"Positivism" from Plato's Cave

“Why Be Religious?” at Feministe

Recently Victoria (who’s married to one of the better Christian Humanists) sent me the link above, noting that reading the post and the following comments made her “want to throw things.”  She asked me to help her articulate why such was her reaction, and rather than post my response as a Facebook comment (which is a rotten medium for serious discussion for a number of reasons, all of them having to do with Zuckerberg and none with Victoria), I figured I’d write it up here.  My initial response to her was that I found it difficult to say why she was angry but that I could perhaps offer some reasons why the piece troubles me, and that in turn might cast light on her own reading.  So this little essay is an attempt to articulate those reasons.

My own background in academic theology includes some reading in feminist theology, and like most sorts of theology, I find better texts and worse texts when I read around.  I remember distinctly thinking that Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is was one of the stronger explorations of theological language’s metaphorical character that I’d ever read, and although not every feminist-theological text offers answers that I find compelling, I do appreciate the questions that emerge from feminist theology, just as I appreciate the questions that radical orthodoxy and liberation theology and neo-Calvinism and open theism and several other schools of theology bring to light without necessarily embracing all of their answers.

I note my appreciation for feminist theology not in the spirit of the white guy who says he has some good Black friends but because of where I situate feminist theology and academic theology more generally: they’re second-order reflections on Christian worship, which I take to be the primary ordering force in a true imagination of reality.  In other words, I appreciate feminist theology because the best texts help me reflect on the implications of the proclamation of the gospel, of the Eucharist, and of baptism.  I do not find out that I should think hard about baptism from feminist theology: instead, feminist theology helps me ask some interesting questions about that already-crucial conversion moment.  I suppose that’s why Shoshie’s defense of her Jewish practices rattled me a bit:

I feel frustrated when people talk about how I should just embrace spirituality, over religion, because my spirituality comes from my religious practice. It’s a very Christian idea that thoughts and emotions, not actions, are what’s important for spiritual practice. I feel frustrated when people try to separate out my religion from my culture, to say that the culture is acceptable but the religion is not.

This little paragraph let me know right away that what Shoshie calls Christian and what I call Christian differ wildly: the way I’ve been trained to practice Christian theology, I always stand suspicious of the intellectual without the ritual and the emotional without the confessional.  One of the reasons I’ve remained a faithful congregant and deacon within the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is that our congregations do take baptism-of-adults-by-immersion and weekly Eucharistic gatherings seriously.  In other words, when someone says that one doesn’t “have to go to church” to be a Christian, my response is less anger or congratulation and more puzzlement: if one doesn’t take of the Eucharist, gather for preaching, and share one’s monetary resources with a local community, then why bother calling it Christianity?  (I realize that, especially in America, “Christian” is a word that carries with it more baggage than I’m letting on here, but this is a riff, not a sociological analysis.)  In other words, where Shoshie would call the separation of “thoughts and emotions” from the life of concrete worship practice a Christian tendency, I’d call it an outworking of Enlightenment liberalism.

What Shoshie seems to have done is to take that strange divorce of Eucharist and doctrine, of homily and cogitation, and taken it as the core of rather than a heresy within Christianity.  Thus for Shoshie, one of the primary differences between her own Judaic feminism and a Christian’s or an ex-Christian’s feminism is that the trappings of her Rabbinic tradition and the worldwide community of Jews are integral rather than incidental to her identity as a feminist.  (In a later correction to the post, she does note that her organic unity of faith, community, and feminism does run into some rocky ground when she must give an account for atheist Jews.)

So far, my only real objection is that Shoshie has mistaken certain trends in liberal Christian traditions and assumed that they’re normative for Christians per se.  My own big concerns came not in the post but in the comments, when people ignored the holism that Shoshie holds up as the goodness of Judaism and start to advocate for the Enlightenment-flavored separations that Shoshie rightly suspects.  Those moments of liberalism like comment number four, from Jen, start from a basic assumption that there is a genus called “religion” of which Christianity and Judaism, among others, are species.  In a move that repeats as the atheists start to chime in, Jen insists that the separation between community and doctrine is not only possible but preferable:

The idea that you need religion for community is plain wrong. There are plenty of secular communities out there, and even explicitly atheistic ones. I’ve found my sense of community on campus by joining Secular Student Alliance affiliates, and I love going to the regular meetings of Seattle Atheists and Seattle Skeptics. I’ve made so many friends through the atheist community (yes, it exists) – friendships that have nothing to do with spirituality or supernatural beliefs (which I would argue against for other reasons, but won’t since you requested us not to).

And leaving behind supernatural belief doesn’t mean giving up culture – there are lots of groups devoted to people who are cultural Jews but effectively atheists.

Here the Christianity-in-the-individual’s-heart separation finds its mirror image, namely community-for-no-heavenly-reason.  Jen and others refuse to acknowledge the validity of confessing any god but insist that one can have the community without the gods.  That much is fairly predictable; in the face of the continued desire to spend time with like-minded souls, atheism has the resources of evolutionary biology to declare homo sapiens a social animal (in a blatant rip-off of Aristotle). As more atheists chime in, as does hlynn in comments six, seventeen, and fifty-two, the rhetoric of positivism starts to settle into its standard rhythm:

I think religion works because people want community and ritual. It took me a longer time to figure out how to get these two things outside of religion, but when I realized how to do this, I stopped needing religion. (6)

Even without all that (like I said, I’m not active in any of the national stuff, although I’ve got friends who are trying to get me there), I’ve found scads of other ways to find community wherever I go, without having to use religion as the tie that binds. (17)

So I get the desire for community and belonging. I just don’t get putting such a problematic entity at the center of it. (52)

The positivistic call for community thus runs a little something like this: the human need for community is logically prior to the contingent window-dressings that Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Ancestor-Veneration, or other traditions put on it.  Once one realizes such, one can adjust the decorations as one sees fit, discarding that which is distasteful in favor of spiritualities or non-spiritualities that don’t offend as readily.  Again, the argument is an old one and not particularly interesting.

What strikes me more interesting is how wildly Christians’ accounts of community differ from the positivistic anthropological accounts that the atheists (following Enlightenment writers like Tom Paine and to some extent Voltaire) seem to assume.  Within the constellation of narratives that we call the Christian tradition, certainly there are moments of tradition-flattening positivism; I can distinctly remember an Episcopalian priest coming to my seminary and, after an impassioned call for church-based environmentalism, fielding a question about whether there were anything within the Episcopal tradition in particular that inspired her to such things.  To paraphrase her response as a faux-dialogue, her response was, “No, not really.  I’m not interested in making other people Episcopalian.  You know, it works for me… some days.”

Those (recent) trends aside, a much broader and older stream in the tradition holds that the Church, and Israel before the Church, comes into being not because of some universal human urge but because of particular historical moments, most prominently the Exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian exile and the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  The communities called Israel and Church do in fact come into being both as grand narratives about God and as bodies of practice (Shoshie got that absolutely right about Judaism and not so much about Christianity), and later on, reflecting on the practices of those communions, theologians (and philosophers in Judaism, since some of the Jews I know get testy about my calling Jewish thought “theology”) come to reflect on analogies between the Eucharist, for example, and the weekly Qur’an-gatherings of the Mosque, and come to see certain analogies between the two “ritual lives.”

Certainly such analogies exist, and they’re worth exploring.  My point here is that, when the second-order analogy comes to displace the first-order experience of living within Church or Mosque, a very different metanarrative comes to situate such practices, and that metanarrative assumes certain axioms that do not make much sense (if any) within the narratives native to Israel and Church.  Such is not to say that the metanarrative of universal (and positivistic) “religion” lacks internal consistency.  Once the common threads between “ritual lives” become primary and the Church secondary, the atheists (and perhaps even the Wiccans, but I’m entirely out of my depth at that point) have every right to say that one can switch out one set of “rituals” for another, so long as the anthropological imperatives get fulfilled.  After all, if one doesn’t feel inclined to give thanks, there’s little sense in having a Eucharist, and if one doesn’t have any need to die to the systems of the world and rise into a new life, one governed by the historically-particular and unique fulfillment of the Exodus and the prophets, then baptism is at best a second-rate “ritual.”

All of this brings me back to the conviction that John Milbank helped me to articulate and which David B. Hart has strengthened, namely that the Christian appeal, though it certainly incorporates rational argument and reasoned discussion, makes most sense in the big picture as an aesthetic appeal.  Thus in order to move from a metanarrative that gives positivistic anthropology priority to a grand story that considers the Cross and Resurrection as prior to the common ground that Church shares with Mosque, something more like a rhetorical persuasion than a logical demonstration must happen.  (The same applies to moves in the other direction.)  What I would call conversion, the motion of the Holy Spirit, is more than a rhetorical encounter, but it’s certainly no less–the soul must move, and hearing the proclaimed gospel must do the moving.  Perhaps all human groups have performed something resembling (in limited ways) baptism and Eucharist, but “ritual” considered generically lacks the narrative grounding that makes baptism salvific and Eucharist unifying in the face of the tribes and factions of (as we Christians call it) the world.

With regards to where feminism fits into those narratives and practices, my answer is the same I give when I consider Neo-Calvinism and Radical Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology: where those second-order reflections stand in harmonious relationship with the proclaimed Scriptures and Creeds of the Church, I can affirm their work and learn to name more truthfully the implications of the Gospel.  But in my own intellectual life, the Eucharist and Baptism always stand primary, and I can only call them good when they articulate realities with their roots in the life of the Church, the Body of the Messiah.  Where they allow some other metanarrative to supplant that Gospel, I’m compelled, because the Cross compels me, to say that they’ve been tried and found wanting.  That priority of the narrative/ritual tradition over positivistic anthropology will make little sense to one convinced by the metanarrative of historic secularization, but I suppose that’s where the lifelong call of the Christian comes in: in order to do the work that the Eucharist should do for the soul, the old, old story must frame it.  And for the old, old story to be anything but a bit of Protestant church history, there must be people whose lives (ordered around the Eucharist) take their shapes from it.  To separate the two is to lose the richness that ought to be called Christianity.


4 thoughts on “Feminism, Positivism, and Which One Excludes”
  1. Thanks for tackling this, Nate. As usual, your insight helped me clarify some of my own thoughts. I think you hit on my main problem with both the OP’s assertions and the commenters’ responses–to think of all communities as interchangeable within the lives of their members is to devalue the experience of both the individual and the whole. I also object to Shoshie’s disclaimer effectively excluding Christian feminists from the discussion, as if we are not just as marginalized within the secular feminist world as she feels she is. I understand that communities work differently in those bodies of believers, but I wish she would have acknowledged that rather than silencing a group outright, especially since had she asked Atheist feminists not to chime in, heads would’ve rolled.

  2. Excellent thoughts Nathan,

    I absolutely agree with your views. To often in our modern culture people want to turn the church into a community center rather then a place of worship. There is nothing wrong with fellowship and community, but it should always be a secondary focus because if it becomes the primary focus it suddenly has become idolatrous.

    What I find though that saddens my heart is that even though more churches are putting more focus on community lately, it’s still very superficial community. It’s all very good, when you just want to gab and socialize but as soon as you need real support, the “community” suddenly vanishes.

    Now the same idea that I stated above is also true and I’m not preaching that the Church’s primary focus and main role should be as a support group, but if your going to promote community, then I believe that intentional support should go along with that.

    …. just my 2 cents… 🙂


  3. Victoria,

    I can certainly see your point about marginalization within feminist discourse. Because I’ve not ever been considered even a marginal figure within feminist circles (though, as I said, I do appreciate much that I read from feminist theoreticians and theologians), I just haven’t had the occasion to think much about that side of things.


    I moved your comment to this thread since you seemed to be commenting on this post rather than my little brother’s birthday. I hope you don’t mind. Your point about the shallowness of much that calls itself Christian community is spot on–and I think that your emphasis on worship, though it’s not a guarantee of a rich common life, is a better bet than are miscellaneous programs vaguely related to spirituality.

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