Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beelzeboob, Booby Traps, and Artificial Wombs


When I was pregnant with Clare (my first), my husband and I had a conversation that went something like this:
"Oh, I'm definitely breastfeeding."
"I'm a little jealous."
"That you'll have to share them?"
"No...I kinda wish I could do it, too."
Just this morning, Clare (now 7), sat next to me on the couch while Zadie (2), was latched on and nursing happily.
"Hey Zadie. Try sissy's mammies instead!"
Zadie looks up, still latched, sees the sparkle in Clare's eye, and decides to play along. "Okay!"
She lets go, bends her head towards Clare's chest, and makes pretend suckling noises, and then looks up and giggles. "Milk! Mmmmm!"
Apparently, we are all possessed by the spirit of Beelzeboob around here.

Like any other nursing mom, there are times when I cherish the intimacy and the snuggling, and times when, like now, I wish that I could type out a sentence without having my elbow awkwardly positioned around the opportunistic toddler who believes that anytime I'm seated and still is an invitation to latch on. There's something sweet and also something exhausting and frustrating about being The Only One with the mammies. Sometimes I fantasize about making them detachable, so I could just hand one off to my incredibly devoted nursling--"Here you go kid, enjoy. Just don't lose it." Sometimes I fantasize about a Meet-the-Parents style man-boob harness. Or magic milk-making pills that I could supply to others so they could lactate and we could share in an equal division of labor and an equal dividend of joy. Or that I lived in a commune with my sisters and we could just trade off nursing duty...(that's not too weird, right?)

There's something similar to this in the way that Karla Erickson analyzes the burdens and blessings of breastfeeding, and the biological reality that only certain bodies lactate. But--as is obvious from my opening paragraphs--my experience of the unequally distributed burdens and blessings of breastfeeding my first did not result in my deciding, as she has, to give up breastfeeding:
Next time I won’t breastfeed because it sets up a gendered division of who does what early into parenting. It provides an infrastructure for an unequal distribution of the work (and rewards) of parenting.
It's not that what she describes here isn't true in my experience--it is. And I appreciate her willingness to name it, analyze it, and take action in response. And, there's something fair-minded and noble about being willing to give up the blessings if you can't share them--as well as something honest about wishing the burdens were distributed more equally.

I just don't think that opting out of breastfeeding is the only possible, or the best, response to the issue.

Though I think Erickson's absolutely right in noting that "gender is reproduced in intimate spaces," our intimate spaces themselves are constructed within larger determinative contexts, and those contexts matter. If you want to breastfeed but you're not one of those women with the privilege of choosing SAHMing as your temporary or permanent vocation (in other words, most women), then you're faced with a real dilemma--one in which a breast pump is necessary but insufficient in itself to address. And this is, in my opinion, the very worst of all the "booby traps" lying in wait for mothers who choose to breastfeed--far worse than the mixed messages we receive from our health care industry where "breast is best but here's some free formula to take home with you" or all the public scandals of cover-up-or-else-we'll-kick-you-off-our-airplane. I can toss the formula. I can match the modesty police glare for glare. But I can't singlehandedly change the policies and expectations in place that make it impossible to make certain parenting choices and still keep a job.

What this means is, in short, is that bodies with wombs and lactating breasts are still treated as a deviation from the basic human bodily norm--moreover, a deviation we're unwilling, as a society, to do much to accommodate.

And this is why, despite the truth of Erickson's observation about the way human bodies become so particularly salient in the process of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, I can't agree that the solution is to "tuck away those breasts and reach for a bottle instead." Again--on an individual level, I find her reasons for this as a personal choice very poignant. But on a systemic level--if we all followed her lead--what would such collective action signify?

Erickson writes, "sometimes we have to do a runaround our bodies to ensure equity." But I want to ask, why? Why would having a certain sort of body be problematic? And what sort of equity is it, if we have to act like our bodies are different than they actually are to achieve it?

I believe Erickson locates the source of the problem in the wrong place. The problem isn't our female bodies. The problem isn't with having breasts that lactate, or breasts that don't. The problem is that we've left lactation, and all sorts of other parental and familial realities, out of bounds in terms of the kinds of bodily and social realities we're willing to recognize and accommodate as a society. The problem isn't biological. It's social.

Human embodiments are so much more interesting, and multiple, and fluid, and capable, than we've collectively agreed to define them to be--the paradigmatic able-bodied default male person, autonomous and self-sufficient and completely available at all times to his employer with no pesky familial obligations to interfere.

(I don't actually know anyone like that. Do you?)

Which bodies are being called upon to conform, in this prescription to tuck the breasts away and reach for the bottle? And conform to what? Any solution pretending to "equity" which requires bodies with wombs and vaginas and lactating breasts to perform more like bodies without those things is a reinscription of male normativity.

We might as well sign up now for those artificial wombs the transhumanists are so nuts about, so we can opt out of acknowledging female embodiments entirely. With technology's help, we can be just like men! And--bonus!--our boobs will no longer lactate and will simply be sexual objects for the male gaze, like God intended!

I'd much rather invest in researching some universal lactation pills, or a man-boob.

Friday, August 16, 2013

why does it matter?

There are worse injustices. There are, frankly, horrors that women endure: abuse, rape, slavery, mutilation, poverty without escape, forced sterilization and unwanted pregnancy, and add to the list because it really does just go on and on.

And fairly often I ask myself, why is it that I spend time on addressing what is, in the light of all this, the slight injustice of the silencing of women in our churches? Maybe I should follow the oft-repeated advice, both friendly and unfriendly, and leave--and work toward alleviating greater injustices elsewhere. Give up, shake the dust off, move on.

The answer that rises up inside me, every time, is: I can't give up on the Church of Christ. Not yet. I still have the hope, the conviction, that the church can be a force for good in the world, that the church can be a haven and a prophetic voice and a transforming reality. I still believe that the church can be an agent in addressing these injustices and righting them. I believe the church can continue Jesus' work of healing and helping and honoring those who have been hurt and ignored and abused and silenced and forgotten and left in the ash heap with their wounds and sorrow.

I believe we can. But I don't think we are.

And I don't think that we can truly address these systemic, chronic, life-threatening abuses--either globally or locally--unless we can hear the voices of women, who can tell us what's really going on.

And if we don't allow the voices of women to be heard in our assemblies in the worship of God--if we don't allow the voices of women to be heard in our leadership decision processes--if we don't listen to the voices of the women in our own midst... how can we pretend to listen to the voices of women suffering inside and outside the walls of our churches?

How many of our churches are active on these issues? How many of our churches are concerned with the rampant and ever earlier childhood sexualization of girls and the continuing sexualization of women in US culture? How many of our churches are actively concerned with sexual slavery and poverty? How many of our churches are active partners with local shelters? How many of our churches are viewed as safe places for women in abusive relationships?

It's not about whether or not women preach from a pulpit, or serve communion, or lead singing. It's about whether or not women's voices and experiences are welcomed, heard, taken seriously--in worship and out. It's about whether or not "women's issues" are issues that the church takes seriously as human rights issues, and what the church is doing to support women who need support and healing and hope.

If women can't even speak in our churches, where is it that we can be heard?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why We Call God Father: a response to Simon Chan

God is the big girl in the sky.

Simon Chan's article, Why We Call God Father, addresses a topic I regularly think about and discuss as a Christian theologian married to a priest at an Anglo-Catholic parish that employs very traditional liturgical language for God. Though the parish is theologically diverse--it does, after all, include me, a non-Episcopal, stubbornly Church of Christ theologian with an interest in cyborgs--the longstanding identity of the parish as the leading example of Anglo-Catholicism in New Jersey means that you don't mess with the liturgy. You just don't.

And so every so often, my husband and I delve into the issue of gender-inclusive language in liturgy, and the difficulties of balancing theology and aesthetics and tradition and justice. In fact, a couple nights ago we sat in the living room and prolonged our speeches until midnight. This is how we have fun around here.

While you might assume, as apparently Simon Chan does, that all self-avowed feminist theologians want to "expunge" all masculine language for God from our worship and Godtalk, that's not my position, nor is it in my experience a dominant and certainly not, as Chan claims, a "unanimous" stance among feminist theologians. If you read, for instance, Elizabeth Johnson, it is clear that her prescription is a multiplicity of language, one which does not expunge masculine language or traditional Trinitarian language, but instead employs it as one way among many others for speaking of God. Chan actually goes on to describe something like this as the proffered feminist solution, which I find confusing. It may be a minor point, but a lead-in which mischaracterizes all of "formal feminist theologians" with a "unanimous" declaration that masculine language "must be expunged" is inaccurate (and worse, inflammatory)--and Chan's own further description seems to indicate that he's aware of this, as a plurality of images including masculine ones is hardly "expunging" the Trinity from our worship. 

So, I'll be honest; that puts my back up a bit. It's certainly not the best way to start the conversation.

But, let's set that aside. What's the actual argument offered for the necessity of masculine language for God? Why, as the tag for article in my twitterfeed claims, would calling God something other than Father leave a "void" at the heart of the Christian story?
I'll leave the biblical text argument to biblical scholars; suffice to say, I'm pretty sure I remember enough of my OT Theology from my MA days to claim with a certain degree of confidence that God was not addressed as "Father" by the Israelites. There's that whole thing with the Tetragrammaton and avoiding saying the name of God, and all that. So when Jesus addressed God as "Abba," that was a pretty innovative shift. 

Chan makes two things out of this. First, he identifies this Father language by Jesus as a Trinitarian claim, and on this basis implicitly presumes an inherently masculinity of the Trinity itself. Second, he points out that Jesus extends this intimate relationship with God the Father to his disciples.

With regard to this second point, as Chan points out, the significance of Jesus teaching his disciples to call God "Father" is that "the loving relationship he has with the Father from eternity now extends to those adopted into God's family (Rom 8:15)." I agree with this; my priesthood-of-all-believers CofC background has consistently interpreted this as an indication of relationship with God that provides direct access without the need for priestly mediation. We may directly address God, and address God on intimate terms.

I'm unsure, however, on what basis Chan makes this further claim: 

The father-son relationship is the most intimate personal relationship, one marked by reciprocal love and respect, and it is God's supremely personal and loving nature that the term father is meant to underscore.
Now, I'm neither a father nor a son. So maybe I'm just missing out on the definitively "most intimate personal relationship" in all of creation? Maybe I just don't know what I'm missing, but still...I can't help but pause here and say, um...what?

I am a mother and a daughter. And a sister. And a friend. And a wife. And all of those relationships have their own intimacy. And if someone forced me to I might make the audacious claim that "the most intimate personal relationship" I've experienced is the one where I carried another person inside my womb for 40+ weeks, and then nursed her for another couple years, and wiped her butt for another after that--and I'm still watching raptly as that tiny body put together inside me keeps growing and changing and maturing and never loses its fascination for me. I might then be tempted to make that experience paradigmatic for intimacy for everyone--but I'd resist that temptation.

(Other people might want to make the argument that sexual intimacy is the paradigmatic "most intimate personal relationship"--after all, you're putting parts of your body into someone else's body, and stuff, and that's pretty, well, intimate. 
But I digress.)

Of course, the problem is not just this incredible and unsupported claim of the unique intimacy of father-son relationality; it's that this is also supposed to be paradigmatic for all people in their relation to God. Jesus relates to God as Father and invites us to relate to God in this way, and so we all relate to God in this supremely unparalleled father-son relationship.

So now what? Apparently, women are supposed to keep doing what we've always done: mentally write ourselves into masculinity, because we just somehow know after all that we're supposed to be included there:
To claim, as many feminist theologians do, that the very presence of masculine metaphors for God excludes women simply does not square with the way Scripture uses them. Masculine images of God do not always convey exclusively "masculine" qualities. For example, Isaiah 54:5–7 refers to God as the Husband who with "deep compassion" (a stereotypically "feminine" quality) called estranged Israel back to himself (see also Isa. 49:13). The term father, then, excludes not feminine qualities, but rather the idea of a distant and impersonal deity, which is precisely the picture of the supreme being still seen in many primal religions.
Let's deconstruct this a bit. First--again!--there's a mischaracterization of feminist theologies here. It's not "the very presence" of masculine metaphors for God that is exclusive. It's the exclusive presence of masculine metaphors for God that is exclusive--and the way that this exclusivity paves the way for the further reification of those masculine metaphors into the non-metaphorical nature of God as Father. Which, not incidentally, is a one-sentence summary of Chan's position in the article.

Second, I certainly agree that "masculine" and "feminine" qualities are social constructions with very little basis in embodied reality, and we do well not to project those gender constructions onto God--whether as Father or Mother. For Chan, however, this becomes an argument for folding in all "feminine" qualities into the still-masculine Father, and this is somehow supposed to make father-son relationality inclusive of women. I don't quite follow that, so that's my best shot at understanding the argument here.

Chan also makes the argument that Father implies Creator, and thus that decentering Father language for God implies jeopardizing the Christian doctrine of creation. 
Second, the father metaphor points to God as the Creator (e.g., Isa. 64:8; Mal. 2:10) "from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name" (Eph. 3:15). Father captures in one word two seemingly contrasting characteristics: God's love for his creatures and his lordship over all creation. Here again, we see the difference between Israel and ancient Near Eastern cultures. In the Judeo-Christian faith, God the Father created the world as something separate from himself, whereas in Near Eastern societies, the mother metaphor pictures the mother-goddess giving birth to the world (which makes it an extension of the deity's body). Calling God Mother undermines the Christian doctrine of creation by implying that God and the world are made of the same stuff and virtually indistinguishable. So, we need Father in order to get to the right doctrine of creation.
Again we see this working assumption that "Father" exclusively, comprehensively and uniquely captures in one word God's relationality to creatures/creation by signifying both love and lordship. Chan further argues that calling God Mother in relation to creation would necessarily obligate us to ANE cult thealogies (I'm not sure why this would be so) and suggests that the relationship of Mother to creation would be one marked by ontological undifferentiation rather than the proper ontological distance and supremacy indicated by Father and its concomitant notion of "lordship," which is presumed to be obviously orthodox though it remains completely undefined here.

I can guarantee you that my relationship as Mother to my little creations is marked by all sorts of ontological differentiation. Sometimes in the form of tantrums. And since a distant deity is one of the things Chan points to as problematic that Father language is supposed to uniquely correct, I'm a little confused as to why ontological distance is now suddenly a desirable quality in a deity.

In the end, Chan rests on something much less like an argument and much more an operative claim: 

The term Trinity is simply shorthand for the Christian story of God the Father, who sent his Son Jesus Christ and gave us his Holy Spirit. Who is the God that Christians encounter at worship? He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To quote Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the proper name of God. Relating to the triune God is what makes Christian experience truly Christian. Simply using the name God, even with many qualifiers (compassionate, gracious, loving, almighty, and so on), does not sufficiently distinguish the God of Christian revelation from other monotheistic faiths. If we leave out God's nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we risk turning the Christian story into another story.
In this paragraph it becomes explicitly apparent that the real issue for Chan is not the primacy of the metaphor of Father as the best representation of the relationality of God to Jesus, humanity, and all of creation--despite the attempt to make this argument. The real issue is simply that Father is not a metaphor. It is God's actual ontological identity.

So it's not about how to best articulate God's relationality within Godself or to creation; it's not about liturgical elegance or faithfulness to tradition or even biblical warrant for Godtalk; it's about who God really is. And it turns out that some people really do think God is a man.

Friday, August 09, 2013

For Friday Fun with #imaging #genderjustice in #CofC:

when I get an email adding another church to the list of gender inclusive churches: