespread glorification of war- imagery, war-games, a tendency to settle all disputes through violence and retaliation, a general callousness over loss of human life, and Christianity has in fact been used to sanction this ethic of violence – as, for example, when Cardinal Cushing blessed the bombers which went off to Vietnam in the sixties.
It is to reclaim the rightful place for the creative image of birthing as link between women’s experience and redemption that I explore further its relationship with conflict, suffering, death, and the cross.
RE-IMAGING AT-ONE-MENT: ALTERNATIVE MEANINGS OF DEATH
But the second reason for reclaiming the symbol of birthing from the tradition is that we are given alternative ways to experience conflict and even death. Female writers have often been able to grasp the pain and conflict at the heart of the creation process. Simone Weil, for example, rightly grasped the interwoven themes of creation and passion: ‘God’s creative love which maintains us in existence’, she wrote,
is not merely a super-abundance of generosity, it is also renunciation and sacrifice. Not only the Passion, but the creation itself is a renunciation and sacrifice on the part of God. The Passion itself is simply its consummation. God already devoids himself of his divinity by the Creation . . . Through love he abandons them to affliction and sin. For if he did not abandon them he would not exist. His presence would annul their existence as a flame kills a butterfly.(62)
Here Weil rightly grasps the suffering love of God for creation, even if there is a masochistic element in her spirituality. It is now well known that it was excessive, body-denying asceticism which attracted her: but the language of love is not the language of abandonment, and, as her biographer tells us, though Weil experienced the love of God in affliction, she manifested very ambiguous feelings with regard to creation.(63)
It is birthing as including these dimensions of painful, suffering love which is crucial here, for within it we have a paradigm of conflict which can be redemptive. Within the experience is given both joy and an acceptance of pain. So we have an alternative to victory through violence: as the medieval mystic, Hildegarde of Bingen, cried, ‘God was able to conquer, without even using a warrior!’(64) If we push this image more deeply, we can see that through birthing as an image of creative mutuality there is the possibility of an honest coming to terms with the polarities of good and evil, light and darkness. God, on this interpretation of atonement, is, writes Frances Young, ‘submitting to the pain and travail, so that by means of the labour a new world may be born’.(65)
There is also a recognition that in birth-giving and co-creation change is entailed for all concerned. A mother is changed by the birth of each child, as is the relationship of father and mother, and the wider groupings. It is not simply emotional changes, but changes of lifestyle which call for social organization. This points to a mutual change, growth and development of both God and world, through co-creating and co-suffering. Thus the kind and quality of relating will be the key to all change – for example, as to whether parents experience the leaving home of children as pain and loss, or as a means of moving to a new, qualitative kind of relationship.
Mutual change in relating is also explored by Dorothee Soelle, with reference to the consequences of choice for Adam and Eve in the creation myth:
Adam and Eve are now confronted with the consequences of being workers and lovers. And because they have changed through their courageous step, God, the relational being also changes. God moves from parenthood to companionship . . . In spite of their failure to obey the commanding voice of the parental God . . . God supports them and makes clothes for them.(66)
But it is in the re-imaging of death that the symbol offers most hope. Because fear of death haunts most people, they cling to the image of Christ on the cross as model of endurance. But suppose there was another way to see this which used the images of birth, change, transformation. Instead of taking the image of victory over death, the ‘Christus Victor’ symbol of Jesus, innocent lamb, delivered up to slaughter as ransom payment, to be the predominant means of atonement, suppose we try to see if there are other transformative possibilities, based on the image of birth.(67)
Carol Ochs suggests the image of death as a disintegration, a falling-apart: ‘We have felt the horror of falling apart, of a lack of a sense of self, of a fear that the centre will not hold – or that there may be no centre, no integrating pattern, no self.’68 This disintegration is the opposite experience of ‘being held’ as an infant. It can be experienced physically, socially, psychologically, ethically or in other realms. Too often it is the psychological experience of women overwhelmed by patriarchal consciousness, literally by the sensation of being ‘no-thing’. In Chapter 4 I discussed the feminist ‘dark night’ in this context, the disintegration experienced when all current values of sociey are experienced as empty and oppressive, there is alienation from the environment and only abandonment seems real. Yet Eckhart felt that the ‘letting go’ process (Abgeschiedenheit) was a vital part of the mystical journey.
In the birthing experience we are given a ‘letting go’of self- in pain and struggle – for the creation of new being. We are given the sense of our physical bodies falling or even being torn apart. We have lost our ‘centred self’. Nobody can reach us in this struggle, neither husband, lover, nor parent. We are in the dark, alone, in that primeval womb of chaos from which all life emerged. And yet, in that very darkness we can meet God as creative centre. We are held by that nurturing centre: from this being-torn-apart, this sense of loss, together You and I wordlessly create new life. And there will be integrity once more, and new sources of trust . . .
The second image of death is separation. It is a powerful symbol, with many expressions, ranging from the infant’s separation from its mother, to the criminal’s expulsion from the communiy, the physical experience of being separated by distance or imprisonment, the psychological experience of being estranged, alienated, even from all feeling (as was Atwood’s protagonist) or sense of authentic self. This was the separation we discussed in Chapter 4 with the attempts of Martha Quest to recover, to ‘re-member’, this lost self. It is the separation of death which is its greatest and most dreaded obstacle. To be separated from all that we love. Even to have to detach from the smallest physical joys of everyday – a cup of coffee, watching the night sky . . . Separation is a theme which is prominent in the myths. Hansel and Gretel tells the story of two children’s attempts to leave their parents and face the conflicts of the world. Yet separation which threatens life is also essential for life. If Carol Gilligan’s analysis is correct, because of the way we have constructed society, men develop through separation, women through relation and intimacy. But so much of the separation demanded by sociey – through boarding school and institution, for example – can be developmentally harmful for the young child. If the opposite of separation is a life-giving connection (a quaky developed by women’s spirituality), if the systems view that all things are interconnected is likewise true, then we are given tremendous hope. For holding together the pain of loss and separation is the deeply-felt experience of interdependence and community. The more we love and are interconnected, the more we suffer separation. Hence grief and mourning, given ritual expression at funerals, are a sign of how much we value the materiality of creation. Demeter mourns Persephone, Rachel weeps for her children – and it has been socially acceptable for women to grieve publicly in a way disapproved of for men. But to spiritualize away our grief by seeing ultimate realiy in an otherworldly sense, death as welcome release from burdensome physical existence, seriously undervalues the whole created world.
I see the death of Jesus as being a tremendous affirmation of interconnection and presence. The separation was essential – ‘If I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you’- because he had pushed his values to the limit which his present world would endure – but Jesus stresses connection and new forms of connectedness again and again, to be released in the very process of dying. He wanted to be remembered, cup in hand, celebrating: ‘Do this in memory of me’. He will be with them to the end of the world, and his concern reaches out to those he leaves behind: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.’ Forgiveness and mutuality are the qualities of relating even as he hangs from the cross. Even that last terrible, desolate cry of separation from the very source of his being (Mark 15.34), was the means of releasing a new enduring form of relating to the world.
The third image is that of stasis – the stillness and changelessness of death, the absence of growth, change and development. People fear death because life is irreversibly cut off: they feel they have been cheated of old age, wealth, foreign travel . . . The masculine heroes of the myths achieve things – they win kingdoms, the hand of the beautiful princess, slay dragons, overcome obstacles . . . Or today they become directors of multi-nationals . . . Unemployment, illness and death are all dreaded as stasis, inactiviy. But, says Robert Lifton, ‘not all stillness is death. Some of it is quiet, deep centredness, a reaching down, instead of a thrashing around . . . The real distinction between the animate and the inanimate lies not in motion and stasis, but in the source of the motion.’(69)
Re-image the death of stasis as the stillness of ‘waiting’ – ‘I said to my soul, be still’ – the focused waiting and attentiveness discussed earlier. Re-image this as mythic time spent in the underworld, the work of winter, re-sourcing, re-covering roots, holding things together, awaiting the birth of a new idea, opportunity, without preempting its nature: as Adrienne Rich has said,
Are we all in training for something we don’t name?
To exact reparation for things
Done long ago to us and to those who did not
survive what was done to them….(70)
This is to confront death-in-life as change, loss, pain – but also as growth, connection and transformation. It is to experience death as part of the gracious process, because the creative becoming of God is intertwined with the process as relational source and ultimate destination.
RE-IMAGING THE LIFE-PRAXIS OF JESUS AS ATONEMENT
Instead of giving prominence to such traditional atonement symbols of Christ as victor, High Priest, Victim and Prime Exemplar, or replacing them with the ‘androgynous Christ’ of Mother Julian of Norwich or Mary Baker Eddy, because ultimately these too are ambivalent as the contribution of the female,(71) we begin by discerning and assuming responsibility for the evil of the present moment. If we see the truth of Jesus Christ as relational then the norm of love of neighbour assumes a priority in such a way as to make incarnate God’s creative power.(72) And this is redemption. Christology, says David Shields, must be related to a dynamic, present, incarnational reality, ‘as women name and create a new reality out of the tomb of patriarchy’.(73)
The symbol of Christ the Redeemer will now take its place among our chosen symbols and images of the divine – and these will be imagery drawn from female experience. This stress on present incarnational reality, though continually given prominence by feminist theologians, is also in keeping with the way many contemporary Christologies have reacted to insights from anthropology and human experience. This means giving up ‘Christocentrism’ because so many groups of people – women, Jews, ethnic minorities, the sexually alienated and other world faiths – are pushed to the margins by the Church’s insistence that the actions of the historical Jesus are at the centre of all things. The danger with Christ’s once-for-allness is that it has a tendency to ‘stop history’ and to undermine present relational responsibility, to disempower us from claiming power in relation. The pattern for a relational understanding is one where we are all caught up with God in a process of redemption. And this was the very pattern of the praxis of Jesus, a man who lived within the ambience of this relational power, deep in relationship with the creative source of that power, committed to the incarnating of this creative re-sourcing, which continually gave birth to the Kingdom of God. If this relational lifepraxis is salvific it is because this is the basic pattern of the world, and because, through the passionate breakthrough we call resurrection, relational energy was released for those open to it.
But to say that the life-praxis of Jesus was purely exemplary as to what are the possibilities for power-in-relationship is both to draw us back to an impoverished understanding of an exemplary theory of atonement, as well as to underestimate the way a relational Trinitarian God is acting in the present. A feminist theology of interconnectedness makes it possible to hold together the relational being of God with human activity as co-creating, co-redeeming, together with the world’s own inner healing resources, with which, in sensitivity, we can harmonize.
So the static image of Jesus as perfect man, ultimate symbol of redemption, gives way to the image of the Body of Christ, ‘enfleshed by a relational Christology which opens us to recognize the way in which human connectedness brings God to the world’.(74) It could be that the feminist understanding of the relational self, the embodied and centred self, is adding a fresh understanding to the enfleshed nature of the Body of Christ (which I explore from a sa«amental visionary point of view in the final chapter).
What, then, remains of the cross as central symbol of at-one-ment in such a relational understanding? If we move away from patriarchal preoccupation with death and destruction, alienation and estrangement, from images of the God who sends his Son to die, pointing the way to eternal life through «ucifixion and death, replacing this with symbols of giving birth to new creation, of connection through separation, growth through stasis, integration through falling apart, healing through mutuality, compassion and solidarity, what need is there for cross as central symbol?
The cross of Jesus, with its arms extending as unifying the vertical with horizontal, the conscious with unconscious dimensions, the cross which for the Jewish painter Marc Chagall could symbolize the hope of the first Exodus and the tragedy of the Holocaust, will remain central. But its symbolic nexus will change. It will not be simply ‘a reservoir for all pain’, as Frances Young called it,(75) but a life-affirming protest against the injustice of all torture and crucifixions. We need this symbol to keep alive the memory of the redemptive, relational power at the heart of existence, enfleshed by the whole cross event. But it will also call to mind the forgotten stories – which Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza wished to reclaim – of all women and young girls who continue to be abused and battered under oppressive systems, the stories of all children, women and men whose suffering the world has not yet even begun to contemplate. To atone means to keep their memory alive, to mourn their sufferings, but also to see the crucified and risen Jesus as empowering hope that ‘crucifed woman’ may yet be ‘redemptive woman’. As long as we still struggle within alienated consciousness, with renewed creation as yet unborn, we need such a symbol.
Secondly, the cross as symbol of at-one-ment is a call to us to take up our responsibility to be co-sufferers, co-redeemers and co- creators – to stand in solidarity to prevent further crucifixions. The cross as sign of contradiction is an empowering symbol towards the at-one-ment of mutuality which is both the process and the end of the process. With this symbol of the Christ of mutuality and relationality we are enabled to name our human brokenness, the disintegration of the wounded earth, our deepest yearnings for healing and becoming whole. We are enabled to see the Body of Christ as the body of our mutuality. Images of pain become images of redeeming hope.
To remember the empowering actions of Jesus thrusts us both to the estranged relational scene of the present, and to the creative envisioning of a transformed future, when the travail of nature will know, with deep ecological wisdom, that the time is right, and, at last, the long labour is over and the earth can deliver.
Footnotes. Chapter 7: ‘A Passion to make and make again’
1 Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Welwyn, Herts, James Nisbet, 1968), p. 40. Thevalue of Williams’ thought is the depth of his pastoral experience and thus the depth of analysis he gives to the model of reconciling love, as well as his constant adherence to the process model, though willing to transcend it where necessary. His rootedness within the biblical tradition and his refusal to underestimate the problem of evil are also notable. These points are made by J. McQuarrie, ‘Process and Faith: An American Testimony’, in Thinking about God London, SCM, 1975), pp. 21-20. To this I would add, the sensitivity and concern with which Williams writes.
2 B. E. Meland, ‘Analogy and Myth in Post-Liberal Theology’, in process Philosophy and Christian Thought, eds. Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James Jr, and Gene Reeves (Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill Co,1971), pp.116-27.
3 Meland, Faith and Culture (Chicago, Illinois Univ. Press, 1955), p. 176.
4 D. D. Williams, ‘Time, Progress and the Kingdom of God’, in Cod’s Crace and Man’s Hope, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1949.
5 A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, (Cambridge, Macmillan, 1929), p. 520. See alsoAdventures of Ideas (New York, Macmillan, 1933), p.133.
6 B. Meland, Faith and Culture (Chicago, Illinois University Press, 1955), p. 184.
7 ibid., p. 187.
8 D. D. Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love, op. cit., p. 240.
9 ibid., p. 207.
10 See, for example, the systems theory of Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in a Clinical Practice, New York, Aronson, 1978. This is related to the atonement doarine of Leander S. Harding, ‘The Atonement and Psychotherapy’, in Anglican Theological Review, vol. [xvii, no. I (1985), pp. 46-57.
11. Here I follow the thematic analysis of Don. S. Browning, The Atonement and Psychotherapy, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1966. He is very influenced by Carl Rogers, Client-centred Therapy, London, Constable and Co., 1951, with its insistence on the importance of four faaors. These are the actualization tendency, the organismic valuing process, congruence, and the need for positive regard.
12 Browning, op. cit., p. 121. Rogers gives fifteen outcomes of the therapeutic process, ranging from the liberation from the self of deeper actualization tendencies of the organism, to the increase of positive response and acceptance of others (ibid., p. 128).
13 Browning, op. cit., p. 197.
14 This criticism is also made by other process thinkers, including Lewis Ford, The Lure of Cod: A Biblical Background to Process Theism (Philadelphia, University Press of America, 1978), pp. 87ff. I have omitted both Freudian and Jungian perspectives from this seaion because (1) these analyses are already very well-known, and (2) Browning’s model fits very well with the process model and the model of mutuality which I develop. A recent work which attempts to link the psychotherapeutic process with the Christian healing and redemptive process is Scott Peck, People of the Lie – the Hope for Healing Human Evil, New York, Touchstone, 1983.
15 Marge Piercy, Women at the Edge of Time, New York, Fawcett, 1976.
16 Doris Lessing, The Four Cated City (London, Grafton Books, 1972), p. 516. There are beginning to be contemporary explorations and questionings of the boundaries of madness. For example, R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study of Madness, London, Pelican, 1972; and, from a feminist point of view, Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady, Women, Madness and the English Cuäure, 1830-1980, London, Virago, 1987.
17 R. C. Moberley, A tonement and Personality, London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1901.
18 H. Bushnell, The Vicarious Sacrifice, 2 vols, London and New York, 1866.
19 J. Scott-Lidgett, The Spiritual Principle of the Atonement, London, 1897.
20 H. H. Farmer, The World and Cod, Welwyn, Herts, James Nisbet, 1955.
21 H. S. Smith, ea., Horace Bushnell, New York, 1965.
22 Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, New York, Knopf, 1977.
23 See H. Bushnell, Women’s Suffrage: Reform against Nature (New York, Charles Scribner, 1869), p. 66. The same argument, as was pointed out by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Metaphors for Contemporary Church (New York, Pilgrim Press, 1983), p. 85, also restrias the Church itself to operating on a private sphere.
24 Rosemary Ruether, Woman-Cuides (Boston, Beacon, 1985), p. 104.
25 H. Musurillo, ea., ‘Acts of the Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne’, in TheA cts of the Chnstian Martyrs (Oxford, 1912), p. 75.
26 See P. Wilson-Kastner and G. R. Kastner et al. eds, ‘The Martyrdom of Perpetua: A Protest Account of Early Christianity’, in A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of theEarly Church (Washington DC, University Press of America, 1981), pp. 1-32.
27 ibid., p. 3.
28 ibid., p. 27.
29 ibid., p. 27.
30 Unfortunately, Rosemary Ruether does this, in describing the relationship between Christianity and the establishment. She argues (Woman-Cuides, p. 109), that the unity of creation/redemption itself carries a danger – for Christ needs to be set over-against the oppressive structures of society, otherwise Christology would be sucked back into a world view which sacralizes sexism, imperialism and slavery, seeing them as the ‘order of creation’. Yet, in the argument I develop, I see the identity between creation and redemption not as sacralizing secular struaures, but as transforming them.
31. Mary E. Giles, ea., The Feminist Mystic (New York, Crossroads, 1982), p. 7.
32. See Eizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, The Women around Jesus (London, SCM, 1982).
33. Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, A Land Flowing, op. cit., p. 132.
34. This has been well argued by Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, The Female Hero in American and British Literature, New York, Bowker, 1981.
35 See The Testimony of Christ’s Second Coming ( 1856), quoted in Rosemary Ruether, Woman-Cuides, op. cit., pp. 127-31.
36 The words of Chung Sook Ja, a feminist minister from Korea, ‘Reflections on the Christa from a Theological Educator’, in Reflections on the Christa, ed. Edwina Hunter, in.Journal of Women in Religion, 4 February 1985, p. 48.
37 Adrienne Rich, ‘Natural Resources’, in The Dream of a Common Language (New York amd London, W. & W. Norton, 1978), pp. 65-66.
38 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Santa Fe, NM, Bear and Co., 1981), p. 195.
39. ibid., pp. 286-92.
40 Isabel Carter Heyward, ‘Blessing the Bread: A Litany’, in OurPassion for Justice (New York, Pilgrim Press, 1984), pp. 49-51.
41 The idea of the being of God as relatedness is developed by Dorothee Soelle, To Work and To Love, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1984. See p. 46: ‘I am struck by the fact that verbs, not nouns, spring to mind. I need to wonder, to be amazed, to be in awe, to renew myself in the rhythm of creation, to perceive its beauty, to rejoice in creation and to praise the source of life. Listing these verbs reminds me of people who believe that God has created them and all creatures who trust in the goodness of creation.’
42 Quoted by Matthew Fox, ‘The Spiritual Journal of the Homosexual and just about Everyone Else’, in A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church, ed. R. Nugent (New York, Crossroads, 1983), pp. 189-204.
43 Sara Maitland, ‘Ways of Relating’, in The Way, 26 Feb.1986, pp.124-33.
44 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1978), especially ‘Journey of a Metaphor’, pp. 31-59. The linguistic basis of comparison is the link between rah mim (compassion), and rehem, (womb): ‘Our metaphor lies in the semantic movement from a physical organ of the female body to a psychic mode of being… To the responsive imagination this suggests the metaphor of love as selfless participation in life. The womb protects and nourishes but does not possess and control. It yields its treasure in order that wholeness and well-being may happen.’ (p. 33).
45 Phyllis Trible, ibid., p. 40.
46 The Hebrew text suggests the redemptive task of women specifically as participating in God’s motherhood. Yet this is frequently obliterated from the commentaries by alternative translations or even emendations of the text.
47 The metaphor is also found in Isaiah 2.49, where again the focus is on the motherly, uterine-based compassion of Jesus: even if the compassion of earthly mothers fails (as it did in Lamentations 4.10), the womb-love for the child of Jahweh will not fail.
48 See Caroline Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University Press of California, 1982.
49 Frances Young, Can TheseDryBonesLive? (London, SCM, 1984), p.50.
50 Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, The Women around Jesus (London, SCM, 1982), pp. 37-48.
51 For example, in the Liber de Ortu Beatae Virginis Mariae, ch. 13, in Les Évangiles A pocryphes, textes et documents, eds. Herne et Lejas, (Paris, 1911), pp. 96ff.
52. Such was the joy of Henry VIII of England in 1537, when the baby Edward VIII was born, that the boy’s mother, Queen Jane, died almost unnoticed (J. J. Scarisbrick,Henry VIII, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968), p. 353.
53. See Ann Oakley, Women Confined: Towards a Sociology of Childbirth York, Bantam, 1976. Positive attitudes are developed by – among others – Sheila Kitzinger, The Experience of Natural Childbirth, London, Penguin, 1978.
54. Thus R. Brown, J. A. Fitzmyer, R. E. Murphy, Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. i, (London Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), p. 75.
55 Quoted by Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology (Boston, Beacon, 1978), p. 258: source is Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York, W. W. Norton, 1976), p. 168.
56 Thus Mary Hayter, The New Eve in Christ: The Use and A buse of the Bible in the Debate about Women in the Church (London, SPCK, 1987), p. 114.
57 Mary Daly, ‘The Qualitative Leap’, in Quest, I April 1975, p. 126.
59 Mary Condren, ‘Patriarchy and Death’, in Womanspirit Bonding, eds. Janet Kalven and Mary Buckley (New York, Pilgrim Press, 1984), p.10, quoting M. Eliade, The Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York, Harper and Row, 1975), p. 30.
60 Nancy Jay, ‘Sacrifice as Remedy for Having Been born as Woman’, in Immaculate and Powerful: TheFemale in Sacred image and SavingReality, eds. Clarissa W. Atkinson, Constance R. Buchanan and Margaret R. Miles (Boston, Beacon, 1985), pp. 283-301.
61 Charlotte Perkins Gilman,HisReligion andHers: TheFaithof ourFathers and the Work of our Mothers (London, 1924), p. 160.
62 Simone Weil, Some Reflections on theLove of God, in Gateway to God, op. cit., p. 80.
63 Simone Petrement, Simone Weil, tr. R. Rosenthal (London and Oxford, Mowbrays, 1976). For her asceticism and attitude to eating, see Judith Van Herik, ‘Simone Weil’s Religious Imagery: How Lookmg Becomes Eating’, in Immaculate and Powerful, op. cit., pp. 260-82; also Ann Loades, Searching For Lost Gins: Explorations in Christian Feminism (London, SPCK, 1987), pp. 43-57.
64 Hildegarde of Bingen, in Scivias (Santa Fe, NM, Bear and Co. 1986), pp. 13-14.
65 Frances Young, Can these Dry Bones Live? (London, SCM, 1984), p. 58.
66 D. Soelle, To work and To Love (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1984), p. 75.
67 The theme is explored by Carol Ochs, An Ascent To Joy: Transforming Deadness of Spirit (Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1986). She touches on the theme in Women and Spirituality (New Jersey, Rowman and Allaheld, 1983) p. 82, as well as in Symbols of Death and Life, in Crosscurrents, vol. 33, no. 4 (1985), pp. 387-92. She uses the symbols of death developed by Robert Lifton, The Broken Connection: on Death and the Continuity of Life, New York, Basic, 1980.
68 Carol Ochs, An Ascent to Joy, op. cit., p. 37.
69 ibid., pp. 45-ó.
70 Adrienne Rich, ‘The Spirit of Place’, in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Thus Far (New York, W. & W. Norton, 1981).
71 So says Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, Metaphors for the Contemporary Church (New York, Pilgrim Press, 1983), pp. 93-100.
72 Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God (Washington DC, University Press of America, 1982), p. 15.
73 David Shields, ‘Christ: A Male Feminist View’, in Encounter, vol. 45, no. 3 (1984), pp. 221-32.
74 Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Metaphors, p. 100.
75 Frances Young, Can These Dry Bones Live? op. cit., p. 21, quoting John Steinbeck, To a God Unknown, New York, 1935.
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