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Mary Daly and the Invitation to Explore Wild Ideas about Inclusivity: A Memorial Reflection by Regina Heater

The following memorial of theologian Mary Daly, who died 3 January, is from Regina Heater, a theologian and writer who maintains the Sacredfisher blog and is a reader of Open Tabernacle.

In January 1993, as a Christian Education major at a United Methodist college, I journeyed to Nashville, TN to meet staff members from several General Boards of the United Methodist Church, including editors of church publications and curriculum. The church had just published its latest version of The Book of Worship, a guide to liturgical celebration in the church, from Sunday liturgy to weddings, funerals and Love Feasts. This revised Book of Worship encompassed changes to liturgy that included a more inclusive approach to language about God, changes that went hand-in-hand with the publication of the NRSV translation of the Bible in 1989. The NRSV specifically counted as an improvement over the RSV changes “making it clear where the original texts intend to include all humans, male and female, and where they intend to refer only to the male or female gender.”

Within the swirl of academia, the debate was on: were these changes merely a bow to the much-derided “politically correct” agendas of the day, or were they an organic outgrowth of our progressive understanding of the nature of God and our relationship with the Divine? At 19, with a background that included being raised Roman Catholic and experiences in an independent Baptist church that encouraged its young people to attend Bob Jones (and NOT Liberty University), I was horrified. God was God the Father. The Holy Spirit was… well, a He. And Jesus was Jesus. As to all of the other “p.c.” ideas these church leaders were presenting, I thought it completely unnecessary. I didn’t need language to remind me to respect others, because I was deeply grounded in the idea that “God loved us, everyone.”

And then an editor prodded me. She suggested that perhaps it was not about what I needed, but about what another person needed. Was it so wrong to extend respect to another human being by thinking carefully about my language? And what if I allowed myself to open up to God’s Spirit and consider God “outside the box”? What might God reveal to me?

I did not realize at the time how much gratitude I would need to extend to Mary Daly later in my life for the very opportunity to have that conversation.

Mary Daly, self-described as a “radical lesbian feminist,” “revolting hag” and a former professor of theology at Boston College, died on January 3 at the age of 81.

My first encounters with the thought of Mary Daly came through the work of theologian Catherine Keller. On the cusp of the new millennium, Dr. Keller published Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon: 1996). At the core of this book is the concept of Counter/Apocalypse.  (Note the syntax, an echo of Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. On the cover of Daly’s book, the “slash” is represented by the handle of a labrys.) As a “Feminist Guide to the End of the World,” Keller’s text engages Daly’s text, principally Beyond God the Father, as it teases out a feminist response to apocalyptic theology, and embraces a technique that Daly frequently utilized: deconstructing language. As she confronted language and the biases inherent in our accepted understanding of words, Daly progressively reinvented the boundaries that shaped our theological discussions. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Daly said, ‘”I have a theory of living on the boundary, on the boundary of patriarchy, and the boundary of different dimensions.”

Those boundaries where she lived and wrote caused a great deal of consternation, and not just with the Roman Catholic authorities that held her employ. More than one brilliant person has attempted to read and engage her writing, and many have set the books back down again. Her techniques of simultaneously deconstructing language and reinventing it can induce migraines. In her 1999 book Quintessence, she utilized “psychic time travel” to engage both the present conditions of concern and the possibilities of a future world made real by persistent visioning. Two points can be taken from this observation. One, re/constructing the world is difficult. It takes tremendous effort. Second, the vision is nearly as important as the action it takes to achieve the vision as reality.

As I reread portions of Daly’s books, I find myself often disagreeing with her methodology and her conclusions. Despite her consistent declaration that she was not interested in dichotomies, with her polemical rhetoric, she just as consistently created them, and at times reinforced them. A significant amount of criticism comes from transgendered persons who question her commitment to women (and specifically lesbians) while utilizing language that was decidedly transphobic. This is distressing and raises an excellent point: can we look to Daly for guidance on acceptance when she herself could not accept all of God’s Creation and who, by her very methodology, was more exclusive than inclusive?

As a theologian skirting the edges of what is variably known as postmodern/postcolonial/emerging/constructive theology, I have learned the value of synthesizing sources, thoughts and ideas through the filter of my faith. While I cannot accept as unalloyed truth Daly’s conclusions (and exclusions), nevertheless Daly contributes important information and technique to our ongoing commitment to a theology of acceptance. Through Daly, I learned that the act of envisioning – the possibility of a vision becoming real – is crucial.

Daly engaged the world in which she was marginalized and lived along the boundaries, and in doing so, she redefined the boundaries. She changed the idea of what was possible by living what was considered impossible.  By placing a simple slash in between syllables of a word, she forced the reader to stop and consider the word carefully, to engage it from different angles, to vision its different meanings, to look at how elements come together to create a whole environment, and to place value in the elements and origins of our language and cultures. An awful lot happens with what looks like an innocuous slash, what looks like could be a typographical error. Simply by pausing at the slash in the word, new possibilities are spun.

Daly began her critique with the most basic element that binds creation: God. She worked progressively, deconstructing assumptions about women, God, and spun from there, ever-reaching into archetypes from the past and visions for the future. By blasting open the notion of God, Daly struck at the foundation of the philosophy that under-girds our culture.  Rather than peel layers of our cultural and theological onion back, Daly went straight to the core: “If God is male, male is God,” she wrote.

At first glance, one might shrug that observation off; many do. But pausing, considering the impact of that statement is all one needs to feel the foundation rock. What I learned from Daly is that words have power. Words have definitions, but words also define our worlds. When we question words, we question worlds. The very names of things must be reconsidered. They must be liberated:

The method that is required is not one of correlation but of liberation. Even the term “method” must be reinterpreted and in fact wrenched out of its usual semantic field, for the emerging creativity in women is by no means a merely cerebral process. In order to understand the implications of this process it is necessary to grasp the fundamental fact that women have had the power of naming stolen from us. We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God. The old naming was not the product of dialogue — a fact inadvertently admitted in the Genesis story of Adam’s naming the animals and the woman. Women are now realizing that the universal imposing of names by men has been false because partial. That is, inadequate words have been taken as adequate. In this respect — though with a different slant — the new woman-consciousness is in accord with the view of Josiah Royce that it is impossible to consider any term apart from its relations to the whole.

To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God. The “method” of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than this beginning to speak humanly — a reclaiming of the right to name. The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.  – Beyond God the Father

In a recent  memorial for Daly, Joan Chittester wrote: “Women need to thank Daly for modeling the adulthood, the psychological maturity, the strength it takes to accept the social isolation and loneliness that comes with refusing to agree that just because we have never questioned a thing that it is, therefore, unquestionable. Thanks to her relentless questioning of women’s social circumstances and theological exclusions everywhere, the woman’s question became a major and profound theological question. It is thanks to Daly and the myriad of women theologians after her that ‘Because we say so’ is no longer either a logical or an acceptable explanation for the exclusion of women anywhere.”

Vegetarian-ecofeminist Carol J. Adams, recalls that her feminist ethics class with Daly formed the foundation for her work The Sexual Politics of Meat: “She gave me the intellectual space to explore these wild ideas.” Perhaps that is the gift we can accept from Daly: because of her work, we have intellectual space to explore our own wild ideas about acceptance and inclusivity for every being created by that which Daly called Be-ing.

Notable Mary Daly quotations:

If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.

‘God’s plan’ is often a front for men’s plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil.

It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.

What the women do is become caretakers for the men. In those circumstances, I decided, and many others have, that there’s a reality called women’s space. There has to be a separate space for women.


3 Responses

  1. Good points raised here. Many thanks for that, however I have further thanks to deliver. I am color blind (tritanopia in my case). I mostly use Konqueror browser (not sure if that matters), and several websites are hard to comprehend on account of an unfortunate range of colours used. On this web site, as the selection of colors is good, the site is amazingly clear and comfortable to read. I have no idea whether it was a calculated and conscious act, or simply a lucky fluke, but you have my gratitude.

    • Col, I posted the post for Regina Colleen Heater, who’s the real author of the post. It is, indeed, a wonderful post.

      The person who deserves credit for the color scheme on the blog is Terry Weldon, who did all the ground work to put this blog together–a wonderful contribution.

      Thanks for making me aware of something I have never even thought about–namely, that color schemes on blogs can cause problems for color-blind people. I need to look at my own blog in that light and see if I might be causing problems for readers who are color blind.

      My problem is, I’m badly educated about that condition and first need to learn what problems it can cause a reader. I appreciate your raising my awareness here.

  2. […] Mary Daly and the Invitation to Explore Wild Ideas about Inclusivity: A Memorial Reflection […]

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