Weaving the World
by Marjorie Suchocki
Marjorie Suchocki received her Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, in 1974, and is Dean Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont California. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 76-86, Vol. 14, Number 2, Summer, 1985. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
A lecture delivered at Xavier University, October, 1983 for the purpose of introducing the audience to basic elements of feminist and process thought.
We women are weavers -- makers of things from the stuff at hand. The image is an old one, calling up visions of women with spindles and looms, taking raw cotton or flax or wool and turning it into a refined thing for cultural use. Beauty, too, was woven into the final product, witnessing not only to the pragmatism of the work, but to the sense in which the soul of the weaver found its way into the finished object. We women are weavers. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that we turn to ideas in a weaving way, seeing them, too, as raw material for cultural use. To work with ideas, weaving them together, impressing them with beauty from the knowledge of living -- such an impulse drives the thinking of those whose very being remembers the weavers.
I would like to weave two ideas together, pulling these ideas into the fabric of human existence. The resulting cloth, I hope, will have dimensions of both beauty and cultural usefulness: the beauty of a vision of wholeness, emphasizing an awareness as well as the actuality of interdependence, and the usefulness of guiding action toward an approximation of the vision into a more just society. The materials for this weaving are feminist theology and process theology. While I call only indicate here portions of each, my hope is that this will be sufficient to set others, too, to weaving with these ideas, checking the resulting cloth for the making of a mantel which will not only clothe society, but also mold society toward its shape.
Feminist theology, of course, is a special instance of liberation theology, taking its place in the liberation camp as the call to reexamine modes of theology which suggest or enforce the inferiority of half the human race. To be sure, many will rush to the defense of prevailing theologies of women, crying that the conferred status of women is not at all inferior, just a different mode of superiority -- or possibly, in less enthusiastic moments, a different mode of equality. In our culture this incidentally entails lower pay for equal work, fewer job opportunities, the exclusion of women from highly valued professions until very recently, and persistent questioning of the appropriateness of women occupying high office in church, government, or business. Such discrimination on the professional scene is paralleled brutally by the light regard which society has traditionally held toward crimes against women such as wife-battering or rape.
While the situation is changing, the changes are slow and often problematic. For example, it is great progress that academically there is official recognition of the importance of the study of women’s historical, literary, and cultural experience and work. But often if one listens carefully one hears a faint sigh of relief in the academy over the establishment of a "Women and Religion Section" among scholars, or a "Women’s Studies Department" in colleges or universities. The pesky question of women need not permeate the academy after all, but can be relegated to the new kitchen in the academy, where women play with the pots and pans of their ideas. There is ambiguity even in our progress.
One might object that these are cultural problems rather than theological ones. What is feminist theology? Feminist theology holds to the insight that there is a deep connection between our societies and our theological visions. In the reciprocity between the two, theological vision not only reflects a societal perspective, but also reinforces and shapes it. There is a deep sense among feminist theologians that to seek changes in society requires making changes in our theological visions as well. When theology supports and encourages the idea of woman as childlike, or as the source of evil, or as possession, or as primarily emotional and not overly given to intelligence, as essentially dependent, then feminists claim that theology is at that point invidious and simply wrong. Feminist theologians investigate and challenge the negative aspects of theology vis-à-vis women. Moreover feminist theologians work toward the building a of more holistic theology, one which reflects the reality rather than the lip-service of justice among all peoples. Feminist, black, and third-world critics of theology together point to the way injustices are woven into the prevailing theologies. Feminist, black, and third-world theologians call for the ideological as well as social redress of these injustices, certain that the justice of the Reign of God, which judges the church is not to the advantage of a privileged class or corner of the world Rather, the justice of God sees to the well-being of all within the context of the well-being of nature. The whole earth is the realm of God’s justice. While there is a sense of praxis -- that theology emerges out of right action -- in all three modes of liberation theology, there is also the awareness that right action is called right on the basis of a preceding vision of justice.
In feminist circles, there is an interdependent network of women working on various fronts of feminist theology, some with a stronger emphasis upon action and others along the scale working with the shaping of the ideas which shape us. The spectrum extends to women such as Mary Daly, whose approach is to see to the creation of a feminist society. She develops a strong critique of traditional theology and religion, constructing a feminist spirituality in its stead. Her strong criticism of Christianity in her first two books, The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father, gives way to an absolute repudiation of Christianity in her next two books, Gyn/Ecology and Pure Lust.1 Yet Beyond God the Father concludes with a call for a female messiah, and there are certainly grounds to speculate that this call is answered in the next two books by Daly herself. The vicarious suffering from the universal sins against women and the subsequent movement into the new life of feminist community strongly echo central Christian themes, and the apocalyptic setting in the midst of a death-loving and death-dealing patriarchal culture increases the parallel. However, despite the implicit Christian presence through such symbolism, the works are explicitly anti-Christian in their intent. They typify one strong thread of feminist thought.
A different mode of feminist theology is represented by Dorothee Sölle. In many works, but particularly in Political Theology,2 she constructs a powerful and active political theology under the rubric of seeking the indivisible salvation of the whole world. The roots of the theology are explicitly Christian, with the force of development reaching toward an increasingly comprehensive vision of justice.
Still other feminist theologians concentrate on the texts of our tradition, seeking to find within the texts themselves an alternative and more constructive view of women. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza3 and Phyllis Trible4 are outstanding representatives of such work. Out of their scholarship they provide material for women to find both rootedness and transformation within the Christian tradition. All feminists, of whatever camp, seek both to understand the world and to change the world, working from a criterion of wholeness and the interdependence of all on this earth.
Particular targets of concern in feminist theology are patriarchal assumptions of pre-established graded orders of being, and the concomitant notion that each grade of being is inferior and subservient to all orders above it, and free with regard to responsible rule toward all orders beneath it. A closely related theological notion involves an anthropological dualism between mind (superior) and body (inferior), intellect (superior) and emotions (inferior). Of course feminists also decry the corollary symbolism whereby man is seen essentially as mind and intellect, while woman is seen essentially as body and emotion. Feminists also call for reexamination of the notion of sin in traditional theology, noting that definitions of sin as pride and sensuousness do not reflect women’s experience of sin and are actually antagonistic toward the development of women. Finally, there is an adamant insistence by feminists that God is not "internally, supernally, eternally" male. All ofthese concerns together yield yet another fundamental position of feminist theologians: theology is relative to experience. Theologies in principle cannot be universal nor command universal assent. Deep in the heart of every theology is a perspective rooted concretely in a very particular human experience. Even and especially our thoughts of God are woven not only from our texts, but from ourselves. Thus the dicta of theology can in no way be deified.
My intent is to weave with two strands of thought, not one, so I now turn to an equally brief description of the second stand, process theology. The first and foremost insight of process thought is that to exist is to be in relation, and that relationships are internal, not external, to existence. Because of this, existence is a process of becoming, and not a steady-state reality. Also because of this, all existence is interdependent. Finally because of this, thought emerges from feeling. To begin to describe the "why and how" of these statements is to begin the weaving process with feminist theology.
To exist is to be in relation; relation is internal to existence. This point is perhaps best explained by being illustrated through the type of personal experience which sadly enough occurs to all of us at some time or other. I refer to the phenomenon of loss through death. Recently my mother died. Our relationship had been deep and rich, but now she is absent to me. I always used to think that in the death of someone we love, a part of the self dies, too, because the self called into existence by the other is no longer so called. Like some untended vine, that portion of the self withers, finally to die with the other. But I think now I was wrong, because it is not like that at all. It came as a perplexity to me the first time I tried to say, "I loved my mother," because the past tense of the verb seemed simply wrong: I still love my mother. But she is no longer there in person to evoke that loving, and love is most certainly relational. What does it mean, that the immediacy of loving survives death? I do not mean that sentimentally but ontologically. What does it mean when love continues beyond the time of its reciprocity or evocation by the other?
From a process point of view, I think the experience simply witnesses to the internality of relations. The love that was between my mother and me was not an external between, like telephone wires covering the distance between our two cities. It was an internal between, a creation of and within the self. To be sure, the love was evoked by my mother, but also by myself in response to her. The loving was not static, but changing over time. To love included not only the vagaries of circumstances -- annoyance, anger, pleasure, laughter -- but the growth from a childhood emotion, through all the changing years of becoming womanhood, to that which finally emerged in these last twenty years as an ever-deepening friendship. The love was not external to me, but rather a name I gave to a certain constitution of myself. Loving my mother became part of my character, one might say. My mother had every reason in the world to "take it for granted" that I loved her, because the loving had simply become part of who I am. But that part is integrated with the whole in such a way that it affects other relations and is affected by other relations in the interiority of who I am. Loving my mother turns out to be a complexity of relationships rather than the single relationship between my mother and me. This integration of relationships means that love continues beyond death of the one loved.
The experience of this integration and its import for continuing love took place in the following way. My brothers and I and my children all developed a new closeness around our mutual loss. It seemed that when the love from my mother no longer fed our daily realities, there was an intensification of the in-pouring love for each other from each other. The love ordinarily channeled to our mother/ grandmother now more intensely qualified the love each gave to the others; receiving such love reinforced the ongoing and living quality of loving my mother.
The experience has brought the following observations. The habit of loving my mother continues in me, but with her death there is a new qualification to the love. First, it carries the name of grief relative to her absence, and second, it adds new depth to the love I give my brothers and children. Just as love for my mother moved through various forms in my growing and adult years, it now has moved to yet this new form. But now here is the thing: the love is not separate from who I am, not something I "have," like baggage one could put down and take up. Were that the case, there would be no such phenomenon as grief1! Nor in its internality to me is love like some optional treasure I carry around clutched in some psychic hand. It is not something I have, but something I am -- with the "am-ness" of it dynamic, rooted in a past and reaching into a future.
If this reflective account of the experience of love and loss carries any power of familiarity, then it can convey a sense of the central process image. Existence is relational; relations are internal to who we are, and our weaving response to relations becomes the history of our becoming. Relationships intertwine our existence, qualifying each other and intensifying each other according to the creative responses and purposes of each of us.
On an ontological level, process thought suggests that this experience of human existence as relational is not an exception to all other forms of existence, but is an exemplification of what existence is about. We are experience become conscious of itself; this consciousness can function as a light to illumine the rest of the world. It shows us not an alien place, but our own home, a world of which we are part, in deepest continuity. "Dust thou art . . ." says an old text, and process thought simply affirms our continuity with all the world. All existence, like our own, is taken to be constituted through relation and response; all existence is dynamic; all existence is interdependent through the process of relationship.
The interdependence of all existence rather than only some aspects of existence follows from the reality of intersecting circles of relationship. Each point of existence has a certain ring of primary influences, but each of those primary influences has its own ring of influences which partially overlaps and partially extends beyond the circles of the others. Influences from beyond one’s immediate sphere are nonetheless mediated to one through those that are close. Human experience can illustrate the point: a friend may be upset over an accident which has occurred to a cousin. While I may never have known the cousin, I am affected by that cousin’s plight as I interact with my friend. The principle is that influences are in some cases direct, but in far more cases indirect, mediated through primary sources. In the interconnectedness of relation, everything eventually affects everything else. For how can we delineate the boundaries of relation? If relationships are internally constitutive of existence, then sooner or later everything affects everything! To be sure, the effect is variable in impact and in importance, and we grade the order of importance according to our own purposes and proximities. A mother is far more important to us than, for example, some tree a continent or so away. Of course, if there is enough pollution in the air, and that tree along with the forest in which it stands begins to die and is impeded in its production of oxygen, then we might call our relation to that tree quite important indeed. Everything affects everything else in a relational world.
My brother, a physicist, puts it in a rather poetic way: "You are stardust," he says, meaning quite literally that our very bodies are dependent upon unperceived but nonetheless inexorably effective relationships communicated throughout the universe. We are stardust! Existence is relational, and relations are drawn from all the universe, and are internal to what each reality is and who we are. But if all existence is relational, then who and how and what we are likewise has an effect upon all else in the universe -- some maximally, and most minimally, but an effect nonetheless. It matters, this becoming of ours, and not only to and for ourselves. We actually make a difference in the whole of this awesome universe.
There are deep implications for responsibility in such an understanding. If everything which exists has an effect upon us, then cannot we say that the whole universe is in some respect responsible for the context which so powerfully shapes us? But if our own becoming is our response to the universe of relation, and if we in our own purposive stance do what we can and will, then are not we, too, in some measure responsible to the whole universe? Ah, how marvelously large that is -- large enough to be either overwhelming or totally meaningless, for in saying so much, what can it mean? But see again, as in the illustration with my mother: our rings of responsibility are strongest toward those in our immediate circle of relation, yet inexorably, like the rings from a pebble spreading out until they touch the shores of the whole pond, our responsibility too continues to ripple through this pond of our world -- and universe. We are involved in gradations of responsibility, but responsibility nonetheless.
I have alluded to our continuity with all nature, or the sense in which relationality is fundamental to all existence. The human difference is not in terms of the dynamics of existence, but in terms of the intensity of that dynamic. Intensity signifies the sense in which many quite different relationships, each with its different effect, are nonetheless integrated positively within the becoming experience. The alternative, of course, would be the attempt to negate or minimalize most of the bombarding relations, allowing few to realize their fullest influence in the becoming experience. Intensity invites and produces consciousness as the mode of integration. Relationships themselves are not conceptual abstractions, but the primacy of this, affecting me here, now: raw feelings. Since relationships are them selves mediated through feeling, one can say also that feeling gives rise to thought. From the intensity and complexity of the many feelings in the depths of us, thought is pushed into existence.
For example, to understand what happens in love and in grief, must not abstract myself from my experience, but think my way into my feelings, wherein lies the source of thought. From feeling, thought emerges. Feeling is not antithetical to thought, but its root and possibility. Often Shakespeare’s King Lear seems to me to be one the finest illustrations in literature of this reality. The mad Lear is wandering on the moor, clutching a devastating letter, and he encounters the blind Gloster. When Lear asks Gloster to read the letter, and Gloster protests that he is blind, Lear exclaims, "Yet you see how this world goes!" "I see feelingly," replies Gloster. True knowledge involves the integration of feeling into thought. And feelings are the received data of the world, complete with emotional coloration which converge in myriad ways to produce the reality of our world and ourselves.
To summarize: to exist is to be in relation; relations are internal to existence; they are dynamic and hence push the creation of temporality and history. Relational existence embraces the universe in inter dependence and therefore mutual responsibility. Relational existence is mediated by feelings, which give rise, within the supporting context of the body, to thought.
These are some of the basic tenets of process thought, and it should be apparent why process theologians often feel drawn to liberation theologies. To perceive oneself existing interdependently in the world calls for responsible thought and action toward injustice anywhere in the world. I am affected by it and affect it. When in fact I have benefited from injustice through wealth or privilege, I am to that degree responsible for the perpetuation of the injustice. To sense is to move toward a different exercise of responsibility, which is to say one which seeks to change the situation of the world in the direction of justice.
John B. Cobb, Jr., has probably taken the strongest action in exercising such responsibility within process circles, since for well over a decade he has addressed himself toward issues of the well being of our planet. His steady movement into political theology is explicit in his writings of the past few years.5 Schubert Ogden and Delwin Brown are likewise deeply involved with issues of liberation theology.6 Ogden probes the distinction between witness and theology, inquiring into the theology of freedom which undergirds and springs from the witness to liberation. Delwin Brown, likewise, has’ listened deeply to the call of liberation theology, seeking to elucidate the history of the notion of freedom which is now embodied in liberation thought and action.
Perhaps the most striking correlation between process and feminist modes of thought appears when one considers the extensive research of Carol Gilligan, who is not a theologian, but associate professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. While working with Kohlberg in the early Seventies on this ground-breaking study of moral development, she noted that girls and women were consistently graded as less moral than boys and men. The standard for judging moral development was developed from the experiences and reflections of the male investigators -- a perfectly good procedure, save that the masculine experience was not seen as a variable in the study, but a norm. What if women are not inferior morally, but simply perceive reality differently from men and develop moral vision accordingly? So long as masculinity is not viewed as a variable, this possibility would escape the observer. Gilligan began exploration of her thesis in what became a ten-year study culminating in her work, In A Different Voice.8 In this book some of the affinities between process and feminists become clear. Gilligan’s studies demonstrate that the sense of connectedness, not separation, is paramount in women’s experience from infancy onward. While men develop a morality based on individuation and impartial justice, women develop morality based on interdependence, mutual responsibility, and caring. Instead of viewing one model of morality as superior and the other as inferior, Gilligan advocates valuing both in mutual conversation -- thus, of course, embodying in her own conclusions the development she has traced in her studies of women.9 There is a remarkable accord between what Gilligan cites as women’s experience and the ontology of process philosophy. For my own part, the initial impact of process philosophy on me was to produce a cry of relief: at last, a philosopher saw the world the way I experienced it! Whitehead s powerful conceptuality has been for me since then my language for expressing the world.
Given these strands of feminist and process modes of thought, what kind of garment can be woven? Let me play with the metaphor by noting that garments come in sizes. Big, small, good fit, loose fit -- garments are not abstract, they are to be tried on, worn, worn out, mended, patched. The weavings of thought are like a garment, woven from experience, for experience. The garment will fit some, and not fit others; it can survive many wearings, and be adapted to new times, or it can wear out beyond patching in a relatively short time. Both process thought and feminist thought call attention to the garment-like nature of our views of the world and even ourselves; thought is relative to its context. If calling attention to the interdependence and inter-responsibility of existence is the first important result of the weaving of process and feminism together, a second important result is the very fact of calling attention to the garment-like nature of our modes of thinking.
Thus one of the challenges and contributions of the weaving is to note the relativity of our thought to our context. Feminist theology in particular notes that the hearing of women’s voices shows the perspectival masculinity which has colored and determined the garment called theology. Assumptions drawn from male privilege and pride have been projected onto God and society, and declared to be absolute. We have had pious pretensions, I think, that whereas other modes of thought -- physics, sociology, psychology -- certainly reflected limitations of viewpoint, somehow theology, incorporating divine revelation, escaped relativity of perspective. Theology, we may have thought, is more like mathematics, like a word from above, transcending our histories, breaking into our times, so that it speaks of God clearly. Theology has often been thought to mediate absolute truths. No, say feminists. There is a little sadness in the saying -- absolute truths are so clean-cut, so unambiguous, so pretty. The feminist critique unveils the implicit masculinity that has threaded its way throughout theological formulations, showing that theology, too, is bound by relativity of perspective. We may indeed see God in and through our theologies and texts, but only through the stuff of our own existence woven into the seeing. It is a garment we have produced, not a universal truth. The garment, like all garments, will fit some, and not fit others. Should garments be thrown out, then, because they do not fit everyone? Ah, then we should freeze in the winters of our loneliness! Better we should simply adjust the fit and see to helping others as they, too, weave their mantels.
To know the garment-like nature of thought is to receive a new kind of theological freedom. Again, let me illustrate from my own experience. Before I began the study of theology, I had the entire world figured out. I knew the divine mind and the divine plan and the whole scheme of things. My theology then was not like a garment, but like a thing of crystal which encased me -- rigid, ungiving. One day while pushing a baby carriage down the street I was contemplating the eternal verities and the population explosion, and it suddenly occurred to me that out of about four billion people in the world it was very odd, even ludicrous, that I out of all the billions should be right on so important a point as the fundamental nature of the universe. A crack appeared in the crystal. And one thing led to another, and soon I was leading a Bible study among my neighbors, good women, from many traditions -- Catholic, Protestant, and simply secular. These women provided a spectrum of some of the world’s problems. Vi’s baby had died when only eight months old; Anne, who was about to return to school for her longed-for masters, had just been told that she had multiple sclerosis; Mary’s grown son was institutionalized for a severe mental disorder, with no realistic hope of recovery. A neighbor boy had randomly dropped a plastic bag of water from the overpass on a nearby interstate, killing the random motorist. Ordinary problems, raising ordinary questions of evil, meaning, life, death. But my answers did not fit my neighbors’ questions. How could that be? And the sound of the crystal cracks increased. So I threw away my all-of-the-answers Bible Study Guide, and stayed only with the text. Even there I could not seem to see single answers. One dark night I woke from a terrible dream which was more than a dream, continuing into my waking. The crystal theology surrounding me, protecting me from the world, had cracked completely and crumbled, falling in tinkling shards to my feet. Now there was only darkness, and I was falling through it, only there was no place to fall. No walls, no bottom, no ceiling -- no God. God had crumbled with the crystal, and I no longer knew the divine mind nor the divine plan. This was all a long time ago -- certainly long before I became a feminist, or knew of process theology -- and if I had, I would have thought it heathen! But I still remember the agony of that night. And I remember its profoundly simple resolution. There came over my frightened spirit the sense that the darkness was God. I had fallen out of "faith" and into God. Or, to put it into more accurate theological language, I had moved from faith in my ideas about God to faith in God. Much later I read a famous little book’s concluding lines, "God is the God who appears when the God of theism disappears," and I recognized in Tillich’s words a commentary on that earlier, life-changing experience.
A feminist/process theology, speaking from the rootedness in interrelationship which permeates all our existence, threatens to put cracks in our cherished certainties concerning the absoluteness of our belief systems. That is a very uncomfortable experience. To unveil the deep-spread andromorphism in our God-talk and in all our theologies is to manifest the relative, conditioned nature of our theologies. Hearing from the black and third-world theologians of the cultural advantages and cultural oppressions wrought through our theologies underscores again the relativity of theological thought. Such recognition calls for a new strand to be woven into our theologies, the strand of humility. It calls for a critique of theological ideas not only from the stance of inner logic, or conformity to the norms of text and tradition, but a critique fashioned as well from the variety of voices on this planet so that we might better see the projections of ourselves which we have woven into our understanding of God. It calls for theology to lose its abstractness, and to view itself as the garment woven of our experience.
The freedom from the burden of absolute knowledge is the freedom to play with theological ideas, to experiment, to test, to listen to differences with interest rather than a sense of threat. In such freedom the circle of positive influences widens rather than narrows, and the very stuff of one’s thinking is enriched immeasurably. While such theology indeed speaks of God, God is not reduced to the theology -- and in fact is seen more to be the ground of faith which produces the very impulse and delight in that garment of theological vision.
What to do with a theology which is only a garment? Why, wear it, of course -- and in the wearing, to test it. It will require all the washings and mendings and maybe finally even quilting into the past which is appropriate to garments. And when our garment has been woven not only with our own stuff, but with strands given to us through the other’s experience (and in this relational world, such a situation is unavoidable; it is only a question of how we will weave that other’s experience into and with our own), then our garment might begin to reflect the richness of this world’s community. Properly clothed, we might find the energy to work for the richness of well-being of the whole planet, that others, too, might have the liberty, strength, and wherewithal to weave their own garments. In my own perspectival, relative way, I rather think that God intended us thus to wear our theologies all along.
Women, you see, are weavers. So we take thoughts fashioned out of the stuff of our own lives, out of the gifts of others, such as Whitehead, and weave them into a different wholeness. In the weaving is a vision of a world woven together in full community. Perhaps the weaving of our ideas and the weaving of our world are finally only two aspects of the same task.
1Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973). Gyn/Ecologys The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978). Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).
2Dorothee Sölle, Political Theology, trans. John Shelley (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).
3Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroads Publishing Co., 1984).
4Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).
5John B. Cobb, Jr., Process Theology as Political Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982).
6Schubert M. Ogden, Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979).
7Delwin Brown, To Set at Liberty: Christian Faith and Human Freedom (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1981).
8Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).