And Woman Created God

Aileen La Tourette is a writer currently contributing to The Big Issue. She is a former Chair of the SoF Steering Committee. This article reviewing Daphne Hampson's After Christianity first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the SoF UK magazine.

My reaction to "After Christianity" surprised me. My sympathies with the text were not where I would have anticipated. They were not, broadly speaking, with Daphne Hampson's theories of either Christianity or feminism, but rather with her attempts to sort out a new spirituality. Her effort in this area is brave, and I really admire her for it. She takes the risk of being personal. She deserves the theological equivalent of a Purple Heart or Victoria Cross for daring to appear foolish or eccentric in the interests of sharing a vision with us, and I am grateful for that.

What she proposes as a "theology of experience" based on awareness, on listening to (my italics) and watching other people, a theology based on paying attention, struck a chord with me, so to speak. My own personal categorical imperative is Thou shalt listen—to which I am frequently deaf; so I felt a real spark of empathy with Daphne Hampson in her chapter on "Feminist Ethics" and in the final chapter, "Spirituality and Praxis".

With regard to her analysis of Christianity, I'm afraid I must repeat criticisms Hampson mentions in the text but does not, to my mind, refute. Her view of Christianity seems time-warped, frozen in an archaic model which some Christians probably still look to, but many do not. Hampson writes at length about Christian particularity and how, in her view, it renders Christian belief untenable. "Christians normally claim a uniqueness for the Christ event in conjunction with a claim about either an incarnation or a resurrection, or both." In a long preceding parenthesis, she gives her most current definition of Christians as "...those who believe that there was a uniqueness in conjunction with 'the Christ event'."

I would, on balance, probably call myself a Christian at this particular moment in my history—and in this particular week, not to say day—but I do not believe in this particularity or uniqueness over or above that of a Buddha or a Mohammed. Had I been born within Buddhist or Muslim culture, those events and, more to the point, those stories, those myths, would be the ones I had absorbed into my bloodstream. I want to rise up against Hampson in defence of the stories of Christianity as stories, as myths. She says they aren't "true myths" and should be discarded. I say they have truth in them—nothing "is" true—including that—and they should be re-told, as indeed she quotes one somewhat coy but effective re-telling of the story of Abraham and Isaac with approval—re-told, fought with, criticised, undermined, made into passion plays and decanted subtly into other plays, other films, other forms.

If she doesn't want to hear them again, fine—but I do. And so do many, many other feminists. Not to hear them would be to somehow selectively deafen myself to a whole stream of memory and association—and I find myself deaf enough already, as I said before. It is in pre-Christian stories and myths, surely, that many of us first discover irrefutable evidence that incarnation, virgin birth, resurrection, are all themes and motifs that occur and recur, which Christianity has neatly picked up and tacked onto its own historical figure in its turn. Surely what is amazing about Christianity is the awesome power of the myth that we have made, the awesome immensity of our need to make it.

On to feminism. I am distinctly uneasy when people go on about women's relatedness as opposed to men's isolation. It seems to me that there are strengths and weaknesses inherent in both situations. In Claire MacIntyre's play My Mother Said I Never Should, the symbol for a radically new and achieved autonomy and selfhood on the part of a young woman is her ability to play solitaire, a game her mother never got the hang of. The symbol may be somewhat facile, but there's something in it. If your place in the sun of social approval is deemed to be with other people per se, in the role of mother or as close to it as you can get, it will be hard for you to tolerate aloneness, solitude, necessary conditions for creative human endeavour.

I agree with Hampson's attacks on the traditional Christian notion of sacrifice. Yes, every crucifix should carry a government health warning, especially in the hands of a woman. But she seems to get tangled up in a somewhat romantic view of women, along the way. Recent evidence seems to suggest that, given the opportunities, women will behave as aggressively and competitively, maybe even as violently, as men. We may not like this evidence, but it's there.

I'm not even faintly suggesting that there is, or should be, any road back to a "softer" femininity. I have no nostalgia for such a thing. In fact, I tend to recall it as a source of either neurosis and misery, or of a kind of manipulativeness or low cunning amongst women with no access to legitimate personal power.

Hampson does touch on this legacy briefly, and she paraphrases Jessica Benjamin to the effect that "...women should use space creatively to gain a sense of authorship in their lives". But authorship of any sort requires a strong sense of self.

Hampson makes a point I made somewhat more flippantly, in answer to Don Cupitt, some years back in this magazine, when she quotes Jane Flax: "I am deeply suspicious of the motives of those who would counsel...a (postmodernist) position at the same time as women have just begun to remember their selves and to claim an agentic subjectivity available before only to a few privileged white men". Yes. I believe I said it was unfair for Cupitt to take the self off the market just when I was able to afford one.

The point is, we opened Pandora's Box, with feminism, and I'm glad we did—but we have to accept the consequences and hang on to the hope. A sense of self comes out of conflict—like drama, like energy; out of friction and contending, with oneself and others. A sense of self is expensive. It means making waves. It involves separating from the mother no less than it does for a man, I am convinced. And often the struggle is darker, more subterranean; and even more violent, when it breaks into the surface.

Hampson does observe, in a discussion of celibacy in the final chapter, that " is presumably the case that all human beings need some time to be apart if they are to lead centred and spiritual lives". That is surely the beginning of conflict, and growth. But I would like to end on an appreciative note, for I suspect that Sea of Faith-ers who read this book will be more than capable of reacting to it critically for themselves. I am less confident that they will also find the "good bits"—which says something about my view of Sea of Faith, its rigidities and political correctnesses. There is much here to reflect upon, if you can prevent yourself having a knee-jerk reaction to the word "deist". If you can't, your knees will jerk so fast and furiously you won't hear any other words, and that will be your loss.