This was originally posted on July 28, 2014
I first encountered the image and concept of “flourishing” in Grace M. Jatzen’s feminist philosophy of religion, Becoming Divine. For Jantzen “flourishing” is a symbol of a theology of “natality” or birth and life, which she contrasts to the focus on death and life after death in traditional Christian theologies.
Jantzen argues that the focus on death and life after death is a rejection of birth. Birth is rejected because birth through a body into a body implies finitude. Birth ends in death. Jantzen argues that embracing natality means embracing finitude and death.
Jantzen is not arguing that motherhood is the highest calling or saying that all women must be mothers. Rather she is calling us—women and men—to embrace finite life in the body and the material world as the final and only location for spirituality. Defending pantheism as an alternative to transcendent theism, she argues further that divinity is to be found “in” the physical and material world—and nowhere else. Though she speaks of natality, Jantzen is no essentialist. Rather she is a metaphysician making claims about the nature of life.
In our forthcoming book Two Views of Goddess and God for Our Time, Judith Plaskow and I find that most feminist theologies affirm life that ends in death and do not seek life after death. We call this the “immanental turn” of feminist theologies. For the most part feminist theologians embrace the body and find Goddess and God “in” the world—not outside of it.
From the beginning feminist theologians recognized that traditional theologies created by men not only blamed a woman for the “fall” of “man,” but also characterized women as being more bodily and more connected to nature than men. “Saint Augustine’s Penis,” the title of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s first presentation in the Women and Religion group of the American Academy of Religion, with tongue in cheek made the point that men are just as embodied as women are. The involuntary erections of male theologians should have caused them to reflect on their own embodiment and connections to nature, she suggested. Instead they rejected their finitude and projected the vulnerabilities of their own bodies onto women.
Feminist theologians affirmed the female body that had been despised and vilified by male theologians. We also called on theologies to recognize the full humanity of women. But we soon recognized that we could not stop there. In rejecting birth into the physical world, traditional theologies not only despised women but also the whole of the material world commonly called nature. Ecofeminist theologians thus affirm the human connection through the body to the material world understood as “the web of life.” Social justice is also an integral part of theologies that affirm natality, for the flourishing of individual lives cannot occur when some are demeaned for their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or lack access to clean air and water, food, shelter, and health care.
At the root of the “immanental turn” in feminist theologies is a prior understanding and decision about the nature of human life and the purpose of religion. When feminist theolgians assume that embodied life is to be affirmed and that this world is our true home, we are making a metaphysical claim about the nature of human life and all life.
One of the great divides in the history of religions can be located here.
Where do you stand? Do you agree that theology should affirm natality and seek the flourishing of life in this world? Do you think the purpose of religion is to affirm life in the body in an interconnected world that includes death? Do you think the primary or one of the purposes of religion is to affirm life after death, transcendence of bodily existence, and immortality?