Religion as Gender Politics Theology, Feminism, and Continental Philosophy


Cover image of Religion As Gender Politics by Daphne Hampson


Introduction: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion

The thesis of this book is that Christianity is in effect a form of fascism, if by fascism one intends a system of thought the raison d’être of which is to make it look only natural that one part of humanity is normative for what it is to be human, throwing those who are not in possession of these characteristics (in this case women) into the position of ‘the other’. It is an example of what the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci named hegemony, in this case between men. Of course, such a motivation need not be conscious. It is interesting that the great detractors of religion, Feuerbach, Marx, or Freud, never probed such a thesis, presumably taking the structure of the German paterfamilias and all that flowed from it for granted. But from the middle years of the twentieth century there arose interesting psychoanalytic work, particularly in object relations theory (Robert Stoller, and following him Nancy Chodorow), and the work of Philip Slater, that considered the problematic nature of the development of a male gender identity on the part of males given the overwhelming pull of the mother. Slater’s work drew connections between this and thought patterns in ancient Greek religion. Meanwhile, taking off from the French reception of Hegel and in response to Lacan, French feminist theory came understand that woman is situated as ‘the other’ (Simone de Beauvoir) and as lacking a subject position within the realm of ideas (Luce Irigaray). There has however to my knowledge never been an analysis by one who is a systematic theologian (trained also in Continental philosophy) asking the fundamental question as to whether theology (and more specifically Christianity) is not in its theory and practice a masculinist construction designed to justify male superordination over women. We need however to consider not simply question of ethics but also that as to the truth of Christian claims. For it is when we understand Christianity to be a myth that we are freed to ask the questions as why it took the form that it did. Given both religion’s mythical nature and its gender-biased lack of inclusivity, we should formulate our understanding of ‘that which is God’ otherwise.

Having laid out the thesis of the book, the Introduction gives explains the logic of the ordering of chapters in relation to the argument of the book, giving a brief synopsis of each chapter. Further it addresses some general matters: the level at which philosophical discussion is pitched; the prominence given to the Catholic tradition as particularly problematic; the use of the Lutheran tradition in the book; and the definition of various terms surrounding feminism.

Chapter 1: The Truth of the Matter

The Christian claim has been that in ‘the events surrounding Christ’ (to cast this in its broadest terms) there occurred a particularity of revelation. Whether, given what we now know, such a ‘special’ revelation (as it is sometimes called) could occur and what that would imply is obviously foundational to the question as to the truth of this claim. I have previously attempted to discuss this, but have been misunderstood for what I was saying, and I have never considered it with the depth and, I hope, clarity that I do here. After defining the limits of what may rightly be called ‘Christian’, namely the claim to a uniqueness having occurred in history, I discuss why (since the Enlightenment and with dawning recognition) we can no longer entertain this possibility. Thus, for example, the fact that we now believe there to be a certain randomness at the sub-atomic level is irrelevant; for it is not being suggested that this occurred suddenly, at a certain point in history; rather have we changed our understanding as to what (at least since the Big Bang) is everywhere and always the case. Historiographically, it was F. H. Bradley in the nineteenth century who pointed to the import of the consistency and regularity of nature for religious claims. In the twentieth century the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg made a grand attempt to found Christian claims on history, but that he may accomplish this he draws upon the (unwarranted) divide between Geschichte and Historie in German idealism. Within the English tradition I discuss developments, particularly in a tradition emanating from Cambridge, from the 1970s onwards. Peter Carnley’s seminal The Structure of Resurrection Belief (1993) shows how theologians have increasingly veered away from questions of the violation of empirical law to the recognition that Christology must be based in fideistic belief. I discuss varied thinkers in what is a complex web of ideas. An internally consistent (fideistic) position is advanced by Janet Soskice. But, in debate with her, I have said that I must find it incredible, given our present knowledge of the size of the universe, that there could be the intervention in the sending of Christ that she proposes. I give a brief historical account of the debate in German language theology from Kant to Bultmann and Pannenberg of what might be called the ‘quest of the historical Jesus’, the attempt to uncover uniqueness. It is a quest that despite much ingenuity has surely failed.

Turning from epistemology to ethics, I discuss the corollaries of a religion of revelation: its incommensurability with the ethics of modernity, and its implications for gender equality. A ‘historical’ religion based on a purported revelation brings in its train a heteronomous relation to God, scripture, and in some cases church authority. This is profoundly at odds with the modern ethos in which authority is vested in the individual, or in our common humanity, and with the norms and values that (since the eighteenth century) we have articulated. It is more particularly at odds with feminist thinking, which has majored on the self-realisation of persons within a community of equals. More widely we may say that at the present juncture there is profound need that humanity take responsibility for our world (for example in the matter of population control) and that we should not look to religious axioms worked out within quite another historical setting but still maintained by church authorities. In respect of gender equality, a so-called ‘historical’ religion (a religion of revelation) is peculiarly problematic in that reference is constantly made to a patriarchal past, affecting persons not least at a subconscious level.  As has been said, ‘the medium is the message’: male normativity is reinforced.

Much of the material in this chapter will be striking, if not difficult, for some readers (and my work has always appealed to a wider audience). In a final section I therefore think through once again what has been said and perhaps more importantly what it is that has not been ruled out. If Cardinal Bellarmine (with whose comment made in 1615 that it was ‘as impossible that the earth revolved around the sun as that Jesus was not born of a virgin’ I opened the chapter) was all of a piece, we are in a quite other situation today. The idea of uniqueness of Incarnation must stick up like a sore thumb. Further, given its ethical implications, such a claim must pose theodicy questions of incalculable import. Once however we acknowledge the Christian story to be a myth, we can acknowledge (with Kant) that it has acted as a ‘vehicle’; and we may want to say (unlike he) that it has carried human religious sensibilities that must now be otherwise expressed. Meanwhile a pandora’s box of questions is thrown open as to why this myth? What wounds has it sought to heal, and what gender relations secure? In other words, whose interests does it serve and what power relations enforce?

Chapter 2: Monotheism and its Discontents

Clearly the backbone of western religion has been that of monotheism. And it has been a monotheism not simply of God as one and as spirit, but of a transcendent Other, set in apposition to humankind. In the case of Christianity, a certain Platonism and Jewish monotheism have in this respect joined hands. Irrespective of whether images for God have been tolerated, monotheism within the Abrahamic religions has always been gendered. God is above and ‘male’, humanity (whether the people or Israel, or the church) cast as ‘female’ in relation to the ‘male’ God. Humanity has sinned, whereas it should be obedient to God. This is only too well illustrated in the Book of Hosea where the prophet in his relation to his wayward wife stands in for JHWH’s relation to Israel. More particularly under the influence of neo-Platonism as it impinged on the Christian world and the formulation of doctrine and praxis, men have substituted a relation to the male God (often described in erotic terms) for the equal relation to woman, who has been seen as wanton, associated with the body and sexuality, and to be discarded in the quest for a higher life. Taking various forms (Platonist, Hebraic, or Christian) this dichotomy has been an enduring motif for two and a half thousand years, determinative of western consciousness. Feminists of all religious backgrounds and traditions have been hot on the trail in condemning this. In the chapter I wind my way through various settings in the attempt to elucidate the problems.

Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly I commence with English analytic philosophy of religion (the only such section in the book) for of all Christian traditions it has retained continuity with the ancient Greek presuppositions as to the nature of God (or the Good), as omniscient, omnipotent, possessed of aseity and so forth. It has come in for fierce criticism by feminist women cognisant of this philosophical tradition; criticism that has not been appropriated if even grasped by their male colleagues. The tradition is conveyed to the next generation by the bias of textbooks for the ‘A’ level Religious Studies course in England. (It is not ubiquitous; training in the States and employed in Scotland I evaded it.) There lacks any real awareness of its social or gendered situatedness. From this discussion it follows naturally to look back to the ancient world, discussing how from the beginning of recorded history there have been creation myths that, overturning women’s role in reproduction, made male normative while associating women with the earth and of lower cast than reason (seen as male). This is true of both Greek and Hebraic culture. Men establish their identity through what they hold in common with their God, or gods. With Aristotle came pseudo-scientific reasoning for women’s inferiority, remaining in place for two millennia as it entered Christian thought, notably through Aquinas. As Aristotelianism increasingly fell into disrepute, the first significant break with these traditions came with the Lutheran Reformation. Platonism was also denied in favour of the kerygma that God accepts us independently of our goodness or likeness to God. But it was only with the enunciation of universal principles in the late eighteenth century that another paradigm was realised.

It is a theme of this book that the Lutheran tradition, whereby the self in seen relationally rather than substantially, has been seminal for modern Continental philosophy and theology. Working out of a post-Hegelian tradition, Simone de Beauvoir theorises women’s position in relational terms predicated on Hegel’s ‘slave’, whom woman both resembles and is unalike. In a move that may owe to her companion Jean-Paul Sartre, she depicts woman as taking on what has come to be known as a ‘false consciousness’, seeing the world through the eyes of the master. But de Beauvoir is also fascinating in seeing human lives (to a much greater extent than is true of Sartre at this juncture) as fluid and open. She thus holds out hope for a mature humanity as selves become what later feminists would have called ‘centred in relation’. It is a fine statement of feminist ethics. Following his depiction of the ‘master’ and the ‘slave’ Hegel finds the split internal to the individual, ill at ease as he is possessed of an ‘unhappy consciousness’, projecting a completion ‘beyond’; a theme to be taken up by Feuerbach. Indeed, the split nature of male consciousness, leading to a split view of woman, comes to dominate Continental psychoanalytic philosophical thought, but the outcome is complex. There is the dualism we have already seen. That which is the One and the good is seen as ‘above’, the telos of spiritual attainment, and in some ways woman as ‘mother’, or that which the good mother represents, is projected onto God or associated with the desired completion. But this has little to do with actual women, who represent the other half of the dichotomy; nature, multiplicity, and materiality. I discuss the work of varied authors in the attempt to elucidate how male ‘splitting’ and gender hierarchy are intricately imbricated.

It is time to turn to the project of Luce Irigaray, for the question presents itself as to whether women too need a transcendental in relation to which they should find themselves and if so in what that consists. Critiquing the Lacanian psychoanalytic thought in which she trained (while retaining its presuppositions as to the primacy of language and the intractability of culture), Irigaray will create a subject position for women, one that is not divorced from materiality. Whereas hitherto woman has reflected man back to himself at twice his natural size (Virginia Woolf), going back through the tain of the mirror (she is A-Luce Through the Looking Glass) Irigaray will foster an independent ‘genealogy’ for women. Irigaray well sees how the relation to the mother has underlain, often silently, male desire and discourse. In her later work she expresses the utopian hope that men too should find their embodied selves, such that women and men might come into their own in mutual recognition of their otherness. There may however lie a problem in accentuating gendered dichotomy, seemingly so fundamental to French and Catholic thought. Meanwhile Irigaray’s talk of spirituality falls short of any recognisable sense of that which is God.

Taking up Gayatri Spivak’s question ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, I conclude by discussing the difficulty that women have had in getting a word in edgeways under the circumstances of male hegemony. The formulation of thought, and more particularly theology, have been a male prerogative. The world’s greatest mathematician and astronomer of her day, Hypatia was denounced as ‘pagan’ and brutally murdered by a Christian mob. In the Middle Ages women risked being proclaimed witches. Julian of Norwich’s work would have been destroyed had it not been for the order of English nuns in France who guarded it, refusing to open their library to the authorities. Nor has all this changed in my generation. Not even admitted until recently, women have had a hard time in masculinist theology faculties. I may be safe, but my first book Theology and Feminism was ceremonially burnt at a theological college. As Mary Beard puts it: ‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice’. Thus there has arisen in feminist circles discussion of ‘epistemic injustice’. As Woolf pointed out, the circumstances of women’s writing needs a critical mass before Shakespeare’s sister can come. The interesting question is how women’s theological writing will differ from men’s; what paradigms and values espouse.

Chapter 3: Critique of Ethico-Theological Motifs

Contrary to the general consensus that, while people may not believe Christian dogma, we can surely all get on board with Christian ethics, the ethical paradigms and values espoused by feminists (and enunciated in feminist theory) stand in considerable contrast with those embodied within Christianity. In a fine article Eleanor Haney, who had earlier trained in Christian ethics with H. Richard Niebuhr, suggests that the feminist virtue is not so much agape but rather philia. Feminists believe the other to be neither inferior nor superior and will not themselves countenance being treated in any other way. It is this that I shall pursue further in the first half of this chapter.

I commence with the theme of love (whether agape, eros, or philia) and progress to a discussion of kenosis; themes quite fundamental to the ethos of Christianity and perhaps also Judaism. More particularly in the Lutheran tradition, it has been a central understanding that the Christian message is one of agape, that God loves us irrespective of our merit and we are likewise to love the neighbour. In contrast, since Augustine Catholicism has thought in terms of what may be deemed a ‘higher’ eros, as our appetite is turned towards the good or God, while Thomas Aquinas spoke in terms of phila or amor amicitiae (matched by the Council of Trent’s talk of the transformation brought about through our cooperation with infused grace). In so far as Christianity has spoken of self-denial and self-giving, these themes have profoundly hurt women as it is they who have been exhorted to be the chief bearers of these virtues. I was early on the scene here, writing an article speaking of the Christian dichotomy between powerfulness (as in the case of God) and the abnegation of power in agape and kenosis, while feminists speak rather of the mutual empowerment of persons. In an article from which it appeared that she had not grasped (perhaps even read) what I was saying, Sarah Coakley set me as a ‘straw man’ in advancing a thesis about kenosis. Republished devoid of the response I had originally made (in a book I edited to which Coakley contributed this article) there grew up a small industry as to why Hampson is wrong. Since it is an important debate, I take this opportunity to discuss the issues at stake.

Turning to the topic of ‘the neighbour’, I follow through on these themes in considering the feminist critique of the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Despite clearly being a thoughtful person whose work has been widely admired as an ethics built around respect for the ‘other’, Levinas persists with an old-fashioned and conservative, in his hands astonishingly flippant, conception of ‘woman’, who becomes in effect a trope. His writing epitomises what we have called ‘male splitting’, as woman is depicted as a plaything for the male, separate from the serious male world of relations between brothers. In his later work she is pedestalised as the mother of his sons, but any equality and mutuality between the sexes still fails to materialise. This has been admirably dissected in the work of Stella Sandford. Meanwhile in two essays directed to Levinas, Irigaray pertinently asks, given that the recognition of ‘the Other’ lies at the heart of his thought, how it could be that Levinas fails to recognise the ‘otherness’ of the gender divide; abandoning her (so Irigaray accuses) to animality, while he turns to an exalted relation to transcendence. In the case of Levinas we may truly say ‘plus ça change’. With the notable exception of Jacques Derrida, male scholars have displayed considerable obscurantism in defending Levinas in this respect.

In the second half of the chapter, I turn to themes that have been central to the ethics and practice of male religion, giving them a twist from a feminist perspective. I consider first sacrifice, a blood-letting performed to promote male solidarity and reconciliation, prominent in masculinist religion the world over. The social anthropologist Nancy Jay has convincingly shown that sacrifice acts to secure patriarchal succession, while it performs a one-up-man-ship on woman qua mother. In many societies women are excluded from the sacrificial act, in some men re-enact birthing ceremonies dressed as women. This is not a million miles from Christianity, while that part of Christendom that has insisted on the sacrifice of the mass has also emphasised apostolic succession. In a devastating critique, William Beers suggests (as also have French feminist theorists) that in effect it is woman that is sacrificed. Depicting sacrifice as male narcissism, Beers avers that violence and anger towards women cannot be overcome until men confront their darkness. We appear once more to be confronted with the male attempt to find identity in the face of the loss of the mother. From here we move to a discussion of sin, understood here (as it has not been) as male violence exercised towards women. Such violence is ubiquitous. Whether Irigaray addressing Girard (as I also questioned him) or Martha Reinecke considering witch hunts in the light of Julia Kristeva’s work, women point out that they have become scapegoats. Male fear of woman is symbolised by the medusa, while Natalie Haynes tells of a meme that, showing her with Perseus’ head held aloft, runs ‘Be thankful we just want equality not payback’.

We conclude the chapter by considering ‘salvation’ as ‘healing’, male healing, the word bearing its original patristic connotations. Why the term should have morphed to connote of the possession of an individuated eternal life is an interesting question. From Plato’s Diotima’s dialogue with Socrates forwards we find that men crave immortality, thinking to acquire it through offspring or great deeds. Of course, Christian belief in immortality stems from belief in resurrection. But feminist thinkers have widely condemned the abnegation of this world, as Judith Butler puts it, ‘entranced by an image of finality and self-identity which is itself a kind of death’.

Chapter 4: Symbols, Language, Mythology

Our masculinist naming, in symbol, language, and through the myth that is is Christian dogma, is the crux of the matter that in this book we are considering. Deriving from the Greek sun (together) and ballein (to throw), symbols are the lens by which reality is shaped, creating the sphere within which we dwell. I attempt to draw this out with reference to Heidegger’s essay ‘Die Sprache’ and Derrida’s contention that there is nothing not permeated by language and symbol in the widest sense of the word. More particularly in the case of God, there being no objective entity to hand symbol and language play a vital role, serving to crystalise what we would say. Indeed, the church Fathers in some way recognised this: the Greek word for creed was precisely ‘symbol’.

Within culture and religion, the idea of ‘woman’ has become a trope, or icon, a male construct of ‘the feminine’. From the Pythagorean table of opposites to Jean Paul Sartre, and from the West to the Eastern yang and yin, there is a certain consistency to the depiction of woman in masculinist thought. She is associated with passivity, thought to be more material, but as having in and of herself a certain completion. In this latter respect Lacan finds her to resemble ‘God’. But she is furthermore amorphous, threatening, temptress, and dark. I discuss some of this in Western culture. In what we have called male ‘splitting’, when not cast as slut or frivolous, she is pedestalised as mother (particularly the mother of male children). Much of this is very apparent in Western religion (more particularly Catholicism). I turn to a discussion of ‘Mariolatry’, with which the church has had a field day. Even though there is no basis for virgin birth (intrinsically impossible, the biblical text owes to a mistranslation), this persists as dogma today, a presumed response to some psychological need. Continental feminists of Catholic or orthodox heritage commonly fail to recognise that concern for Mary is simply absent from Protestantism; while to teach Mariology in UK schools funded by taxpayers must be wholly inappropriate.

Turning to the matter of Christology, it is an interesting question how far a Christology formulated within a philosophical context of ‘real universals’ has the possibility of being gender inclusive. For it could be said that women bear the same relation as do men to Jesus as the Christ. On the other hand, in Greek thought the logos, that out-going, creative principle, is always ‘male’. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, following upon the demise of real universals and the advent of Nominalism, Jesus has come to be worshipped as in and of himself ‘God’; a ‘Jesuology’ that is idolatry, if not paganism. In Catholicism we are a hair’s breadth from having two divine personages, one male, the other (who is his mother) female, and not quite God; together with holy people who are saints. In that it is other in type, a religion of the Word, of the gospel, and not a religion of iconography and imitation, Protestantism need not have the same problem, though among evangelicals Jesus is often idolised. When it comes to the matter of images, one sex can never really be inclusive of the other: sex (with its Latin se root, to divide or cut) is the great cutting of humanity. Christian feminist attempts to right this largely go awry, though there is interesting work on the priest as exhibiting trans or bisexuality. With the Trinity we reach the personification of male desire. Since patristic times the immanent trinity has been depicted in erotic terms, while it addresses the need for the father-son relation to find symbolic form. What to do with woman? It must be unsatisfactory to associate her with a diffuse Spirit; furthermore unorthodox, given it ascribes gender to the Persons of the trinity, who are said to be alike save in their mutual relations. While to suggest that the Trinity in its completion represents the ‘female’ simply compounds the problem.

Most problematic of all is the male aggregation of the female, or the male ‘feminine’, to the male, and furthermore the male usurpation in the sacred realm of any place for women. The prevalence of such themes is indicative as could nothing else be of what religion is essentially about; the male need to overthrow or trump the perceived power of woman. Thus, the concept of God must be gendered male, for He exemplifies the picture of perfection and power; further, God is modelled on the ‘father’, the third term that, intervening in the symbiosis between mother and child, enables the male child to acquire a model of adulthood. But, putting down actual mothers, men have proceeded build back an ideal image of what she represents into the God of their imagination, as He is merciful, caring, and has everlasting arms. The Council of Toledo (675) went so far as to proclaim that the Son was born from the very womb of the Father. We find the motherly father in Luther too, the twentieth century Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggesting that this is helpful to feminism! While the Christian God subverts women, Christian practices usurp the place of women, ascribing what by nature and in culture have been female functions to men. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation is the work of the male acting alone, no female principle being involved. Reversing mammalian reproduction, Eve comes forth from Adam (as did also Athena from the head of Zeus). In society it is primarily women who undertake the role of cleansing; in the church it has overwhelming been men who have baptised. Natural birth from women is designated unclean, while in baptism the infant must undergo a ‘second’ birth into the church, performed by men. While universally it is women who undertake the role of feeding others, the sacred meal that is the eucharist is performed by men. Religion turns the tables on women, while as man’s natural partner she is bi-passed.

Can the Christian religion become hospitable for all? I embark here on a discussion of French Lacanian ideas in their impact on French feminist thought, more particularly as pertaining to religion. For the question is not simply whether language is intractable as we are caught in its web, but whether so long as men are born of woman it must not also necessarily be what it is. It is of course true that woman is subjected within language and that she has not represented herself. (Genesis we may say has it exactly right: Adam names not only all the creatures in the world that God brings to him, but also the woman and her reality – and he names her in relation to himself.) In respect of the question posed Kristeva is relatively determinist, thinking that the best we can do is to bring to the fore another, pre-linguistic, sphere that is somehow ‘feminine’. By contrast Anglo-Saxon feminism has been much more pragmatic, suggesting that social change (for example through dual parenting) can bring about change in meaning. Judith Butler may have the last word here in suggesting that the pre-discursive maternal body is itself the production of a particular historical discourse, an effect of culture. If this is so, there could theoretically be liberation; a liberation that would imply a revolution in religious typology.

Chapter 5: Religion in the Public Realm

Becoming a feminist compares to putting on a pair of glasses: it enables one to see clearly that which previously was out of focus. When they would not tolerate racism, anti-Semitism, and increasingly homophobia, why has it been so hard for men to ‘see’ sexism? The argument of this book having been all but concluded, the chapter considers how what we have been discussing is reflected in society. Much of the material focusses on the UK, though there is a section on multiculturalism, but one would hope that readers are able to translate the material into their own circumstances for better or for worse.

Commencing with politics, in the UK leaders of religious organisations (overwhelmingly men) by right or by appointment sit in the legislature, in the House of Lords. (The only other country where this is the case by right is Iran.) The late philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock spoke out eloquently on the consequences. Other peers tend to look to these persons for ‘guidance’ on moral matters. In recent years the religious lobby in Britain has succeeded in stopping legislation that would have allowed euthanasia, and defeated an amendment that would have brought religious institutions into alignment with employment law in not permitting discrimination when employing those (e.g. gardeners) not directly involved in church matters. Invited by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI, a notorious conservative who had criticised the Equality Act passed by Parliament that year and the head of an organisation that campaigns against abortion, came on an official visit to the UK, funded in part by taxpayers’ money. In recent years I have been involved in work with 16-18-year-olds taking Religious Studies to ‘A’ level in schools and in training their teachers. The proclaimed rationale of RS in schools (in a multi-faith society) may be fine, but the syllabus of the Oxford and Cambridge examination board should never have been permitted by the government Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation. On a public examination, held in Britain in the 21st century, it cannot be tolerable to find a question that, quoting Ephesians 5:22-23 (‘Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands…’) asks the student to ‘assess this teaching’ for family life. Has nothing been learnt about the circumstances of domestic violence? Nor is it suitable to prescribe for study a papal Apostolic Letter enjoining young women to follow the Virgin Mary in her ‘gift of self’ in the Annunciation. How does this chime with the teaching of citizenship and ethics in a society that has in place equality legislation? Meanwhile the growth in England of ‘Faith Academies’, allowed to discriminate as to the students they take and accord priority to those of their own religious stance, must be at odds with the putative aim that children should grow up among those of other religious (or non-religious) outlook, so fostering tolerance.

The issue that lurks behind such discussions, in the UK and elsewhere, is that of a declared ‘religious freedom’ as a human right, embodied in international declarations. But a fundamental question needs to be confronted as to why, for example, the broadcasting of sexist and patriarchal religion should be permissible, when overtly racist and anti-Semitic views declared in public are not. That England has a tradition of civil case law (Scotland’s tradition differs slightly) notwithstanding, the UK has not been slow to adopt international human rights legislation and (for the UK as a whole) to pass the Equality Act (2010). The English philosopher Roger Trigg fulminates against the international legislation, thinking ‘freedom of religion’ compromised. But it is dubiously true that, as he maintains, our rights are grounded in our Christian heritage. As far as women are concerned those rights owe rather to the working out of the implications of (secular) Enlightenment principles. In an influential article the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argued, in a conciliatory stance, that on the one hand a secular state must not put undue burden on those committed to a faith position, but also that such persons must recognise that secular reasoning enjoys priority in the modern state; viz. a new ethos holds sway, and religious persons cannot expect to have it all their own way.

Meanwhile everyday sexism reigns. When a well-known footballer calls another footballer ‘a black cunt’ he is had up for ‘racism’ (although the other footballer is Black), not for sexism. In terms of respectful address of persons, the UK must stand rock bottom: on the Continent any adult woman is referred to as Madame, or Frau; here ‘my darling’ or, at a market stall I am ‘my little flower’ while the man served before me is ‘sir’. Such trivialisation of women, together with the patronising and belittling attitude it implies, may be thought to have percolated through the society from its norms and values and not least its religion. At weddings women are still symbolically ‘given away’ by their father to their future husband, while until recently no wedding ceremony that had a spiritual intent was legally allowed other than a Christian. Children enact Christmas plays in which the one female present is there qua mother, while men play a variety of roles and the child whose arrival is celebrated is always male. During my entire teaching career, I only once experienced a student out of control. It later emerged that he had served time for murdering his mother (and presumably could not deal with a woman in authority). After a campaign founded on the premiss of Christian forgiveness, he was ordained. Meanwhile another former student, wise for her age and clever too, subsequently ordained, when she was (as she claimed) raped by a church elder was dismissed and had to go all the way to the House of Lords to get justice.

A marked characteristic of present-day Britain is obviously that there are extensive immigrant communities. There has been a policy, largely inaugurated by the Blair government (1997-2007), of dealing with these communities as such, a policy known as ‘multiculturalism’. Given also that that government and perhaps also the Cameron-led governments (2010-16) wanted to give religious bodies a greater role in the society, faith leaders in these communities have often been those consulted as multi-culturalism morphs into multi-faithism. Feminists – though not only they – have been highly critical. An influential voice like that of Amartyr Sen, at the time Master of Trinity College Cambridge, and with the Indian situation in mind, has argued that persons have multiple identities and giving undue weight to faith tends to divide a society. The voices of those least likely to be leaders in the community (and often in the most need of the protection of the state), women, or apostates, tend not to be heard. Nor will women (if they are even allowed to be present), having different needs and interests, necessarily feel at home in inter-faith, or other gatherings promoted by the state with the intention of combatting extremism. Hence there tends to be a certain male hegemony, criticised by feminist sociologists who think that multiculturalism as practiced is only to the advantage of elderly men, sheltering them (under the guise of respect for other cultures) from the need for change in giving women their rights.

Men never think to apologise. I have known only two men (one Lutheran, the other Catholic) prepared to take a principled position, thereby hurting their careers, on the question of the ordination of persons without respect to gender. Contrast this with the stance of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, formed when those who fell foul of the anti-Semitic legislation were dismissed from their posts as pastors in the established church. It is possible for individual men to take meaningful action; I know one man who works with teenage boys on the issue of pornography. But in the first place, men need to ‘hear’ women; to stand in their shoes. Change there may be, but it is painfully slow. It must be doubtful that there can be real equality until either secularism reigns or our religious heritage, seen for what it is, comes under the spotlight.

Chapter 6: A Different Heaven and Earth

In this final chapter I first take the measure of where we have arrived. In a tradition which stems from Nietzsche (and with its roots in Luther), extending through Heidegger to Derrida, there has been a demolition of the idea that there is a ‘real beyond’ (Platonism) – and a consequent rejoicing in this world. Furthermore, with the Enlightenment the idea that there could be a particularity of revelation ceased to be viable. These together represent a comprehensive challenge to theology as we have known it. At the same time the idea that theology is a second order discipline, grounded in an immediacy of awareness, has with the work of Feuerbach and Freud come under suspicion. I consider three broad options that may be discerned in the theological world. Firstly, a Catholicism which, though it may convey a certain humanism and spirituality, revolves around untenable propositions and is irreconcilable with gender equality. Secondly, a Protestant theology of revelation stemming from Kierkegaard and manifest in dialectical theology that, while it evades the need to be rationally grounded, is predicated on an untenable theory of revelation (and is accordingly sexist). Thirdly, a theological liberalism, embracing Protestants and progressive Catholics; the problem being that it is scarcely Christian, to the point that one must ask whether it be moral to hold to what is essentially counted mythical if that myth be far from gender inclusive. The best hope is that theology should have at least a quasi-empirical basis. For on what other count would one entertain the idea that there is indeed that which is God? There is no reason moreover for a spirituality so grounded to be other than gender free or gender inclusive.

Moving from overarching considerations to the highly personal, I consider why I am of the conviction that there is indeed a dimension of reality that we may name ‘God’. I tell of an experience I had of a dear friend with whom, as she also had noted, there was a kind of extra-sensory awareness. Liz was very clearly in contact with me in this way a few hours before her death. I discuss also an experience some years ago now (of which I reported in a previous book) when, my car engine having failed, and crying out to God (for I was to take a six hour train journey to speak at a day conference the following day) and an empty taxi came down a farm track at snail speed and I could take it to the station. ‘Does God send taxis?’ I was asked. But precisely I do not think in this way; the theodicy questions that would arise would be horrendous. Rather is it that, as one lives one’s life with a kind of open awareness, one can be present to another, or draw on that power that is God, knowing what one should do. Clearly many have had such experiences; compare the work of Sir Alister Hardy and the (previously) Oxford Religious Experience Unit. One could write in similar terms of spiritual healing, which again we do not fully understand. Interestingly there is biblical record of such experiences, both extra-sensory perception and healing. But that is as we should expect if that which is everywhere and always potentially possible does not differ. That some periods or people may be more open to this dimension of reality is of course fully possible.

But have we jumped out of the frying pan into the fire? For modern philosophy has questioned both the idea of intellectual intuition (Kant) and of interior ‘presence’ (Derrida). We need to think through these objections. In the case of intellectual intuition, I of course agree with Kant that we require sensible perceptions for knowledge to arise; but I wonder whether we do not also need another word than ‘knowledge’, perhaps premonition. In the case of Derrida’s critique, more particularly of Husserl, I am uncertain that, in saying what I would, one cannot also agree with Derrida that there is no immediacy such that ‘the trace’ does not run. Thus, given the opportunity to read a paper in Derrida’s presence, I spoke of Schleiermacher. For Schleiermacher insists that ‘every consciousness of self is at the same time the consciousness of a variable state of being’. I do not know what this could be if not Derrida’s ‘the eye and the world within speech’, or différance? Again, given the differing context, it has struck me Buddhist silence differs from Quaker silence. But, at the end of the day, while attempting to answer the philosophers, perhaps the theologian can only declare ‘Hier stehe ich’.

The question that confronts one qua theologian is that as to how (if He is no transcendent, anthropomorphically conceived agent) we should name or speak of that which is God. One candidate is surely as spirit. This is good as having deep resonances in different traditions and in its associations with breath and with life. Rather than being foreign to us, spirit conveys an interrelatedness with that which we are. Nor does there lack, in the treasury of human thought and record of experience, whether Christian or not, plenty on which we may draw. The Christian tradition itself is richer than simply the positing of an ‘Other’ who is God. I have mentioned my love for Schleiermacher, and I can see that one of Catholic disposition might in this respect value Aquinas. Well may one ponder whether the phenomenology of the later Heidegger is useful (as opposed to a misguided attempt, in the manner of John Macquarrie, to assimilate Heidegger to Christian theology). For Heidegger (if he is also seemingly inconsistent in what he has to say) attends to that permeable boundary between self and what lies beyond self. Though Heidegger may well be suggestive methodologically, he does not begin to speak of the goodness and healing power of that which impinges upon us, or to which we may be open. Whether (or when) we should employ anthropomorphic language in describing that which is God is an interesting question. There is much value also in other forms of language.

What does seem imperative, in a post-Enlightenment age, is to be able to speak without qualification of human self-realisation, both individual and collectively. It is here that what Derrida (basing himself on Hegel’s dialectic) spoke of as ‘deconstruction’ may be useful. It is not that we should be reversing the terms of a previous opposition with God ‘above’ and humanity ‘below’, an opposition repeated in a man/woman gendered hierarchy. Rather should we be placing ourselves outside this dichotomy ‘by affirming an absolute break and difference’ in a ‘change of terrain’. Thus, that which is God must surely be seen as a dimension of the total reality to which we also belong. Accordingly, we shall need models of the self, often espoused by feminists, that speak of a ‘porous’ ego boundary. Then we might have ways to conceptualise our experience of the power and the love that causes us in the first place to think in terms of that which is God. Concluding the work, I return to the theme of the failure of theology to be part and parcel of the modern world. It is not epistemologically tenable and, predicated upon this, also not (as Voltaire pointed out) morally tenable, for dangerously heteronomous. A bias towards the male is written into the terms of Christianity (and likewise it would seem other religions). If it is to accord with the philosophical, ethical, and biological verities that we hold today, western religion and culture will need unpicking step by step. What we need, in the words of Anthony Dyson, is the practice of ‘deep friendship and committed relationality’ between men and women. For as Marilyn Massey points out women are not seeking to take revenge. The question is whether, as the French dramatist Marguerite Duras put it, men are able to ‘forget everything and join women’.