Mary Daly, uppity theologian
Mary Daly, the feminist theologian and philosopher, has died . She was an audaciously creative spirit; an awkwardly witty, deadly serious writer. She arguably did more to stretch what is possible to think in contemporary feminist theology than any other.
Here's a taste of what she was prepared to say. In books like Gyn/Ecology and Beyond God the Father, she envisaged the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the all-male three in one – as an eternal homosexual orgy. She argued that to call God "father" is to make fathers gods, excusing all kinds of horrors from religious totalitarianism to domestic violence. "The character of Vito Corleone in The Godfather is a vivid illustration of the marriage of tenderness and violence so intricately blended in the patriarchal ideal," she wrote in Beyond God the Father. She sought to cause offence, no doubt, though not for it's own sake or to stir a sensation. Rather, her radical reinterpretation dares you to think differently.
I was advised to read her by a professor at Boston College, the Catholic university with which she was uneasily associated for more than 30 years. That's a story in itself, which she wrote about in Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big. My advisor was a Jesuit priest, a man who'd never heard her speak as she banned men from attending her lectures, arguing the act was a just reflection of the long silencing of women. Her performance was as striking as her words.
(It's worth adding that the Boston Jesuits were pretty fearless towards Rome too. Whilst I was staying with them, a missive was issued from the Holy See that had the effect of censoring Catholic institutions. The Jesuits reading of it in their breakfast newspapers protested with the theological equivalent of two fingers. "Rome's a long way from Massachusetts," I recall one saying.)
Theologians have contested Daly's claims, not least feminist theologians who have remained within the Christian tradition. They point out that alongside the male images of God as Father and Son are the more ambiguous ones of God as Spirit. In the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit of God is envisaged as a wise woman, Sophia. Sophia has even been aligned with the person of Christ: at the time of Jesus, she was well established as a symbol of God's relatedness. Paul links the figure of Wisdom with the person of Jesus in 1 Corinthians, arguing that this wisdom, from God, makes the wisdom of the world look foolish. Moreover, it's striking that Paul juxtaposes the true (female) wisdom with the faux-wisdom of (male) scholars, philosophers and wise men – arguably a proto-feminist move.
And yet, Jesus was a man. The female word Sophia lost out to the male word Logos when it came to interpreting the metaphysics of the Son. Daly moved on from Christianity too.
However, there is feminist juice in the Christian stories still, which she implicitly encouraged others to extract. At the heart of the Christian story is the image of a dead man on a cross. He is the victim of male violence – violence in which the God-Father was at least passively complicit. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" the broken figure cries. He is abandoned to the violence of men.
So, the story can be read as transgressive. It's both terrible and hopeful. For a feminist believer, Jesus might be seen as queerly identified with suffering women, thereby offering the hope of redemption by disrupting the cycle of male violence. It's as if the perverse patriarchal ideal of "tender violence", as Daly put it, collapses under the weight of its own hideous contradictions.
Daly might retort that this notion is even more objectionable: the story perpetuates women's reliance on men, even for the alleviation of their suffering. She was not one to let Christian patriarchy off the hook. But at least this reading places responsibility for the violence squarely on the shoulders of men. Daly has inspired a generation to pursue the possibility that Christianity has the capacity to root out its own patriarchy.
- Mary Daly, pioneering feminist who tussled with BC, dies at 81, Boston Globe, 1/5/2010
- Mary Daly, radical feminist theologian, dead at 81, by Thomas Fox, National Catholic Reporter, 1/4/2010
- Mary Daly Quotes
- A Mary Daly Bibliography from The Center for Digital Discourse and Culture
- After the Death of God the Father by Mary Daly, Commonweal, 3/12/1971
- The Thin Thread of Conversation: An Interview with Mary Daly, by Catherine Madsen, Cross Currents, Fall 2000, Vol. 50 Issue 3