The Transcendent (Religious?) Aspects of Feminist Discourse

I’ve been reluctant to write directly about feminism, because I am not expert, it is politically charged and subject to fierce internet debate, and I don’t think that what the world needs right now is another white man offering his two cents about feminism. However, I’ve decided to go ahead anyway. I don’t think I can proceed in my characterization of the modern-world-as-I-see it without directly commenting on the most present ideological force in my immediate social world: feminism and social justice discourse. (I lump the two together because I observe deep overlaps between them; I’m really talking about those writers and thinkers who are concerned with “structural injustice,” a great many of whom call themselves feminists).

I don’t want to comment on feminism simply, but rather to bring it in to dialogue with some of the themes I have been developing in this blog: the extension of the category of religion, and the abstraction of modern society. In this post, I will focus on the former. I want to make explicit some thoughts that lie in the background of a couple of previous posts (especially this one), by focusing in particular on the issue of rape culture. The question I am interested I pursuing is, what is the significance of talking about human and sexual relationships in terms of something like “rape culture”?

I understand rape culture to be, quite simply, the culture or the aspects of a culture that facilitate or normalize sexual violence. At its most obvious, this include things like a journalistic culture that sympathizes with perpetrators of sexual assault and silences victims, and a popular culture that treats women as sexual objects. Most of what activists are interested in changing has to do with these sorts of, to my mind uncontroversial and urgent, problems. Where they encounter opposition, it is often for the reasons I outline in a previous post: outright bigotry, a lack of empathy, or an ideological opposition/blindness to the idea of structural inequality in general.
But there is also a much deeper and more interesting side of discussions of rape culture, which so far belongs especially to internal discussions within the feminist and social justice community. This is where people try to come to terms with the potentially radical implications that follow from seriously scrutinizing the connections between sex, gender, violence, and power. I will give just a couple examples, which were chosen not because they are excellent but because they are indicative, and came readily to mind. This article is by a man who is interested in overcoming his own mental habit of sexualizing women he meets. This article is interested in exploring the lines of consent and non consent within established romantic and sexual relationships.

These articles highlight the profound and not necessarily obvious ways that rape culture reaches in to and shapes even our thoughts and intimate relations. Our private fantasies display the residue, or perhaps the seed, of more explicit forms of objectification. Our relationships of trust and consent nevertheless involve power imbalances, deafness, privilege, and indeed violence. In final analysis, these articles confront us with some fundamental tensions of the human condition: how can we base our relationships on equality, when power, inequality, and subtle violence is endemic and perhaps even inescapable? How can I respond to the other, even (especially) my intimate others, in a way that is just?

In one sense, these articles belong to the very same tradition that is so vocal about not sympathizing with “good boys who just made a mistake”. But they belong to a different side of that tradition, which is more inward and more idealistic. They represent attempts, not to reform societal structures to make them more just, but to transform individual lives to make them more righteous. They have understood that the fact of structural injustice means that your very self, in profound ways, has been formed by an unjust system. To be just, then, requires a transformation of self.

To overcome rape culture, one must begin by adopting an attitude of constant vigilance towards ones own thoughts and behaviour. One must attend to the gender, sexual, and power dynamics of one’s relationships, and have the courage to hold them up to the light and ask, is this right? One must be humble in acknowledging the experiences of others often differ widely from one’s own, and one must be prepared to respond to new information with openness, kindness, and humility. All of this constitutes little more than a beginning, a few first steps on the long march towards true justice.

What I am trying to bring out, in this description, is the sense of justice as a transcendent ideal which lies behind these feminist projects. By transcendent, I mean that it is high, extremely demanding, perhaps even unattainable, and applicable to virtually all aspects of our lives. By ideal, I mean that it is never less worth pursuing, and that is can serve as a useful guide in our everyday lives. As a friend helpfully put it using a different metaphor, gender justice is an asymptotic limit, to be approached but never reached.

So feminism is not only project of social reform. It is also a dynamic quest for a transcendent ideal. We can see the dynamism of that search in the many debates and discussions that take place online and in the academy. Endowed with a transcendent ideal, a rich and dynamic community, and a radical project of social reform, I don’t think it is a stretch to characterize this movement as a religion. What is key for me in applying this label is that a religion provides a framework in which an individual can make sense their life. It seems to me unquestionable that contemporary feminism/social justice-ism does this. If I, for example, were to devote my life simply to eliminating the effects of rape culture on my own psyche, and sharing that journey with others, this would be a full life. As rich, and indeed closely comparable to, a life devoted to living according to the Gospel of Love, or one which sought to live without desire and so achieve Nirvana.

There are also, of course, differences between these forms of feminism and traditional “religions.” But these differences are remarkably hard to pin down. One might point to the fact the feminism has its roots in social reform; but in important senses so do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, etc. The distinction between political, social, and religious reform was not clear at the time the Hebrew bible was compiled, for example, and a central argument of this essay is that it is not so clear in our time either. Another possible difference is that there does not exist an explicitly transcendent mode of existence in feminism. But we need to be pretty careful about how we define terms like transcendent before we start applying them to Buddhism or Confucianism or even Christianity. Caricatures won’t do. My own theological and philosophical training has generally convinced me that metaphysical doctrines have their roots in ethical and social concerns, or at least cannot be disentangled from them. In the end, I’m not actually sure if or how I would distinguish between these two different sorts of “comprehensive doctrines”. So I will leave you, my reader, with that question.

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