Saturday, April 5, 2014

Footnote to Brendan Eich Discussion: Yes, It Is about Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation

"In discourse and analysis," Catholic feminist theologian Ivone Gebara says (citing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) "the male vision of the world is presented as evidence and functions as an ideology justifying what exists" (Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation, trans. and intro. Ann Patrick Ware [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002], p. 68). And then she goes on to say, in a passage I shared with you last month,

All epistemology can be seen as ethics, and all ethics is epistemology. Knowledge that scorns the contribution of women is not only limited and partial; it is an exclusionary knowledge. The fact that it claims to be universal already shows its limits. We can say that at the concrete level of feminist analysis such knowledge is not attentive to the ethical dimensions of justice, equality, and respect for the plurality of beings and their experience. It reduces the other to oneself and does not even ask whether the contribution of others who are different is important (ibid., p. 73).

The epistemological enterprise, the area of thought that delves into how we know, is by its very nature also an ethical enterprise, since for a long time now, what has been presented to us as how we know (and what we know) is the partial knowledge of a discrete slice of the human race: it's quite specifically male knowledge. It reduces the other to oneself and does not even ask whether the contribution of others who are different is important.

And so the enterprise of epistemology, of delving into how and what we know, has been based to an extent never quite acknowledged on male models of knowing. Never quite acknowledged until feminist thinkers (and women in general) began to point this out to all of us . . . . It has employed an ethically insupportable exclusion of women's ways of knowing, even as it purports to offer us universal perspectives on knowing.

Gebara begins her book about women's experience of evil and salvation by asserting

The church, an institution created and dominated by men, has interpreted women’s experience of evil, whether undergone or committed by women, in a way that bears little or no resemblance to what women feel or ask for, whether in theology or within the structures of the church. The same can be said for the means of salvation. These means are tightly bound to a male religious approach that presents itself as universalist; any differences are subsumed into global egalitarian speech, which often hides its particular character (ibid., p. 3).

As a counter to this approach posturing as universalist when it's, in fact, highly exclusivist, Gebara lays the groundwork for her discussion of women's experience of evil and salvation by listening to the voices — to the real voices, in real-life stories —of real-life women. This methodology is a corrective to the false claims of universalism of much Catholic theology and of the Catholic magisterium, which pretend to speak on behalf of "humankind" without ever acknowledging that they are speaking very precisely on behalf of mankind.

As Gebara explains,

In other words, feminist theology is trying to recover the essential core of Christian experience, beginning with a different understanding of the relationships between men and women and of humanity’s relationship with the whole of creation, by taking seriously people’s concrete experience (p. 160).

I bring up Ivone Gebara's work again (and I could equally cite any number of other theologians who are writing in a similar vein) to make a simple point: it is growing increasingly difficult, from a theological standpoint, at least, for a theology that incorporates unacknowledged male bias — for a theology built around unacknowledged exclusivist gendered standpoints — to represent itself as "the" Truth. As an unbiased reading of theological reality.

As clear reason or accurate representation of natural law and divine revelation.

It is growing increasingly difficult for theologians to avoid raising questions about gender as we do theology because the turn to the subject that revolutionized theological thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries inevitably led also by the final part of the 20th century to the introduction of the social sciences in theological reflection — to questions about the social construction of reality and about the social subject. These questions are still vigorously combated by religious leaders and theologians who do not intend to entertain them.

But they're here to stay. Once having asked them, we can't unask them. Once having set our feet into this path of theological reflection, we can't turn back.

This is another way of saying that, in the past century, the human race entered a truly monumental cultural shift at a global level, in which women (and people of color and gay people) began to speak in their own voices, to claim their own right to represent reality, to craft epistemological, ethical, philosophical, and theological enterprises. Those who have historically been permitted to pass off their own gendered (or racially skewed, or heterosexually biased) reading of epistemological (ethical, philosophical, theological) reality as the reading of reality are being challenged now as never before in human history by alternative readings of reality that claim legitimacy equal to those previously seen as normative.

Short of gross repression and reversal of the moral arc of history, this process will not stop until openings are made everywhere in global culture for the inclusion of the voices of women, of people of color, of gay people, alongside the voices of white heterosexual men, as we all talk together about what constitutes reality, about who God is and what She says to us, about what it means to be an ethical human being, about what's natural and unnatural or rational or irrational.

Meanwhile, we're going to continue to see heated discourse about attacks on freedom, on rationality, on tolerance and inclusivity, from the very people who for a long time now have presented their gendered, white, heterosexist reading of everything in the world as the reading to which all the rest of us ought to bow. Just as we're going to witness the continued obstinate refusal of white men who own things — and of those who carry water for powerful white heterosexual men, including some women, people of color, and gay folks who live in the umbra of those men's influence — to admit that what they call "rationality" or "divine revelation" or "God's word" has everything in the world to do with unacknowledged presuppositions about gender, race, and sexual orientation.

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