371. Favale & Feminism

Reading Abigail Rine Favale’s spiritual autobiography—Into the Deep:  An Unlikely Catholic Conversion (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, c. 2018; Kindle Edition)—prods one to consider both the strengths and inadequacies of evangelicalism, the breakthroughs and and fallacies of feminism, and the reasons that led her to enter the Catholic Church.  Living in Utah and Idaho, surrounded by Mormons, she and her family “took refuge in a conservative evangelical bubble” (p. 9).  She cannot remember not being “Christian.”  At the age of three, responding to her father’s question concerning her readiness to accept Jesus into her heart, she said yes and was thus “saved.”  Subsequently, however, she wondered what had really happened.  Was she truly saved?  Again  and again she would repeat the sinner’s prayer just to make sure she was right with God.  Though taught to believe “once saved, always saved,” she continually struggled to feel at ease with that position.   She’d learned “that I should turn to prayer and ask for forgiveness, but this led to a dizzying loop:  I was saved and thus already forgiven for my sins, freed from their penalty, yet I needed to ask for forgiveness for new sins I committed, from which I’d already been forgiven, because I was saved” (p. 128).  But for all its limitations, the religion of her childhood provided a secure social world and ample exposure to the teachings and stories of the Bible, and she was particularly fascinated by Old Testament women who seemed resourceful and self-reliant.

       When she was a senior in high school her parents began attending a large, growing church.  Though they thought it would be good for her it mainly provided opportunities to “troll for boys.”  Her earlier religious fervor faded as she wearied of swinging from enthusiasm to apathy, so she sought comfort by “careening from boyfriend to boyfriend, from love to crush to meaningless hook-up, without much care or awareness of how anything I did affected anyone else.”  Her “drug of choice was male attention” (p. 16).  Losing her virginity, she considered herself “damaged goods” and distanced herself from both her parents and the church.  “Toward the end of that year, I smoked and drank a bit, as if to round out the archetype of the rebellious teenager,” and dabbled with a Ouija board.  Yet:  “Even though I was living in an array of colorful sins, marooning myself from the grace of God, I was not particularly concerned for my soul and fancied myself impervious to demonic forces—because, after all, I was ‘saved’” (p. 16).  

       Graduating from high school and hoping life would somehow improve Favale enrolled in a Christian university.  Though she never names it, a quick online search shows she attended George Fox University in Oregon.  She resolved to make a new start and in time met the man she’d ultimately marry.  During her freshman year she took a required New Testament class and began thinking about the male-female roles spelled out in Scripture.  Doing some research in the library, she “made a life-altering discovery:  Christian feminism.  On these shelves, I found ample resources to interpret the Bible in a way that confirmed my belief in the equality of the sexes before God.  By the end of the semester, just weeks away, I had embraced an evangelical feminist hermeneutic and wrote a term paper for that class with the provocative title ‘God is a Feminist’” (p. 21).  She began reading the Bible differently.  It was not to “be taken at face value as a clear-cut instruction guide for life, free from tensions and ambiguities.  No, this Bible was richer, scarier, multivalent, and in need of careful interpretation.”  She could now do hermeneutics, and that allowed her to believe in “the equal dignity of the sexes” and reject “strict gender roles” (p. 22).  Subsequently she moved from reinterpreting the Bible to disregarding it, losing confidence in its inspiration and authority, even trying to “to pray to God as Mother, convinced that masculine language for God was a hangover from patriarchy” (p. 25).  Yet addressing God as Mother left her strangely unable to pray.

       In her freshman year Favale also took an introductory class in philosophy.  It opened her mind to thinking more deeply, examining her faith in ways never expected in her childhood.  Her professor was an Anglican priest who encouraged students to consider a sacramental form of Christianity that appealed to her.  She’d earlier tasted a bit of liturgical, eucharistic worship in a Lutheran church, but attending Anglican services awakened her to “a deeper sense of the sacred.”  She then began meeting with a small group of students, using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as a devotional guide.  “Eventually, I decided, along with several of my compatriots—including boyfriend Dave—to be confirmed in the philosopher-priest’s small Anglican denomination” (p. 29).  Nevertheless, her Christianity steadily weakened as she more fully embraced the feminist creed.  She took a generally “postmodern outlook:  ultimate truth cannot be known by finite human beings, so we collectively create metanarratives of meaning to connect with what remains beyond us.  Christianity is one such narrative, perhaps the best and truest one, but not necessarily actually or absolutely true in its entirety” (p. 35).

       As she recalls:  “Untethering myself from tradition, Scripture, creed—at first this all seemed so liberating.  Everything was boundless potential; I could salvage what was meaningful and purge myself from the rest of it.  There were no limits.  I lopped those branches from the great ancient tree, just enough to keep afloat, and I paddled away from the shore alone, without a clear heading, whispering to no one in particular, ‘I am free, I am free, I am free’” (p. 43).  In fact, she was adrift, rootless and foundering, professing to be autonomous and empowered but inwardly quite otherwise.  “When I think about this time,” she says, “this is the image I see:  a girl adrift in the ocean, no land in sight, clutching onto a tiny, wooden raft, just a row of logs tied together.  Her feet churn in the water, touching nothing but dark fathoms beneath.  She is clutching the raft, which holds her afloat, but the raft itself is anchorless, rudderless.  They bob in the water together, waiting to wash up on some shore, any shore, so the world can seem steady again” (p. 42).

       Nevertheless she went off to graduate school in Scotland and returned to George Fox University as a professor of literature.   “In this Christian academic setting, I saw myself as an iconoclast in the trenches, battling for the soul of Christianity against the fundamentalists” (p. 46).  But then she became a mother!  She experienced “the sea change that happens to a woman once she gives birth, the inner transformation that occurs, one simultaneously subtle and earthmoving” (p. 48).  Seeing an ultrasound of her baby boy at 10 weeks of age led her to question her abortion-rights feminism.  She then encountered “the intractable reality of maleness and femaleness.  These are not mere social constructs” (p. 51).  Her pretended autonomy faded as she discovered her “I” becoming “We.”  She hadn’t imagined “the wild motherlove that would pull me out of myself” (p. 52).  She simultaneously sensed a need for church, something she’d disregarded  for too many years, so she made “a radical, unanticipated move” and shifted from being “a disaffected post-evangelical feminist on the brink of atheism” to considering becoming a Catholic! 

       For years she’d embraced a form of Christianity that mainly espoused social justice and love.  Theology and dogma mattered little.  But now she found herself needing something more.  She found herself needing what Catholics call “actual grace”—not a forensic matter of “getting something you don’t deserve” but of receiving a supernatural infusion of God, enlivening and remaking a person.  With St Augustine she confessed:  “Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new.  Too late have I loved you!”  She’d at last begun to really love Him and began, for the first time in years, to pray, finding (with Benedict XVI) that “prayer, properly understood, is nothing other than becoming a longing for God.”  To be a Christian is to become one with God through the infilling of His Spirit.  Salvation “for the Catholic, involves actual transformation, an ongoing process of sanctification, so the love of God, which has been poured into our hearts by faith, can be kept alive and continually refine us.  Since salvation ultimately culminates in union with the triune God, the soul must be purged from sin altogether, not merely freed from sin’s consequences.  Contrary to popular misconceptions, this process is not something we accomplish on our own, through our own works and merits—that would be Pelagianism, a heresy rejected by the Church in the fifth century.  No, sanctification is only possible through supernatural aid—divine grace—and our active participation with that grace” (p. 87).

       Having explained her reasons for entering the Catholic Church, Favole devotes the rest of her book to explaining how that decision enabled her to become whole, nourished by the teachings and sacraments of the Church.  The power of God is evident as she enters into a truly devout life, relishing her role as a wife and mother.  Her prose is fluent, her story is compelling, and we learn much from her about our world.  

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       In The Genesis of Gender:  A Christian Theory (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2022), Abigail Rine Favale expands upon ideas set forth in her engaging autobiography, Into the Deep.  After a decade of deep engagement with postmodern feminism, earning a Ph.D. in women’s writing and gender theory at Edinburgh University, she found herself in 2015 teaching a course on gender theory at her alma mater, George Fox University.  Though she had abandoned orthodox Christianity years earlier, she saw herself as a revisionist called to “construct a new Christianity, fully purged of sexism, hierarchy, and sin” (p. 18).  She’d taught the course many times, but now she “was in the midst of two dramatic upheavals in my personal life:  the birth of my second child” and “a tumultuous conversion to Catholicism, which was upending everything I thought I knew.  I found myself both giving birth and being born—my body turned inside out to bring forth a daughter; my soul turned inside out to make room for Christ.”  A year earlier she’d joined the Church, thinking she could “become a ‘cafeteria Catholic’, lugging my cherished progressive beliefs into the Church and taking shelter under the canopy of conscience.  Then something terrible happened.  My conscience started to rebel.  The progressive beliefs I was carrying began to feel less like personal belongings and more like baggage:  burdensome and out of place” (p. 8).

       In the following weeks she began questioning the feminist dogmas that had long shaped her life.  She realized she’d been living in a darkness of illusions, mistaking rhetoric for reality.  Consequently, she felt like she had “been giving my students poison to drink.”  Sadly enough:  “For so many years, I’d been careless, careless with their minds and, most disturbingly, their souls” (p. 10).  Listening to this confession, one of her colleagues, uninterested in coddling her, came to the point:  “‘You know that verse in Matthew?  The one that says if anyone causes the little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the sea?  I’ve always thought it would be a good idea for us professors to have that tattooed on our arms’” (p. 10).  She needed to repent and change her location.

       Recently appointed a professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame and fully aware of feminist ideology, Favole says college students now “inhabit a world where feminism has become mainstream, even in Christian circles.  Not to be a feminist is a major faux pas, tantamount to being anti-woman,” and virtually all universities offer classes in gender theory and feminist philosophy.  A few years earlier she’d “had to go out of my way to find feminism . . . but this is no longer necessary” (p. 25).   There is, she thinks, “an authentically Christian feminism,” but it’s not what’s taught in the universities, so her distinctive form of orthodox Christian feminism makes her a “heretic.”  She’s thankful for some of the good feminism afforded her, but “it ultimately brought me to a place at odds with Christianity, a place I will call the gender paradigm.  The gender paradigm affirms a radically constructivist view of reality, then reifies it as truth, demanding that others assent to its veracity and adopt its language” (p. 26).

       Clearly explaining the positions she now rejects, Favale devotes a chapter to the history and theories of feminism, a term which has been used for a century to describe a 19th century social reform movement, akin to abolitionism and prohibitionism.  Most of those feminists—constituting the first wave—focused on getting the right to vote, and “were not radicals or revolutionaries.  Most were middle-class wives and mothers, committed Christians who opposed abortion” (p. 50).  Their goals were reached with the passing  of the 18th and 19th amendments to the Constitution.  Following World War II a second wave of feminism turned in in more radical directions.  Using the recipe concocted by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, “the Women’s Liberation Movement caught fire,” and “feminists began to actively rethink women’s roles within the home and in the workforce.  A major part of this effort was a renewed emphasis on so-called ‘reproductive freedom’—that is, unlimited access to birth control and abortion” (p. 51).  In the 1990s a “third wave” of feminism called for unbridled sexual expression, making consent “the lone benchmark for sex to be considered licit.  If a woman chooses a particular sex act, that sex act is good, even if it involves prostitution, pornography, or sadomasochism” (p. 52).  Then recently a “fourth wave” feminism made an about face, revealing a “growing ambivalence toward unrestrained sexual license, an emerging awareness that women can be mistreated even within the boundaries of what is technically consensual” (p. 52).  “Me too” became its litany.  

       Analyzing these feminist movements, Favale finds the atheistic existentialist/Marxist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir enormously important.  She wrote The Second Sex in 1949 and “was the first philosopher to give an account of male domination that pervades all spheres of human life and thought.  Women were objectified by men, she insisted, and “female human beings are socialized to conform to this understanding of womanhood from birth.  This idea is behind her well-known line, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’  That statement is the mustard seed of gender theory” (p. 54).  To de Beauvoir, as to her mentor Jean-Paul Sartre, the world is meaningless and nothing is natural.  “Meaning must be made; it cannot simply be found.  It is up to us to justify our existence, to give it purpose.  We are not created; rather, we create ourselves, and failing to take up this work of self-creation is a moral transgression” (p. 55).  The second feminist thinker Favale examines is Judith Butler, who shifted the focus from “women’s studies toward gender studies.”  Following Michel Foucault and postmodern philosophy, her “primary goal as a theorist is to dismantle the normalization of heterosexual relationships—the tendency to see the male and female sexual relationship as normal and natural, which in theory-speak is called heteronormativity.  The idea that humankind is split into two sexes that are biologically complementary is, for Butler, a social fiction rather than a matter of fact” (p. 64).  Butler dismissed virtually all sexual standards, including the incest taboo.  Building on this, a black feminist theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, added “intersectionality” to today’s feminist agenda—making a worldview Favale calls “the gender paradigm.”  Importantly, “this paradigm is a godless one” and is “diabolic, in the literal sense.”  No God made us—we’re merely effusions of a material or social process as Marx declared.  “Reality, gender, sex—everything, even truth—is socially constructed.”  We are, as humans, nothing by nature.  So we can make ourselves whatever we want to be.  Today’s feminism lacks coherence because classical logic has been discarded as an aspect of toxic masculinity.  But Favale thinks it important to evaluate its framework so as to “understand how this framework differs from a Christian one.  Only from that foundation—from a solid understanding of competing worldviews—is it possible for Christians to mine feminist thought and praxis for hidden gems and to partner with secular feminists toward shared goals” (p. 73).  Doing so requires several chapters in the book as the author challenges us to think clearly about contraception, abortion, women’s liberation, autonomy, social engineering, preferred pronouns, transgender surgery, etc.  

       Having rejected the feminist gender paradigm, Favale sets forth her “Christian theory” of feminism—obviously relying on St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, a “personalism” that sees “each human being as a person, rather than a collection of ever-proliferating labels, and, more importantly, to attune our awareness to the sacramentality of every human body.  Bodies are not ‘just’ bodies.  Bodies are persons made manifest.  The sacramental principle is always at work: the visible reveals the invisible.  The body reveals to us the eternal and divine reality of the person—a reality that can only break into the tangible, sensible world through embodiment” (p. 120).  John Paul II insisted that “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible:  the spiritual and the divine.  It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”  

       Favale builds her case by contrasting the Babylonian and Hebrew creation stories.  In Genesis, God creates the cosmos ex nihilo.  “The God of Genesis has no parents; he does not come into being.  This absence of an origin testifies to his eternal presence.  He is not a being, like Marduk, but Being itself, the infinite ground of all finite existence” (p. 30).  God brought into being an orderly world, a good world, that includes human beings, male and female, who shared “a unique dignity, marked by the image of their Creator, and entrusted with the sacred work of cultivating life.  Sexual difference is not an extraneous or faulty feature of the cosmos but an essential part of its goodness” (p. 31).  Importantly:  “Genesis affirms a balance of sameness and difference between the sexes.  This is a delicate balance that is difficult, but necessary, to maintain.  Most theories of gender lose this balance, veering into extremes of uniformity (men and women are interchangeable) or polarity (men are from Mars, women are from Venus).  Both extremes lose the fruitful tension expressed here in Genesis” (p. 33).  What God created man describes, using the miracle of language.  With Adam we can see things as they are—their essence—-name them.  Language does not construct reality—it describes it.  God created by saying “let it be” and man sees and names what it is.  Contrary to a pivotal tenet of feminism, we do not construct reality—we should see and revere it.   

       Favale believes “that the constructionist view of language is a complete inversion of the correspondence view depicted in Genesis” (p. 37).  The Bible declares that we’re created beings, designed to behold and revere what God has made, to study and understand it as best we can, and to live in accord with its design.  The Christian tradition teaches us to “see the world as a created cosmos of which we are a part, this transfigures everything: embodiment, sex, suffering, freedom, desire—this is gathered up into an all-embracing mystery, an ongoing interplay between the human and divine. This imbues all-that-is with renewed significance” (p. 198).  There is a deeply teleological aspect to Christian thought enabling it to discern purpose and meaning in creation, for the “‘whatness’ of a thing, its essential identity, is connected to its purpose” (p. 198).  Drinking deeply from the well of Scripture and saintly writers, Favale rejoices to find how she fits into the cosmos an can walk humbly with her Lord.    

       This means accepting one’s body as a gift from God, something wondrous to be revered, not to be ignored or transformed.  Designed in His image, we ought to nurture and develop our body’s potential.  Openness to God, following the Virgin Mary in accepting His will, is our ultimate good and purpose.  “Our bodies are continual reminders to us that we are not autonomous, that the fantasy of self-creation is no more than a fever dream, a symptom of underlying illness” (p. 203).  Rejecting Genesis, post-modern thinkers declare that “we are not bodies animated by interior souls, but bodies shaped by external forces.”  Changing the language from sex to “gender,” sexual differences are seen as cultural stereotypes rather than naturally embedded realities.  Endless varieties of “gender” are now celebrated, none of them fixed by anything other than one’s inner feelings.  Consequently:  “In our postmodern moment, discussions about gender tend to revolve around appearance and roles.  To be a woman is to fulfill a particular social role, or to mimic typical feminine behavior and attire.  Feminism and its progeny, gender theory, centers the conversation on doing rather than being” (p. 206).

       But being truly matters.  Being open and yielded to God, choosing to say Yes to Him enables us to find what we long for.  “We can choose to receive all these things as gift.  We can choose to say yes to a Love that is stronger than death.  We can enter, even now, the eternal moment of Annunciation, when the yes of one woman becomes the fulcrum of redemption” (p. 211).  Be it done to me according to Your will!