The Art of Creating Postpatriarchal Meaning
Lecture at the
Prague, Czech Republic
10 October 2009
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
As you have probably read in your program I am a theologian. And just at the beginning of this presentation I warn you: I am not willing to conceal my profession. Although I know that hiding religious commitments would be the proper behavior in the context of an international non-religious meeting.
Why do I want to explicitly speak as a theologian? - Because I am sure, that we need strengthening words in postpatriarchal times, too. To find and say encouraging words that connect individuals to an encompassing “sense of the whole” could be defined as the main task of a theologian.
But don’t worry: I am a postpatriarchal theologian. I will not speak to you about God the Father, His eternal law and our eternal duties. Rather, postpatriarchal theologians understand themselves as midwives who carefully accompany the birth of renewed meaning. I will talk to you about the art of creating sense in our real and present world: a world that is still strongly marked by the bipartite order of patriarchy but has long since opened up for other mindsets. Meaning isn’t an eternally fixed thing, but a shapeable relationship between objects or feelings or thoughts and words. So, midway through the broken order of patriarchy I play with words and traditional concepts. In my spiritual-intellectual workshop I create something new that can’t be fully seen yet but is certainly on the way up.
I respect my Christian-protestant tradition as the narrative universe in which I found foothold in my early youth. Although my parents were not very religious people they told me about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the bible. They also told me about Kant, Marx, Freud, they let me listen to the music of Bach and Mozart and so on. Thus, Christian belief in an esthetic and critical European version became the symbolic matrix (matrix lat.=womb) that surrounded the real womb out of which I entered the world fifty-three years ago. I never became a “strong believer” but developed a certain familiarity with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, Abraham, Sara, Isaiah, Mary, Joseph, the French Revolution, Human Rights, Women’s lib and a lot of other names and symbols that have built my personal-political setting. Indeed, for many years, I rejected my Christian tradition as totally oppressive, above all for us women.
Yet, in the meantime I learned that it is pointless to deny the symbolic universe in which one survived. So, I now recognize: Like presumably every religion the Christian tradition is a mixture of repressive and liberating elements. My task is not refusal, but transformation: Picking up and putting together the wholesome parts of my tradition I begin to create a postpatriarchal mindset that helps us live in a globalized world. This world is, as we all know, full of problems and challenges. But it is nevertheless possible for us humans to live, enjoy and act in a nurturing way. As the American ethicist Sharon D. Welch puts it in her wonderful book “A Feminist Ethic of Risk” (Minneapolis 2000):
"Maturity is the acceptance, not that life is unfair, but that the creation of fairness is the task of generations, that work for justice is not incidental to one's life but is an essential aspect of affirming the delight and wonder of being alive"(70).
Our traditions are like compost that, carefully handled, bears nourishing fruit. Or like an untidy room that has to be cleared, now after patriarchal distortions have been unmasked, now after useless hierarchies between men and women, reason and emotion, heaven and earth, master and slave, markets and households have been unsettled or removed.
Some moments of silence
Before I invite you to virtually enter my thinker’s workshop I would like to ask you to practice for some moments one of the most precious exercises of our religious legacies: silence.
We are gathered here in one of these fancy business hotels that are nowadays spread all over the world. This hotel is not a terribly good or awfully bad place, but it’s real. It’s the place where we are at this moment. So, let us be here, in Prague, in the middle of Good Old Europe. We are all unique human beings, born from a unique mother who, for her part, is a daughter of a unique daughter, too. We are all needy, vulnerable, mortal, free and related parts of the immense network of life. Each of us has arrived with unmistakable desires, gifts and weaknesses. We are all bearers of human dignity living together with six and a half billion other bearers of human dignity and countless other living beings in an amazing and finite world, the only living space at our disposal. So, let us be here and feel, in some moments of silence, our togetherness as physical-mental beings that, despite our never ending dependency, are able to shape the world.
It would be nice to have more time for contemplation. But I stop it here and ask you to enter my thinker’s workshop and take a look around…
Handling the blocks of traditional thinking
Each woman who begins to perceive and name the world in our present times soon realizes that she is surrounded by huge blocks of traditional theory: There are of course the big temples of traditional religion with their holy scriptures and heaps of sacred texts and rituals inside. My protestant tradition, for example, tells me that I am a sinner. Am I a sinner? Well, yes, I am not perfect, I can’t control the outcome of my acts, and sometimes I can’t help thinking badly about other people. My protestant tradition also tells me that, in spite of my being defective, I am loved by SOMEBODY I CANNOT GRASP. I enjoy this feeling of being imperfect and loved at the same time. So, apparently, despite all criticism, I agree with a core feeling of my tradition.
Another intimidating block is modern science with its doctrine of objective empirical knowledge and its methodological rigor. Science is a useful tool as long as it helps me to understand things better. Yet, science is in danger to become a new religion that does not tolerate other ways of perceiving.
Since the end of the 20th century, there have been built the very strong, if you will, towers of neoliberal market economy, behaviorism and modern genetics. And in the background we still can vaguely perceive the dilapidated buildings of socialism and existentialism. Oddly enough parts of postmodernism have become stable buildings, too, although in the beginning this philosophy raised the claim to tear down all “-centrisms” – ethnocentrism, eurocentrism, androcentrism and so on - as false certainties.
… And I am sure that the list of blocks that hinder the development of free female thinking is not complete…
Most of these buildings that often intimidate us contain, as substructure, the Aristotelian idea that the world is bisected in higher rational male and lower emotional female spheres, that is: the belief that we women are not made for creative thinking but for feeding male theorists and produce and raise their offspring. It’s hard to get rid of this permeating structure for it is very old and, above all today, often invisible on the surface.
Some of the blocks are inhabited by celebrated leaders: Milton Friedman or Karl Marx or Jacques Derrida or Benedict XVIth. Some are more anonymous. What they have all in common is that they tell us “truths” about ourselves and about the world:
Neoliberalism, for example, tells us that the world is a huge virtual marketplace or at least should be organized as such in order to make us all rich and happy. Yet, what about the global economy crisis? Is it just a random accident? What about the hundreds of thousands of people who cannot find their way out of poverty? Is it true that the world best functions as a virtual marketplace? Don’t we women know that babies, children, ill, handicapped and old people cannot survive in pure market structures as they, like anybody, need caring persons and households first?
Fortunately the big buildings of patriarchal thinking have already been undermined by feminist thinking. Women have found holes and passages and exits and tricks to find their way out. And luckily, as I already said, not all the thoughts and words that build the hindering blocks are untrue. There is also wisdom in our traditions. We can find it out. We can play with traditional words, ask our mothers how they got fruitful advice out of them. We can laugh about men who all too seriously think to have found out the truth. Friendly laughter is one of the strongest and most peaceful weapons of women struggling out of domination.
All these tricks and outlets and devices are what the Italian Diotima philosophers call “the work on the symbolic”. It’s a creative, joyful, demanding, useful work. To rename the world means to create wider scope to move. If I, for example, recognize and feel that the world, in the first place, is no extended marketplace, but an extended household, my attitudes and actions will change: Perhaps I will do the care work that I anyway do with more self-confidence. I will discover and cherish certain forms of prosperity that I couldn’t perceive before. I will have at hand a new benchmark to assess my wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.
Yes: The world is no market, but a household. Consequently, success does not mean in any case to reach a so-called “top position”. Rather it means to find one’s unique place and, from there, to freely shape the world like a housewife that cares for a pleasant global atmosphere.
Renaming the world as a household is just one example of how postpatriarchal work on the symbolic proceeds. Here are some others:
Building up new flexible respectful joyful mindsets
Many of us women, especially daughters of ambitious mothers, have learnt that we have to make up leeway. We were told that for a long time women had been excluded from the most important parts of life: from suffrage, higher education, theory, science, big business, leadership, priesthood etc. So now, as we finally have got equal rights, we have to hurry up, prove ourselves as equal to men, even as better men. - What a stress! Let’s instead question this mechanism of a female “race to catch up”: Now at the end of patriarchy everybody does realize that the old virile patterns of cleverness have served their time. So, why run after outdated models? It’s obvious: women and men together have to find out new modes of acting in a vulnerable environment. It’s pointless to hurry after old patterns. Let’s instead take a closer look at the spaces to which we were confined: the kitchens, the outer offices, the nurseries. We can perceive them as productive otherness instead of exclusion. – Yes, I know, that’s a dangerous game for transformation work that honors our history can easily be confounded with resignation. Yet, I do not at all intend to glorify women’s traditional lifestyles but use our slavery past as stuff that can be transformed into an ethics of free caring.
No, we do not have to become greedy and detached top managers before we start to think about sustainable lifestyles.
What can we learn from our past? Not forced devotion, not the dream of almighty motherhood, not the illusion to heal the world by private marital love. Rather: the capacities to react to the ever changing needs of living beings, to deal peacefully with conflicts, to clear chaotic rooms, to clean symbolic windows so that everybody is able to perceive the world clearly, to create contexts in which all involved parties can live out their relations freely. Women have done all this for centuries under the conditions of patriarchal oppression. And it’s truly not an easy task to transform traditional household virtues into free action. Yet, although we will not always be successful, the way of transformation is surely more promising than copying given role models.
What will be the result of this transformation work? Surely it’s you who can answer this question better than me, as I am no businesswoman. I am a thinker. What professional thinkers can do is: accompany and support women’s postpatriarchal lives with appropriate thoughts and words.
I myself one day decided not to pursue a classical academic career but create my own lifestyle that matches my distinctive weaknesses and gifts: I became a freelance thinker or theorizing housewife or private scholar or public godmother or goddaughter… there are so many possible names that we can find for our life-inventions. Unlike a university professor I have a wide scope of action, using the bookmarket, the speaker’s desk, the worldwideweb, the pulpit, the academic sphere and other public spaces. As I have ceased to strive for a so-called top-position my life is not impoverished. Every day I take my time for silence, prayer, leisure and domestic work. Every morning I remember that I am born by a daughter, that means: that I am part of a kinship, a community, a stream of life, free in relation, free to insert the thread of my unmistakable life into the fabric of human togetherness, as Hannah Arendt puts it. Nobody has promised us that life will be easy, but certainly it’s not a machine but a fascinating journey that shows us new surprising landscapes every day.
You, too, can create new names for your lifestyle that will transcend your being and acting: worldhouse-wife, creative cricket, free carer, CCO (chief caring officer)…
Who or what is it that holds all this together?
Neoliberals tell us that it is the egoism of each human individual. Natural scientists say: it’s the clockwork of evolution. Patriarchal theologians refer to “the Lord”, God the creator. For Nihilists we are all lonely atoms abandoned on a planet that aimlessly loiters in a cold and futile universe.
I myself believe in coherence as I experience it every day anew: as family, kinship, friendship, local and regional and global community, as the nourishing cosmos that surrounds me. Like Albert Einstein and many others I do not think that humans are capable to grasp what “It” really is that holds the world together. Yet, as I respect my tradition and as I am a theologian, I decided not to dismiss the word “God”, despite all distortions this word has undergone in the past. My way of dealing with “God” is: to listen carefully to my ancestors, especially my women-ancestors. So, I read traditional texts as if they were letters in which my ancestors transfer their wisdom to us. Telling stories, giving advice, reciting proverbs they help me solve the problems that occur in my life. The Ten Commandments for example are a precious substratum of very old life experience that has found its modern answer in human rights and many struggles for a better life. I am thankful for my ancestors’ letters, and I want to understand what they meant by the word “God”, apart from its repressive and misogynist meanings.
Well, what actually did they mean?
In Ex 3,14 GOD presents his- or herself to Moses in the following words: “I am there. I am who I am”. So, quite in the beginning of the bible GOD tells us two things in one: SHE is present and HE doesn’t want to be fully understood. The double imperative to love JHWH while refraining from making images is the consequence of this self-presentation.
Quite at the end of the New Testament, in the first letter of John, I find another important sentence: “GOD is LOVE” (1 John 4,8). Well, love, too, is something that exists but that we cannot grasp. It’s always in-between. We can feel love, give it, enjoy it, spread it, but never fix or confine it. Patriarchy tried to imprison love in certain institutions, especially marriage, the family and the church. But this is past. Today we know that we kill love if we try to constrain it.
Hannah Arendt, the famous Jewish thinker, said that people tend to call everything they cannot control “God”. So, “God” could be a name for the cosmos and the vast web of relations that existed before I was born, that nourishes me every day and will still exist after my death. Yes, it’s true: The web of our relations seems to be as inconceivable as is GOD. How can I know who or what is responsible for the fact that I am still alive? Nature, other people, a creator or a mysterious web of concerns and affiliations? An important difference is that Arendt’s interpretation of “God” isn’t an “author” who consciously writes a story the end of which he already knows. Rather, “God” in Arendt’s view is a notion that indicates the fact that we are not able to grasp the SECRET that holds the world together. But Arendt, too, despite the terrible experience of the Holocaust, loves the world and this unthinkable IN-BETWEEN that keeps it going. LOVE, HOPE, RELATEDNESS, I think, really makes the difference.
So, as you can see, there are many useful hints in our tradition that tell us what we could call “God” in postpatriarchal times. It’s the SECRET that is weaving in-between our acts and life-stories. It’s the LOVE that gave birth to us and that keeps us going. It’s the amazing network of relations that overcomes desperation and death and helps us to get up every morning, like newborn children, to nourish what has nourished us to the present day.
OK, this was a postpatriarchal sermon. I warned you .…
To end up, a picture for our imagination ....
Photo by Ina Praetorius, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008
To end up my presentation I want to show you one single photograph. I took it myself, last year in Kinshasa, although it is forbidden to take pictures in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, it’s a snapshot, taken out of a car through the back window. But I like this picture very much because of its cheerful ambiguity.
I would like to ask you some moments of reflection: What title would you give to this photograph?
Fitting titles could be “Africa” or “Misery”. For as you can see the life conditions here are very poor. And alas we are all too much used to identify Africa with misery.
Yet, we could also name our picture “women’s solidarity”. For the two young women or girls in the foreground carefully help each other to cross the damaged road avoiding the huge puddle. Another fitting name for the picture could be “Peacefully dealing with obstacles”. Can’t we, on a symbolic level, all identify with these two girls who need each other to get to the other side of a problem? – A friend of mine proposed “…and life floods on…” as title for the picture.
Or we could say that it expresses “hope”. Despite the heavy rain that destroyed the road, despite poverty and exclusion, people are working, living, solving problems. In the background there is a big tree that will give shadow and shelter as soon as the sun will come back. Indeed, the tables and chairs on the right are broken. But there are people who will repair them so that we will soon be able to sit, eat and drink together, celebrate togetherness and dance in the street.
This picture teaches us that life is as mysterious as is GOD. We will never know what possibilities are hidden in a given situation. And this is true likewise for the Kinshasa cité and for the fancy business hotel in Prague where we have gathered. So, do not believe smart people who tell you “the truth”. Rather believe in LOVE and SURPRISE and BIRTH and the LIVING WEB OF OUR ACTIONS FOR A GOOD FUTURE WORLD.
Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Bridgeman