Symposium Introduction



Writing beyond the Writing

TINA BEATTIE’S THEOLOGY AFTER POSTMODERNITY is a work of erudition and passion. When Beattie brings the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan into close relationship with the theology of Thomas Aquinas, she expands what both men contribute to today’s conversations about God, desire, knowledge, gender, and nature. Their engagement opens space to recognize the mysterious plentitude of God in the Other of Thomas’ One God: the incarnate, maternal Trinity. The practical import of this is immediate. Beattie pushes beyond the politics of postmodern theologies, liberal feminism or other rights-based languages to gesture toward new theological spaces to counter the misogyny, exploitation, commodification, and violence that threaten women and nature. It is not necessary to agree with her diagnosis of the politics of established critical discourses to recognize that Beattie’s expansion of Thomas’s theology stretches the possibilities for feminist, sexual, and ecological theologies.

In this response, however, I focus less on the content of Beattie’s engagement with Thomas and Lacan and more on the question of writing itself. Theology after Postmodernity troubles not only the alignment of God with phallic patriarchal form, but also the stable uniqueness of the writing of theology. This is a book about theological language and a desire for an effective theological language. It is a book about the desires that move within theological language and the desires that create—and destroy—theological language. In many respects, this is a book about theological writing. This is of utmost importance to theology. We must learn how to write again. We must learn how to write beyond both modernity and postmodernity. Indeed, we must learn many different ways to write again, and we must learn the reasons for and effects of different ways of writing. Beattie moves us in this direction.

Theology after Postmodernity traverses a range of difficult theological and psychoanalytic conversations with careful attention to the nuance and complexity of their ideas. Over exactly 400 pages and five parts, the text moves through the complex historical, philosophical, theological, and psychoanalytic geographies of the writing of both Thomas and Lacan. In doing so, the text makes significant demands on both its author and readers. The effort required to accompany Beattie through this terrain is significant, but well-spent. The journey seeks “to discover what kinds of theological language might suffice for the challenges that postmodernism sets before us with regard to knowledge, and the crises that loom before us in the disintegration of modernity’s values and institutions not least with regard to questions of embodiment, gender and nature” (35). The answer appears as an incarnate theological writing.

Beattie’s writing yearns for language sufficient to draw us “face-to-face with the dazzling darkness and thunderous silence of the Trinitarian God” so that we are “stunned into [an] unknowing” that enables us to “turn again to the world and to our neighbor in need” (53). We need a theological language that breaks our bondage to market forces and utilitarian imperatives. We need theological language that interrupts the gendering of knowledge and power and therewith the ordering of bodies, lives, and nature. We need, Beattie suggests, a theological language that breaks with the rationalized and systematized androcentrism of Aristotelian philosophy installed by the medieval university. We need a theological language that includes flesh with all its messy fleshiness. Rather than an impossible postmodern pretension to writing bodies, we need a theological language that transforms “into material acts that incarnate Christ in the world, and thereby reconnect the broken links between language and matter” (382). If the phallus has been the prohibition of language, she asks, what if the body now becomes its medium?

Here we encounter a version of the “question around which everything in this book implicitly revolves, and that is the question of God in relation to form” (318). When God aligns with form as an inseminating phallus impregnating matter, the patriarchal order becomes divinized with far reaching consequences. Thomas sought to show that Aristotle’s God “fits like a hand into the Christian theological glove” (313), and in the process of doing so, his theology instantiated the perniciously gendered ontology. This sexualized order remains evident from the organization of knowledge in universities through unrepentant ecological devastation to misogynistic social structures. It also remains evident in our theological language and (I add) ways of writing. Beattie argues that reading Thomas with Lacan opens different possibilities.

On the one hand, Thomas sought to demonstrate the agreement between Aristotle’s philosophical God and the God of scripture. Lacan shows the way to articulate how the identification of God with (male) form as distinct from and superior to (female) matter establishes a sexualized social order that continues today. Creation occurs as the Divine insemination of matter. That which is on the masculine side of the binary aligns with activity, being, and fullness, while that which falls on the feminine side aligns with passivity, lack, and deficiency. On the other hand, however, Thomas’s understandings overflow the structure of this ordered account of matter and form. This is especially evident, Beattie suggests, in Thomas’s understanding of the nature of being and Trinitarian relations. A careful reading makes evident that God appears above and beyond both form and matter. “Form and matter, motherhood and fatherhood, are equally in God and expressive of God, while both are analogical and therefore cannot be used in any literal or direct way.” (324). This removes motherhood and fatherhood “from the relationships of copulation and necessity that define Greek concepts of being” (324). It is not the sexual other that we lack, but God. Our desire for this lack—our desire for God—opens space in Thomas’s theology in which Beattie articulates a “m(Otherness) to Thomas’s God that will not let him go” (313).

Recalling an email exchange between herself and Fergus Kerr on this topic, Beattie recalls his reticence to pursue the language of form and matter with respect to Thomas’s God. Kerr cautions her of the need to render the language strange. He advised her to mark carefully that God can only “be described as an odd kind of form” and that “he [Thomas] doesn’t really like” even that (320). This moment in the text is illuminative. When Beattie’s writing approaches nearest to ambiguities and ambivalences of Thomas’s understanding of God and form, the text slips or stretches beyond the genres and demands scholastic knowledge and writing. It is not simply that God can only be described as an odd kind of form. The form of the description—that is, how we write toward God—also benefits from a bit of strangeness.

It is therefore unsurprising and good that Beattie’s writing periodically irrupts with a “rising linguistic tide of body and blood” (382); visceral, evocative, and passionate passages appear throughout the book. These, however, remain the exception. In the introduction, Beattie explains the tension between literary creativity and rigors of academic scholarship in Theology after Postmodernity in terms of her increasing conviction that creativity, art, and literature are “trustworthy heirs to the theological tradition,” while academic theologians have let the demands of bureaucracy and authority silence the imagination and playful spirit which is at the heart of all theology (5–6). I want to ask further whether this tension manifests hints of the transformation about which Beattie writes in expanding Thomas’s theology toward his incarnate, maternal Trinity, but that she does not yet perform.

“Thomas and Lacan are book-ends that mark the era of writing—at least, according to Lacan,” Beattie writes (290). They represent liminal figures on either end of modern conceptions and techniques of knowledge, with which postmodern theorists have been much concerned. While they interrogate and experiment with language, knowledge, and desire in very different contexts and with very different tools, Beattie brings them together at a point of agreement. For both Thomas and Lacan, “desire draws us to seek meaning beyond the system of language and the meanings it claims to offer” (56). Desire draws us to seek that for which language proves insufficient. For Thomas, we ought to let analogical theological language use what is familiar to meaningfully articulate a Divine whose mysterious fullness is beyond understanding and experience. For Lacan, we need to interrupt the false confidence in knowledge that characterizes the modern thought. Thomas articulates a mysterious plenitude, while Lacan marks an abyss. This difference leads Thomas to use language in his Summa Theologica with unadorned clarity and precision, while Lacan obfuscates and confuses. For both, however, a desire to write into the unwriteable is at stake, with all the attendant promises and dangers such a task entails. Moreover, they both achieve remarkable success with finding languages and ways of writing that can allow them to communicate what cannot be directly written.

Rather than promulgating the ordered universality of knowledge through the books of university libraries, knowledge today finds unpredictable, fractured, and odd forms that are also democratized and participatory. Beattie suggests that the word of the Lord subverts the disembodied universality and authority of the written word like women singing the meaning of words through their bodies that they cannot (and are not allowed) to read. We could take this to suggest that we are seeking theology outside of written forms, but this is not the case. Beattie offers Catherine of Siena as an example of carefully crafted writing that confronts us with “a radical otherness in terms of theological style” (365). Catherine exposes what the writings Thomas and Lacan exclude, deny, or repress. For Thomas, this is the corporeal and material effluvia that must be part of theology. For Lacan, this is the body of God and the body of our neighbor in need. “In her transgressive scrambling of all the boundaries of language, knowing, and being, Catherine throws open the doors of heaven and hell and confronts us with the most radical possible mercy. . .” (385).

Beattie attends carefully and at length to the ideas that inform our understanding of language, desire, and God in the writings of Thomas and Lacan. In comparison, the critical attention to their use of language and writing appears relatively cursory (though far from absent). For instance, while Beattie explores the philosophical roots of Thomas’s austere use of language in the Summa, the pedagogical purposes and effects of its progressive structure to teach the meaning and experience of desire, language, and God remain largely unthought. Desire and language appear not only in the words and ideas used to describe, analyze, relate and conceptualize the concepts, but also in how the writing of texts moves—and move others—toward understanding.

What does it mean to talk about an incarnate theological language without writing into its possibilities? Better question: What will it look like to write the incarnate theological language toward which Beattie gestures? The final chapter of the book pushes in this direction as Beattie explicitly offers “an act of imaginative contemplation” rather than academic argument (389). Yet even here, the writing itself remains largely within scholastic expectations for expository writing. Theology after Postmodernity is an “academic work” in the full scholarly sense of the phrase. Beattie does not proffer an alternative language or form of writing herself. The techniques of scholarly prose structure this section like the rest of the book with the rhythms of thesis, exposition and evidence. Beattie dedicates most of her words to exposition on the meaning, etiology, and impact of intellectualized concepts and ideas.

I end Theology after Postmodernity wondering what theological knowledge will become possible if Beattie’s writing incarnates that about which she writes. Admittedly, as she writes: “we need to bear in mind that it is much easier to problematize language in theory than in practice” (56). Writing shapes what can be communicated, and the desire to write is a desire to communicate meaningfully. There are moments when the text irrupts with writing that overflows its academic bounds to incarnate fleshiness of theological possibility. Though these irruptions remain surprising and at times disorienting, they hint that perhaps the transformation of theology will be of a different order than that which can be suggested by analysis or exposition. I yearn for more. Alternative languages and ways of writing theology are not only possible, they are needed. When we write differently, we will know God differently.

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    Tina Beattie


    Response to Hannah Hofheinz

    When one writes any academic book, particularly one that is dense, convoluted, experimental and exploratory, there is always a deep anxiety as to whether or not one will be understood. In deciding to explore the possibilities for cross-fertilisation and mutual critique between Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Lacan, I found myself wading through linguistic complexities that carried me far beyond my intellectual comfort zone. Working to an absolute rule that I would not write anything that I did not myself understand—even if such “understanding” entailed writing on the boundaries of understanding—I nevertheless found myself wondering if such comprehension might elude even the most patient and attentive reader. I was also aware that in tackling not one but two revered masters of the classical and postmodern canon, both of whom have a dedicated discipleship made up largely if not exclusively of male scholars untroubled by their intrinsic androcentrism, I was laying myself open to every kind of criticism, particularly in view of my highly idiosyncratic approach which is not quite feminist but deeply gendered.

    I emerged from seven years of immersion in writing the book with a feeling that I was getting up off the analyst’s couch, ready to face the academic world. As a convert to Catholicism and a mature student who first went to university when the youngest of my four children started school, writing this book was cathartic, therapeutic, and personally and intellectually formative in ways I cannot begin to describe. So even if nobody else “gets it,” I am still glad that I have written it. I needed to write it, and if it finds one answering echo out there, that is a bonus.

    Hannah Hofheinz has offered me that answering echo. I could not have asked for a more sensitive and attentive reading, nor one which so clearly brings to light some of the aims that remain at times underdeveloped and implicit in the book itself. She is so right when she describes this as “a book about theological language and a desire for an effective theological language. It is a book about the desires that move within theological language and the desires that create—and destroy—theological language.” Summarising how that desire relates to our modern values and institutions, she insightfully recognizes that this is about seeking a new way of writing theologically, breaking with “the rationalized and systematized androcentrism of Aristotelian philosophy installed by the medieval university” and seeking to include “flesh with all its messy fleshiness.” She rightly says that I seek this by exploring the ways in which “Thomas’s understandings overflow the structure” of his Aristotelian account of form and matter, particularly with regard to his maternal, relational Trinity, problematizing his ambivalent and inconsistent association of God with Aristotelian form. Hofheinz also notes how the book is academic in style, but from time to time the writing “irrupts” in a way that is “visceral, evocative, and passionate.”

    This brings me to some of the questions that Hofheinz poses to my project, which are incisive and which acutely identify some of the unresolved issues I am left with. This is, as Hofheinz recognizes, a book about theological writing, and “a desire to write into the unwriteable.” But with a few exceptions, I confine myself largely to academic analysis of these questions, rather than offering examples of what such writing might look like. So I too am left wondering “what theological knowledge will become possible if Beattie’s writing incarnates that about which she writes.”

    There are institutional constraints and personal anxieties that come into play here, but also for me unanswered questions about the significance of systematic theology and its relationship to more incarnational, narrative, and imaginative forms of theological expression. The British academic funding system now works on the grading of published research, and this brings with it considerable pressure to produce books which impress one’s academic colleagues. Allied to this, I readily admit to that deep anxiety which haunts many—perhaps most—academics, particularly those of us who came late to university life and who constantly juggle conflicting demands on our time. Am I really up to this? What if somebody “outs” me as knowing far less than I pretend to? One way to tackle that doubt was to take on two of the most influential and difficult blokes in academia, and to show I was up to the task of reading them. So yes, it’s a book that in some ways reflects an excessive concern to prove its academic credentials with a highly analytic style of argument and debate and an over-abundance of footnotes, references, and citations.

    On the other hand, it really was a journey of discovery. As new interpretative possibilities shimmered into view, I wanted to check them out. Has anybody else ever thought this? Can I find at least one scholar out there who might back me up? And on it goes.

    Along with all this there was the defiant sense of a plague on both their houses. Thomas writing for his monks with astonishing genius and at times with mesmerizing mystical insight, but with a disregard sometimes for the ways in which his deeply incarnational theology might actually play out in the muddled fleshy interactions of ordinary life, not least as far as women are concerned. (I am aware that his sermons and biblical commentaries can be quite different, but my main focus was the Summa Theologiae). And Lacan, endlessly parodying himself in performances for his seminar audiences, in ways that sometimes suggest a narcissistic self-absorption that violates some of the most fundamental relational and ethical commitments of the Christian life. Dear reader, I wept—often.

    In the midst of all this the question of style arose again and again, with unresolved persistence. On the one hand, I continue to ask myself if the work of systematic theology now belongs within the history of western ideas, interesting to study but not as a meaningful way to make the Christian story alive and relevant. Indeed, might systematic theology serve only to distance the academic theologian from his (and sometimes her) communal, relational, and embodied expressions of faith in favour of an approach blanched and sterilized in the rationalizing glare of the academy? After all, the Orthodox tradition has nurtured a profound mystical theology based on patristics, liturgy and icons, without any need for systematics and in a way that has preserved a deeply creational intuition with regard to the sanctification of nature.

    Another question I ask myself is whether, as I imply in the book and as Hofheinz succinctly observes, we need to learn to write all over again—and what form would such “writing” take? I first began asking these questions when doing my PhD on the cult of the Virgin Mary. Gradually, I began to realize that medieval Marian art communicated nuanced incarnational meanings, particularly with regard to female embodiment and redemption, which eluded the written text. Art has always been a medium of theological education for the illiterate and the unlearned, but for that very reason it sometimes eases away from the organizing intellectual control of orthodoxy to embody itself in the margins where women and other theological “outsiders” have traditionally found ways to express their relationship to God in diverse and creative forms of expression. This is why I included a chapter on the vernacular theology of Catherine of Siena. So I continue to ask myself if the visual image, along with cinema, literature, poetry, and music, is pregnant with the mystery of God in ways that systematics cannot contain. Yet the paradox is that one needs to understand theology and doctrine to interpret these other “texts,” even if such interpretations sometimes yield unexpected meanings. So this is in the end a continuous movement backwards and forwards between rationality and creativity, analysis and expressiveness, sober scholarship and imaginative fecundity.

    I think I need to leave those questions there, but I feel a deep sense of delight that at least one reader has taken the time to understand and respond in a way that goes to the very heart of what the book is about. As Hofheinz says, “Writing shapes what can be communicated, and the desire to write is a desire to communicate meaningfully.” Hofheinz reassures me that, for at least one reader—and therefore potentially for any reader?—I have fulfilled that desire to communicate.



God is Not Everything

AT THE OUTSET I SHOULD SAY that I cannot do justice to Tina Beattie’s wonderfully rich, subtle, and provocative book. My essay attends to only a few chapters of her work, deriving as it does from a symposium where the parts of the book were parcelled out between different participants. My brief was to reflect on Part IV (“Sexing Desire”), and which I do—to some extent. But I have to admit that I couldn’t help straying into some other parts, especially if they had to do with questions of being, and with the distinction between matter and form—around which the following reflections are themselves formed. As I hope befits the book, I am going to be as critical as I can, while all the time admitting to following after where Tina has led.

Theology after Postmodernity weaves together Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Lacan, and through their intersection raises questions of theology, psychoanalysis, and culture. The whole is in pursuit of what ails modern subjects, and above all the relationship between the sexes: the modern misogyny that treats women as but matter for using and disposing. The book is full of detailed discussions of difficult texts, but set within an overarching narrative that—stretching from Aristotle via Thomas to Lacan—is presented as a story of how the West has come to be, especially Western Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. It is—dare I say it?—a grand Milbankian narrative.

Modern Misogyny

Pornography captures the nature, the horror, of modern gender. Beattie tells us that “the invention of modern pornography constitutes a sustained fantasy about the female body as sexual matter to be enjoyed, penetrated, dominated, or destroyed” (264). But this fantasy has ancient roots. An early, Aristotelian association of woman with matter and man with reason has resulted in the Sadean fantasy of an entirely passive, pliable flesh, subject to whatever forms the male master can devise. The body, but especially the female body, is matter formed, performed, by others and even itself. Though one might wonder if there can be good performances of the body, Beattie is concerned with the unhealthy, the violent, the entirely destructive. And this state of affairs would seem the fruit of conceptual moves in the distant past, of which Thomas Aquinas is the focal point. But Thomas also has resources for reforming this trajectory and tradition, though he will need some help from Jacques Lacan: a claim that might seem doubtful to some. But in part four of Beattie’s book, Lacan’s aid is sought in reforming the Thomistic tradition for a post-postmodern world. This is done through reading the transition between Lacan’s Seminar VII and Seminar XX, a development from the beginning of the 1960s to the 1970s.

Back in the early sixties, Lacan was still following Freud in thinking man “all” and woman “nothing.” Instead of the relationship between form and matter we have that between the symbolic and the real. As Beattie writes, one “becomes male or female according to where one stands with regard to a copula in the order of being between form and matter (Thomas) or the symbolic and the real (Lacan)” (260). In Seminar VII “[f]eminized jouissance is associated with the real as the annihilating other of the masculine subject, and the female body is a deadly source of putrefaction and obscenity masked by the language of feminine beauty and erotic desire” (262). And all of this—and there’s more—is supposedly “underwritten by Thomas’s Aristotelian ontology” (261). But a decade later, and Lacan is, if not exactly a new man, a man thinking better about women.

But I wonder if Thomas underwrites Jacques because Jacques has been written back into Thomas, where woman is now identified as “matter/lack,” when, in fact, as Beattie herself notes, “Thomas’s account of sexual difference is about a difference in degree rather than in kinds of being” (264). It is arguable that the former view—of men and women as almost different kinds of creature—is of much more recent origin, one that another Thomas—Thomas Laqueur—tracks to the eighteenth century and finds greatly developed in the nineteenth. The thirteenth-century Thomas’s view seems much closer to what Laqueur describes as a one-sex model of the sexes, with woman a weaker form of the man. Thus in this more ancient way of thinking both male and female produce semen, but the woman’s is of a less perfect kind than that of the male.1 Lacan’s account of woman as lack would seem closer to a later, two-sex model, which sees men and women as radically different kinds of being: as “all” and “nothing.” This, after all, is where Laqueur almost situates Freud, “who is very much a man of the Enlightenment, inheritor of its model of sexual difference.”

Anatomy is destiny, as [Freud] said in a phrase he did not really mean; the vagina is the opposite of the penis, an anatomical marker of woman’s lack of what a man has. Heterosexuality is the natural state of the architecture of two incommensurable opposite sexes.2

But Freud doesn’t quite fit this model, since in places he also imagines the sexes as versions of one another, and subject to a common libido. So Laqueur finds in Freud a “version of the central modern narrative of one sex at war with two.”3 And thus we might suppose a similar confusion in those who would return to Freud, and thus wonder if they are less in debt to the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition than Beattie suggests, albeit that Lacan read Thomas.


In what I read as a short detour, Beattie discusses the dim view that Thomas takes of sexual desire, which, unless it is properly channelled for marital fecundity, is deemed vicious. But I think it somewhat unfair to throw at Thomas the apocryphal story of the young girl thrown at him, in a bid by his family to turn him from a Dominican lifestyle. That the story does not jar with Thomas’s theology of the sexes merely tells us that in this regard he was a man of his time, a man formed in a theological tradition that from St Paul onwards had worried about fornication. What is interesting about Thomas is that he does not suppose sexual desire unnatural, but part of “the goodness of being,” as Beattie notes (265).

We might suppose that the “condemnation of desire in relation to the body’s capacity for pleasure . . . is an arbitrary command . . . issuing from a God who seems to be, in Lacanian terms, ferociously ignorant of the nature of human sexuality” (265). But Thomas is not so ignorant that he does not seek to find the virtue in sex, in its moderate practice, and which practice requires that it also takes vicious forms, the extremes between which the mean is set. This is how he understands what we now name as homosexuality: not as an orientation but as an excess of libido, when it goes beyond its procreative purpose, overstepping its nature. But it is not that Thomas simply disapproves of sexual pleasure, for he can note that virtuous sex is more pleasurable than vicious. Thomas’s problem is that he has no conception of sex as given for relationship and enjoyment as well as for procreation, and so given as a good of the person, rather than as a correlate of generation, which is—as he notes—a good of the species. In short, Thomas suffered from too limited an understanding of the natural law. But we need not, though this is news that has yet to fully spread throughout the church.

Essence and Existence

Such a development of Thomistic natural law theology does not need help from Lacan. Indeed, he might be more of a hindrance than a help. Lacan’s Seminar VII does not sound at all promising. But in chapter 14 (“Being Beyond Philosophy”) Beattie (re)turns to Seminar XX, in which—as she tells us—Lacan, at the beginning of the 1970s, allowed woman to speak (272). But Beattie first discusses being, and Thomas’s understanding of God’s being as just that: be-ing. While creatures are, as it were, a composite of essence and existence, the creator’s essence is existence. The pure act of existing is God’s essence or nature. The nature of God is to-be.4 This means that the difference of God from everything else is not one more difference between existents, but a different difference that is beyond “all differentiation.” This pure difference “can only be posited as a difference so extreme that we have no way of conceptualizing or naming what it might be, beyond that it is the very condition of [our] being” (277).

However that may be, Thomas’s God enters into Lacan’s later thought as a foil to a masculine subjectivity that thinks itself capable of thinking and being all, but which finds in woman a not-all—a lack—that both attracts and appals. Beattie finds this male subject projected as the God of the philosophers, the kind of deistic God imagined by Richard Swinburne: “an infinitely extended (and disembodied) version of an Oxford professor”5 (278). This is man imagining himself God; imagining God in his own image (279). Over against this God-Man is the other of the unconscious, of the woman, and of the different, Thomistic God, the not-all that now reveals the phallic subject of the symbolic to be but a symptom of desiring the very thing it is not (280). At least this is the sense I have so far made of Beattie making sense of Lacan. The upshot would seem to be—and I simplify grossly—that in order to be happy we should give up trying to be all, or, as Beattie puts it, we should “let go of the pretensions to be spirit/form by taking up the position of body/matter” (281). Though of course Thomas might say that we should rather acknowledge that we are spirit and body, form and matter, and even man and woman; a composite being, that is neither all nor nothing.

In regard to this learning that man is not everything, and cannot be all, I am reminded of another Jacques—Jacques Pohier—who learned that God is not all and doesn’t want to be everything.6 And Pohier learnt this from reading Thomas, and in particular Thomas’s reflections on charity and on the two commands by which Christians are to live: to love God and to love the neighbour. We are to love God, but not only God, and not God covertly through loving the neighbour. We are to love the neighbour as ourselves, and we are to love ourselves. God may be in all our loving, but our loving is not all for God. From this starting point, Pohier developed his teaching that God does not want to be everything, and it is a thought that increasingly comes to mind when I read certain theologians. Thus there is no doubt a wisdom in the other Jacques—Jacques Lacan—but might it be one that was first in Thomas?

Form, Matter, and Charity

But now to return to the issue of how far Thomas’s use of the form/matter distinction is gendered as male and female, and how far this gendered distinction informs his conception of God, an informing that then redoubles its force in the lives and bodies of men and women, with man become God to woman’s creature. This is no doubt a detour from the main course of Beattie’s argument, but I wonder if the gendering of form and matter is less paternalistic than Beattie allows, that there is—shall we say—something feminine in the way that form coaxes the potentiality of matter into the actuality of specific beings, something that is more like nurturing than imposition? Of course Beattie is ahead of me, and in later chapters of her book than those I am considering she will argue for a certain maternity in Thomas’s conception of the Trinity, a maternity that troubles his otherwise paternal deity. But here I want to return to Tina’s first extended reading of Thomas’s gendered God, which is in relation to his discussion of Mary’s role in the conception of Jesus (100–03).

Each creature is a composite of form and matter, and Thomas supposes, following Aristotle, that the form of the human is supplied by the man and its matter by the woman. But in the case of Jesus there is no man to form Jesus’s manliness, and so the question arises as to whether it might have been provided by Mary herself. Thomas holds that in normal conceptions the woman provides the matter, “which is menstrual blood,” and he is also aware of the view that the woman also provides a seed, “which when mingled with that of man, plays an active part in generation,”7 the two seeds together forming the blood into an actual conceptus. Thus it might be possible that the Holy Spirit had turned Mary’s seed from passive to active and so effected conception. But Thomas rejects this, on the grounds that male and female have distinct roles or operations in procreation: “that of the agent and that of the patient.” There can be no question of the passive taking on the active role, though Mary did actively prepare “the matter to be apt for conception,”8 and that matter was pure blood since untainted by lust.9 But Mary could not become the father of Christ. This argument would seem to establish and confirm Beattie’s case that form is paternal and matter maternal, and that paternity is associated with divinity.

But Christ is conceived in Mary not by God the Father alone, but by the whole Trinity, and with the conceiving attributed to the person of the Holy Spirit. This is because Christ comes into the world out of love for us, and the Spirit is love, the love between Father and Son.10 Each of the divine persons acts in the conception of Christ, but to the Spirit is attributed “the formation of the body assumed by the Son,” for the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. As the scripture says, the Spirit comes upon Mary, “as if for the preparation and formation of the matter of Christ’s body.” The Spirit is the seed, if by seed we mean the “activating force” and not a “substance transmuted in conception.”11 This then might suggest that the Holy Spirit is the father of the Son, but Thomas denies this. And yet it does suggest—perhaps—that the active form is not so much paternal as charitable. It is by the Spirit that Christ is conceived in the womb of the Virgin; it is by love that her matter is formed into Christ, who is also her son. As Eugene Rogers puts it, Christ is completely formed by love12. Elsewhere we find Thomas talking of form as charity, as when in his discussion of faith he writes that “nature compares to charity . . . as matter to form.”13 And we must say something similar of all created things, since their forms in the mind of God are the means by which they are constructed. This last is again from Rogers, who suggests that we understand form as “construction,” on analogy with “construction” in constructivist gender theory.

Bodily Knowledge

There is a knowledge of the body that the body has. But as such it is an animal knowledge: the knowledge of the swallow’s flight, the bee’s dance, the dog’s response to its mistress’s voice. It is not a reflective knowledge, a knowledge of knowledge; the sideways step of the symbolic. The body cries with different tears when upset than when in pain, with a different chemistry of emotion, with hormones that gratify and reduce stress as well as kill pain. But, pace Beattie, this is not an eloquence lost with “naming and writing” (292), but precisely gained in its wording. Yes, the body may know more than we can speak, but we can also speak more than the body knows, because our speaking enables enquiry and reflection. And there need not be a dichotomy between these two ways of knowing, for we can think the symbolic a bodily production, the result of matter calling forth form; which would, I think, be a Thomistic position. And of course Beattie knows this already, as she goes on to say that the world is known “through the conjoined relationships of the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary” (293–94). Indeed, she goes further, repeating after Lacan that “[t]here is no prediscursive reality” (294). This claim is either the arrival of idealism—and so the dissolution of the body—or hyperbole, and presumably it is the latter because on the next page we are reassured that the “closest we can get to a prediscursive reality” (297) is through a bodily speech prior to writing, so presumably there is a reality after all, even if the degree to which we can reach it is unknown, and Beattie invokes a myth about writing; one over which yet another Jacques—Jacques Derrida—so long battled. The body may know more (of some things) than we can say, but we can also say more (of the body) than the body knows. After all, it was Freud who explained that the truth of the unconscious is revealed in the writing of the analyst.

Appropriate Equivocation

Being—the being we know, and which is not the being of God—is a composite of matter and form, and I repeat the point because sometimes the terms seem to slip, with one being used for another; with, say, “being” used for “matter.” Does this matter? I think it does when we are using terms that, derived from Aristotle and Thomas, were not by them used univocally, but used sometimes to make formal distinctions and sometimes to venture something more descriptive. Moreover, I don’t discern in Beattie that concern which has obsessed other commentators on Thomas to maintain the equivocity (analogy) of “being” when used of creator and creature, so that we cannot mean them in the same way in both cases; so that we cannot really know what we are talking about when we talk of God.

And if “being” is used in different registers when speaking of the beings that participate in the being of God, and when talking of that in which they participate, we must suppose the same of other terms—such as form and matter—when they too are used analogously across the difference between creature and creator. God’s form—if God is form—is different from the form that constructs matter; one is the divine charity in itself and the other that charity as it brings things to be as one thing or another. A certain indifference to these equivocal distinctions makes it easier for Beattie to lay her major charge against Thomas; but also for it to be, if not rebutted, then at least weakened, softened, rendered less certain.

But now I am trespassing on another part of Tina’s book. And it may yet be that it is impossible to stop the masculinity of form from seeping into that different form that is the be-ing of God, and so stop divinity from seeping into masculinity.

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, edited by Thomas Gilby OP, 61 vols (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964-81), 3a, 31, 5, ad tertium.

  2. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 233.

  3. Ibid.

  4. David B. Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 22–24.

  5. Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 28.

  6. Jacques Pohier, God in Fragments, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1985).

  7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, 3a, 32, 4, responsio.

  8. Ibid,, 3a, 32, 4, responsio.

  9. Ibid., 3a, 31, 5, ad tertium.

  10. Ibid., 3a, 32, 1, responsio.

  11. Ibid., 3a, 32, 2, responsio.

  12. Eugene F. Rogers Jr, Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Race, Gender, and the Failure of Natural Law in Thomas’s Biblical Commentaries (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 38.

  13. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, 2a 2ae, 2, 9, ad primum.

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    Tina Beattie


    Response to Gerard Loughlin

    I read Gerard Loughlin’s engagement with my book more as an allusive encounter than as a confrontation or affirmation, and I want to respond to it in that fashion. I am not sure I fundamentally disagree with anything, so let me simply attempt to engage, clarify, and elucidate where I can, mostly in agreement with or elaboration of points Gerard is making.

    Let me turn first to the question of form and matter, for my somewhat idiosyncratic reading clearly bothers Loughlin as well as Larsen. From an Aristotelian Thomist perspective, form and matter constitute an elegant hypothesis for explaining how bodily beings come to be. The problem is that, in Thomas as in many other theologians and philosophers, “The relationship between the sexes becomes an elaborate mimesis of a philosophical hypothesis,” (163) so that an explanatory and obsolete theory about the nature of being has far-reaching ramifications with regard to the gendered hierarchies that order our social and sexual relationships.

    It is way beyond my expertise or my concern here to venture into quantum physics, but the more we discover about the nature of the material universe, the less dualistic it appears to be. Material bodies become perceptible to human consciousness and observation when immaterial particles interact with one another through random attractions that we might metaphorically interpret in terms of desire, and this points towards rich new terrain for natural theology beyond philosophical dualism. The idea of bodies as composite conjunctions of form and matter—and the corresponding problems this poses for speaking of Christ’s resurrected body without threatening the simplicity of the Godhead—calls into question how effective such language is in representing the nature of material beings. If theology could no longer use the language of form—however analogous or however carefully we distinguish between created and uncreated form (pace Larsen)—would there be any significant loss to our capacity to speak of the God of Christian revelation? I think not.

    While I do indeed write at length (too much length perhaps!) about the destructive effects of pornography and violence on women’s bodies in the context of the association between female flesh and matter, the main purpose of the book is to seek out and affirm the redemptive potential of the vulnerable, fertile and loving flesh as a site of grace. (I shall return to this point in my engagement with Marika Rose). Bodies—male and female and everything in between—are bearers of meaning, never outside of language but never fully circumscribed within language either, because bodies are graced. So, for Lacan, while the Real—like Thomas’s God—is beyond human conceptualisation, reality is the knowledge of the world acquired through language, but not in such a way that materiality has no role to play in the making of meaning. Reality is as much of the truth as we are capable of grasping, in the complex dynamic between our bodily drives, desires, and responses and the linguistic meanings we attribute to these, including the meanings we acquire through scientific observation of nature.

    Here, Catherine of Siena is a foil for Thomas, though not in a way that would deny Thomas’s affirmation of the goodness of the body. I repeatedly balance my more negative readings of Thomas’s dualism with a more positive reading of his incarnational emphasis. So, I argue that “Thomas introduces into Christian thought a more thorough-going materialism than was the case before . . . but he also occupies a pivotal moment when the relationship between nature and grace, body and spirit, perhaps attained its greatest equilibrium in Christian thought, even as it contained the seeds of its own undoing” (50). The book is a sustained endeavour to tease out these tensions and sometimes contradictions in Thomas’s thought, with the aim not of discrediting him but of reclaiming him for an incarnational theology after postmodernity. In this, I discovered Lacan to be a resource beyond my wildest imaginings when I first embarked on this project, because it was only through allowing Lacan to guide my reading of Thomas that I began to appreciate not only the complex and not always consistent layerings of Thomas’s thought, but also deeply Thomist foundations of Lacan’s thought, established not least through his 1950s encounters with French Thomists such as Étienne Gilson.

    I don’t think I anywhere suggest that pre-modern thought posited an essential difference between the sexes, nor do I think Lacan follows a two-sex model. On the contrary, Lacan is concerned to expose the one-sex model that lurks within a two-sex model predicated upon the same dualisms of form and matter, active and passive, perfection and lack, which structured medieval thought. In pre-modern thought, sexual difference can be understood as a difference in function, and here I would perhaps be more emphatic than I was in the book about why a thinker such as Thomas might place so much importance on men and women conforming to the roles and functions associated with paternal form and maternal matter respectively in the natural order and according to natural law. This constitutes the copulative dynamism that holds the cosmos in being, and it is the means by which God sustains the universe. The disordering of these relationships strikes at the very heart of the order of being, in a way that threatens chaos and anarchy. But I repeatedly balance these hierarchical interpretations with Thomas’s biblical affirmation of the equality of the sexes. My argument is that he resorted to Aristotle to support the status quo when questions arose about the role of women in society, the family and the Church, whereas a more biblically faithful reading might have resulted in a more transformative or revolutionary social and ethical paradigm. Simply to say that he was a man of his time is not a sufficient response—though of course it is a truism and, as I note in my response to Larsen, I repeatedly acknowledge that his attitudes to women were far less problematic than those of many other theologians. Nevertheless, the objections he poses in arguing in favour of certain concepts of “woman” and arguing against others in the sed contra responses, suggest that he was well aware of alternative interpretative possibilities. My argument is that, while he might be regarded as intellectually radical and innovative in his engagement with Aristotle, he was socially conservative and found in Aristotle a way of defending the social order of his time, during an era of instability and potential change. This would include the heretical movements against which he was pitting his formidable intellectual skills, not least the Cathars who were in some ways more egalitarian in their treatment of women.

    So do I write Lacan back into Thomas, as Loughlin suggests I might? Here as elsewhere, my argument is that Lacan brings to light certain inconsistencies or possibilities in Thomas’s thought, which would later be disseminated through the widespread influence of popular Aristotelianism in medieval culture. In other words, Thomas serves as an exemplar of how—at a decisive point in the making of the western history of ideas through the rise of the Aristotelian university—certain interpretative possibilities were rejected and others were privileged in a way that would soon close down other possible configurations of the relationship between man, woman and God. Lacan seeks to expose how this Aristotelian value system with its Platonic influences continues to shape our western values and relationships through the linguistic order. Rather than promoting a two-sex model, Lacan exposes the extent to which modernity’s two-sex model is simply a perpetuation of the same old one-sex model.

    I agree with Gerard’s observations about Mary’s conception of Christ by the Trinity, and I approach this both in the context of Thomas’s Aristotelian biological account (100–02), and later in the context of his Trinitarian account. In consecutive sections titled “The Grammar of God” and “the Maternal Trinity” (61–70), I explore how Thomas seeks (and necessarily fails) to articulate the mystery of the Trinity in terms of relationships of love conceived, gestated, and expressed. My argument is that this Trinitarian dynamic of interpersonal love calls into question the Aristotelian understanding of paternal inseminating causality that informs Thomas’s natural theology and undergirds his understanding of the natural law. (See also my discussion of Trinitarian relationships in Thomas’s Commentary on Boethius and his account of Christ’s conception at 359–63). Eugene Rogers’ suggestion that Christ is formed by love is a beautiful expression of this. (Unfortunately, this book was published too late for me to engage with it.)

    With regard to the question of non-procreative sexual pleasure, my argument here has to be read in close conjunction with Lacan. I am not arguing against the view that Thomas had a basically positive attitude to sexual pleasure in its proper context (i.e., in the context of marriage and procreation). I am testing Lacan’s suggestion that the Christian understanding of God sets in motion a dynamic of sexual guilt and denial based on a prohibition of non-productive sexual pleasure which Thomas himself admits cannot be defended by an appeal to philosophical reason. In analysing this I consider Thomas’s Commentary on Romans 7, where he interprets disordered desire as part of the law because it is God’s punishment for original sin. Reason alone does not identify this disordered desire as sin, but only revelation enables us to recognise it as such. “The God who orders the cosmos and sanctifies desire has a punitive aspect that manifest itself through the condemnation of desire in relation to the body’s capacity for pleasure, beyond any rational explanation as to why this is so” (265). My argument here is dense and complex—the result of many weeks of struggling with Lacan and Thomas side by side—but it is important in terms of seeking to show how Lacan brings to light deeply hidden but significant aspects of Thomas’s thought, which might help us to understand how the Catholic Church has gone so badly wrong with regard to its understanding of human sexuality. I might be wrong, but my quest in the book is to show how psychoanalysis can help us to address profoundly disturbing questions about desire and violence from within a wider and more redemptive reading of the Catholic theological tradition. This has much to do with natural law, but it requires an understanding of the dynamics of the human soul that psychoanalysis helps to reveal.

    The idea that “in order to be happy we should give up trying to be all” is a central focus for all this—or rather, in Lacanian terms, women should give up trying to be all and men should give up trying to have it all. Because I now want to avoid the language of form and matter, I would not say this means taking up the position of matter over and against form, but rather recognising—with Thomas—that to be human is to be an ensouled body, in such a way that partiality, lack, and desire are constitutive of our sense of self. However, again from a Lacanian perspective, I argue that this does not extend to projecting any sense of incompletion or lack into God, so I would be reluctant to accept at face value Jacques Pohier’s suggestion, as reported by Loughlin, that “God is not all and doesn’t want to be everything.” In Chapter 17, I challenge various hypotheses about lack or incompletion in God put forward by postmodern theologians (Richard Kearney, John Caputo, and John Manoussakis), by appealing to a more classical understanding of the divine simplicity and aseity—but I also suggest that this is best expressed in terms of John of Damascus’s imagery of God’s oceanic being (353–55), which Thomas borrows. The divine being is, like the ocean, unchanging in its dynamic, life-sustaining movement, and it provides an all-encompassing habitat for those within it. However, this is indeed to say that the wisdom one finds in Lacan is one that was first in Thomas. At no point do I suggest otherwise. Rather, I suggest that Lacan helps us to reclaim the wisdom of Thomas, while also helping us to see those areas where Greek philosophical influences—Aristotelian but also Platonic—sometimes obscure the transformative mystical potency of Thomas’s Trinitarian theology.

    This means that I go to considerable lengths to point out that for Thomas, “we cannot really know what we are talking about when we talk of God,” as Loughlin suggests (see especially Chapter 3 and Chapter 18). However, I am suggesting that the analogy of relational being, allied to the insight that all created beings participate in the being of God (45), is more consistent with a biblical and trinitarian theology than analogies of form and matter.

    I think both Larsen and Loughlin are right to pick up on my indifference to certain nuances in Thomas’s language of form and matter, and that is because I am calling into question the very premises which allow such language to be used meaningfully of God and creation. I am more convinced now than when I wrote the book, that we must see the copulative, cosmological ontologies of Greek thought for what they are—myths about the nature of being that can yield to more holistic accounts which, while not overcoming the dualism which is built into the structure of human knowledge with its fallen capacity to know good and evil, are able to weaken, soften and render less certain the dualistic hierarchies that have structured Christian thought, and wounded to the core the Christian ability to embrace the challenge of gender and the created goodness of the body with its subtle and elusive desires and differences.

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      Gerard Loughlin


      God Is Not Everything, II

      The following remarks are just by way of clarifying some of my initial comments on Tina’s book, and as such no doubt fall on the rational and analytic side of the oscillation that she notes in her own work, between “rationality and creativity, analysis and expressiveness, sober scholarship and imaginative fecundity” (Beattie’s response to Hannah Hofheinz). My remarks aim merely to suggest why the form/matter distinction might matter, why it might not be as irretrievably gendered as seemingly suggested, why Jacques Pohier may not have fallen into thinking God is in want, and why a Thomistic biology might be preferable to Jacques Lacan’s. I hope my remarks are more allusive than elusive, and still an engagement with Tina’s project of finding a new, more bodily and equitable language for speaking God’s word in the twenty-first century.

      So, I will start with the form/matter distinction, which I must admit Tina’s work has done much to unsettle. But it is not for me an “elegant hypothesis”, let alone an “obsolete theory”, or even a “dualism”—in the sense of a Cartesian relationship between two kinds of stuff, as in Descartes’s extended body and non-extended soul. For me the distinction is not so much a description, open to test, as an articulation of a number of conceptual problems. Thus it answers to how we can both distinguish between objects and recognise that they are the same, non-identical repetitions of each other. They are distinguished through their matter but the same in virtue of the form they repeat (non-identically). This, surely, is the primary, Platonic, use of the distinction, but it is a use that might be more of a statement than an explanation of the problem it addresses, the problem of identity across difference. As such it is a conceptual tool, and possibly an ontological insight, but not a testable description, since “form” is not an isolatable thing. It appears only in the things it informs. This last point may become more evident when the form/matter distinction is shifted sideways, and the “forms” become “ideas” in the mind of God, and as such on the divine side of the creator/creature distinction, which the from/matter distinction now also articulates. Just as we encounter God in the world though God is not a worldly thing, so we encounter the forms in the things we are and with which we have to do.

      The form/matter distinction also enables Thomas to articulate the difference between angels and humans. We are form and matter, and so individual members of a species, but angels, having no matter, are each a species. But with this example we can also see how Thomas uses his terms analogously, since he must distinguish between created and uncreated forms, and we must be aware when the form/matter distinction is used to articulate the creator/creature distinction and when it is used to articulate differences within the created realm (as between angels and humans).

      An even more decisive shift in these analogous uses occurs with the distinction between essence and existence, which is the wonderful distinction by which Thomas articulates the difference between creator and creature, with the essence of the creator understood as existence (esse, “to be”), unlike the creature, which has no existence of itself, but must participate in that of the creator to exist at all, and whose essence (as human, wolf, or whatever) is also created.

      The form/matter distinction may not be entirely stable as it shifts between its various uses, and may be most unstable when—as Beattie discusses—it is used to identify God as pure form. But this is a rare use and a shifted use and so perhaps one on which we should not put too much pressure (but see further Beattie: 318–21). Here my interest is merely to indicate what would have to be given up in abandoning the form/matter distinction, and so the need to ask if its undoubted gendering is such that it should be given up for a healthier theology.

      It was in pursuit of a negative answer to the question just raised that I turned to Thomas’s musing on the conception of Christ. For there we seem to find a less resolute identification of manliness with form and of womanliness with matter, even though these are the prevailing associations when the form/matter distinction is used to think the conceiving and differentiating of the sexes. When the divine Charity, the Spirit, conceives Christ in the womb of the Virgin, it is she who makes him to be Jesus, rather than anyone else, and the Spirit who makes Jesus to be God among us: incarnate Charity. Moreover, if we were to press beyond Thomas, and identify the Spirit with Holy Wisdom, Sophia, then we would have a marriage (copula) of form and matter that was entirely feminine, though issuing in the boy Jesus. And we would not have to press very far beyond Thomas, for, as Beattie discusses, Thomas himself notes the identity of the Spirit with Wisdom in his commentary on Boethius on the Trinity (see Beattie: 359–61).

      Tina asks if giving up the form/matter distinction would endanger our ability to speak of (and to) the God of Christian revelation, and presumably it would not. And yet, would theology not need to find a replacement? For it seems that something like the distinction, especially when it becomes that between essence and existence, and developed as between primary and secondary causation, is necessary for articulating the distinction between creature and creator while also maintaining the absolute dependence of the former on the latter. And this relationship of absolute distinction and dependence is vital if “Christian revelation” is not to become but one more mythology, the idolatrous worship of something in the world. And this is why Jacques Pohier can say that God does not want to be everything.

      When Pohier writes that God does not want to be everything it is not—I think—to suggest a lack in God, as Tina supposes. The sense is rather that God wants to be just God, and not any of the things we want God to be, any of the things that we want to turn into God. At the same time God is not all because God creates that which is not God, that which while wholly dependent on God is wholly distinct from God. This is why the injunction to love is an injunction to love God and neighbour, and not God in the neighbour or the neighbour as God, and this even though it is in and through the neighbour that we encounter God.

      There is now (again) much talk about nature and grace, and whether there can be a pure nature, to which grace is always an alien additive. I don’t suppose Thomas to have held this latter view, but I do suppose him to have insisted on a real distinction between creator and creature, such that the latter, while always dependent, is always itself. And it is this dependent independence that Pohier also wants to preserve, so that theology has limits and can genuinely learn from other disciplines. Thus Pohier wants to preserve the very thing Beattie presents: Thomas learning from Lacan.

      Of course, I am less convinced than Tina about theology learning from Lacan, though on reflection I did wonder if it was right to place Lacan on the two-sex side of Thomas Laqueur’s distinction between one- and two-sex models of the human body. For as Laqueur argues, woman was negatively valued whether her body was understood as radically different from or but an inversion of the male body. I may also have erred (with Luce Irigaray?) in assuming that Lacan was doing more than merely expressing a certain cultural construction when he presented man as all and woman as not-all, as lack; that he was talking about “language” rather than the local language (culture) he inhabited. But on yet further reflection it does seem to me that insofar as Lacan’s account is proffered, we can read it as premised on a two-sex model of the body, and that such a construction is not possible on a one-sex model. For woman on the one-sex model does not lack what the man has, but is an inverted copy of the man. She is an imperfect man. This is the Galenic tradition, and it is not quite the biology of Thomas Aquinas, whose bodies are more Aristotelian, and yet also versions of one another. (This also, of course, answers to the text of Genesis, in which Eve is a non-identical repetition of Adam.) So I still think there may be a fundamental disjunction between Thomist and Lacanian biologies, and that if we had to choose we would be better with the Thomist, since it does not divide woman from man, and is reformable towards an equal mutability and mutuality between the sexes.



      Beattie, Tina (2013), Theology After Postmodernity: Divining the Void—A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

      Laqueur, Thomas (1990), Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

      Pohier, Jacques (1985), God in Fragments, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM Press)

Sean Larsen


Contemplata aliis tradere

Notes on Tina Beattie’s Lacanian Thomism

TINA BEATTIE’S THEOLOGY AFTER POSTMODERNITY: Divining the Void—A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas1 calls for a “Copernican revolution” in theology (399). Beattie argues that the Church needs a revisionist reading of Thomas Aquinas that is both faithful to Catholic theological traditions and responsive to contemporary concerns. Her book attempts one such reading by testing the argument of the audacious claim: “just as Aristotle provided Thomas with a new way of reading Christian theology, I am suggesting that Lacan provides us with a new way of reading Thomas” (343). I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to respond to Theology after Postmodernity because I was and remain deeply sympathetic with Beattie’s concerns. They animate my own work also: questions about nature, grace, gender, embodiment, sexuality, rhetoric, writing, and the theology’s embodiment in practice. Beattie’s practical critiques and recommendations about gender, sexuality, marriage, sovereignty, and economics often elicited my sympathy as well. That said, this response is different than I thought it would be. I often found myself disagreeing with the arguments that she used to approach and arrive at her conclusions. Because this forum calls for charitable critique, I focused on the disagreements I thought were most important and interesting. I hope I have written with clarity, specificity, attentiveness, and fair-mindedness so as to invite her response and push-back.

I’ll start by stating the book’s main argument as I understood it: Thomas inconsistently and perhaps unwittingly posited two incompatible accounts of God. Sometimes he wrote as if God was the Greek God2 inspired by Aristotelian philosophy, and sometimes he wrote as if God was the Biblical God, which Beattie refers to as the “maternal Trinity.” The book can be read as a dramatic contest in which Greek Father and Biblical Mother vie for dominance within Thomas’s theology, his psyche, modernity, and contemporary Catholic theology. The multi-layered drama of the two deities unfolds as Beattie addresses these four levels.

Writing Theology like Thomas: Psyche and Theology

Beattie opposes the “highly specialized and combative dialectics of Latin scholasticism” (121) in Thomas to the “flamboyant language of mystical desire” in Catherine of Siena (127). The Summa of Theology “manifests” Thomas’s “commitment to reason . . . in the pedantry of its style and its plodding attentiveness to the detail of arguments” (142). The “dialectical” Summa is “abstracted from the bodies about which it speaks.” Its “either/or approach” does not require a “range of voices that might suggest different bodily positions in relation to one another, for it is the arguments, not the speakers, that count” (373).3 Catherine of Siena’s “dialogical” style is “determined by the character who speaks.” The “dialogical style offers a both/and [approach], with a much greater sense of plurivocity, fluidity, and subtlety with regard to possible identities, meanings, and subject positions” (373).4

Catherine’s style is in every way preferable to Beattie, which is why the reader should take note whenever Thomas departs from his pedantic and plodding commitment to reason. The departures are subtle, as when he uses phrases like “if one may so speak” when discussing God’s being. For the claims about style aren’t just about style—they’re also about the psyche that produced the style. That psyche serves as a hermeneutical tool to offer a fairly consistent reading of Thomas’s theology. Beattie finds Thomas’s real, true theological intention, “the direction in which Thomas’s thought wants to go,” precisely in these stylistic shifts (323). They reveal that Thomas means something or wants to mean something he doesn’t quite say. He can’t say what he really wants to say; he is “seduced” by the language of divine (male) form and androcentric Greek philosophy (320). The shifts thus signal a break from the power of Thomas’s Greek sources, and they serve as interpretive keys to the whole of Thomistic thought. For in them, Thomas is able to depart from “the philosophical rigor of his Aristotelianism” and adopt an “impressionistic and mystical idiom,” for he “knows that he has waded into a more fluid and boundless possibility of being than that which can be expressed within the singularity of Aristotle’s God” (353). The subtleties of Thomas’s style, then, signal to the reader how to sort the texts: when the style is dialectical and rational, read Greek influences. When the style hesitates, read mystical “bedazzlement.” This reading further implies a fairly rigid understanding how Thomas’s texts relate to their “philosophical” sources.

Beattie frequently describes Thomas’s psychological state or the content of Thomas’s consciousness in order to warrant her interpretations. Though she often (though not always) says when she speculates or suggests something about Thomas’s psyche, the combined effect is determinate, and the psychological claims work to sustain a consistent reading of the texts. The reader is invited to see God in Thomas’s texts through a psychological drama that corresponds to the drama of the two deities. She sometimes offers a fairly straightforward psychoanalytic interpretation: “Thomas is unable to think through or express the relationship to the mother, even though it haunts his dreams, desires, and prayers in the inter-personal fecundity of the Trinity” because “the male mind projects itself onto the Other as the One, the Father . . .” (204). She reads from his experience into the text “indifference tinged (one suspects) with a deep underlying anxiety. He was traumatized by his early encounter with a prostitute” and therefore more likely to adopt Greek logocentric thought to cope with his trauma (142). Sometimes, she claims, Thomas hesitates. These hesitations—interpreted as such precisely because of the way they fit in the psychological drama—break with the logocentric Greek framework. Thomas “experiences . . . mystical ‘bedazzlement’ when he shifts from the singularity of God in terms of Aristotelian theology, to the relationality of God in the Christian Trinity” (339). “Why does Thomas allow these moments of hesitation to interrupt his line of thought?” she asks. They are “symptoms of Thomas’s awareness that all is not quite as he is saying it is… Deep down, Thomas knows that the God of whom he speaks is the (m)Other of the One of Greek philosophy” (320). In general, then, we can “speculate that he was aware of the potent phallic symbolism that lurked within Neoplatonic imagery, and was assiduously trying to avoid the implications of that” (142).5

It’s important that the reader perceive disembodiment in the dialectical rhetoric. The “either/or” choice and “philosophical rigor” of Thomas’s dialectical rhetoric made Thomas less nuanced and inclusive of different embodied perspectives than he might have been. His style requires of him “the greatest possible abstraction of ideas and argument from their corporeal and affective contexts” (152). Beattie thus reads Thomas’s style into a program of bodily discipline. She approvingly cites a passage that asserts that Thomas adopted the Aristotelian ideal “the bios theoretikos,” which is “intellectual training for its own sake” (149).6 The corresponding spiritual impetus was for the intellect to “free itself from the domination of the body” (150). Thomas thought and argued like he did, Beattie argues, because he separated the life of the intellect from the life of the individual and social body.7 The theology of bodies in Thomas’s thought and writing style, then, depended on his spirituality of bodies.8 This spirituality explains why Thomas consistently felt compelled to adopt Aristotelian categories of thought.

Beattie’s explanation of the social embodiment of Thomas’s spirituality is both interesting and counterintuitive: “Thomas privileges the contemplative life as the one that most fully expresses the meaning and vocation of human existence” (129). Contemplative life, “ideally experienced in solitude and withdrawal from the world,” (131–32) requires that one “detach one’s mind from one’s bodily sensations and desires” in order to know God (137). Christian life on these terms undermines the account of human relationality and materiality so frequently associated with Thomas’s hylomorphism:

Love of God alone and solitude are the characteristics of the perfection of religious life. Thomas’s homo religious is a man who must choose between the ordinary relationships, desires, and affections of his social and sexual nature… and the abandonment of all relationships, desires, and ordinary affection in order for his mind to rise to a state of near-angelic contemplation of the divine mystery” (137).9

On this reading, Thomas’s views on the contemplative life contradict his account of the human body’s intrinsic relationality. “The phallus” is “veiled by a rational order that perpetuates its organizing power through descending hierarchies of fatherhood rather than phallic logocentrism, organized according to Aristotelian philosophy and underwritten by the fatherhood of God” (138). This explains why Thomas wrote and thought so as to purify “the intellect from the taint of the body” (378).10 Somehow, on Beattie’s reading, Thomas’s biblical emphasis on materiality, vulnerability, and embodiment “never interrupts the logic of Thomas’s social Aristotelianism” (245).11

Thomas’s social practice, then, embedded in a Greek account of natural order, explains how and why “Thomas’s thought is androcentric through and through” (118).12 The form/matter distinction, intrinsically gendered, proceeds from the logocentrism of his social practice. The basis of Thomas’s metaphysics, then, always resonates as inseminating father and receptive mother. This metaphysical distinction, of a piece with his social practice and views, “infected” Thomas’s theology.

I think that it is insightful to frame Thomas’s theology through his explicit and implicit claims about nature, gender, and God. I also appreciate the attention to style, and I especially agree with the move to read theological thought like it is part of a “school” in which practice and theory are inseparable. But I find it difficult to see how Beattie arrives at her conclusions about Thomas’s style, sources, and the dialectical structure of his thought. Denys Turner and Frederick Bauerschmidt, following Leonard Boyle’s influential interpretation of Aquinas, have convinced me that much of Thomas’s life and thought was invested in undermining exactly the sorts of views of the contemplative life that Beattie attributes to him.13 Most of the substantive and methodological difficulties I had with Beattie’s book on approach, style, sources, and structure flowed from this basic difference in approach to Thomas. I’ll say what that difference is and how I think affects the other questions that Beattie’s book raises. As far as I can tell, Beattie did not engage Boyle’s interpretation of Aquinas, despite the alternative light it sheds on her perspective and the influence it had on twentieth century interpretations of Aquinas.

For Turner and Bauerschmidt, Thomas wrote his Summa of Theology as a “friars’ theology”14 for the “wholesale reform of Dominican theological education.”15 Turner puts it nicely: for Aquinas, “there is a form of holiness achievable within the practice not of monastic contemplation but of mendicant preaching”16 because “it is better to cast light for others than merely to shine for oneself.”17 Bauerschmidt argues that Thomas systematically subordinated his monastic vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to the life of preaching for the sake of evangelical practice: “holy teaching as a way of life.”18 According to Turner, Thomas argued nearly the opposite of what Beattie attributes to him on the contemplative life: “the better form of life than the merely contemplative is contemplare aliis tradere, to hand on to others what they have drunk from their own wells of contemplation. The Summa is . . . a poor man’s theology, the poor Christ as theology. Friars must carry that theology with them, as poor people do, in their heads, in their skills, in their training.”19 Thomas wrote a number of treatises defending the mendicant orders on these terms, and it founded his understanding of Christina life.20 Thomas’s writings, then, aren’t at all consistent with the withdrawal from the world that Beattie attributes to them. As a curricular reform, the Summa in particular was written exactly to remove “the practice of theology from its enclosure within the secluded and specifically prayerful practices of the cloister, liberating it for a multitasking practice in the street” in a way that is congenial to many of the aims Beattie expresses.21

Thomas’s style reads differently in this framework. Language, though intrinsically abstract, makes deeper bodily intimacy possible because it is the way that human bodies achieve specifically human intimacy with one another.22 Thomas wrote as he did not to keep different kinds of bodies from his work, but to make it possible to invite more bodies in. In order to do so, he had “to get out of the way.” His language had to efface itself in order for Christ’s body—especially as it manifests itself in the poor and marginalized—to become more visible. Thomas got out of the way through his “lucidity,” which is “the aspect of his writing that is its most obvious and visible feature.”23 Turner characterizes it: “what humility is to the moral life, lucidity is to the intellectual—an openness to contestation, the refusal to hide behind the opacity of the obscure, a vulnerability to refutation to which one is open simply as a result of being clear enough to be seen, if wrong, to be wrong. We might well say, then, that Thomas was fearlessly clear, unafraid to be shown to be wrong.”24 Such lucidity is partly why Bauerschmidt praises the “particularly deep and austere sort” of beauty of Thomas’s theology.25 Mark Jordan’s question sums up the point nicely, and I’d like to pose it to Beattie in the context of her critique: “Is it really necessary to argue, in our cultural moment, that minimalism can be a complex and fully eloquent choice in style?”26

The arrangement of Thomas’s sources and their relation to his thought reads differently also. Beattie’s argument depends on distinguishing philosophical influences on Thomas, codifying them propositionally, and interpreting Thomas through them (89ff). She wants to interpret Thomas’s thought in order to “[purge it] of its contaminating Aristotelianism” and to scramble “the tidy logic of Thomas’s Aristotelianism” (362). She thereby assumes also that the sources retain their integrity after Thomas cites them. Bauerschmidt, alternatively, interprets Thomas’s Aristotelianism primarily as a “process of coming to clarity” about things experienced in the world rather than as discrete propositions or even a revised vocabulary.27 Jordan has made much of how Thomas arranges28 different authorities in order to draw his readers into a “school of comprehensive persuasion.”29 “It is not helpful,” Jordan argues, “to ask about Thomas’s relation to Aristotle in terms of ‘Aristotelianism,’ because to do so implies either the reduction of philosophy to ideology or the sublimating of philosophy into subsistent bodies of propositions. Thomas held neither view. Indeed, he rejected both.”30 On Jordan’s view, Thomas’s relationship to Aristotle is better left unsystematized: “the actual inheritance of Aristotle must be studied topic by topic, passage by passage, in works written for Thomas’s own voice.”31 But if Jordan is right and there is no “Aristotelianism,” can there be an identifiable Aristotelian God? Can the Summa be psychoanalyzed through Thomas’s influences?

The dialectical structure of Thomas’s arguments also reads differently this light. Thomas’s arrangement of sources combined with his rhetorical minimalism opens the Summa’s arguments; it is a “teaching without closure.”32 This interpretation thus resists the contrast between the conversational style of Catherine and the dialectical style of Thomas, and it draws attention to very different aspects of the form of Thomas’s pedagogy. Though Beattie acknowledges the Summa’s arrangement early on, I thought that the distinctive features of Thomas’s rhetoric were mostly erased in her interpretation of Thomas’s arguments. For Jordan, this can’t work. The Summa’s teaching makes no sense except as a “skeleton of typical authorities and arguments that must be filled in by classroom use.”33 This style, structure, and citation of authorities make it properly inclusive.34 Here the clarity, citation, and dialectic come together. Precisely because Thomas cites so much, he refuses a single universal language, not to signal a psychic drama or an irreducible theological contradiction, but to invite the reader to hear her own voice or the voices she has taken seriously.35 And if her voice is missing, the dialectical structure of objection and response leaves the text open to include that voice. In this way, the structure of the argument imitates the necessary incompleteness of theology. Rather than the “either/or” Beattie attributes to him, Thomas tends to respond to his intellectual opponents with a sic et non: he integrates them without absorbing them. It’s partly because Thomas was so successful at writing an incomplete text that opened itself up to new objections that Jordan argues the “police” have been so concerned to hijack, flatten, and disambiguate Thomas’s writing.36

On the basis of her estimation of Thomas’s influence on theological style, Beattie calls for an “altogether different theological idiom” than the one she associates with orthodoxy or the various contextual theologies that oppose orthodoxy on liberal terms. Presumably, this idiom is more like Catherine’s and maybe Beattie’s own. She indicates as much in her introduction: “my quest in what follows is not to explain and rationalize but to tremble and to wonder, to reopen the theological imagination to mysteries beyond its ken, and to kneel in awe before the majesty and mystery of creation and its creator” (12). But I found the style of Beattie’s prose obscure and even arcane. Combined with her frequently long and complex sentences, this often got in the way of following her point in ways I discuss below. The writing, often focused by Lacanian claims, tends toward ambiguity and paradoxical expression.37 Style and substance flow together: I thought that she rendered Thomas’s writing more complex and less coherent that a more straightforward reading might have. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll give two examples in which I think Beattie’s Lacanian reading pulled the Summa into a system that distorts its interpretation.

First, Beattie argues that when Thomas identifies God with “form itself” in the Summa, he is writing from his adherence to the Phallic Father God of the Greeks. He thereby contradicts his own deepest Christian inclinations. She cites a passage that identifies God with ipsa forma, form itself, or ipsum esse, being itself. By so identifying God, she says, Thomas implies that “the act of creation involves prime matter but not form, so that an eternity of form would be posited over and against the creation of matter ex nihilo” (319). I think it’s right to read Thomas to be saying that God and prime matter cannot be different but only diverse. Difference presupposes the possibility of accidental change, and neither divinity nor prime matter can undergo such change because the former is by definition pure act and the latter by definition pure potentiality.38

I thought that the moniker “the language of form” obscured the crucial distinction between created and uncreated forms and therefore between created essences and transcendentals. It then predisposes the argument to identify an androcentric claim about “being” as male or inseminating in the statement that God is forma ipsa. Beattie says that all forms have to be created: “God creates forms along with matter” and “neither forms nor matter actually exist for Thomas except insofar as they exist in composite beings” (319). Thomas can’t agree with this premise, in my view. If he did, God wouldn’t have a determinate nature. God’s nature would instead be a product of divine decision. In that case, Thomas would be a voluntarist like William Ockham, for whom the will/desire of God’s absolute power determines God’s intellect. For Thomas, God does have a determinate nature because God is being itself and being is identical to goodness, truth, and unity. The Trinity, then, is identical to the transcendentals, which can be called forms or eternal ideas (being, truth, goodness, and unity). Indeed, for Augustine, it’s precisely the Trinity’s identity with these transcendental forms and the corollary denial of composition that makes it possible to predicate trinitarian relations of divine essence.39 These forms, named and known differently but identical to one another in the order of being, are forma ipsa: the form of all forms by which all forms can form anything at all. Beattie, however, suggests identifying God with forma ipsa opposes God to created material things: “when theology attempts to conform God to form, a multitude of repressive, anti-body, dualistic hierarchies flow from the logic of that” (318).

Distinguishing transcendentals from created forms shows why I don’t think that identifying God with forma ipsa denies “any analogical likeness between God and prime matter,” except in the very strict sense that neither can have accidents and so cannot differ by degrees (209). Matter and created forms (which never subsist separately from one another) participate in God in the way that all created things do. They can therefore be predicated of God metaphorically but not according to proper analogy, which is reserved for the transcendentals.40 God’s identity with transcendentals, then, can’t oppose God to materiality or any part of creation. It means that God is nearer to every created reality than it is to itself. For unlike any other forms, transgeneric forms are (in the order of being) that in which every created reality participates, the fundamental way in which they are like their creator. As Rudi te Velde says, “‘being’ signifies reality in its uttermost concreteness.”41 On Thomas’s view, then, matter and God must subsist in fundamentally diverse ways in order to be united non-competitively.

I found Beattie’s argument about divine materiality perplexing partly because it built on the conflation of created and uncreated form.42 In addition, it equivocated the concepts of “composition” and “union.” For her argument, she cites ST 1.3.8, where Thomas denies that the divine essence is composite and therefore finite. She focuses on the third reply, which states that God and prime matter are diversa seipsis. Beattie supplies the translation of this technical phrase: “absolutely distinct” (321). She takes this to mean that Thomas implies that matter neither depends for its existence on God nor shares anything of the divine being and goodness. Because of this, Thomas’s argument, “it is impossible for God to enter into composition with anything in any way,” implies a contradiction in his thought. Either Thomas has to renounce the claim that God and matter are diversa seipsis and can’t enter into composition with one another, or he has to renounce both doctrine of creation out of nothing and his Christology. On the one hand, Beattie argues that Thomas has to deny creation ex nihilo if God and matter are absolutely distinct. For then prime matter wouldn’t participate in God’s being “as the condition of its existence,” nor is “the being of prime matter is fundamentally and ontologically different from the being of God.” Thomas would therefore have “subtly reinscribed the eternity of matter within Christian theology” (321).43 On the other hand, she argues, “if there is no matter in God, then Thomas becomes a docetist” (322). She thinks that Thomas’s Greek categories prevented him from recognizing this contradiction.

I think that another way of reading the passage is simpler and more easily fits the structure of Thomas’s thought. When applied to the God-creature relation, diversa seipsis can’t mean “absolutely distinct” in a way that precludes creatures from participating in God. It’s hard to imagine that Thomas would have been so careless that he would undermine the whole of his thought about his creation and Christology in order to reinsert this sort of dualism. A more natural reading on my view is that matter and God are “intrinsically diverse” or “diverse in and of themselves” in the way that God and all creatures are intrinsically diverse: the distinction between Creator and creatures.44 Intrinsic diversity implies one thing among Trinitarian members and another between God and creatures.45 Here I take Thomas to be saying that God qua simple divinity by definition cannot enter into composition with matter. He is not thereby denying that God and matter are diverse in a way that would prevent God from entering into union with a material creature.

The incarnation, according to Thomas’s Chalcedonian Christology, is precisely such a “union” of human nature, a body-soul composition, with the Word. The union preserves the distinctness of the humanity and the preeminence of the divinity.46 God by definition must already be nearer to matter than it is to itself as God constantly upholds and funds its existence. As Kathryn Tanner has persuasively argued, the intrinsic diversity of creation and God is what makes noncompetitive relation between them possible.47 Further, that God qua divine nature cannot enter into composition with matter is what makes it possible for God to enter into union with the human nature of Jesus.48 The person of the Word can assume the humanity of Jesus only because the Eternal Word isn’t and can’t be a composite being. The intrinsic diversity between God and creation serves as the basis for their intimate union.49 For Thomas, there is matter in God through Jesus only in the sense that the Word’s intimacy with the humanity of Jesus is so intense that it is rightly called a union. Here the Lacanian language that “God withdraws from creation and allows lack to enter being” can only distort creation and Christology. It only makes sense if Thomas’s arguments in 1.3 are wrong and if the boundaries that form all creatures require either God’s absence or composition with creation (317).

My confusion about Beattie’s argument stems from specific places where she writes about composition and union in ways I cannot parse. For example, she asserts that human flesh is deified “inasmuch as it becomes the flesh of the Word of God, but not that it becomes God,” which relies on logic like Tanner’s that denies composition or materiality of God (322). But then she seems to efface the distinction, arguing against Thomas in 1.3.8 that: “the incarnation is a union of two natures in the one person of Christ, but it is, insists Thomas, a real union of body and soul” (322). I’m not sure how she is using “union” in that crucial sentence. Nor can I tell what “it” is. Is the union of Christ’s humanity and divinity a union of body and soul? Or is the one person of Christ? Or the human nature of Christ? Or does Beattie think that Jesus is a composition of God and humanity such that divinity is to humanity as soul is to body? I think that Thomas’s position is that the incarnation is a union of two natures in the one person of Christ, whose humanity is composed of a soul-formed body. The union of divinity and humanity is a union of Word and human nature, and in that way unlike a composite. So I can’t see how Beattie’s conclusion, that “in the person of Christ, there is matter in God,” is actually a rebuttal of Thomas’s claim in 1.3.8. Either it rests on equivocating composition and union, or it isn’t a refutation at all, or I do not understand it. Because I think that Thomas can affirm Beattie’s claim about God’s intimacy with materiality on the one hand and Thomas’s claim about form and diversity without contradiction on the other, it’s hard not to think that pressing Thomas into Lacanian thought here makes it more difficult to read him.

One final point about the writing. Beattie claims in the introduction that she makes “no direct appeal to women’s experience” (6). Yet the book seems filled with less direct but axiomatic appeals to certain sort of experiences or states of consciousness or psychological dispositions of her readers or those with whom she disagrees. For example, she appeals to a common “consciousness awakened by both feminist and psychoanalytic insights” in order to invoke the importance of the “fundamental question” about Thomas on God’s relation to form (320). Why rest on an exclusive shared consciousness rather than an inviting, sharable argument? She sometimes dismisses her interlocutors or their claims based on claims about their personal or scholarly identity, psychology, or shared experiences. So she approvingly cites the claim that Richard Kearny “is not theologian enough to hermeneutically engage the Christian tradition from within, in its complexity as well as its integrity” (336). Despite her frequent appeal to Žižek’s interpretation of Lacan in preceding pages, she says that it is “a mistake to rely on Žižek as a reliable reader of Lacan, if only because Žižek is a flamboyant atheist narcissist who makes a cult out of misanthropy” and Lacan was dispositionally and intellectually different. She says that Gilles Emery’s reading of Thomas is not merely incorrect, but culpable: Emery (among others) displays an “obtuse obstinacy” that calls for an “excuse.” The absence of this excuse leads “feminist theologians to throw up their hands in despair” (347, 349). The postmodern and existentialist readers of Thomas display a similarly “obtuse resistance to addressing the questions of his maternal Trinity” in a way that would highlight its serious implications (343). A responder can only hope not to be similarly labeled!

Stories of Modernity

A sizable chunk of the book is intellectual history. Broadly, the quasi-causal history supports the central conceptual argument: the introduction of Aristotelian “nature” introduced the division between the two Gods and two materialities. She traces the significance of the introduction of Aristotle through the universities, Luther, Pascal, Copernicus, Kant, the Marquis de Sade, and Lacan. Because it focused on secondary engagements with different figures, I mostly read the intellectual history as Beattie’s effort to flesh out Lacan’s story. She sometimes distinguishes when she is following Lacan’s narrative, and so I could not tell when her silence about that meant that she speaking for her own interpretation.50 Either way, I didn’t find the Lacanian causal narrative about modernity convincing as it stood, mostly because I do not think it gives much more than a vague sense of influence. It usually didn’t specify precise causal relationships between ideas and influences. Thomas’s thought “paves the way” or becomes “the basis of” a later development. The narrative focuses on “big men” like Luther, Pascal, Kant, and Freud, and on a Lacanian reading, their contributions and thought patterns seems to intensify the problem that Thomas unwittingly inaugurated. For this reason, I thought it overly schematic. Additionally, the history after Thomas mostly ignored the social and historical context of the writings it examines. For figures like Luther and Pascal, it relies mostly on secondary sources. I’ll respond to her reading of Luther and Kant because I had difficulties with them and they are central to her narrative.

I found Beattie’s reading of Luther—which relies mostly on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—a particularly problematic instance of the way the history was narrative. On her account, Luther evacuated creation of grace: “no longer does God’s grace shimmer within the materiality of the world. Rather, God “withdraws from nature and matter” such that “the human ceases to be a natural animal” (172). “Nature and the body are . . . the filth that is excreted from the graced Word (Luther)” (231). Luther’s theology of the cross further prevented him from having a robust view of the incarnation: “had Luther exalted Christ as God incarnate, flesh of Mary, over the decadent power of the late medieval church, rather than Christ as crucified Word of God, the story might have been altogether different.” I couldn’t find any direct citations of Luther’s writing, and so I don’t know exactly what she’s relying on from Luther. But even if Luther spoke in ways that resembled the positions Beattie attributes to him, I don’t think it’s a helpful way to characterize him. I can’t see how this Luther resembles the author of the Small and Large Catechisms or the Lectures on Genesis, in which creation’s order is a gift and everywhere evidences God’s providential care. Nor can it account for Luther’s affirmative account of the goodness of sex and marriage as a part of his broader account of the orders of creation.

Second, the account of Luther’s view of human agency and responsibility before God directly contradict his debate with Erasmus, one of the most important debates in Luther’s career. Beattie claims that Catherine of Siena anticipated Luther because she rejected predestination and “emphasized human capacity to accept the mercy of God, and it makes that mercy absolutely unconditional but not enforced” (382). But Luther was, if anything, more theologically determinist than Aquinas. Luther emphasized predestination, and he thought that faith had to be a gift precisely because humans lack the capacity to accept divine mercy.51 Beattie portrays a “Lutheran theology of grace” as “altogether different from that of Thomas” (232).52 Though they are importantly different in some ways, both follow Augustine, and so it is unclear exactly how they are altogether different. Beattie presents no evidence for how or why this claim is true.

I also had a difficult time seeing how Lacan’s Kant bears much resemblance to the Kant I’ve read. Some things that are debatable are presented as definitive: the “empty formalism of the universal maxim” (222). Others seemed false but arguable: “Kantian ethics must eliminate the bodily desiring self” and issue in a “total destruction of the self in order to be free to perform my duty towards my neighbour” (221). Others seemed unsustainable in any way: “Sado-masochism becomes the ethical imperative that underwrites the Kantian moral code” (233) or “one might rationally take as one’s law giver, not the good will but the evil will” (224). “In Kant, the evil will associated with this bestial materiality is entirely opposed to the good will associated with God and the noumenal and must be destroyed” (265).53 At the very least, I’d have appreciated if the initial hesitation about interpreting Kant’s texts were sustained throughout, especially because as the narrative progressed, broad interpretations like this, based on minimal textual engagement, became interpretive axioms. They piled on one another to produce a more comprehensive set of conclusions and cultural analyses, and that made the book’s argument less convincing. 

Contemporary Catholic Thought

It should be clear now why reading this book was an odd experience for me. On the one hand, I agree with Beattie that much official Catholic reasoning employs uncritical accounts of gender. Magisterial and other “official” voices do not adequately justify those accounts theologically. Instead, they borrow from other ideological frameworks and absorb those ideologies into Christian discourse in ways that undermine some of their own most liberating insights. The institutional setting in which those frameworks are discussed54 mostly excludes women’s bodies, hides queer bodies, and has used discipline as a tool of conformity rather than the basis for unity. The problematic and, for many, devastating non-doctrinal assumptions about gender (and, implicitly, nature) are then employed to justify the exclusion of women from church offices, to investigate women religious, to issue prohibitions on dissenting or women’s critical voices, and to shut questions and inquiries that might call these matters into question. Church teachings on gender, sex, and nature fluctuate all the time, for the absorbed assumptions change with the times. With the fluctuations, the accepted practices change, too. But some conclusions, no matter how much arguments and assumptions fluctuate, must be regarded as timeless and unchanging. Definitions of the “sin against nature” may and have changed,55 but the conclusions, which float free of the arguments used to support them, abide unchangingly.56 Even more maddening: the “nuptial theology” movement (non-ironically) proposes complete shifts in central Christian doctrines like the creation of human beings in the image of God. They directly contradict Augustine and Aquinas’s definitive and persuasive arguments, and they do not provide arguments against the previous consensus. It seems, however, that since they sustain some of the “traditional” conclusions about sex, no one calls them to account for their massive revision.57 Yet those who propose more traditional arguments that ask the church to consider alternative conclusions or rethink that meaning of the same conclusions are often silenced. I could go on about how I understand the resulting double standards and pastoral problems of the ecclesial and clerical cultures.

On the other hand, I disagreed with Beattie’s arguments in favor of many of the conclusions that I think we share. This book has not convinced me that Lacan is a particularly helpful interpreter of Thomas. Indeed, I think that his language is confusing and his framework ends up distorting Thomas’s thought. I do not have an especially large stake in reading Thomas for his historical-critical value. I am not a Thomist, nor do I think (as some seem to) that demonstrating that Thomas argued something sufficies for a demonstration of its truth. I’ve engaged Thomas in my own work mostly because I think he’s a brilliant and always useful interlocutor. Reading through the Secunda Pars, for example, helps me to see the world differently as Thomas teaches me to re-name and more fully own my acts and the phenomenon of my acting. Like Jordan, I have found that the Summa keeps opening itself up to new questions, new perspectives, and different engagements.

Even more, I think that Beattie is right to see androcentrism deep in Thomas’s thought, but I think a Lacanian reading misidentifies the androcentrism, its sources, and its effects. While I find certain understandings of nature and natural law within certain sorts of Thomism damaging, I mostly think Thomas avoids an overly reified Aristotelian conception of nature and actually proposes a nice way of thinking about it.58 I think that Thomas’s account of God, while perhaps frayed around the edges,59 is far more coherent than Beattie suggests.60 Further, while Thomas makes claims based on certain of Aristotle’s claims about biology, I don’t read the whole of Thomas’s thought through the biology, since I think that the vast majority of Thomas’s thought can be reinterpreted and can stand without it. As I understood it, the Lacanian reading Thomas’s writing (his use of “form,” his psychic “hesitation”) did not so much interpret Thomas as absorb him into an alternate system. For the reading depends on positing a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Thomas’s thought and all his texts. I wonder if Lacan served as too universal and deductive an authority, leading the argument to interpretive isomorphism. In this way, the breadth of the argument ends up undermining the more modest but powerful criticisms that are both possible and necessary.

  1. Tina Beattie, Theology After Postmodernity: Divining the Void—A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  2. Beattie variously refers him to as “prime mover,” “impersonal and disembodied Supreme Being of Aristotelian philosophy,” “final cause,” or the “transcendent, metaphysical One” of Greek philosophy and modern onto-theology.

  3. For a similar albeit less evaluative distinction in writing styles, see Maritain’s account of Thomas’s relation to Augustine in Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Gerald B Phelan (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 311.

  4. This style further “delegates imagination or intuition to in inferior and indeed dubious role in the construction of knowledge” (153).

  5. “The guiding hand of Aristotle steers him towards pragmatic common sense and reasoned optimism throughout his work, even though at times this tends towards a more mystical and affective trinitarian theology at one end of the spectrum, and a more disembodied platonic dualism at the other.”

  6. She’s quoting Walter Rüegg, A History of the University in Europe, vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 22–23.

  7. “The contemplative ideal spills over into the idea of the university, which creates a sense of separation between the male scholarly community with its abstract intellectual pursuits and the social body with its needs and demands” (149–50). The corollary of the drama of the two Gods vying for dominance in Thomas’s psyche is a claim about two competing accounts of materiality: he uses Aristotle to develop his hylomorphism, but Greek thought also produced his dualism. “Certainly, Thomas promoted in sometimes highly dualistic ways the dominance of spirit over matter, but in the end he did more than any other theologian in the Catholic tradition to affirm the essential inseparability of matter and spirit” (258).

  8. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995).

  9. The desire for this sort of mystical and solitary encounter with God is “masculine” on Beattie’s account because it is “the inevitable corollary of a sexual ideology that identifies man with mind and woman with body.” This ideology “has infected Christian theology from the beginning” (137).

  10. “Thomas is drawn to a disembodied encounter with a disembodied God,” and so that is why Thomas thinks there can “ultimately…be some conflict between love of neighbor and love of God” (383).

  11. This argument forms a central support for Beattie’s future claims about the irreducible sexism of Thomas’s Greek metaphysics, for her interpretations of Thomas’s inner struggle, and for his effect on western modernity and contemporary catholic thought.

  12. I didn’t completely understand how this fit with the earlier claim that Aristotle enabled Thomas to introduce into Christian theology a “more thoroughgoing materialism” nor the later claim, “Thomas is neither a dualist nor a monist” (323).

  13. Leonard E. Boyle, Facing History: A Different Thomas Aquinas (Louvain-La-Neuve: Federation Internionale des Instituts d’Etudes Médiévales, 2000).

  14. Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 32. Beattie engages more sources than just the Summa, but she gives it special importance (48-49) and engages it most.

  15. Ibid., 25. See also Mark D. Jordan, Rewritten Theology: Aquinas after His Readers (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), 7ff. “Thomas wrote his Summa of Theology as an ideal of curricular reform, that is, for the teaching of his own religious order, and by extension for other Christian priests and religious. The chief accomplishment of the reform is to incorporate moral and pastoral topics within the pattern of the great Christian creeds” (7). The Summa, Jordan suggests, ought to be read like a workbook or lab manual. It “may consist more of a carefully ordered series of instructions or directions than of an accomplished set of propositions. Certainly it offers its most important principles almost tacitly, by quiet habituation rather than by loud assertion” (10).

  16. Turner, Thomas Aquinas, 14.

  17. Ibid., 6.

  18. Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ. ([S.l.]: Oxford University Press, 2013), 80, cf. 14ff.

  19. Turner, Thomas Aquinas, 32. My colleague Chris Franks has given an account of Thomas’s economic teachings and formation in relation to his theology in Christopher A. Franks, He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s Economic Teachings (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009).

  20. Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, chap. 1–2.

  21. Sarah Coakley has argued for a feminist reading of contemplation that resists Beattie’s characterization of it in Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007); Sarah Coakley, God Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

  22. I’ve learned to think this way especially from Herbert McCabe, a Wittgensteinian Thomist whose thought about Thomas on language has deeply influenced my views. See Herbert McCabe, “Sense and Sensibility,” in God Still Matters, ed. Brian Davies (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002), 139–51; Herbert McCabe, “Teaching Morals,” in God Still Matters, ed. Brian Davies (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002), 187–98; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language (New York, NY: Continuum, 2003).

  23. Turner, Thomas Aquinas, 36.

  24. Ibid., 39. I’ve read at least three places where Denys Turner has written, and I’ve heard him repeat it in person more than that. The other places are Herbert McCabe, Faith within Reason, ed. Brian Davies (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007), vii; Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 102.

  25. Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, 167.

  26. Jordan, Rewritten Theology, 185 n47.

  27. Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, 111. Jordan argues that the idea that Thomas had a “philosophical theology” is also anachronistic and reductionist, noting that Thomas never applies “philosopher” to a Christian, because for him philosophical schools are “conditions of wisdom under paganism” and philosophy is a “habit of knowing applied to an educated Christian believer.” See also Bauerschmidt’s account of the use of Aristotle in God language ibid., 101–107. In my view, Rudi te Velde demonstrates quite elegantly the deep coherence of Thomas’s thought on God. See Rudi A. te Velde, Aquinas on God: The “Divine Science” of the Summa Theologiae (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006); Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

  28. “Almost every text in Thomas enacts an arrangement of pertinent authorities. He disposes them in constellations. His texts cannot be well understood without noticing the interpretations, valuations, and omissions in these constellations,” Jordan, Rewritten Theology, 64.

  29. Ibid., 31.

  30. Ibid., 63.

  31. Ibid., 76. See the lovely reading of Thomas’s use of Aristotle Jordan offers on pp. 77–88. He concludes: “For Thomas, Aristotle is not a unique or perennial authority. Aristotle is a pagan author whose texts can be brought into helpful constellation with other authorities. Thomas does not regard Aristotle as a block of doctrine to be carried in whole. He treats Aristotle instead as the teacher behind a set of pedagogical texts. The unity of the teaching is just the dialectical congruence that thoughtful reading can perform.”

  32. Ibid., 185.

  33. Ibid., 184.

  34. Ibid. “Thomas writes disputation not just because his present puts new questions to the inherited texts, but because the inherited texts pose questions about their meanings to any (medieval or modern) reader. A reader glimpses Thomas’s practice of esoteric writing in the pedagogical sequence of any article or any large compositional structure.”

  35. Ibid., 31. “He takes a multiplicity of theological languages as inevitable given human diversity and human history. He takes the multiplicity as desirable given the weakness of human understanding and the consequent poverty of speech.” See also ibid., 28. “Thomas takes up reinterpreted authorities into new patterns of theological persuasion.”

  36. Jordan, Rewritten Theology, 15.

  37. The following sentence, for example, mixes four metaphors: “In Lacanian terms, it means that the desiring and suffering body must replace the phallus as the umbilical cord that connects meaning to truth, not now as the bar that prohibits desire, but as the narrow path that leads through and beyond the incarnate body of Christ to the delight of being in God” (355). Similarly, I wasn’t quite sure how to understand the interesting paradoxical claim in the following section: “It is not that there is nothing but that there is everything, around us and within us, swirling and screeching, swarming and howling, whispering and shouting, singing and dancing, pulsing and throbbing, dazzling and sparking. Touch, taste, see, hear, feel, smell, breathe. There is no emptiness anywhere, there is nothing but being, nothing, nothing, nothing but being. It surges and swirls and sweeps around us and within us. It is the wisdom of God, at play within the body of the world from before the beginning of time” (399). Since there can’t be a “body” of the world before the beginning of time on the terms that were set, I’m not quite sure how the paradoxical claim works. Is it merely supposed to evoke? Perhaps to lure a reader like me away from rationality? To evoke wonder?

  38. I’ve found Brian Shanley’s commentary useful on this matter. See Thomas Aquinas, The Treatise on the Divine Nature: Summa Theologiae I, 1-13, trans. Brian J. Shanley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), 217–18.

  39. Here I think Thomas follows Augustine’s use of divine simplicity to make sense of the Trinity. See Lewis Ayres, “The Fundamental Grammar of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology,” in Augustine and His Critics Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner, ed. Gerald Bonner, Robert Dodaro, and George Lawless (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 51–76.

  40. Velde, Aquinas on God, chap. 3–4.

  41. Ibid., 115.

  42. Beattie argues that undoing the “rationalizing grips” of “Aristotelianism” will “persuade” philosophy to “relinquish its totalizing grip on the theological imagination.” She then almost immediately adopts the language from Greek concepts of being when she says “we do not in any sense control, affect, or alter God” (327). I didn’t understand how she held the two together.

  43. Another confusing ambiguity of language was in her portrayal of the doctrine of creation: the distinction between temporal beginning and logical relationships of dependence, and the distinction between eternity of the divine simplicity and the beginningless and endless temporality of everlasting time. (I first learned this useful stipulative distinction between everlasting and eternal from Gregory E. Ganssle and David M. Woodruff, eds., God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).) Beattie seems to posit that the doctrine of creation out of nothing requires that the world have a temporal beginning (362, 321). Thomas affirms, of course, that the world had a temporal beginning as a matter of faith. But he denied that the doctrine of creation out of nothing ruled out that matter existed everlastingly. In 1.46.1, especially in the first reply, Thomas argues that while it’s provable that God is the efficient cause of the world, it’s not provable that that means that the world has a beginning. It necessarily follows from this affirmation that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is consistent with the world having always existed. If creation ex nihilo necessarily implied that the world temporally began, proving that God created the world out of nothing would be sufficient to prove that the world had a temporal beginning.

  44. Freddoso’s translation. Thomas also uses this phrase to indicate something more like Beattie’s reading in his trinitarian discourse, but the question here that I pursue, what does it mean for God and creatures to be diverse in and of themselves doesn’t exclude participation the way that the trinitarian distinctions do. On the “distinction,” see also Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

  45. Augustine makes a similar distinction in trin., 6.6.9.

  46. The account of the relationship between nature and grace contained a similar ambiguity, this time equivocating Thomistic concepts of grace, gratuity, and creation. I like Marilyn Adams’s definition of nature as a “power-pack.” If nature names the capacities a creature is capable of without an added help, then grace always implies a superadded gift. A creature’s nature by definition would exclude grace or the supernatural precisely because grace implies that God adds something extra. So for Thomas, grace always relates to nature as supernatural relates to natural. If “the world is inherently graced with a natural capacity for goodness” (45), then “natural” must mean “created,” not the technical definition of natural. But the claim that human creatures were created graced or that creation is intrinsically graced isn’t the same thing as saying that they’re naturally graced or that nature is intrinsically graced. Similarly, if “natural human knowledge is already graced, because it is a form of participation in God” (52), then is all participation in God grace? My point here has to do with the writing’s lack of transparency.

  47. Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988).

  48. Herbert McCabe, OP, “God,” New Blackfriars 82, no. 968 (October 1, 2001): 413–21.

  49. Kathryn Tanner, Jesus Humanity and the Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 10–16. Cf. Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 1–3.

  50. For example, she claims that her reading of Kant is the “view of Kant as seen through a Lacanian lens, and it makes no claim to approach Kant’s work independently of that rather idiosyncratic perspective” (192).

  51. Martin Luther, “On the Bondage of the Will,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C Oswald, and Helmut T Lehmann (Saint Louis, MO; Philadelphia, PA: Concordia Publishing House; Fortress Press, 1955).

  52. See Otto Hermann Pesch, Theologie Der Rechtfertigung Bei Martin Luther Und Thomas Von Aquin. Versuch Eines Systematisch-Theologischen Dialogs. (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1967).

  53. I’ve been influenced by the history John Hare narrates from Aristotle through Scotus to Luther and Kant. Hare’s judgments almost entirely contradict Beattie’s. John E. Hare, God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2007).

  54. Mark D. Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

  55. Mark D. Jordan, The Ethics of Sex (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).

  56. Mark D Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

  57. Gerard Loughlin, “Nuptial Mysteries,” in Faithful Reading: New Essays in Theology and Philosophy in Honour of Fergus Kerr, OP, ed. Simon Oliver, Karen Kilby, and Thomas O’Loughlin, 2012, 172–92.

  58. Sean Larsen, “Natural Law and the ‘Sin against Nature,’” Journal of Religious Ethics, forthcoming; Sean Larsen, “The Politics of Desire: Two Readings of Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace,” Modern Theology 29, no. 3 (2013): 279–310. For an articulation of Thomas on nature I find especially congenial, see Eugene F. Rogers, “How God Moves Creatures: For and Against Natural Law,” in Aquinas on the Supreme Court: Gender, Ethnicity, and Failure of Natural Law in Thomas’s Biblical Commentaries, 2013.

  59. For example, I don’t find Thomas’s account of divine foreknowledge of future contingents convincing.

  60. Velde, Aquinas on God.

  • Avatar

    Tina Beattie


    Response to Sean Larsen

    It is always a labour of love to contribute to a discussion such as this, and never more so than when one finds oneself fundamentally antipathetic to a writer’s project. So I am deeply grateful to Sean Larsen for the time and care he has invested in reading my book.

    However, perhaps he should have been warned, for the clue is in the title—“a Lacanian reading of Thomas Aquinas.” As I read the review and tried to formulate a response, I found myself flummoxed because Larsen clearly has so little patience with the ways in which a Lacanian approach filters my reading of Thomas—though I am careful not to subsume theological revelation to psychoanalytic explanation. Larsen criticises the book by appealing to a range of secondary sources who would situate this study very squarely in the field of late twentieth century mainstream/malestream Catholic Thomism, and not at all in the field of Lacanian studies. But that’s not the book I set out to write! So what follows is a rather oblique response, because Larsen ignores most of the sources I do engage with and appeals to a range of others I either don’t engage with at all or mention only in passing, because they are not relevant to what I am trying to do.

    Larsen describes my book as “a dramatic contest in which Greek Father and Biblical Mother vie for dominance within Thomas’s theology, his psyche, modernity, and contemporary Catholic theology. The multi-layered drama of the two deities unfolds as Beattie addresses these four levels.” It’s an interesting and engaging suggestion, though I think the contrast is too stark and misses more subtle and nuanced comparisons. God is also the biblical father, and there are maternal tropes in Greek philosophy.

    This reading of the book in terms of stark oppositions results I think from a one-sided approach which is more concerned to defend influential Thomists than to take seriously the book’s central linguistic and gendered concerns and its desire to open up yet another of many possible readings of Thomas. I point out that this book “follows the road less travelled through the theology of Thomas Aquinas, with Jacques Lacan as its unreliable guide” (1). I also specifically explain that “some of the most interesting questions that Lacan brings to a postmodern reading of Thomism are not evident if one relies on twentieth-century Thomists, whether conservative or liberal” (5). Larsen cites Mark Jordan approvingly, that Thomas’s text is incomplete and open to “new objections.” My reading of Thomas is not a rejection but a reclamation, which not only opens him up to new objections but also seeks to demonstrate that he provides the resources to respond to many of those same objections, if we seek out some of the more neglected aspects of his texts. In other words, I celebrate and exploit the incompleteness of Thomas’s text but also its contradictions and lacunae, for these make possible yet another Thomism—this time, a Lacanian Thomism.

    By focusing on what he thinks is lacking in my reading of Thomas and offering no real engagement with what Lacan brings by way of a different reading, Larsen concentrates too heavily on my critique of Thomas and not nearly enough on my reclamation of his theology. For example, near the beginning he draws attention to what he sees as a contrast I draw between Catherine of Siena and Thomas, but Catherine of Siena is the focus of only one chapter—the penultimate chapter of the book. I use her to illustrate a far more important point I am raising about the relationship between style and substance in theological language, but it is wrong to imply that I simply privilege her over Thomas. Indeed, when Larsen invokes her name in relation to my reference to the “flamboyant language of mystical desire,” (127) that is actually a reference to Thomas’s male monastic counterparts and not to Catherine.

    Larsen refers several times to my “either/or” approach. While he correctly picks up on the fact that in one place I describe Thomas’s dialectical style as requiring an “either/or approach,” (373) this was a careless slip on my part, because of course dialectics is not simply a question of either/or, and much of the book is dedicated to emphasising the subtlety and nuance of Thomas’s account of language. (cf. Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 15) As Hannah Hofheinz recognizes, my book is a quest for a new way of writing theology, by way of a Lacanian psychoanalytic approach which also draws extensively on Thomas’s understanding of analogy and of the limits of theological language with regard to articulating the mystery of God. My concern was not to read Thomas through modern Thomists who elide the gendered dimensions of both his cosmology and his ontology, but to focus more on primary sources—mainly though not exclusively the Summa Theologiae—through the unfamiliar light of Lacanian psychoanalysis, in order to bring these more clearly into view.

    When my close engagement with the text of the Summa renders up a reading that Larsen dislikes, he suggests that I should have been guided by secondary sources in order to be more faithful to Thomas’s meaning and intention. Or rather, I should have used the secondary sources that Larsen finds convincing. Consider, for example, the claim that “Denys Turner and Frederick Bauerschmidt, following Leonard Boyle’s influential interpretation of Aquinas, have convinced me that much of Thomas’s life and thought was invested in undermining exactly the sorts of views of the contemplative life that Beattie attributes to him.” Later, we discover that “According to Turner Thomas argued nearly the opposite of what Beattie attributes to him on the contemplative life.” But what I attribute to Thomas is what he actually writes in the Summa, and part of my argument here as elsewhere is that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in Thomas’s work—as there would be in the work of any prolific genius. In a lengthy section on contemplation (128–36) I offer a careful reading of the relevant sections on the contemplative life and the state of rapture in ST II-II, in engagement with several secondary sources who support my argument, including Patrick Quinn’s influential work on Thomas’s Platonism, and also that of Wayne Hankey. Larsen disagrees with my reading, but he offers no argument as to why I should regard the sources he cites as more reliable than the text itself and the different sources I use to support my reading, not does he offer any engagement with these tensions between various philosophical perspectives which are well-documented in recent Thomist studies.

    In this context, I’m not sure what point Larsen is making when he cites Turner and Bauerschmidt to defend the idea of the Summa as a “friars’ theology” for the “wholesale reform of Dominican theological education,” adding in a footnote that it was “for the teaching of his own religious order, and by extension for other Christian priests and religious.” Well, I say that too, but that’s precisely my point. Thomas’s scriptural understanding of sexual equality might have pushed him in the direction of allowing women access to theological studies, but his social Aristotelianism precluded any such possibility—and I spend a chapter discussing the implications of this.

    This goes far beyond the simplistic substitution of “she” for “he” as a way of placating feminist anxieties. I explain in the introduction that I avoid inclusive language because for both Thomas and Lacan, the subject is masculine, and “They were both clear that what they said of ‘he’ did not necessarily include ‘she.’” (11). Yet in spite of this caution, Larsen claims that “Precisely because Thomas cites so much, he refuses a single universal language, not to signal a psychic drama or an irreducible theological contradiction, but to invite the reader to hear her own voice or the voices she has taken seriously. And if her voice is missing, the dialectical structure of objection and response leaves the text open to include that voice. In this way, the structure of the argument imitates the necessary incompleteness of theology.” I agree with that last sentence, but the whole point of my book is that “her” voice is indeed missing—Thomas did not believe that “her” voice had any place in the formulation and teaching of theology in the university, and that belief persisted far into the twentieth century in Catholic theological institutions. I am asking what difference “her” voice might make, in the context of a complex and wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between gender, embodiment, and language. Larsen’s use of the feminine pronoun here suggests just how far he has failed to get to grips with what the book is about. Yes, it is complex, maybe even “arcane,” but my aim was to do just what Larsen criticizes me for doing—to allow “style and substance [to] flow together,” as a way of asking if that fluidity is necessary to express the paradox of the Word/flesh union of the incarnation. And if theology is not primarily concerned with that challenge, in what sense is that Christian theology?

    I think Larsen also exaggerates the extent to which I allow biographical and psychological concerns relating to Thomas the man to influence my interpretation of his texts and their influences. For example, he imputes to me the suggestion that the trauma of Thomas’s early encounter with a prostitute made him “more likely to adopt Greek logocentric thought to cope with his trauma.” The encounter with the prostitute is well-documented as a traumatic experience for the saint, though I am more concerned to show how the retelling of that story over time reveals changing attitudes towards female sexuality. In other words, my concern is with hagiography, not biography. That’s why I say that “it seems likely that . . . accounts of his avoidance of women tell us more about his hagiographers than about Thomas himself.” (268). I am arguing that the story of the prostitute raises deep questions about the formation of celibate male attitudes towards sexuality and women, particularly in the light of the sex abuse scandal. However, in the page that Larsen cites, I am actually arguing that Thomas was not a misogynist and I explicitly say that “Reports of Thomas’s attempts to avoid women are probably exaggerated.” I also go on to say on the same page that, “The guiding hand of Aristotle steers him towards pragmatic common sense and reasoned optimism throughout his work, even though at times this tends towards a more mystical and affective trinitarian theology at one end of the spectrum, and a more disembodied Platonic dualism at the other.” I make clear that I am keen not to place too much emphasis on Thomas’s “personal psychological make-up” (143). To reiterate, this is a book concerned with texts, writing and the power of language to communicate layers of meaning beyond what the author consciously intends, and Larsen too quickly conflates complex and diverse ideas to offer a far less nuanced reading than I strove to achieve.

    My most difficult problem in formulating this response though, is the lengthy discussion about the difference between created and uncreated form, prime matter, and God: “the moniker ‘the language of form’ obscured the crucial distinction between created and uncreated forms and therefore between created essences and transcendentals. It then predisposes the argument to identify an androcentric claim about ‘being’ as male or inseminating in the statement that God is forma ipsa.” First of all, I make clear that the paternal inseminating function of form and the maternal receptive function of matter in Greek cosmology are not reducible to the language of male and female, for male and female are in themselves subsumed within this more primordial copulative ontology (95–96). But my main point is to ask what is at stake in this kind of debate. What does it mean to speak of the divine mystery by insisting upon “the crucial distinction between created and uncreated forms”? Does it really get us closer to articulating that mystery if we say we mean “uncreated form,” and in what way does the Trinity approximate to the concept of “uncreated form”? My argument is that the language of philosophical form cannot be reconciled with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and such language is best avoided in favour of a more mystical and poetic idiom that opens us to awe and wonder in the face of that which we do not and cannot conceptualise but can nevertheless experience as the abyss to which all our desire is drawn. That is a thoroughly Thomist claim, but it does not mesh easily with Thomas’s more Aristotelian arguments about the nature of God. Similarly with regard to arguments about matter and God, Larsen claims that “For Thomas, there is matter in God through Jesus only in the sense that the Word’s intimacy with the humanity of Jesus is so intense that it is rightly called a union.” Well, I quote Thomas extensively with regard to the unity of Christ’s body with his soul, including his argument that “under one adoration the one hypostasis, together with his flesh, is adored by every creature.” (321–23).

    In fact, since writing the book I have come to think that the language of form and matter has less and less purchase on any kind of theological insight or scientific reality. It was, for Thomas as for Aristotle, a hypothetical way of explaining how bodies come into being. I suggest that such concepts are symptomatic of the inability of the fallen mind to think except in oppositions and dualisms, but that scriptural revelation transforms such knowledge in a way that “dazzles philosophical reason” (325). Insofar as Larsen is somewhat dismissive of such “bedazzlement,,” I suspect we are on quite divergent theological paths, however much we might share a concern for issues of gender, embodiment, sexuality, rhetoric, etc.

    Moving on to other aspects of Larsen’s critique, he is right that in treating history as narrative I use very broad brushstrokes—probably much too broad—but again my guide here is Lacan. I am testing certain Lacanian hypotheses which require a somewhat one-sided tracking of historical ideas, focusing only on those that have had the most substantial influences on western culture and eliding many others. In Lacanian terms it’s wrong to see this as causal in the way Larsen suggests, because a psychoanalytic account seeks more to attend to resonances, echoes and influences than to identify direct causes and effects. I do not deal with primary sources in my reading of Luther, nor do I seek to engage with Kant except within Lacanian parameters. This is not a study about Luther or Kant, but an attempt to follow Lacan’s admittedly idiosyncratic reading of western intellectual history in order to track the changing configurations of medieval Aristotelianism and its ongoing influence on western culture and ethics through values that are deeply inscribed in the structure of language. Aristotle was not an Aristotelian, Thomas was not a Thomist, Luther was not a Lutheran, and Kant was not a Kantian—Christ was not a Christian either!—but they each gave their names to broad movements that have both perpetuated and refigured their ideas in the context of western culture and values.

    The Reformation—exemplified here by Luther because that’s who Lacan repeatedly refers to—set in motion a radically reconfigured symbolic with regard to the relationship between nature and grace, which had vast ramifications for the western understanding of reason, revelation, materiality and mind. From a Lacanian perspective, Luther’s well-documented preoccupation with excremental language suggests a contempt for human nature that will eventually play out in Kant’s mistrust of desire and nature as sources for the formation of ethics. Again, I make clear that I read Kant only in a Lacanian context, but here I do consult with primary sources to bear out some of Lacan’s more radical and eccentric readings. However, I say at the outset that “what follows is a view of Kant as seen through a Lacanian lens, and it makes no claim to approach Kant’s work independently of that rather idiosyncratic perspective.” (192) However, simply to claim that some of the arguments “seem unsustainable in any way,” without saying why, begs the question. Lacan’s theory about the sado-masochistic implications of Kantian ethics has been tested and argued by others whose engagement with Kant is considerably more in-depth than mine, and I dedicate two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) to unpacking these arguments with reference to primary and secondary sources. Larsen might disagree, but he has to explain why if he wants his criticism to be taken seriously.

    I can only repeat that this is a book about reading and writing, about language and the limits of meaning, and about the relationship between language and matter, culture and nature, as these are filtered through medieval Aristotelianism and its continuing influences on western culture. In following this obscure Lacanian path, my compass is desire for the unsayable plenitude that Thomas calls God, and the unspeakable abyss that Lacan calls the Real as these have shaped western theology and culture. This quest leads me to follow Lacan through a long and probably far too complex history of ideas by way of the gendered, linguistic habitations of that muffled and problematic desire. This leads me to address questions that do not even begin to feature on the radar of the sources Larsen says I should have used, and so his reading of my book barely intersects with the path I am on.

    I shall therefore wave him a greeting across a wasteland of mutual incomprehension, and move on—he with his uncreated form, me with my maternal, relational Trinity, but let us charitably agree that the desire which draws us forward is the desire for the unsayable plenitude of God who is, in the end, the beginning and end of all Thomas’s thought.

    • Sean Larsen

      Sean Larsen


      Trying Again

      Theology after Postmodernity makes a broad, wide-ranging, complex, interdisciplinary argument. The combined effect of multiple moving parts, sometimes difficult prose, and a large number of conversation partners is that it can be hard to find one’s footing. My response tried—and inevitably failed—to establish a place to respond in a work of such scope. So I’ll try again.

      I want to lead by making clear how much I appreciate this sort of synthetic theological work. As I understood it, the book is above all a work of Christian theology firmly rooted in Christian tradition. Its focus: “the redemptive potential of the vulnerable, fertile and loving flesh as a site of grace.” The argument proceeds by a set of claims “about reading and writing, about language and the limits of meaning, and about the relationship between language and matter, culture and nature, as these are filtered through medieval Aristotelianism and its continuing influences on western culture.” Insofar as the book approaches these topics, the work is neither primarily secondary Thomistic scholarship nor Lacanian studies. It exceeds both fields even as it relies heavily, albeit differently, on sources from each to do the work of Christian theology. “A Lacanian Reading of Thomas” is only the subtitle.

      I said less than I should have how refreshing I found Beattie’s approach—all in the genre of traditional scholarship, but no less impressive because of genre constraints. I thought its commitment to critical appropriation of traditional Christian sources methodologically refreshing—especially insofar as Beattie was willing (so to speak) to enter the belly of the beast and to confront major problems at their sources. And, of all the places to do so—Aquinas and Lacan! I can only applaud the audacity of not only taking on figures that are so formidable in themselves, but also whose writings have committed devotees whose responses, one fears, may derail and refocus the big questions of any work that engages their guy, redirecting all discussions toward the academic minutiae of a cottage industry. (For a time in graduate school, I immersed myself in parts of the Thomistic subculture. My friends and I developed a running list of common Thomist sayings: “the surpassing Thomistic synthesis”, “the Angelic Doctor”, the use of the label “Scotist” as an argument against a claim, etc.) As if that wasn’t enough, the book also takes positions that potentially place Beattie in tension with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, liberal feminist theologians, and more traditional theologians in ways that are bound to make life interesting. Quite clearly, Beattie is comfortable filling the role of (perhaps reluctant?) contrarian, and is an ambitious one at that. I imagine she does so out of conviction, adventure, and courage more than from a desire for comfort. I deeply admire the willingness to do so, as the costs can be real. So I can’t imagine that a critical response like mine was at all surprising. I just hope that any critiques or disagreements that surface don’t detract from my genuine appreciation.

      Additionally, I’m deeply sympathetic to the kind of work this is and what it contributes to the field. I aspire to write theology that brings the most traditional of theologians and doctrines into critical dialogue with a range of theoretical and philosophical works in order to address pressing contemporary concerns. I write mostly about Augustine, whose thought entrances but sometimes repulses me. Augustine doesn’t hold quite the same official position in the Catholic Church as Aquinas, and the history of Augustinianism has shaped the discussions surrounding his legacy differently. Nevertheless, the secondary work on Augustine is vast and imposing. It makes the thought of joining a comfortable corner in the cottage industry very attractive at times. My reading of Augustine is at times idiosyncratic, but I try to root it in conversation with the best contemporary secondary scholarship in hopes of placing it in a more credible and fruitful dialogue with contemporary political and gender theory. I try to surround myself with other thinkers who can either play devil’s advocate or who will pull me out of my comfort zone and help me sharpen my arguments. Because I naturally lean left, I seek mentors and colleagues with different leanings than my own. In that way, I find myself taking contrary positions at times.

      In retrospect, I think I wrote the kind of response to Beattie’s book that I often seek for my work: the response that played devil’s advocate, that reflected my argument back to me, that raised objections and alternatives and asked for a response. Frankly, I was disappointed in Beattie’s response to me because it suggested an unfortunate lack of confidence in the integrity of the discussion I thought we were supposed to have.

      Beattie’s response to me named and critiqued what I didn’t write. I don’t think she believes her book invited the response I offered—I didn’t engage Lacanian studies, I ignored most of the sources engaged in the book, I didn’t focus enough on the positive reading of Thomas, I didn’t understand the argument or take its concerns seriously enough. As a result, she ends with an appeal to incommensurability: mutual incomprehension. Obviously, no one in my position wants to hear from a well-established senior theologian whose interests converge at so many points that they are on distant sides of a wasteland, no matter how warm the greeting I receive from the other side! I had hoped for an invitation to cross.

      I want my follow-up response to be simple. It consists essentially of two parts. The first part mainly asks clarifying questions, and I sometimes frame them with brief thoughts occasioned by Beattie’s response to me. There are probably too many questions. I offer them in a friendly spirit, and I put them out there because I think articulating them may help offer some clarity—maybe even a bridge across the wasteland. I offer the second part, which examines some of the rhetoric of Beattie’s response to me, in a more tentative key, mostly because I found it interesting and relevant to the discussion.

      Part 1

      The first questions focus on possible differences in the expectations Beattie and I may have had about the nature of this sort of interaction. What is an interaction like this for? Has my response violated any of the ground rules implicit in the purpose, played unfairly perhaps? Should a response to a book focus on its themes only as those themes were raised and mainly with reference to frequently cited sources?

      I thought my response was supposed to focus on points of disagreement, so I described what I found problematic about the book. Of course, I did so from my particular location. Perhaps I should have emphasized more the limitations of my critique by drawing more reflexive attention to the way I picked up only a single (though important) strand of the book’s argument. I think this sort of move is possible. While it’s obvious that there can be no neat separation of Lacan, Thomas, and theology in Beattie’s book, surely distinctions can be made and strands can be isolated and discussed. One need not talk about all of it in order to address any of it. So I asked genuine questions and raised genuine concerns about where Beattie’s reading of Thomas didn’t square with what I understood. I was hoping for a response from Beattie that would somehow explain to me how her Lacanian reading addresses issues I bring to the discussion. I understand those issues aren’t Lacan’s, but not everyone’s will be. Doing so, I thought, would still be mutually beneficial: it would display the strength of the book’s theological argument as a whole while making the Lacanian reading of Thomas more plausible, thereby opening me further to a different reading of Thomas. I don’t think that such a response asks for a different book, nor does it re-situate the one written. As a reading of Thomas, I think it’s appropriate to raise objections to the reading and give the opportunity for a response. From my perspective, this honors the argument that was made by inviting Beattie to display the depths of persuasive power. And I regret that I felt I had to focus so much on Beattie’s critiques, but those are what troubled me, and the alternative reading of Thomas Beattie offers depends for its intelligibility on those critiques.

      Beattie’s response raised questions for me about whether I understood her book’s argument, how it’s best to understand the nature of her project, what it means to be Lacanian, and what it means to engage a Lacanian reading of Thomas in general.

      Beattie says that I “failed to get to grips with what the book is about.” It would be silly and distracting for me worry too much here about whether my subjective understanding of the book is accurate. So I’ll let the passages I was careful to cite stand as they are within arguments I made. After reading Beattie’s critique, I still think that my characterization of the book’s central argument about Thomas’s two gods was mostly accurate. So far, the summaries Beattie has offered of her thesis in her dialogues on this forum have been broad and vague. I found the thesis difficult to pin down as I was reading it. I grant that my characterization doesn’t fully do justice to all Beattie’s nuances, and it may suggest a tidiness that is not present. I risked that for the sake of clarity, as I had hoped to represent to Beattie and to myself how I understood the theological argument the book made. I welcome whatever more specific correction she offers. After reading Beattie’s response, I cannot tell whether Beattie thinks that my suggestion about her thesis and the four kinds of supporting arguments fundamentally mischaracterized what the book says. Or was it simply a problem of insufficient nuance?

      Perhaps here another set of questions arises1 about the relationship between the Thomistic reading of Lacan and the book’s thesis. Should the reading of Thomas should be understood primarily as a constructive experiment in synthetic theological writing or as a description of Thomas using Lacan, meant to be taken as truly characterizing him? The use of Thomistic sources to support the Lacanian reading suggested the latter choice. But I can see how a Lacanian response that conceived itself as disconnected from all other conversations or sources might find the objections I raised intrusive.

      This raises yet another problem: I’m not sure I’m clear on what exactly makes a reading of Thomas “Lacanian”? Are there certain non-negotiable dogmas or practices? Can the Lacanian Thomist be selective—maybe absorb some external critique from contemporary Thomistic scholarship—and still be Lacanian? I don’t entirely understand Beattie’s suggestion that I ought to have interacted with the Lacanian reading of Thomas from a Lacanian perspective. Can’t I raise a question or even an alternative and ask about the resources a Lacanian response might bring to bear? Or does one need to accept Lacanian premises in order to understand and properly question the Lacanian reading of Thomas? I found Gerard Loughlin’s response instructive because it so elegantly pushed against a Lacanian reading on some of the points I wished to make about divine form, language about God, and the created/uncreated distinction.

      This raises an important set of questions about the sources of a critique, which seemed important to Beattie. I already took exception to the claim that my response attempts to re-situate “this study very squarely in the field of late twentieth century mainstream/malestream Catholic Thomism.” By adding that I appeal “to a range of [sources] I either don’t engage with at all or mention only in passing,” I think Beattie’s statement masks the extent to which she frequently draws from other readers of Thomas in order to support aspects of the Lacanian reading, just as it draws on historical works to support the Lacanian history. Beattie’s own reference to Patrick Quinn and Wayne Hankey shows how her execution of the argument consistently makes reference to works similar to the ones I cite. Because I think it important to argue from shared authorities, I chose interlocutors from the footnotes and bibliography of the book and related them to what I already knew. When I went beyond Beattie’s notes, I took care to draw on sources that were similar to Beattie’s. Was I wrong to think that Beattie’s own frequent use of similar kinds of voices to support historical and interpretive claims about Thomas shows that she felt some accountability to authors like Turner, Jordan, Kerr, Porter, and Stump? Is Beattie suggesting that the work should not be questioned by secondary sources it doesn’t engage frequently? Or that a work of theology that makes claims about Thomas and relies sometimes on secondary Thomistic scholarship of a certain sort can’t be subject to critique on the basis of that sort of scholarship?

      This, then, raises an additional set of questions about the relation of the Lacanian reading of Thomas to the synthetic but more abstract theological questions about embodiment and desire that drive the book. Can the “linguistic and gendered concerns” be separated from the “desire to open up yet another of many possible readings of Thomas”? Can either be separated concretely from the specifics of the reading offered? If a reader were to take exception to a specific claim about Thomas made, would the reader be able to critique aspects of the execution of the reading? In a hypothetical world in which Beattie somehow intuited how I would respond to her book and anticipated all my concerns, even if some of her conclusions came out differently, would the nature of the theological goals she expressed for the project change?

      Finally, I’m slightly unclear about what it means to be “fundamentally antipathetic” to Beattie’s project. Perhaps Beattie means the specific project of reading Thomas through Lacan as a means of engaging theological questions? Any objections I raise need not suggest fundamental antipathy to the type of project in general.

      (I am still confused about the history: what is the nature of the “influence” Beattie describes? She has said it is non-causal, and “echo” is a metaphor that doesn’t say much. When a Lacanian claim is made about historical relations, how should a reader understand the relationship? Can a Lacanian “big story” ever be critiqued from the outside? Can it be supported? Does one have to assent to a Lacanian framework from the start?)

      Part 2

      Finally, I’d like to make some suggestions about some rhetorical observations I made. Throughout her response, Beattie made various suggestions that may relate to the reasons I responded as I did. They were usually diffuse and indirect. I think it’s interesting to juxtapose them and ask about the combined effect of the various suggestions: that my response tries to re-situate Beattie’s “not quite feminist” reading of Thomas into “mainstream/malestream Catholic Thomism,” that I am more concerned to defend influential readers of Thomas than to engage the questions the book does, that my response is “one sided” and seeks to hold the book accountable chiefly (if somewhat arbitrarily) to the aforementioned mainstream Thomist sources, and that as a result I misunderstand the book’s argument, to be greeted “across a wasteland of mutual incomprehension”?

      I find the rhetoric of the juxtaposition extremely interesting because of how it functions as an argument for the final claim about incommensurability. The suggestions or insinuations are indirect and diffused throughout the text, and they often function to characterize or explain the response. The rhetoric is like the background music in a movie: signaling what is going on to the audience without having to say so directly. Such rhetoric works on the unconscious. Its assertions are more difficult to thematize and therefore less vulnerable to rebuttal. A reader may perceive a direct claim about a person as an attack. Diffuse and indirect insinuations are disarming; they set the terms of the response. They implicitly invite either silent admission or defensive rebuttal: but one does so at one’s peril. If he succumbs to the mood and tries to suggest that the insinuations are false by offering, for example, proof of feminist credentials or different social location, he only cements the redirection of the argument away from the matter at hand. It often backfires, confirms the suspicions of the reader, and establishes the relevance of the questioning of his position in that instance.

      No junior scholar with a contingent faculty position finds it heartening when an established senior scholar publicly reads into silences and potentially imputes words and motives that may be unflattering. This is especially so when the motives and claims heard in the silences contradicts the junior scholar’s own self-description. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive to this sort of thing, too suspicious perhaps, but I found the pattern and rhetoric so interesting and potentially illuminating that I think it’s worth making it explicit. I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting anything about Beattie’s motives or intentions. The question about the rhetoric of the claims I juxtaposed doesn’t imply anything to me about anyone’s motives. In Beattie’s response to Hofheinz, she said she anticipated critique from the “dedicated discipleship made up largely if not exclusively of male scholars untroubled by [the intrinsic androcentrism [of Lacan or Thomas].” So it’s worth asking: does the juxtaposition of the above claims slot anyone who makes the above sort of critiques in that role?

      If so, it would make a lot of sense of the suggestion that “simplistic substitution of ‘she’ for ‘he’” can be “a way of placating feminist anxieties.” Note how the suggestion insinuates without claiming. Beattie doesn’t apply this suggestion directly to the response—but neither does she qualify the insinuation. It’s a suggestion, an open possibility. Juxtaposed with the other suggestions, it is probably enough to stick. And if it does, then so placating places the argument in the anti-feminist (or, perhaps worse, shallow and naive) slot described above.

      The insinuation about “placating” works if it hides other possibilities. At least three alternative explanations were available: the text discusses, repeatedly cites, and may have been imitating Mark Jordan, who sometimes uses feminine pronouns to describe Thomas’s implied reader. Second, despite Beattie’s own pronoun usage, using a feminine pronoun is fully consistent with the point the response was making. Third, women can and frequently do find their voice in the text of the Summa because the clarity of writing and dialectical structure open a space for women to call misogyny into question. So why make the suggestion if a plausible alternative explanation is available? If Beattie wanted to defend the claim, why not just come out and say so more directly?

      But, it makes sense to suggest the response might be “placating feminist anxieties” if the interlocutor is being represented as the “dedicated discipleship” whose critiques Beattie says she anticipated. Such a discipleship, in thrall to twentieth century Thomism, would be unable or unwilling to understand what she seeks to do. The placating, faux feminism involved in using “she” only underscores the extent of the incomprehension.

      And this all ends in mutual incomprehension—a position that makes it easier for everyone to move on without absorbing and responding to genuine, good faith questions. It may in fact be that the interlocutor is unable to comprehend. But the invocation of incommensurability seems too easy and too early in this case. I wonder if the indirect and diffuse use of suggestion or insinuation as a rhetorical device serves a claim about mutual incomprehension, which ends up blocking the need to respond to substantive critique. What should we make of this sort of rhetoric—if it is indeed present? How do such arguments work in theological persuasion? How have they been deployed in the history of Christian theological discourse, and by whom? In what sense can such rhetoric be considered a form of theological writing?

      I would like to close again by underscoring my appreciation for Beattie’s book and her willingness to engage with me. I am sure she has much better uses of her time than trying to persuade someone like me. I hope she will overlook some of the faults in my response to her and read both it and this as good faith attempts to engage on subjects I care about deeply.

      1. Thanks are due my friend Matt Elia, who helped form the shape of my response, and whose influence doesn’t imply anything about his assent to the final product mostly formulated this point.

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      Tina Beattie


      Response to Larsen’s “Trying Again”

      I have spent the last few days trying to write a response to Sean Larson’s response to me—‘like a circle in a circle, like a wheel within a wheel’, . . . etc. I have tried to present myself as a serious theologian (a ‘senior scholar’), who can hold her own along with the best of them in order to have a scholarly conversation about Thomas Aquinas. I know that I can hold my own with Denys Turner—one of the sources Sean recommends to me—because not only was he one of my lecturers at university but he is also a personal friend, we have engaged in many affectionate sparring matches, and I can outdrink him at theology conferences. But I know his work—I even quote him approvingly in my book—and I have to say that, when it comes to gender theory, he knows sweet f.a.

      Sean thinks I shouldn’t let these personal irritations show. Why the hell not? Gilles Emery, theologian par excellence in the Thomist cottage industry (I love that expression by the way), writes about motherhood being incorporated into the fatherhood of God as if nearly forty years of increasingly nuanced, prolific and diverse feminist theology and gender theory had never happened. The fact that the vast majority of established male Thomists continue to complacently theologise as if these scholarly conversations were not even happening is surely a symptom of either fear or wilful ignorance? Yet the fact that this slightly pisses me off is less of a problem than the fact that I am not sufficiently nuanced in my distinction between created and uncreated form. Really Sean? I mean, really?

      Let’s focus on this for a while. For those who haven’t read my book (it’s a good read, honestly, and it has a great cover—it makes a very attractive doorstop), I’m going to quote at some length. In the introduction to Chapter 18—‘The Maternal Trinity’, I say that my intention is to ‘suggest alternative ways of approaching the question of maternal language in Thomas’s account of the Trinity, rendering his Aristotelianism more problematic than Emery acknowledges, but also I hope opening the way to future readings of Thomas that might require a radical reassessment of his Aristotelianism and its social and ethical implications.’ (p. 344) Here is the sum total of my engagement with Emery in the book, quoted in full:

      Emery urges his readers to pay the same meticulous attention to language that Thomas himself did, reminding us that Thomas appropriates Jerome’s ‘ancient warning’ that ‘careless words are a slippery slope to heresy’.1 But one can also reveal vast and problematic assumptions in texts by focusing on highly significant words that are used as if they lack significance so that they are carelessly applied, insufficiently analysed, or picked up and then dropped. In Thomas as in some of his later interpreters (including Emery), there is no attempt to explore the textures of meaning and possibility within the language of motherhood and to ask how this might deconstruct the language of fatherhood when applied to God.

      In analysing Thomas’s account of the Trinity, Emery argues that ‘the unswerving direction of Thomas’ argument is already clearly in view: the name Father must take priority over every other aspect’.2 But then he continues by suggesting that

      Divine paternity includes the features which belong to mothers, in creatures: conception, childbirth, caring for the child. In accordance with Scripture, maternal traits are ascribed to the Father: the Word is born ‘from his womb’ (ex utero), and he remains ‘in the heart of the Father’ (in sinu Patris). And it is ‘for a mother to conceive and give birth’. In line with Scripture, St Thomas accepts maternal expressions like this, but, nevertheless, keeps the name Father for God. The ‘things which belong distinctly to the father or to the mother in fleshy generation, in the generation of the Word are all attributed to the Father by sacred Scripture; for the Father is said not only “to give life to the Son”, but also “to conceive” and to “bring forth”.’ Likewise, he uses the maternal image of childbirth to describe creation. And he also uses the image of the wise-woman to describe the providential activity of God, who does not just create the world, but cares for his creatures by leading them where they will flourish. These maternal features are integrated into the description of the name Father.3

      I wonder if Emery believes that this will console mothers as to their sacramental significance within the life of God? Or might he be persuaded to recognize that this is a devastating indictment of Christian theology for those informed not only by the insights of feminism but, more importantly for my purposes here, by those of Lacanian psychoanalysis? The human longing for maternal love, revealed as much in Thomas’s theology as in Lacanian psychoanalysis, finds no expression in a religion that always and everywhere can only speak in terms of God the Father, by men unable to recognize the patriarchal ideology that they are promoting. The same is true if we turn to a later section in which Emery deals with the fatherhood of God. Emery writes:

      From one perspective, human fatherhood is a participation in the paternity of the Father. And although St Thomas does not put it in these words (he is in this respect a child of his times, and depends on antiquated ideas which are now outdated), the same participation primarily effects human maternity, since ‘Scripture attributes to the Father, in the generation of the Son, all of that which, in the physical generation of children, belongs to the father and the mother.’ This applies to parental paternity and maternity, and also extends, by analogy, to spiritual paternity and maternity: ‘someone who leads someone else to an act of life, such as acting well, knowledge, willing, loving, deserves to be called “father”’. In all of the areas of what we today describe as the progress of human dignity, or concern for life, St Thomas invites us to find a participation in the Father’s paternity.4

      Theological arguments such as these provide an excellent illustration as to why feminist theologians might throw up their hands in despair at the obtuse obstinacy of the dominant theological tradition with regard to its ideological commitment to the fatherhood of God. As Janet Martin Soskice points out:

      Feminist criticisms of classical formulations of the doctrine [of the Trinity] vary from simple rejection of what sounds like a three-men club, to more nuanced critiques of the way in which, despite best efforts, the Father always seems to be accorded a status superior to the other two Persons, with the Holy Spirit as a distinct third. The Trinity appears still hierarchical, still male—maleness, indeed, seems enshrined in God’s eternity.5

      Let’s consider the passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles to which Emery is referring. Here, Thomas argues that ‘the fleshy generation of animals is perfected by an active power and by a passive power; and it is from the active power that one is named “father,” and from the passive power that one is named “mother.”’ (SCG IV, 11, 19) This makes clear that sexual difference is quantitative, not qualitative. The female is not a genuine other but the ‘other of the same’ (to refer to Irigaray),6 the negative against which the man represents himself as positive, the passive against which the man represents himself as active, the lack against which man represents himself as perfection. The naming of a woman as mother and a man as father derives not from any fundamental difference between the two nor from any human relationship of love, commitment, and fidelity to one another and the child they bear. It derives only from their biological functions as active and passive in the act of conception and gestation, which in turn derives from the copulative ontology of the pagan cosmos.

      The above quotation comes from a chapter in which Thomas discusses the relation of God the Father to the Son, and this is a clear example of where he struggles to reconcile the relational significance of the divine fatherhood in trinitarian theology, with its inseminating significance in Greek philosophy. Thomas argues that, whereas in animal procreation different roles pertain to the active power of the father and the passive power of the mother—the former gives ‘the nature and species to the offspring’, while the latter conceives and brings forth ‘as patient and recipient’—in God this conceiving and bringing forth are, Thomas insists, active and therefore paternal:

      in the generation of the Word of God the notion of mother does not enter, but only that of father. Hence the things which belong distinctly to the father or to the mother in fleshly generation, in the generation of the Word are all attributed to the Father by sacred Scripture; for the Father is said not only ‘to give life to the Son’ (cf. John 5:26), but also ‘to conceive’ and to ‘bring forth.’ (SCG, IV, 11, 19)

      The father has more of what it takes to be than the mother—he is more of a mother than she can ever hope to be. This is what Mary Daly calls the ‘sacred House of Mirrors’, presided over by ‘anointed Male Mothers, who naturally are called Fathers’, and who take from mothers all the natural functions of birthing and nurturing and transform these into sacraments that only male priests—‘revered models of spiritual transsexualism’—can administer.7 Even if we can make some grudging allowance for Thomas on the basis of his times and culture, what excuse can we make for the failure of theologians like Emery to offer even a passing engagement with feminist theologians and theorists who have something to say about motherhood and God? (pp. 346–349)

      Now I admit that this is not exactly forelock-tugging in my engagement with a scholar who is much more senior than I am, but I hope it suggests why Emery’s complacent reiteration of Thomas’s gendered theology is so problematic.

      An argument running through the book—an argument that uses Lacan as a method of reading Thomas but that in my view proves Lacan to be profoundly insightful—is that the medieval gendering of form and matter, deriving from Greek philosophy and disseminated throughout western culture by way of the Aristotelian university and its ecclesial outlets, can be unmasked as the primordial structure within the modern symbolic order. Moreover, the association of God with form (and tell me how and why you think a distinction between created and uncreated form would help me here), has reinforced this in such a way that patriarchy has ordered western society from the late Middle Ages until the rise of postmodernity, when—as Lacan and Irigaray argue in different ways—it was replaced by phallocentrism without anything significant changing in the order of power and knowledge.

      Let me quote at some length again, in order to show that my arguments are developed and substantiated throughout by a close reading of the Summa:

      Thomas considers the argument that a man (homo) ought to love his mother more than his father, because he owes his body to his mother but his soul to God and not to his father. (ST II-II, 26, 10). Moreover, a mother loves her child and suffers for it more than the father does. Thomas responds that the primary debt of love is not to the mother but to the father. He quotes Jerome’s commentary on Ezech. 44:25, which says that ‘”man ought to love God the Father of all, and then his own father,” and mentions the mother afterwards.’ In individual relationships the capacity to love is influenced by the vices and virtues of the persons involved, but in principle:

      the father should be loved more than the mother. For father and mother are loved as principles of our natural origin. Now the father is principle in a more excellent way than the mother, because he is the active principle, while the mother is a passive and material principle. Consequently, strictly speaking, the father is to be loved more. In the begetting of man, the mother supplies the formless matter of the body; and the latter receives its form through the formative power that is in the semen of the father. And though this power cannot create the rational soul, yet it disposes the matter of the body to receive that form. (ST II-II, 26, 10).

      This is an illuminating example of the phallocentrism that informs the logic of Thomas’s natural law theology. The biological facts of reproduction—as understood by Aristotelian science—provide the blueprint for ethical principles. Yet this account, rooted as it is in definitions of fatherhood and motherhood which derive from biological laws of nature as understood by Aristotle, sits uneasily alongside Thomas’s more relational and linguistic account of fatherhood in his Trinitarian theology.

      We have seen that, in his account of relationships within the Trinity, Thomas insists that fatherhood derives its meaning from God’s relationship to the Son. This is a non-phallic understanding of fatherhood in relational rather than inseminating terms, and the language is that of conception and birth, not of insemination. There is a hiatus between this account, and the Aristotelian account in which love of God the Father translates into a duty of the child to love the biological father because the inseminating function of the penis belongs within the copulative order of form in relation to matter, which in turn has to do with the fatherhood of God in relation to creation. So from the role of the semen in sexual intercourse flows a whole system of divinely commanded duties and loyalties, beginning with the requirement for the child to abandon its first love for the mother to whom it owes its bodily origins and its earliest experiences of love, and to transfer these onto the father because of a formal phallic principle of generation. As we shall see in the next chapter, Daniel Boyarin refers to the symbolic phallus losing the biological penis.8 By a theological sleight of hand, Thomas makes the brief experience of sexual ejaculation the cornerstone of the social order, so that the symbolic phallus acquires a mighty power that can scarcely be imagined in relation to the bodily organ that bestows upon it such significance.

      So, whether in Thomist or Lacanian mode, the infant relationship entails a process of denial and paternal intervention into the maternal relationship, subjugating the child’s desire for the mother to the religious duty to love God the Father and the ethical duty to love the human father. This results in a linguistic order—in Thomas no less than in his distant postmodern interpreters—in which there is no language for the expression and cultivation of maternal desire, nor for the formation of female subjectivities and genealogies exemplified by the relationship between mothers and daughters and inspired by a maternal divine.9 This blights not only the maternal relationship but also the relationship between culture and nature with a threatening and consuming otherness, so that the female body and nature come to be seen as a voracious and dangerous force (‘formless matter’) that must be controlled by the rational masculine subject (the ‘formative power’) of the linguistic order.

      Thomas sets in motion all these forces in his rationale for privileging the father over the mother in terms of the loyalty of the child. The subject of the western social order is formed through the repression of the bodily, desiring relationship to the mother by way of a codified set of principles in which patriarchal social hierarchies are underwritten by the fatherhood of God. From a Lacanian perspective, the symbolic and the real now occupy the position of form and matter, but the former continues to be paternal/male and the latter continues to be maternal/female.

      Yet this rationalization and ordering of filial love runs contrary to Thomas’s privileging of desire as the dynamic orientation of creation towards God. If the most natural and fundamental experience of desire is that of a child for its mother, one might surely argue that this is the original source of our longing for God and the primal relationship that informs our understanding of divine love, nurture, and compassion?10 If this were so, a different language would be needed than that of Aristotelian natural theology, and the maternal God of the Christian faith would pose a significant challenge to the patriarchal order of the ancient world. This would be a more coherent development of Thomas’s Trinitarian theology than his capitulation to the Aristotelian social order, but it is the road not taken by the Christian tradition.

      The suppression of infant desire in order to follow the dictates of virtue and reason forms the western soul with its conscious and unconscious dynamics of duty, desire, and transgression, all played out in the name of the Father and the unconscious yearning for the mother. If a man is to fulfil his vocation to cultivate the life of the intellect as the highest expression of the imago Dei, and if he is to privilege his rational soul over the inferiority of his body, then he must resist his desire for his mother in order to love his father more, because it is his father, not his mother, who predisposed him to receive his soul from God. (We must remember that Thomas is writing for his male students—he is not remotely concerned with the mother-daughter relationship). (115–18)

      So, Sean, explain to me how a distinction between created and uncreated form would require me to fundamentally revise this argument, but also explain to me how, if it is so important to make such a distinction, the whole Christian and secular ordering of western culture did not make that distinction in its institutions and values. This extended section from my book goes to some lengths to demonstrate the way in which Thomas associates patriarchal primacy with the fatherhood of God on the basis of biological insemination rooted in his concepts of form and matter. To magic all this away with a sleight of hand—as Emery and you both do in different ways—is to invite a robust retort from those whose consciousness is alert to such strategies—and I really don’t apologise for appealing to ‘consciousness’ because that is what is at play here.

      You suggest that we need to find common scholarly ground if we are to have a conversation across the wasteland I delineate, but in order to do that we have to find a shared interest (though in fact, here we are having a conversation that I’m really enjoying, and I hope you are too.) I could meet you in that no-man’s land if we were coming from our different ways of reading and interpreting in order to talk about the gendering of theological language. I welcome robust criticism and I entirely agree about playing devil’s advocate. However, you introduce suggestions into our conversation about theologians who as far as I know have nothing to say on the topic of gender (though Denys tends to put the odd ‘she’ into his books to show that he can do feminism along with the rest of us), and you want to challenge me on subtle philosophical distinctions that obscure rather than illuminate my point about the pervasive influence of gender in Thomas’s cosmology and ontology. Yet you don’t help me to see how all this might help me in relation to my gendered reading of Thomas’s Aristotelian theology and the ways in which this ripples out through the western history of ideas. Unless I go away and study all those names you mention to analyse and explain to you their gender blindness, how can I offer you a response on the grounds you delineate in your questions?

      Also, playing devil’s advocate is fine, but what about allowing me to play devil’s advocate to them? I have been confronted many times by male theologians who jump to their feet to tell me why I’m wrong about Thomas, but I long for the day when people jump to their feet and tell various male Thomists that they ought to be reading Tina Beattie. (Ah, a glass or two of cold white wine lets the narcissistic demons out.) So, Sean, if I read the sources you recommend, how will they help me to develop and/or correct my understanding of the ways in which gender structures Thomas’s thought, and in what ways might my work provide a critique or corrective to their genderless interpretations? If you can’t guide me in that direction—if the condition of my engaging with your sources and questions is that I muffle the question of gender—then why should I be interested? I’ve written a book about gender, and I say at the outset that it is intended to suggest a new possibility in Thomist studies. I have no desire to contribute to the vast ancient and modern libraries of established Thomisms—though of course I agree that scholarly conversations have to start from shared sources, which is why so much of my book engages with primary sources from the texts of both Thomas and Lacan.

      My interest in Thomas is of course partly theology for theology’s sake, but it is primarily to understand how key Catholic ideas that were gestated, nurtured and disseminated with the rise of the medieval universities became the conceptual, linguistic structure through which western culture has continued to filter its concepts of gender, nature and God. You rightly point out that Thomas was first and foremost concerned with preaching and with teaching monks how to do that—but that preaching became a potent vehicle for the dissemination of popular Aristotelianism through all levels of medieval life and culture (see my argument in Chapter 8—‘The Rise of the Universities’).

      This had far-reaching consequences for women, not least because their exclusion from the medieval universities meant that the ordering of knowledge around rational paternal form and receptive maternal matter, sexually and socially projected onto male and female human bodies, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I quote Prudence Allen in my book:

      The University of Paris, founded in the early thirteenth century, excluded women from its ranks of students and masters until 1868. This resulted in women being isolated from the centre of all significant philosophical activity. In addition, the new trend to founding religious orders with a specific separation of women and men meant that even within the monastic setting, women became limited in their access to information and teachers of the highest rank in philosophy. Consequently, the side-effect of the institutionalization of Aristotelian sex polarity was the exclusion of women from the philosophic endeavour. Aristotle had argued that women could not be wise in the same way as men; European society became structured in such a way that this theory inevitably became true.11

      Still today, Thomisms in all their manifold forms bear the hallmarks of that division, which is why simply saying ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ doesn’t begin to address the problem. The issue is not what kind of biological characteristics a reader has between his/her legs, but what kind of psychological conditioning—what gendering of the soul—that reader brings to the task of understanding and living the Christian faith. Lots of women, including those women Thomists who get included in the curriculum, read and write as ‘men’—i.e. as subjects whose gender is not relevant for the task of being a scholar. They are happy to belong within the generic ‘man’. Lots of gay men read and write implicitly if not explicitly as ‘women’, because they read and write from the margins of inclusion. As I argue in my book, liberal twentieth century Thomisms elide questions of gender, and in neo-orthodox Catholic theology and doctrine Thomist Aristotelianism translates into the essentialisation of an ontological difference between the sexes projected into the Trinity—pace Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which I have written about in depth in New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2006).

      Now, through a century and more of struggle and resistance, women have finally made it through the gated walls of the academy. (Yes, this is not about being a biological woman but about the gendering of scholarship, but as Allen implies in the above quote, though she would be far more polite in the way she says it, having a vagina—or should I say, lacking a penis—does in fact have quite a lot to do with how one comes to be socially constructed and conditioned in terms of gender). Since the 1960s women scholars motivated by feminist or gendered consciousness have been excavating historical texts, reclaiming forgotten voices, deconstructing androcentric ideas, constructing women’s theologies, following Emily Dickinson’s advice to ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’. We don’t yet know what difference this might make to the ordering of western knowledge, but we surely know that it will make a difference in the order of power and knowledge with its subtle encryptions of gender and desire. It seems to me an act of wilful ignorance or shoddy scholarship to simply plough on as usual as though these voices had never existed, had nothing to say, and can be assumed to be wrong without even giving them a hearing. That is why I am impatient when a scholar like Emery sets out to write about the motherhood and fatherhood of God, from a perspective that simply ignores gender theory and all that it might have to offer to his thinking.

      I have already acknowledged in my first response that Thomas was a man of his time, and far less misogynistic than many. But his time was a time of flux and possibility. Nothing was established, nothing was fixed. The Aristotelian synthesis was embryonic, open to many interpretations. We know what some of the arguments were by reading the objections in the Summa. I am asking what might have happened if Thomas’s intellectual daring had been less constrained by his social conservatism, so that some of the ‘objections’ and the sed contras might have changed places. Would the history of the Catholic Church and western culture have been different if those men of the medieval universities had admitted women to their ranks and affirmed the full equality in all senses of men and women, choosing to privilege Scripture over Aristotle? My answer is yes, it would, and that is no small claim to make.

      Sean, I hope we are doing this as a conversation between equals. I don’t buy all this senior/junior scholar stuff. When I read your response to me I was bedazzled. I felt so stupid. I thought, I need to get out less and read more. I need to really grapple with this stuff about created and uncreated form and transcendentals, compositions, etc. And what do I mean about union when I speak of the incarnation? Well, there’s a mystery. Search me. I haven’t a clue. Thomas admitted he didn’t have a clue either, though sometimes he forgot himself and tried to explain it—but I don’t think we should take him seriously when he does that lest we lose sight of the mystical Thomas who did indeed produce a great deal of straw as well. Maybe one must always hide one’s nuggets of gold away in straw so that one day, they can be discovered and re(de)fined.

      But I’m an ageing feminist grandma ready to hang up my CV, chill out with my friends, and keep looking for God in my ramshackle meanderings which include a little—but only a little—academic theology, and a great deal of looking at art, reading novels and poetry, going to movies, listening to music, dabbling on Facebook and the blogosphere, wining and dining with people I love or find interesting (not always the same thing), and long moments of idleness reflecting on whether or not a seagull knows that it’s really worshipping God when it does that thing of holding itself motionless in the upward currents of air blasting in from the wild Scottish seas (I’m in Scotland visiting my frail, beautiful and infuriating mother), and wishing I could be that bird for a while. (Tertullian said that’s what they’re doing—each species worshipping God in its own way when it moos or flies or quacks or does whatever it does. Do we worship as humans when we hold still in the uprushing gales of Trinitarian love blasting in from the ocean of eternity to disrupt our logic of time and place, and marvel at how good that feels? I wish I could hold still long enough to find out).

      I’m trying to admit here that I really am quite useless at systematic theology, endlessly distracted and given to daydreaming, and I’m at an age and stage in life when I realize I no longer have to learn the rules of a game I don’t want to play. If I’m a senior scholar, it’s by way of serendipity and good luck—not by way of any master plan on my part. (These are always master plans, I guess because mistresses don’t make plans. They just make themselves available when needed.)

      I find myself thinking that maybe, if I took up hang-gliding, I’d know what it would feel like to be that seagull, but that’s the other thing that’s been distracting me these last few days. Cowardice. No way would I do that. Nor would I go skiing or climb a mountain or go skidding down a rocky track on a bicycle. My adventures are all of the mental and emotional variety. In one way or another these are all adventures with God, which feels a bit like falling in love with and passionately desiring the wrong kind of bloke. Who are you, God, at times like these, and why the hell didn’t you make all your diverse and crazy followers in every religion a bit more intelligent, a bit more pacifist, a bit more like me? And who are these charlies who are suddenly breeding like cockroaches in the over-heated rhetoric of the western liberal intelligentsia? ‘Je suis Charlie’? Not bloody likely. If I ever (improbably) decided I was willing to sacrifice my life for a cause, it wouldn’t be to prove that the banal and defiant provocation of an angry, marginalised and murderous minority of religious extremists and the mocking humiliation of so many more of their peaceful co-religionists was the apotheosis of human freedom. If I ever die in the name of a cause, it will probably be because somebody has kidnapped me, bound me and killed me. (I don’t think Catholic bloggers and members of the CDF are that extreme, but I guess there are precedents in the glorious Christian tradition to which I subscribe). Which is why, if je suis anybody right now, je suis une suicide bomber. Two little girls, strapped to bombs and sent out to die in northern Nigeria, are being described as ‘suicide bombers’ in the western media. You might as well call a child victim of sexual abuse a rapist.

      Oh dear Sean, all these distractions and diversions when I’ve been trying to prove that I really am serious about Thomism and am able to set aside my personal irritations and preoccupations to engage with the arguments as proper academics are meant to do. And as if all these distractions weren’t enough, I now discover that one of my theological heroes—John Howard Yoder—was a serial groper. What is it about these men of God? I mean, seriously, do you know how hard it has been to get real about Thomas and academic theology these last few days, without letting a hefty dose of Lacanian parody enter the scene just to make sense of it by revealing how nonsensical it all is? And then to top it all, my favourite theologian priest, cherished colleague and beloved friend of many years went and dropped dead in the street last Friday afternoon. Really, dearest Robert Kaggwa, you pick your moments.

      So, writing this response to your response felt like a challenge. (I nearly called it ‘Venus calling Mars’, but I decided that was trite and this is a serious response). If I add to that the pile of essays I’m meant to be marking and the coursework I’m meant to be preparing, I realise something is going badly wrong with my time management. But I was getting there—really I was. I can send you three different drafts, if you don’t believe me. And suddenly, just when I thought I’d cracked it and could let go of all that messy subjective stuff, along comes Marika with her body piercings. Dear God, have you no mercy?

      1. Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 134.

      2. Gilles Emery OP, Trinity in Aquinas, trans. Heather Buttery Matthew Levering, Robert Williams, Teresa Bede (Ypsilanti, Mich.: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2003), 155.

      3. Ibid., 156.

      4. Ibid., 162. The quotations are from Thomas Aquinas, SCG IV, 11, and In Eph. 3.15.

      5. Janet Martin Soskice, ‘Trinity and the “Feminine Other” in The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): pp. 100–24, 111.

      6. Cf. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 243–364.

      7. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (London: The Women’s Press, 1986), 195–6.

      8. Daniel Boyarin, ‘On the History of the Early Phallus’ in Sharon Farmer and Carol Braun Pasternack (eds), Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

      9. See Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

      10. I discuss this in relation to the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar in Tina Beattie, New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 249–53.

      11. Ibid., 415.

    • Sean Larsen

      Sean Larsen


      A Second Reply to Tina Beattie

      Dear Tina,

      First, thank you for your reply, which opened a space for a dialogue that I didn’t initially sense.

      Second, and more important: my deepest condolences about your friend Fr Robert Kaggwa. I read some of the things newspapers reported that you and others said about him, and I was saddened for all those who lost someone who was by all accounts a remarkable and irreplaceable friend, teacher, and pastor.

      Third, Denys was my teacher, too. In fact, he was the first person who taught me to read Thomas. I have no comments about his knowledge of gender, since I only took courses on atheism and Thomas on nature and grace with him. But I’ll always be grateful for his generous and kind instruction.

      Fourth, about Gilles Emery: insofar as his argument about Thomas’s use of Father language represents his own view, of course I think it’s inexcusable to ignore feminist critiques, and I share the frustration with those who ignore strong, well-established arguments that contradict their claims. I see the way in which this tendency to ignore is a product of self-reinforcing scholarly and ecclesial insulation. All this grates on some of my deepest scholarly sensibilities. But I suppose I wasn’t interested in trying to defend Emery but rather to suggest a different interpretation of what he’s doing. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t think he was making a constructive argument in his own voice about the Trinity in the texts you cited. Instead, he was arguing for his description of Thomas’s trinitarian theology and perhaps trying to give Thomistic reasons for its plausibility (which I take to be the task of any serious historical interpreter). I read him to be showing how Thomas’s argument goes. If Thomas is right about the relationship of Fatherhood and uncreated form (and I argue below that he can’t be), then showing how human paternity and maternity participate in the (real, analogical) paternity of the Father is the only real avenue available to someone who wants to read Thomas as consistent. I’ve found Emery’s work helpful for trying to understand Thomas’s texts. I don’t think it’s a good contemporary constructive account of the Trinity, but I don’t expect it to be that. If I’m right about the nature of his work, then I don’t think it’s fair to critique him for not engaging constructive feminist readings of Thomas or the tradition, because that’s not the kind of work he’s doing. So maybe we still have a disagreement about how to read Emery or about the obligations a historical theologian has to engage constructive and contextual theologies.

      Finally, I’ll respond briefly to your question about why I think the distinction between uncreated and created form is important for questions about gender. If I’m reading you correctly, you draw attention to the ways in which the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter functions in a social imaginary. Your analysis maps how the language was metaphorically and analogically extended from metaphysics to biology to social hierarchy. This extension has worked (still) under the surface of official discourse to demean and exclude women. This is a deeply unfaithful, un-catholic development. It not only unjustly discriminates, leads to political, social, theological, and ecclesial burdens for women, and serves to reinforce ideological structures that hurt everybody. But it also denies the whole Church important gifts, insights, arguments, and voices, and it pushes certain bodies to the margins of the Church. I grew up attending a church where the pastor used to say about women’s ordination: “if it’s a sin to bury your own talents, how much worse is it to bury someone else’s!” I hope this brief description of your analysis does it justice; I am in every way sympathetic to what I read you to be saying.

      The point on which I think we disagree seems to be relatively minor but still important (for the academic but still productive task of interpreting Thomas). Sometimes I read you to be suggesting that any use of Aristotle’s terms ipso facto implies certain gendered social hierarchies and exclusions. I brought Mark Jordan’s work into my initial response because I don’t think we quite agree about how Thomas relates to his sources. I think Jordan’s argument implies broadly that Thomas often used the Aristotelian terms in service of ends that undermined some of Aristotle’s implications.

      The claim Jordan helps me make doesn’t on its own go far enough to say much about the specific gendered implications of the language used. And to complicate things for my position further, you draw attention to the fact that Thomas himself applied the terms in similarly gendered ways. This supports the suggestion that Thomas also reinforced the social imaginary implied by the terms—even if he wasn’t so bad considering his time. Like you, I don’t really care much for “time and place” excuses. Christian theologians have no need to excuse Thomas. God has done better already: generously forgiven Thomas in such a way that he, upon seeing his error, felt true contrition. Nor does it help an argument to make excuses for it. Arguments aren’t primarily good and bad, but true and false. True or false arguments can be used in good and bad ways. But here we have an argument that is false, and it is often used in damaging ways. If someone excuses such an argument from rigorous assessment about its truth-value, then they aid the people who continue to use texts to deprive the Church of gifts and marginalize its members.

      I drew attention to the Thomistic distinction between created and uncreated form because I think it is a case in which a central theological claim undermines the extension of an overly reified Aristotelianism into the social imaginary—even if Thomas himself argued for that sort of extension. The distinction between created and uncreated form is one way Thomas describes a point that lies at the center of his thought: because divine essence is identical to uncreated form, God is radically transcendent in a way that ultimately undermines a biological, political, or social extension of gender hierarchy.1 It not only relativizes all earthly hierarchies, however. It also reframes the meaning of the form/matter distinction in Thomas’s thought. I think this is partly what Gerard Loughlin was getting at in his responses, too.

      To explain the logic of this argument further, the created/uncreated form distinction relates to gender because it presses the form/matter distinction in a way that makes the sort of metaphorical or analogical extension that worries you unintelligible on its own terms. On the one hand, it means that God can’t be gendered or embodied, because “uncreated form” translates into divine simplicity and radical transcendence. On the other hand, if “uncreated form” means radical transcendence, Thomas has also in effect rewritten and relativized the language of form. I like that Thomas does this, because I think the internal rewriting of the term gives stronger internal resources to argue against the unjust extensions into the social imaginary I wish to avoid. For example, when I took a seminar on Thomas Aquinas with Prof. Reinhard Huetter, we were discussing the point that Thomas’s argument for the use of the term “Father” makes “Father” an analogical and not a merely metaphorical term. If Father means “principle” and “principle” means “active/male role in reproduction,” then God, who is pure act, must be the true form of Father/Male. But Thomas can’t say this. First, as you point out, this argument relies entirely on a gendered extension of the form/matter distinction to human biology and the reflexive gendering of the distinction from biology. We know now that Thomas was wrong about the biology. If we still used the language, we’d say that both parents are equally form and matter. Second, and more determinatively, because Godhead is simple and radically transcendent, i.e., uncreated form, “principle” or “pure act” can’t mean male or inseminating any longer, nor can it mean female, nor can it mean both. The first person of the Trinity can’t be more like a man than a woman or vice versa in any way. As Gene Rogers has pointed out that in both his biology (lacking a Y chromosome, yet circumcised) and symbolically, even Jesus is intersex.2 The trinitarian relationship relies on a claim about divine simplicity for its intelligibility, and so Thomas wrongly gendered that relationship. Prof. Huetter said that the only option left to Thomas was to say that “Father” can only be one possible metaphor. Prof. Huetter then suggested that a Thomistic reason to use Father instead of Mother would be scriptural usage in divine naming. But because God is identical to uncreated form, and partly because Thomas rewrites the language of form, this is a significant concession from the Thomistic position. It decisively moves the conversation into a different realm, and it shows how none of Thomas’s social extensions of form/matter into the priority of fathers or anything else can be intelligible given his own most basic claims about what Godhead is like. “Uncreated form” means “identical to the transcendentals.” But uncreated form cannot mean “Fatherhood.” Fatherhood cannot be a transcendental. Thomas may have thought so, but on his own terms he is wrong. Form and Father have therefore been disconnected by the concept “uncreated,” which is essential to Thomas’s account of deity. So it follows that there can no longer be a principled reason to suggest that Scripture depicts God as gendered at all, nor to prioritize either Father or Mother in descriptions of Godhead or the first person of the trinity, nor to prioritize human fathers or mothers in obedience or affection, nor to think that somehow our animating principles are more male and the way we take up space-time is more female. By refusing to identify God with gender in any real analogical way, Thomas’s thought allows for a more judicious, prudent, and pastoral use of metaphors for Godhead in theological (if not liturgical) language.

      Methodologically, I think both of us read Thomas on gender by way of immanent critique. 3 We prioritize certain aspects of Thomas’s thought, and we then use the aspects we prioritize to show how Thomistic thought productively undermines itself at certain points. You use Lacan to highlight an interpretation of Thomas’s trinitarian theology in order to critique his use and social application of the form/matter distinction. I focus on Thomas’s rewriting of form through the created/uncreated distinction and on its implications for claims about radical transcendence, simplicity, analogy, and metaphor. When combined with his commitment to making sure theology is true to life, then there can be powerful, internally consistent Thomist arguments about form and gender that proceed from the center of Thomas’s thought. You’re right that my argument pulls me more toward mainstream Thomist readings of his thought, which is why I think you initially took me to be opposing your project of immanent critique in principle. Far from it! My critiques were trying to suggest that I didn’t find the Lacanian reading helpful, mostly because I thought the Lacanian reading placed an external ideological grid on Thomas’s thought that ended up distorting the texts. I didn’t recognize the Thomas I’d read in the Lacanian interpretation. Additionally, I disagreed with some of your assumptions about language, the nature of authorship, and the interpretation of texts. I tried to respond in a way that engaged your book showing why the foundations of an immanent critique which accepts the same concerns (about gender, hierarchy, etc.) could be framed in a way that is internally more devastating for mainstream Thomists who don’t seem to care about the gendered and sexual implications of Thomas’s theology. In my view, the strength of this approach is that it doesn’t require that external Lacanian grid, which adds another moving part to the analysis. Since Thomists and others who are indifferent to concerns about gender think that Thomas’s account of radical divine transcendence is pivotal to everything else Thomas says, then they shouldn’t be able to extend the use of form language to social hierarchies on their own terms. If they continue to do so, I don’t think it’s possible any longer to use these sorts of Thomistic arguments to serve that agenda.

      Still, I am not sure there is much hope of persuading ideologues or people whose intellectual commitments are set by a decision. People usually find ways to believe what they want. I take it that intellectual work of this sort is one piece of a larger persuasion. That persuasion is always primarily directed at moving hearts. For me, the argument can’t move someone’s heart. But an argument can help someone who is already moved or interested to think more clearly and thereby love better. I tend to start with pretty traditional positions partly because I think a lot of people start there, too. Either way, for our discussion, I think it’s possible to distinguish your concerns about gender, sexuality, and embodiment from your use of Lacan as a critical conversation partner.

      Once again, thank you for your reply. I hope I’ve answered your questions satisfactorily.

      1. Kathryn Tanner, The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992); Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988).

      2. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., “Same-Sex Complementarity: A Theology of Marriage,” The Christian Century 128, no. 10 (May 17, 2011): 26+.

      3. I’ve found David Harvey’s explanation of immanent critique helpful in David L. Harvey, “Introduction,” Sociological Perspectives 33, no. 1 (April 1, 1990): 1–10, doi:10.2307/1388974.



This Body of Death

AT THE HEART OF Theology after Postmodernity is the claim that in the work of Thomas Aquinas we find both one of Christian theology’s most powerful affirmations of human embodiment and also the disastrous conjunction of the world-denying Platonism already coursing through theology’s veins with the gendered cosmology of Aristotelianism, resulting in a series of tensions whose gradual disintegration eventually gave birth to the violence of modernity, which is characterised as much by its hatred of the body as by its fundamental yet disavowed patriarchal ontology. For Thomas, to be human is precisely to be embodied intellect. Humans are distinguished from animals by their intellect and from angels by their bodies; in all of creation it is only humans, according to Thomas, who are rational beings, that is, characterised by a form of thought that is utterly dependent on embodiment. And yet the ontological hierarchy which Thomas inherits from his Christian-Platonic heritage brings with it both a sense that to become more like God is to climb up the great chain of being—to become less like the other animals and more like the angels—and also a troubling association of matter with evil, because both are characterised by lack, by the fact that their participation in God is lesser than that of intellect and goodness. Whilst in some ways Thomas’s Aristotelianism functions as a corrective to this damaging legacy, the explicitly gendered hierarchy of active, masculine form and passive, feminine matter sets up a deeply patriarchal ontology which continues to shape Western culture long after Thomas’s theological commitments have largely been rejected. All in all, Beattie argues: “In his theological reshaping of Aristotle, Thomas introduces into Christian thought a more thorough-going materialism than was the case before . . . but he also occupies a pivotal moment when the relationship between nature and grace, body and spirit, perhaps attained its greatest equilibrium in Christian thought, even as it contained the seeds of its own undoing” (50).

Theology after Postmodernity sets out neither to destroy Thomism, nor to absolve Thomas of responsibility either for the misogyny of the tradition to which his work gives birth or for the collapse of Christendom which issued in part from the unravelling of his fragile knitting together of Christianity, Platonism, and Aristotelianism. Instead, Beattie seeks to discover how Catholic theology might “provide an effective response to the challenges posed by feminism on the one hand and the environmental crisis on the other, not by breaking with the greatest thinkers of its own tradition, but by bringing them to a greater fullness than they themselves were able to achieve” (123). The solution she proposes is to “ask what it might mean for theology to develop a different Thomism, not now in terms of Greek philosophy but in terms of the maternal, relational and incarnate love of God materialized in creation.” In this task, Lacan is both the catalyst for the liberation of a more incarnational theology from Thomism’s repressed unconsciousness and the exemplar of the “postmodern nihilism” from which this theology offers redemption (10). It is possible, Beattie argues, to be a Thomist Catholic and yet to affirm the presence of grace in, and not despite, our embodiment.

The rejection of classical theology’s revulsion for embodiment with all the slimy, sexual, feminised, and passive associations it has come to bear has been a common theme of much recent feminist theology. And yet, as Beattie makes clear, Christian theology has never straightforwardly affirmed the body. The deep tension between the affirmation of the material world implicit in the doctrines of creation, incarnation and the resurrection of the body, and the tendency to see progress towards God or redemption as in some sense an escape from embodiment did not begin with Thomas any more than it ended with him. For Augustine, the created and material world is simultaneously that which declares the glory of God to humankind, crying out in a great voice, “He made us,” and also the source of such potent temptation to sin that even delightful smells are not to be trusted, and food ought to be eaten as though it were medicine lest its “dangerous pleasantness” prove overwhelming.1 St Paul says that the whole of creation “has been groaning in labour pains,” awaiting its liberation into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:21–23), and yet in almost the same breath figures this liberation precisely as escape from the material world: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

Even Jesus’ transgressions of the purity codes which Beattie associates with “a sense of loss and pollution associated with the maternal body” (237) are not straightforwardly affirmative of bodies marked as impure by their association with fluidity, imperfection, and death. When Jesus dries up the flow of blood which renders a bleeding woman impure, when he restores sight to the blind man, when he raises Lazarus from the dead, these acts simultaneously affirm the importance of the body and refuse to simply accept “the messy, smelly, fatty, leaky, bloody, sweaty, excreting, menstruating, birthing, shitting, dying stuff of which we are made” (270). Beattie knows how deep this ambiguity goes, acknowledging that the desire for “a disembodied mind” has “infected Christian theology from the beginning” (137), that Christianity “has never been able to resist the temptation to insist that . . . there is a God over and beyond the human condition” (234).

And yet this, surely, begs the question: if suspicion of the body, and a desire to overcome the limitations of material existence are as old as Christianity itself, ought a theology which seeks (however critically) to be faithful to tradition to simply reject this contradiction? Is it in fact possible to imagine a Christianity without hostility to the body; more seriously, should we want to? Or might there, rather, be something in this very contradiction inherent in the simultaneous affirmation and rejection of embodiment and all that goes with it which might itself be taken up and reworked for our post-postmodern age? Can we think a feminist theological rejection of the body?

For much of classical theology, both creation and fall result from lack. The material world exists as separate from God insofar as it lacks the fullness of being and perfection which belongs to God; it is partial, whereas God is complete. Yet sin, too, is understood as a falling away from the perfection and plenitude of God. If creation is an ordered emanation, a hierarchical descent away from full participation in God, then sin is often figured simply as a rapid and uncontrolled fall down this same hierarchy of being. In Thomas, as Beattie points out, this means that it sometimes far from clear what there is “to distinguish the demonic from prime matter” (238). Beattie’s solution is to refigure this association of lack with creation and plenitude with God such that the problem is not lack as such but the human refusal to accept lack as the condition of embodied and created existence. To sin is precisely for creatures to refuse the limits which make possible their very being and to desire instead the fullness and completion which belong to God alone. What results, however, risks becoming a curious mirror image of the problems which Beattie identifies in Thomas work: not the misogynistic equation of finitude and embodiment with sinfulness, but the feminist affirmation of every aspect of human embodiment with created goodness.

The affirmation of the resurrection of the body is not straightforwardly the affirmation of embodiment which Beattie sometimes seems to take it to be. The original narrative of creation in Genesis, which affirms the material world in all its diversity as good, cannot be read apart from the story of the fall, which follows immediately after, in which the consequences of human sin are written upon the body. The human rejection of God is made flesh in the suffering of childbirth and the drudgery of the bodily labour which becomes the necessary condition of human bodily survival. The goodness and grace of God are made flesh in creation, but so too is human fallenness, and the strangeness of theological attempts to imagine the condition of the human body both in Eden and in paradise are testament in part to the near-impossibility of imagining embodiment apart from the distortions of sin. We cannot but be formed in our relationship to our bodies by a society that sees the bodies of women as objects to be possessed, which sees the bodies of black people as legitimate targets of violence. To long for liberation from these bodies, to long to be free of the physical necessities imposed by a society which is not built for the survival of bodies like mine is not the same thing as the longing for liberation from the burdensome necessities of eating and cleaning and tending to the needs of others which characterises the body-hatred of privileged white western men.

Human life has always been characterised by the struggle both with and against our bodies. In Genesis, to be human (adam) is to be formed from the ground (adamah), and to be created precisely to work to transform the earth which is at the same time our bodies, ourselves. This work is perhaps always ambiguous: there is a thin line between the technological quest for mastery which sees the body and its limitations as enemies to be conquered, and the search for technological solutions which arises from the desire for liberation from the body’s fallenness in order to enable a richer celebration of all that is good in embodied life. Is the desire of so many male philosophers to be free to spend their time in study and contemplation a problem in itself, or simply because of their willingness for others’ bodies to pay the price of their liberation in domestic drudgery and servitude? Is it wrong for feminists to view the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner as tools of our emancipation because we fail to realise that to love our bodies means to embrace the work of maintaining them, or does the mistake lie in the failure to recognise that our leisure will be no more equitably distributed than our labour? Angela Davis tells the story of a visit to Cuba in which she assisted in a great national campaign to increase sugar cane production. She went out to the fields to assist with the harvest:

One day I remarked to a Cuban how much I admired his skill in cutting cane—it was almost like an art, the way he did it. He thanked me for the compliment, but quickly added that his skill was a skill that need to become obsolete. Cane-cutting was inhuman toil, he said.2

The contemporary longing for un-alienated labour, which is visible in the recent valorisation of the artisanal, the “natural,” and even (heaven help us) the paleolithic, is at risk of denying the body precisely by forgetting why it is that so many people have been eager to escape it.

It is interesting that Beattie recognises that, “in the medieval imagination, the soul loves the body even if it disciplined it in sometimes violent and punitive ways” and yet suggests that “today’s self-mutilating girls and women are motivated only by the consuming and consumerist male gaze and the demands it makes upon them to become other than the bodies that they are” (393). Bodily modification can be a mark of the violence that society works upon our bodies but it can also be an act of reclamation or creativity; sometimes, perhaps most often, it is both. This world is not just incomplete without God but also formed by systems and structures which oppress and subject certain sorts of bodies which it is unable to recognise as sources of grace. To love our bodies, to love ourselves in this context is always to engage in a complex process of negotiation in which it is often far from clear where the boundary lies between the limitations by which the good, graced, material world is constituted and the limitations which are the consequence of an unjust, fallen world, longing to be transformed.

Beattie worries, above all, about the violence which ensues from the desire for completeness. “If we are to love without conquest, violence, or consumption, we must accept that there is no plenitude, for to be human is to lack, to desire, and to imagine as well as to know—that is what human reality is” (296). If we are unable to purge from Christian theology the “declaration of war on the body,” people “will continue to slaughter one another in the name of their ideals, their ideas, their gods” (341). But to invoke the fear of violence as a caution against political action is itself a dangerous tactic. The existing order of things always works to conceal certain sorts of violence whilst foregrounding others. For many of us, it takes difficult and sustained work to undo the ways in which we are formed by a system that does not value all lives equally so as to be able to recognise the violence done to bodies that are different than ours. To quote James Cone, for example: “White people have a distorted conception of the meaning of violence . . . violence is not only what black people do to white people as victims seek to change the structure of their existence; violence is what white people did when they created a society for white people only, and what they do in order to maintain it.”3 The appeal to non-violence has been made too often in the service of violent systems of oppression, and we would do well to be wary of it.

Theology after Postmodernity ends with the invocation of Job, who learns “in the context of the enormity, majesty, and mystery of a world that seethes and thunders around him . . . that what we perceive as natural evil is an expression of the abundance of the eternal creative act of the divine being, beyond anything we humans can comprehend” (399). When Christ was put to death on the cross, the earth shook, the rocks split, and the sky went dark. For all its graced goodness, the natural world bore no such witness to the murders of Michael Brown or John Crawford, of Tjhisha Ball or Angelia Mangum. What does it mean to be faithful to the bodies of those we love if not to confront the blank indifference of the depths of the sea and the storehouses of the snow and the rain in the face of their suffering, to face down the sun which shines alike on the just on the unjust, and to say with Jacob Taubes: “I can imagine as an apocalyptic: let it go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is”?4

  1. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

  2. Angela Davis, An Autobiography (London: Arrow Books, 1974), 208.

  3. James H. Cone, “Black Theology on Revolution, Violence, and Reconciliation” in Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 35.

  4. Political Theology of Paul, translated by Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 103.

  • Avatar

    Tina Beattie


    Response to Marika Rose

    Marika Rose shows a careful and insightful appreciation of the book’s purpose in her opening paragraphs, and she rightly situates this in the context of Christianity’s ambiguity with regard to the body and materiality. I want to focus here on the challenge she poses in her question, “Can we think a feminist theological rejection of the body?”

    This is indeed a challenging question, which brings with it an immediate resistance on my part. I have been grappling with the questions Rose raises in her subtle and unsettling suggestion that some longing for liberation from the body and a rejection of its vulnerability to violence is an appropriate response to the body’s fallenness. In many ways I agree with her, and indeed in the introduction I distance myself from the kind of progressive optimism, informed by “a certain normative humanism” (7), that informed postconciliar feminist and liberationist theologies. I make clear that my vision is not one of optimism but of hope, insofar as it constitutes a quest to make meaning within the troubling and unfathomable mystery not just of God but of our capacity to act as reliable witnesses of our own lives and interpreters of our own experiences (8). In Chapter 19, I criticise Luce Irigaray’s utopian celebration of sexual difference, in engagement with Amy Hollywood’s argument that female mysticism constitutes attentiveness to trauma, lack and anguish, to suffering as well as joy, which are inescapable aspects of “embodied human subjectivity rather than sexual subjectivity” (372). In other words, the book is concerned not just to celebrate desire and the body, but to interrogate ways in which the violent aspects of desire also affect our capacity for bodily flourishing and our understanding of what that means in complex ways. In addition to this, there is of course the inevitability and inescapability of mortality and suffering as part of the human condition, and I do not deny that the desire for transcendence can be a legitimate desire to break free of this aspect of what Christians call fallenness.

    Nevertheless, Rose raises questions beyond this negotiation between vulnerability and suffering, fragility and desire, fecundity and sacrifice, implying a more nihilistic approach to the question of suffering and exploitation in her final quotation from Jacob Taubes. She introduces a more politicised and apocalyptic perspective which leads me to wonder if I have been guilty of romanticising the body and glossing its capacity to manifest itself as a form of entrapment and violence, which can perhaps be creatively responded to by the controlled violence of bodily modification, for example. Are modern forms of female masochism and/or bodily modification so different from the sometimes extreme ascetic practices of medieval female mystics, and do they serve some function in our capacity to give creative meaning to suffering and violence?

    The question of God and transcendence are of fundamental importance here. Whatever one makes of medieval mortification of the body, it was a purposeful attempt to bring the body into conformity with the soul’s longing for God, inspired by the belief that body and soul together are called to redemption through the practice of virtue, and through their capacity for grace. In other words, these are forms of bodily mortification played out in the encounter between the subject and God, whereas I am suggesting that many modern forms of female masochism, mutilation, and self-starvation are responses to a commodified culture of consumerism in which the female body is deprived of its capacity for transcendence and meaning. The goal here is not that of personal redemption but of satisfying the desire of the other—in this case the consuming desire of the masculine subject for the subjugated flesh of the feminised other.

    Of course, significant questions arise as to whether the male God of medieval mysticism was in many ways simply the precursor for the psychological patterns of female self-abuse that I associate with the modern male gaze. Perhaps I am guilty of weaving a fantasy of redemption around practices which have always positioned the female body as an object of punishment or derision in the context of a culture that has been predicated upon a certain misogynistic contempt for the female flesh. Yet I think Rose’s question goes deeper than this, and it also deflects the question away from one of gender to one of all bodies that are victims of violence and injustice, including those marked by race rather than gender. I think she is edging towards the question of revolutionary violence as a form of resistance to the systemic violence of institutionalised white power.

    This seems a little oblique to the focus of my book, and I am not sure what point Rose is making in citing James Cone as an argument against the appeal to non-violence. Insofar as I get her point, the suggestion seems to be that I am advocating non-violent docility in the face of violence, in a way which becomes complicit in “violent systems of oppression.” We might think here of Malcolm X’s criticism of Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent resistance, to give only one example of such an argument.

    I struggle with this for two reasons. First, we are indeed living in a world of seemingly apocalyptic violence, based on radical Islamism’s violent and anarchic response to the global hegemony of the western militarised nation state, which of course could be seen as another form of apocalypticism. The destructiveness of economic policies based on short-term gains over environmental sustainability and economic justice, and the violence wrought by corporate militarism, suggest a politics which in itself has “no spiritual investment in the world as it is,” and violent forms of religious extremism have become technologically and politically adept at exploiting this. In other words, I am asking if apocalyptic nihilism is the dominant ideology of the age, and the only act of meaningful resistance is the fragility of hope invested in non-violent resistance.

    Rose’s final paragraph seems to me to reinscribe the divine mystery into our human values of morality and justice, and I repeatedly resist that in the book—not least in my critique of postmodern theologies in Chapter 17. Yet one could also argue that the dramatic description of cosmic upheaval when Christ died can be projected into every unjust death. How does the world bear witness to state-sanctioned murder except in the outrage of those who recognise and name such deaths as such and refuse to be silenced?

    Rose’s question is powerful: “What does it mean to be faithful to the bodies of those we love if not to confront the blank indifference of the depths of the sea and the storehouses of the snow and the rain in the face of their suffering, to face down the sun which shines alike on the just on the unjust . . .?,” and the apocalyptic response is chilling.

    Yet is such apocalypticism not a rhetorical self-indulgence for those of us safely insulated from its consequences in our modern academic institutions? In Syria and Iraq, confronted with the option of letting the sun go down on the future, people struggle and hope in spite of all the odds. That is also true of those battling with the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Dare I say that intellectual apocalypticism is a luxury that those faced with annihilation can rarely afford? Is the claim to have “no spiritual investment in the world as it is” not the cry of the suicidal or the deluded?

    In the face of such apocalypticism, even on the very edge of its own ability to suffer and to survive, the body presses itself upon the soul with a desire to live and to find meaning. I dare to call that hope, and I dare to say that such hope is the most potent form of resistance we have as individuals and communities in the face of the agents of death, destruction, and violence.

    I wonder how Marika will respond. I fear I may have radically misunderstood her, but out of such misunderstanding I suspect a rich conversation might be about to happen!

    • Avatar

      Marika Rose


      On Bodily Modification and Revolutionary Violence

      There’s so much in here that I don’t have much hope of making an adequate response. But I want to respond to two things, which seem to me to touch on two key points: first the question of bodily modification, and second the question of revolutionary violence.

      In response to the question of bodily modification, I want to strengthen my argument and say that it is not simply fallenness which means that we struggle with and against our bodies to transform them, but something in the nature of material being itself. Nature has never been a static, solid ground on which to build. Everything natural, everything that is, is always in the process of changing, transforming itself. To be human is, by extension, to likewise engage in a process of self-transformation. I don’t deny that some of that transformation is motivated by a hatred for the body, and clearly all of it is entangled in both patriarchy and the capitalistic commodification of human life. But I love my piercings, the most straightforwardly violent thing I have done to my body, in a way that doesn’t seem to me to be reducible to an internalisation of the male gaze or a hatred of my body. There is a curious sort of eroticism to the fresh wound that results from forcing steel through skin (Lacan would have plenty to say about that, no doubt). I find pleasure in the things I do to my body, the things I do with my body, the ways I am able to transform myself. I don’t know that it has much to do with transcendence (but then isn’t transcendence part of the problem, when it comes to bodily hatred?). It doesn’t even have that much to do with the desire to be pleasing to the gaze of others. What do we do, theologically, with the desire to be tattooed, to be pierced, to colour our hair, to paint our faces, to be strong, to acquire physical skills, to work on our bodies to transform them? How much is really new and how much is a reflection of new technological possibilities made available to a very old and very human desire? Is there a way of valuing what is good and beautiful here even when it is not—explicitly—related to the desire for God?

      And then, the question of revolutionary violence. What I was trying to say, I think, was that it seems to me that we cannot love what is good and what is beautiful in our lives and in the bodies which constitute the world around us without hating that which would destroy them and committing ourselves to fight for their destruction in the name of something better. I don’t know how helpful the category of violence is here for deciding what tools are appropriate in the fight. We so easily focus on the wrong things and see violence where it is not, and miss it where it is (Angela Davis and Assata Shakur spring to mind here, as women who thought that new life would come forth precisely out of revolutionary transformation, and whose radical opposition to the existing order was seen as physical violence even where there was none). The question is this: do we accept the horizons of the existing order as those we are compelled to work within, so that we believe what we are told, that there is no alternative, that all we can do is work within the constraints of the existing order; or do we enact a more radical refusal in the name of those bodies we love, and insist that another world is possible.

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      Tina Beattie


      Some Piercing Insights

      Marika, now we’re doing theology! Piercings and revolutions—oh yes. After all, piercings once redeemed us (‘he was pierced for our transgressions’), and that was some revolution—though actually, I think the revolution really happened with the virginal conception of God incarnate which involved no piercing at all, though later a sword would pierce her maternal soul. And haven’t we seen, in that golden moment between the near-simultaneous ending of apartheid and communism, and the rise of Marketolatry, that velvet revolutions do not always involve violence? One can after all end opposing regimes defended by the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction with nothing more than people holding candles through the night—though many died or were imprisoned to keep those candles of hope alive in the long, long night. Today it seems that we would prefer to curse the darkness than light the candle of hope. If you ask me, it’s better to light a candle than to draw a cartoon.

      (I’ve already confessed I do theology by daydreaming and association, which is why I’m not a systematic theologian. So let me get back to the point—piercings—because that set up so many penetrating insights that I don’t know where to begin.)

      I do have two piercings—one in each earlobe—but that’s it I’m afraid. However, having once had an episiotomy, I’m familiar with the feeling of ‘the fresh wound that results from forcing steel through skin’. In fact, when I attended my first philosophy lecture at the age of thirty six, I was amazed to find a module on ‘episiotomy’. When I looked more closely, it was ‘epistemology’. My epistemological credentials are better now than they were then (though some people reading this might dispute that), but I still think that people who have had episiotomies have something vital to contribute to epistemologies. So what follows are some episiotomical wanderings in theological epistemologies. This is not very radical—in fact, it’s quite orthodox—but those who don’t know their orthodoxy might think it’s radical.

      I realise this is getting a bit near the bone, (bad pun), but this is where Lacanian Butleresque parodies of gender run into the buffers of the body. There are some things one can’t do or be made to endure with the symbolic phallus and the lack thereof. I wonder if the eroticism of slicing through skin is a way of cutting through all those vacuous postmodern parodies to get to the real stuff, in order to feel more real, to reconnect word and flesh, to carve the will’s command into the obstinate resistance of the flesh.

      I ask this because the next association I made was to wonder what it would feel like to experience the kind of power over one’s own body that your response implies. Is it a desire to resist the power of nature, to tame the animal flesh by harnessing its eroticism and indeed its violence? Is it about autonomy—this desire to do things to one’s body that are ‘not about the gaze of others’ and ‘not—explicitly related to the desire for God’? (Thomas Aquinas said we shouldn’t get too hung up about these things—sometimes enjoyment is just enjoyment, or words to that effect.)

      Is it the ultimate masturbatory experience, with the knife taking the place of the phallus or the vibrator? Does a woman’s self-pleasuring always require penetration? The first academic essay I ever published was about why God created the clitoris.1 I like to think it’s the laughter of God in the face of the power of the phallus. A virgin can conceive a child and even have an orgasm without penetration in the Kingdom of God. Maybe that’s what Augustine is getting at when he says of the risen female body that

      [Ext]A woman’s sex is not a defect; it is natural. And in the resurrection it will be free of the necessity of intercourse and childbirth. However, the female organs will not subserve their former use; they will be part of a new beauty, which will not excite the lust of the beholder—there will be no lust in that life—but will arouse the praises of God for his wisdom and compassion, in that he not only created out of nothing but freed from corruption that which he had created.2

      The truth is, I never thought to ask questions about autonomy and bodiliness until it was too late. I had bonked away my virginity before I discovered that, like money in the bank, it might have gained interest with keeping. (I had a Presbyterian upbringing so I hadn’t been raised on a spiritual diet of Catholic virginal purity. I’m not sure Presbyterians do virginal purity, figuratively speaking). By the time I began to read feminist theories about embodiment, autonomy, ‘my body my self’ etc., I had been married for close on fifteen years and had four little children, who one way and another were rather dependent on my body. So in some way I’ve always experienced my body as ‘for’ others, and the idea of doing quite radical things to my own body for pleasure—I’m talking out of the ordinary things here, not to go into too much detail—makes me question my assumptions and my boundaries.

      But is any body truly one’s own? Don’t we always already discover ourselves within that condition of bodily dependence and vulnerability that is the inescapable shadow cast by the human flesh on the brightness of the soul, a shadow that men of God and men of reason have spent much of history trying to eliminate? Do ‘I’ (my will, my reason, my moral power), control this messy stuff of which I am made, so that I seek to determine its birthing and its dying, its conceiving and its aborting, its suffering and its delight? Or do I somehow struggle to keep up with where my body leads me, in the strangeness of its affections and desires (and its affectations too), in the rebelliousness of its illnesses and sufferings and slow decline into ageing and death? Am I always embodied with and for others, and must my will always seek to extricate itself from this entanglement of the flesh by doing its own thing, dragging the reluctant body along? Do I need to live and live again the primal alienation of the human condition that severs flesh from word, castrating myself over and over again by cutting myself off from that primordial union that I imagine to have been my first and ultimate place of rest, setting in motion an abysmal desire that I veil with the purpose and meaning of God? Can it be true that all our human longing—all spirituality, all mysticism, all our liturgical grandeur, all art, music and poetry—flow from that wound of separation and the body’s insatiable hunger for return and consolation? In her novel Housekeeping, Marilyn Robinson describes this better than any Lacanian theorist:

      [Ext]The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.3

      Theologians have forgotten how to play with time, but without such playfulness we have nothing much to say. That’s why we must abandon the systematic project and turn to literature, art, music and popular culture if we are to speak of God anew. The story of creation is, after all, far more about finding words to express the play of memory, desire and imagination upon the human soul than it is about scientific or temporal origins or debates about ontology and God. Lacan knows that, but so did Thomas:

      [Ext]The activity by which God maintains things is no new activity, but the continued act of giving them existence, an act which is not a process in time. . . . Before things existed God had the power not to give them existence, and thus not to make them. So, in the same way, after they have been made, he has the power to cut off the inflow of existence, so that they cease existing; that is, he has the power to annihilate them. But there is no point in him doing it. For his goodness and power are shown better by eternally maintaining both spirits and matter in existence. (ST 1, 104).4

      Cutting off the inflow of existence: is that not what falling and birthing are both about? Are we not always falling forward into that just created moment when curiosity slices us from the raw animality of innocence into the divided condition of human consciousness that recognises good only when it is lost? Do we not meander through time in constant elliptical movements of association, digression, memory, hope and forgetfulness? Isn’t that time-travelling capacity of the human soul what truly separates us from all other animals: not rationality, but freedom from the time-bound moment that we experience as imagination and memory (which is why this response to you comes when our conversation has already been relegated to the backlist).

      Does this cutting into the self constitute an act of resistance to that first unavoidable cut that births us into language—and, as I’ve already suggested, the mother’s body too is cut and wounded along with the cutting away of the child (except in the case of Christ, who never wounded any body—which is why the virgin birth is eschatologically significant)? Or is it rather the way in which we women cry out against that continual attempt to merge us, to fuse us back into the maternal so that the erotic yearning of the flesh is tamed to serve the purpose of procreation, the engendering of the human? Is it better to experience the delight of being cut free over and over again, than to feel the dark inward pull of that maternal body who has never learned to let us go, who has taught us never to trust our own erotic desire, for we have only ourselves to blame if we are impregnated, seduced, raped. That’s what mothers used to teach their daughters. Maybe we still do, unwittingly and unknowingly, because we are too eager to protect them. When a woman cuts her own flesh, is she re-enacting over and over again the ecstatic anguish of curse and expulsion from Eden? But then, how are we to return, how are we to imagine that glorious redemption of our bodies when we arouse nobody but God—and how can we arouse God if we are not ourselves aroused from Eve’s long historical slumber of desire beneath the curse of domination and childbirth? Who told us that God would ever ask that we cut ourselves off from ‘the inflow of existence’, when even Thomas tells us that it would be pointless to do so?

      There are also those piercings that go beyond the erotic—puncturing through the veils of imagination and desire to the sublime and awesome lure of the tomb—that other womb that is the mortal enemy of every mother’s love, the enemy that makes her want to suck her children back inside and keep them safe. Don’t let anybody tell you that mother earth and human mothers walk hand in hand. We are in constant battle for our children’s lives. A mother is not a force of nature but a force against nature. What freedom, what faith, must a woman have to set her child free along the path to Calvary? What dedication must she have to walk there with him, to watch as mother nature triumphs over the complex fragility of maternal love, as the virgin earth swallows the body of the virgin birth? No wonder Rilke has Mary cry out from the foot of the cross, ‘you suddenly reversed all nature’s course’. (‘Before the Passion’).

      Yet in death, Christ’s body morphs—the tortured corpse becomes the maternal body, reversing nature’s course again. A double reversal, a reuniting of the maternal body with the earth after the wrenching of separation. In John’s Gospel, the wound in Christ’s side gushes blood and water—not something that dead bodies do, but this is a body in childbirth. That’s why medieval artists made the wound look like a bleeding vagina. One of my current intellectual curiosities is whether the phallic torso and the bloodied wound together are a kind of fertility symbol inscribed on the body of the crucified, with Mary at the foot of the cross symbolising the maternal Church—the crucified body metamorphosing into the maternal body of the Church—giving birth to the faithful, healing the wound that cut us off from the umbilical cord, ‘the inflow of existence’? Extra ecclesiam, nulla salis. No salvation outside the body of the mother.

      But if we women are to become human, creatures of language set free from the suffocating silence of the maternal womb, must we always follow that crucified body, reversing nature’s course lest our mothers consume us, and resisting the healing that follows lest we too become consuming mothers? Is that what Holy Mother Church does to men—consume them with her voluptuous sensuality, so that the fragile penis must forego its tender pleasures and become instead the phallus that masks the site of castration and erects itself as the sword of banishment before the sacramental priesthood? For what symbolic loss would occur if it ceased to be the sword of division and became instead the organ of fecundity, union and desire? If it became for us ‘the inflow of existence’ rather than the barrier of prohibition? Better to keep cutting and cutting and cutting than to ask such questions.

      Ultimately, the mortal mother always loses to mother earth, and our human will loses its fight against nature.We die, whether by an act of wilful defiance—like Antigone or Lucretia, or like every violent revolutionary propelled by the death wish?—or whether we simply surrender our sick and ageing flesh to the voracious earth, in the realization that‘Nature has never been a static, solid ground on which to build. Everything natural, everything that is, is always in the process of changing, transforming itself.’

      Whew, Marika, time to come up for air. Yes, you’re right: ‘To be human is, by extension, to likewise engage in a process of self-transformation.’ I dye my hair, I paint my toenails, I even wax my chin (see below), but I don’t willingly do anything that forces steel through skin. But as you can see, I’m trying to imagine why I might. So let me dwell on this for a while by another association, which also has to do with changing and piercing.

      I managed to catch the last day of the ‘Late Rembrandt’ exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I had to hang around for four hours for my timed entry, so I went and sat in a nearby café. I overheard a snatch of conversation between two young men sitting nearby. I have no idea what they were talking about, but one said to the other, ‘It was quite an experience. You would have hated it. All those naked women—they were old. It was disgusting.’ They fell about laughing. I wanted to hit him. Not really. I wanted to take all my clothes off and dance on the table, but as I’ve already implied, I’m not that free with my body (yet).

      I know all about that mutability of nature you talk about. All that is solid melts into jelly (apologies to Marx). Everything wobbles, sags, droops, flops. Hairy places go sparse and smooth places grow hair (see above). The male body is not resistant to these processes, yet I never hear young women snorting with laughter in cafés, talking about disgusting old men with their dewlaps, farts and pot bellies. Anyway, I’m digressing again. Let’s talk about art.

      When I went to the Rembrandt exhibition, I discovered female bodies painted from the inside out, so to speak. Not the male gaze, but a tender, wounded eroticism that saw the vulnerability in beauty and the beauty in vulnerability. Rembrandt was an old man by then. His self-portraits show us how he ages, year on year. One has to befriend the ageing flesh, in order to depict it in such visionary and translucent detail. And this is where I want to reflect on another question you pose, when you say, ‘it seems to me that we cannot love what is good and what is beautiful in our lives and in the bodies which constitute the world around us without hating that which would destroy them and committing ourselves to fight for their destruction in the name of something better. I don’t know how helpful the category of violence is here for deciding what tools are appropriate in the fight.’

      As I’ve already suggested, to be a mother is to move to the frontline of that primordial battle against all that would destroy the bodies we love, though let’s not romanticise. A mother can fear the voracious need of the child as much as the child resists the voracious love of the mother. Psychoanalysis never has understood that side of things. Sometimes, it’s better to nip it in the bud than to live one’s whole life with the altered ego that comes about when the autonomous self splits by way of a cutting that never goes far enough, a cutting that never manages to sever the umbilical cord that attaches the maternal heart to the wandering child. Better to end it before it begins, in this culture of ours that no longer accepts that suffering is the other side of love, and if one refuses to suffer one must ultimately refuse to love. Even so, maternal love, like martyrdom, must be freely chosen. There is no law in love, no law that can force love, no love that is subject to law. Love is free, or it is not love.

      So what god will free us to love, unless that god also reconciles us to death? How can we relinquish our terror, unless we also relinquish our mastery, unless we discover that between the iron chain and the severed cord there is a pulsing channel of life that flows between the placental god and the gestating world, and its name is ‘grace’—the ‘inflow of existence’ that creates us and sustains us in being? This transforms the wilderness of history into the gestation of eternity, the anguish of creation into the groanings of childbirth, the exile from Paradise into the homeward journey. How will we love unless we allow the umbilical cord to reach across the phallic wound? If Christ reconciles us only to death and not to birth, he has capitulated to the phallic god. That is why we must learn how to worship the newborn Christ before we can contemplate the crucified. We must learn how to be born, if we are to learn how to die. We must be reborn.

      How would a reborn self recognise the world as the creation of the newborn and crucified God? Might it be a process of learning to recognise that ‘what is good and what is beautiful in our lives and in the bodies which constitute the world around us’ is what others see as bad and ugly? It is easy to hate that which destroys the beautiful and the good, it is harder to protect the bad and the ugly from those who commit themselves to fighting for their destruction in the name of the good. That’s where all crucifixion begins, all genocide. John Gray’s book, Black Mass, argues that every modern utopian revolution has ended in genocide. One cannot destroy the bad and the ugly unless one destroys the people one believes to be ugly and bad. That is why the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were slaughtered—not by mad men driven to bloodlust by an ancient religion, but by the most rational and sane of modern men who knew, as all modern tyrants know, that the rational end justifies the bloody means. The return to purity entails the elimination of the impure. If you want a transcendent God of beauty, truth and goodness, you must always pierce through and destroy the fleshy body of the incarnate divine.

      Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena both said that love of neighbour entails love of self, because I am my own neighbour. That is why Lacan helps us to unmask the formless void that threatens to consume the empty formalism of Kantian ethics. If my capacity to do good entails waging war on my own desire and bodily pleasures, then to love my neighbour as myself is a deadly command. Freud saw this, but Freud remained too much on the near-side of the Kantian horizon. I cannot love all that is bad and ugly and desiring and confusing in my neighbour, unless I learn to love my own desiring, confusing and ugly self. I cannot live at peace with nature, unless I learn to live at peace with all that nature takes away from my beautiful, independent, autonomous self with the passing of time. Enough violent revolutions. When resistance demands violence, it has arrived at its limits—though Girard would remind us that to arrive at such limits entails a choice between becoming a victim or becoming a perpetrator.

      The ageing Rembrandt sketched the sagging breasts and wrinkled midriffs of elderly women with the same compassionate eroticism that he used to paint the luscious thighs and rounded belly of Bathsheba. When we look at his painting of A Woman Bathing in a Stream, shift held high, legs apart, looking down at her reflection in the water, he invites us to contemplate the pleasure of a woman lost in the pleasure of watching herself, without a knife or a phallus in sight. The artist delights in but does not violate that private moment of the self-pleasuring of a woman’s gaze. This is indeed a woman whose ‘sex is not a defect’, a woman whose female organs are ‘part of a new beauty, which will not excite the lust of the beholder … but will arouse the praises of God for his wisdom and compassion’. This is a gentle self-pleasuring, a love of self that needs no wounding, no piercing. It is, dare I say, a virginal pleasure, which has nothing to do with whether or not the woman has had sex (she was probably one of the artist’s several mistresses, who caused him no end of trouble); it has everything to do with her capacity to surrender herself to a primordial nature in an imagined Eden. The eternal virgin occupies the sphere of liminality and mediation between heaven and earth, the undecidability which constitutes the fullness of grace in that in-between no-time of standing legs apart within the inward flow of grace in order to conceive (of) that which is beyond all human conception.

      But of course this is an imagined Eden, a painted Eden. It’s not real. It’s not, and never can be, the ‘real’ for ours is a world of images and representations, or—to shift from that Platonic separation to the more umbilical relationship offered by Aristotle, Thomas and Lacan—ours is a world of graced echoes and intimations pulsing within the materiality of being.

      If this painting of the woman in the stream is, as some interpreters suggest, an allusion to Susanna and the elders, then the artist offers us a moment of innocence before the impending threat of rape. The serpent is always already lurking in the shrubbery. The lusting beholder is always already there. The elders are watching. The male gaze is implied even as it is resisted, and the moment of solitary delight will soon become the moment of terror. What revolution must women bring about to change this story with its non-identical repetitions reverberating through our not-yet finished histories? Must it always be a history of violence? Must we always penetrate our own flesh, rob ourselves of our virginity, before it is taken from us?

      How do we return to that primordial moment of rapture, lost in the goodness of the gaze that knows eroticism without violence, pleasure without pain? Must we always look back on it from the moment of violation, in order to know what we have lost, in order to recognise the cost of becoming human? And must we continue to slice, to cut, to wound, to separate, lest we begin to slide backwards into that state of nature, where we know neither good nor evil, neither past nor future? The difference between the human and the animal is freedom, they tell us, but is it not also the vocation to fall and fall again into the knowledge that must break us in order to make us? And with such knowledge always comes the memory of what was lost before we knew the pain of remembering and the solace of imagining.

      Only when Susanna saw the elders and heard their threat, did she discover the rapture of that timeless moment of virginal pleasure in the river. Only when we have fallen can we recognise Paradise as our past and future imaginings, for imagination is the shuttle by way of which the soul weaves meaning upon the loom of time. Kant and his heirs take a dim view of the imagination, but for Thomas it is the necessary condition within which the dynamics of desire can operate, shuttling backwards and forwards between the object of experience and its conceptual interpretation. Thomas also ontologised memory, for without memory there is no ‘me’, there is no immortal self. But Lacan reminds us that the body too knows and remembers. Indeed, before the soul can know, the body must experience and remember. That’s why Lacan opens the door to a more radical Thomism.

      I’m reading Giorgio Agamben’s The Open, and here is a paragraph that has transfixed me:

      [Ext]What is man, if he is always the place—and, at the same time, the result—of ceaseless divisions and caesurae? It is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way—within man—has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so-called human rights and values. And perhaps even the most luminous sphere of our relationships with the divine depends, in some way, on that darker one which separates us from the animal.5

      Is that what cutting one’s own flesh amounts to—woman’s desire to be man by slicing away the darkness of the animal flesh, the matter that is always maternal, always ‘she’, the mother whose soul is always pierced by the sword of love, knowing that the child too must be pierced by love, if he or she is to know God?

      In ancient Rome, they would stab a virgin before they raped her, for fear of the awesome forces that would be unleashed by the sexual penetration of her virgin flesh. Is that what we do when we slice through our own flesh—master the powers of violence by inflicting upon ourselves what we fear others might inflict upon us, even if at its furthest extreme that is the power of commanding our own moment of death—like Antigone? Lacan is mesmerised by the thunderous silence of Antigone’s entry into the real, that liminal moment of the imaginary when, crossing over from the symbolic to the real, she steps across the threshold of mortality to join Schrodinger’s cat in the in-between. And why is Lacan’s real and Thomas’s God always silent, always separate? Catherine of Siena’s soul knew the union that Thomas would not allow or acknowledge, except in the rare case of rapture. Perhaps that’s because Catherine’s visceral plunging into the body of the risen Christ through the bodies of the poor and the suffering reconnected her to that source of life which flows from God’s body to my own through the body of my suffering neighbour, my hungry child, my desiring lover.

      But really, Lacan needs to get real. Antigone does not mesmerise me. Somebody needs to tell her, ‘let the dead bury the dead’. What is mesmerising about a young woman forced to choose between law and love, and choosing to die for love of that which the law has already put to death? Better to love life, Antigone. Let go. Don’t cling to him, like some not yet ascended phantasm who might yet morph into a body you can take hold of. The earth has taken him, along with your mother. Go get a life, silly girl. Antigone is a religious fanatic, and we have no need of any more of those. We all have quite enough in our different traditions.

      Unlike Susanna, Lucretia is not spared from rape. Rembrandt shows us two different interpretations of Lucretia, painted in 1664 and in 1666—a period during which his own life was spiralling out of control so that in the difference between these two interpretations of Lucretia it is tempting to see the artist’s inner world plunging into despair—though the very last self-portrait is not that of an artist in despair. Despair does not create art. Despair is the abject, the hopeless silence of the abyss. Art is always a reaching out to the other side, the determination to wrest meaning from futility and give it the kiss of eternal life.

      In the earlier Lucretia, there is still a moment of defiant possibility. Perhaps she is Kierkegaard’s knight of faith at this point, though the association is, strictly speaking, anachronistic—but, as I’ve said, theologians should not be too bound by the rigours of time. Lucretia gazes into the distance, dagger in her right hand, her left hand raised in a moment of hesitation. Her hand is bruised and her sleeve is torn open. She has fought a mighty struggle against her rapist, and maybe she will still decide that life is worth living. Augustine insisted that it was. Writing about Lucretia, he argues at great length in defence of her innocence.6 (Anybody who says Christianity is misogynistic should read this passage. Rape trials might be more just today if they were informed by Augustine’s argument about Lucretia). Her suicide is a guilty act because she puts an innocent and chaste woman to death. (I don’t know what he’d say about your piercings, Marika, specially since you say they aren’t about desire for God. But maybe that was true for all those self-piercing, self-starving, self-mutilating medieval mystics too, though they belonged to an interpretative community when God was a more legitimate reason for doing something than the self. Today, they’ve changed places. You say that very lucidly in your doctoral thesis—which was an epiphany for me.)

      By the time he painted the second Lucretia, Rembrandt’s life had spiralled out of control. Lucretia has become the knight of resignation. Her body has become her torn and bloodied vagina. A glistening smear of wet blood streaks the front of her virginal white gown. Is this the self-inflicted wound of suicide, or is it the consequence of the rape that has just happened? Her cloak gapes open, and the girdle round her waist draws attention to the wound and suggests the ruptured hymen. Her lips are swollen and bruised, her eyes gaze into the darkness, unfocused and brimming with tears. This Lucretia has been violently pierced, and she is about to slice through her own wounded flesh with the steel of the dagger she holds in her hand. She holds a cord in her other hand—the cord that will open the curtains around the bed when she falls, revealing the site of her violation. Like Susanna, eventually she will be made to succumb to the male gaze.

      Penetration. Piercing. Wounding. Killing. Enough, surely? How much more steel must slice through flesh before we learn to inhabit our animality, to relinquish our drive towards mastery, and to be reconciled with the dependent and vulnerable creatures that we are?

      So here’s another association—and now we’re getting to the meat of the question. My Presbyterian background didn’t have much to say about virginal birth, but it had a lot to say about the cross and vicarious suffering. Here’s the verse I’ve been thinking of since reading your response: ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5)

      What is the nature of this peace and this healing? How can we live ‘as if’ it were true—because surely, the Christian life is nothing more and nothing less than that ‘as if’? We are told that Christ still has the scars of his piercings in heaven. Maybe in heaven there will still be the necessary piercings of love, as part of the mystery of what it means to be made in the image of God. Does God ever stop suffering for love? Do we? Isn’t that more than enough suffering to be getting on with?

      No more pierced bodies. Until we make peace with our own bodies, we will never understand the peace and healing that the prophet speaks of.

      P.S. I think the foregoing is a response to Hannah Hofheinz, who wonders ‘what theological knowledge will become possible if Beattie’s writing incarnates that about which she writes.’ I wonder if it will catch on. I doubt it somehow.

      1. Tina Beattie, ‘Sexuality and the Resurrection of the Body: Reflections in a Hall of Mirrors’ in Gavin D’Costa (ed.), Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996).

      2. Augustine, City of God, Book 22, Ch. 17.

      3. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 192.

      4. This is Timothy McDermott’s abbreviated translation, quoted in Theology after Postmodernity, 44.

      5. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 16.

      6. Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapters 16–20.