Toward a Feminist Postmodern and Postcolonial Interpretation of Sin-3 - 中国人民大学 - 佛教与宗教学理论研究所
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Toward a Feminist Postmodern and Postcolonial Interpretation of Sin-3

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     My categories of sin may sound as though they echo Kierkegaard's. Underdeveloped cooperation with disciplinary power may sound like the womanly despair of weakness, and undue cooperation with power/knowledge may sound like the manly despair of defiance. However, there are several important differences. First, Kierkegaard's two modes of sin are (according to some scholars) hierarchically related gradations of selfhood, whereas mine are not. For Kierkegaard, womanly despair is a factor of less self-consciousness and reflects the fact that women have a less "egotistical concept of the self" and less "intellectuality" than men. Woman's natural devotedness, Kierkegaard continues, is a good thing; but "take this devotion away, then her self is also gone."62 Hence the feminine despair of weakness (in men or women) reflects a less formed self, compared with the more highly developed self-consciousness reflected in the manly despair of defiance. In my approach, on the other hand, underdeveloped cooperation is as agential as undue cooperation. Both are equal modes of a narrowly performing subject.

     A second way my approach differs from a Kierkegaardian model is that mine does not trade on gender or sex binarisms. For Kierkegaardian feminists, the path to overcoming sin is to rectify an imbalance between two types of sin with the aim of transcending gender and promoting androgynous selfhood. As I argued above, this androgyny mode complicates gender roles at the price of reinscribing a sex binarism. There is no sex binarism in a poststructuralist approach to sin because maleness and femaleness are one of many identity markers that are negotiated performatively. Sex is not differentiated binarily as something we naturally "inevitably are."63 Furthermore, overcoming sin is not about balancing opposites at all—a third way my proposal differs from a Kierkegaardian one. The most religiously faithful response to both undue and underdeveloped cooperation with disciplinary power is the same: wider discursive performativity. Breadth of discursive performativity of the needed kind puts the subject in a position potentially to avert any undue pursuit of, or underdeveloped relations with, power/knowledge that I am calling sin, understood poststructurally.64

     Discursive breadth in and of itself cannot be said always to prevent sin; nothing theologically speaking can make that claim. This brings us to a final important aspect of sin: sin's inevitability. A modern existentialist construal of finitude and sin (such as Kierkegaard's) accounts for sin's inevitability in terms of the tensions experienced by the self caught between two poles of being.65 The drag of finitude cannot coexist harmoniously with the loft of infinitude—hence anxiety and its inevitable resolution in sin for all humanity.66 Poststructuralism views human subjects culturally and is suspicious of the essentialisms in ontology. In human culture every relation is a power relation with its own history of effects. Although, as Foucault would insist, power is not evil in and of itself, the dynamic of ubiquitous power relations can be said to be a condition (though not necessarily a cause) for sin. For some reason (and here I would invoke the theological category of inscrutability), human discursive relations, which have the potential for a free exercise of power under communal "rules of law [and] ... ethics," inevitably devolve to some degree into oppressive uses of power.67 Foucault would admit that the best rules of law humanity can construct cannot protect against all misuses of power. In a more theological mode, we can say that sin's inevitability is a result of the recurrence of subjects continually entering into power/knowledge relations in a distorted way. Historically, to some degree, every discursive performance has fallen short and will inevitably fall short of God's goodness and glory. However, unlike Christian existentialism, which grounds sin's inevitability ontologically, mine is a theological claim based on a (poststructuralist) reading of the consistent pattern of human practices.

     I have proposed a notion of sin in critical conversation with Kierkegaardian feminists who make theological anthropology their starting point for discussions of sin. However, many feminist theologians have a different starting point; they situate their discussions of sin in terms of a Bible-based doctrine of creation, making the notion of the imago dei the organizing principle for their sin talk. As we will see below, a poststructuralist reconfiguring of this notion is crucial for avoiding a male/female binarism and for providing a criterion for what constitutes a religiously appropriate widening of discursive performativity.


     Christianity provides a religious discourse whereby an individual's conception of herself as created in God's image is one of the most important constituting aspects of who she is. A crucial question for feminists situating sin within a doctrine of creation is, how should we construe the notion of women's creation in God's image so as to understand sin as the pervasive distortion of that imago dei? There is a fairly unified feminist opposition to the largely sexist and dualistic tendencies of the Western theological tradition that has associated femaleness with fallen humanity and a distortion of the perfect (male) soul.68 On the whole, feminist views of creation promote a nonhierarchical, non-gender-biased view of the creator God, a holistic approach to spiritual embodiment, the created equality of the sexes, and a nonanthropocentric, eco-friendly attitude toward nonhuman species and the cosmos. Patricia Hunter sums up the implications for women of a creation-oriented theology: "If all God created was very good, including humankind, then all women, regardless of ethnicity, class, varying abilities, or sexual orientation, are part of God's very good creation."69 I affirm the attempt to combat the tradition's patriarchy, racism, androcentric hierarchy, and mind/body dualisms that oppress women (and men); however, it is also important to reflect critically on feminist appeals to sex-differentiated creation, which I contend entail heterosexist privilege—even if unintended. Mary Fulkerson has noted "the deployment of the heterosexual binary" in the writings of Ruether.70 I would like to probe this issue further in relation to the biblical creation accounts that form the explicit or implicit subtext for feminist appeals to women's creation in God's image.

     Some feminists conclude that the two creation stories read together yield the insight that "the image of God is reflected in a community of persons, in a humankind that is created male and female" for whom "being like God can be achieved only by the gift of self to others and the reception of the gift of self from others."71 Other feminist theologians wish to affirm sexual embodiment, correcting a long-standing tendency in Christian thought to associate sexuality with the sin of concupiscence. In an effort to endorse the created goodness of sexual bodies, feminist theologians argue that "sexuality lies at the heart of all creation and is an icon of who God is, the God in whose image we were created male and female (Gen. 1). Sexual desire and sexual need are a continued contradiction to the illusion that we can exist by ourselves."72 Feminist theologians resist interpreting the story of creation as "a binary pattern of sexual complementarity" because of "its hidden theme of domination" and argue instead that "in both creation stories mutuality is the key."73 This critique is directed toward the complementarity aspect, not the binary sex notion itself. Thus, many feminist theologians stress that being created in the image of God entails the embodied fact of sex-differentiation, which they interpret to mean that humans achieve their fullest capacity for reflecting God's goodness in unitive, mutual relationality (sexual or social).

     Positive as these statements are for affirming nonhierarchical, mutually dependent human community and sexuality, they entail a disturbing male/female sex binarism that can be traced to the Genesis creation narratives. Rebecca Alpert, a lesbian feminist rabbi, argues that the Genesis account of creation "introduces a rigid binary identity" that inculcates "painful and prejudicial societal attitudes" toward intersexuals, lesbians, gays, transgendered individuals—in short, anyone who deviates from the "compulsory heterosexuality" entailed in the biblical call to become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24).74 Are such problems entailed even when (1) the Genesis text is not cited specifically; (2) an appeal is made only to male/female creation in the image of God in Gen. 1:27, and texts like the aforementioned Gen. 2:24 or 1:28 ("and God said to them, `Be fruitful and multiply'") are downplayed or avoided; and (3) the feminist writer in no way endorses and even explicitly rejects such prejudicial views? I would answer yes on all three counts. Regarding condition 1, the Genesis creation narrative functions as an unavoidable subtext to any (Christian or Jewish) appeal to creation in the image of God, even when the Bible is not specifically quoted. Regarding condition 2, appealing to the notion of natural, God-created maleness and femaleness forms the basis for a discursive regime of normative reproductive heterosexuality from which follows heterosexism (as I have argued above via Butler). Regarding condition 3, without an understanding of the connection between the discourse of binary sex and its disciplinary (heterosexual) effects, the best of intentions to combat prejudicial heterosexism will be hampered.

     One way to recuperate the notion of creation in the image of God for feminist theology is to reformulate the notion of the imago dei in terms of performativity theory. If the self is discursively constituted in the context of multiple performative acts in relation to cultural conventions, then the image of God would be the graced possibility for godly performativity in every discursive relation. To say that our humanity is created in God's image means that our performativity has the possibility of being "an icon of who God is."75 If all aspects of human performativity (including gender, sex, and sexuality) can be iconic of who God is, then excluding any discursive relation from what is seen as reflecting God's image would render an incomplete imago. Since our discursivity is fluid and multiple, we have a lifelong project of progressing in our performance of the image of God. This poststructuralist concept of performance need not conflict with the deeply held Christian beliefs that the imago dei is a gift of the Creator and that growth in godliness is only possible by grace, understood theologically in various ways (e.g., cooperative grace or sola gratia). To reconceptualize the imago dei in terms of identity performance is not to say that it is solely the individual's accomplishment. My poststructuralist reformulation simply re-situates this theological notion of a divine gift to the human person in a way that does not invoke notions of a pre-given human subject.76

     What would it mean concretely to perform the image of God? Answers to that question will necessarily differ widely. Each individual would negotiate her particular way of performing God's image as it is construed by the religious community with which she associates (and there may be widely divergent interpretations of it). That is, each community's construal of the imago dei becomes a discursive regime that functions as a convention for religious conformity to God's will. To the extent that the believer cooperates with these community-specific discursive conventions, they become constitutive of her religious selfhood, so that she is performatively constituted in part by relations of power (and grace, the theologian will want to add) with the discourse of creation in the image of God. The believer performs her faithful religious identity while also discursively negotiating her various subject positions as, for example, a woman, a Caucasian, a mother, a factory worker, an immigrant, an artist, and so on. The discourse of religious faithfulness to the imago dei would need to intersect with discourses of sex, race, family, labor, national origin, and vocational calling so that the believer could endeavor to embody godliness in all aspects of her life. Referring back to my claim in the previous section that overcoming sin requires the proper breadth of discursive relationality, we can say that the discourse of the imago dei functions as an important criterion to inform what is godly performativity in every discursive relation. It enables the believer to choose well (religiously) as she widens her discursive performativity.77

     How can this reformulation of the imago dei assist feminist theologians wishing to avoid heterosexist entailments in their appeals to women's creation in God's image? Viewing selfhood performatively deconstructs the notion that to be created in the image of God means having been given some putatively natural femaleness (or maleness); rather, femaleness is seen as a performed effect of discourse and not the cause of natural desire for its opposite (maleness). If one can break the assumed causal connection between sex and desire (sexuality), then one can affirm sexuality as divinely blessed without any entailments of normative, privileged heterosexuality. In the poststructuralist reformulation of the imago dei that I have just outlined, human sexuality can be affirmed as part of what it means to be created in the image of God—that is, we as sexual beings have the possibility of godly performativity in the way we negotiate our gender, sex, and sexuality. Some individuals' religious performative identity will include the pleasures and constraints of heterosexual maleness and femaleness (among other conventions), but a performative theory of the imago dei does not entail notions of naturalized, normative heterosexuality. Reconstructing the imago dei performatively thus decenters heterosexuality and allows the theologian to theorize that many sexualities have the possibility for performatively reflecting the image of God.

     Objections to my proposal may come from a number of Christian theological circles. Some might argue that binarily sexed bodies are an order of creation and that my reformulation of the imago dei and sexuality in terms of a theory of discursive performativity, therefore, threatens this belief.78 In other words, the theory might be seen as freighting an agenda that is not compatible with certain Christian faith claims. Here I would draw a distinction between the theory of performativity, which can be used to analyze the discursive formations of any religious belief or practice, and my own use of performativity theory to reformulate the notion of the imago dei in order to deconstruct a heterosexist binarism in feminist theology. The theory of performativity is a neutral tool of analysis and, in principle, could be used by any theologian to analyze Christian practices discursively. However, I want to make the additional argument to feminists that if combating heterosexist entailments is a goal, then one would be well served by viewing the imago dei and sexuality performatively. Doing so avoids implying that the imago dei is connected to natural sex differentiation with its entailments of compulsory heterosexuality. My use of the theory is therefore paired with a stance opposing any interpretation of the biblical account of creation in God's image as God-ordained binary sex.


     In this section I bring together my poststructuralist discussions of selfhood, sin, and creation in the image of God in order to apply them to the story of Sarah and Hagar in the Book of Genesis. There has been a burgeoning interest in new hermeneutical approaches to passages about women in the biblical text. The Hagar-Sarah accounts in particular have been the focus of sometimes conflicting interpretations by women scholars from a wide spectrum of nationalities, religious backgrounds, races, theological orientations, and religious studies approaches.79 In my reading of the story, I intend to show how my approach to selfhood has a payoff for understanding sin in a situation of oppression and moral complexity, how it requires the intervention of postcolonial theory, and how both poststructuralist and postcolonial theories have their limitations as well.

     If we take the story as a literary whole (rather than from a historical critical perspective), the identities of the two women may be interpreted poststructurally to show their discursive construction.80 Sarah's and Hagar's religious identities are variously constituted in relation to the Abrahamic covenant that appoints Sarah as the "mother of nations" (17:16), views on women's and men's reproductive capacities (18:11), the politics of sexual encroachment from men other than one's husband (13:10–20; 20:1–18), female competition within a polygamous family structure (16:46), slavery, motherhood within a patriarchal society where women's principal social role is reproduction, national identity (16:1, 3), forced surrogacy (16:1–4), and exile (21:14). I designate these as discursive practices (and not just factors or events influencing these women's lives) because doing so allows the reader to see how Sarah's and Hagar's identities are constituted and reconstituted in the process of negotiating various power/knowledge regimes that today we would designate as religion, patriarchy, reproductive exploitation, and so forth. Within each discursive relation there is the graced possibility of godly performativity; there is also the reality of sin—both structural and individual. I will analyze the latter in terms of the two modes of undue and underdeveloped cooperation discussed above.

     As Sarah and Hagar negotiate and renegotiate these various discursive regimes, their performativity changes in relation to God and to each other. The story portrays these changes narratively. At two different points in Sarah's story, religious faithfulness means remaining sexually pure, so that she will carry only Abraham's seed (13:10–20; 20:1–18). At another point, religious faithfulness means she must strive to provide her husband with children in accordance with God's plan that Abraham's offspring will outnumber the stars (15:5). The way in which Sarah tries to perform this religious identity via Hagar's surrogacy has been seriously questioned by womanist and other feminist readers of the story.81 There are shifts in Hagar's identity performance as well. Hagar is a voiceless victim in relation to Sarah's burden of childlessness and is called upon by God to submit to her mistress (16:9). In another context, she is the namer and beholder of deity in the wilderness (16:13). When fleeing with her son into the wilderness, Hagar must adopt attitudes and behaviors of independence and survival which constitute a different performativity. The changes Sarah and Hagar experience are not indicative of playacting. The bodies of both women are materially inscribed with the disciplinary mechanisms that produce each one's identity.

     It goes without saying that Sarah and Hagar are "sinned against" structurally in ways that cry out for an insurrection of subjugated knowledges. Some apparatuses of power make overt resistances difficult if not impossible; however, to the extent that Sarah and Hagar can be seen as having agency, their behaviors and attitudes can be analyzed in terms of undue and underdeveloped cooperation with various discursive regimes. Sarah sins against her neighbor, so to speak, in unduly pursuing the pleasure of her performativity as mistress in Abraham's household, which functions as a disciplinary power over Hagar, with whom she "dealt harshly" (16:6). Sarah, in her narrow discursive relationality, does not engage any insurrectional knowledges (e.g., sisterhood within patriarchy or the injustice of indentured servitude), which might have fostered in her some empathy for or solidarity with Hagar. In relation to God, Sarah leaves underdeveloped her cooperation with the discourse of divine promise that she will bear a son (18:12). She does not widen her discursivity to embrace this promise in faith but, instead, remains docilely focused on a discourse of barrenness. Her undue cooperation with that discourse contributes to her lack of openness to the mysterious ways God plans to activate the Abrahamic covenant through her offspring.

     After she bears Ishmael to Abraham (16:4), Hagar apparently sins by undue cooperation with the patriarchal discourse of mothers of firstborn sons as it relates to the Abrahamic covenant. By giving birth to a son first, she, not Sarah, is the one manifesting the inauguration of God's covenantal promise to Abraham regarding his (patrilineal) unlimited progeny (15:4, 5). She unduly cooperates with this discourse and, and a result, she looks "with contempt on her mistress" (16:4). Hagar is later given a divine promise that her own (presumably matrilineal) progeny will be numerous and that Ishmael's nation will be great—independent of the Abrahamic covenant (16:10; 21:18; cf. 21:13). That divine discourse is the basis for a potentially powerful subject position as God-namer and receiver of God's promise. This is an identity that even Sarah and Abraham did not have the power to annul and could have functioned as an insurrectional knowledge that might have enabled Hagar to feel more secure about God's providential care for her despite the mistreatment she suffered. It seems, however, that Hagar leaves underdeveloped her cooperation with this power/knowledge because, in her brief time of relatively elevated status as mother to Abraham's firstborn son, she seems to have succumbed to the temptation to "lord it over" Sarah. It is not until she is cruelly cast out into the desert with Ishmael that she launches into a courageous performativity of this subject position.

     A possible complication of my poststructuralist account of sin in this story is a debilitating relativism. If identity performances are fluid and multiple, sin as the distortion of our performativity of godliness would be multiply defined as well. This would seem to undercut what a feminist doctrine of sin has traditionally wanted to do—that is, specifically name and protest the sinful acts and structures that distort the image of God in women, men and throughout creation. One would seem to need a more stable notion of evil and good than is possible from a postmodern perspective in order to be able to assess degrees of culpability in sinful acts. Surely it would be ethically inadequate to suggest that Sarah and Hagar are equally responsible or culpable—especially in the effects of their sin toward their neighbor. Some womanist scholars in particular have strongly argued against such an interpretation of the story (and rightly so). At this point, we are impelled to look further than the notion of discursive identity performance, in order to be able to highlight differences in the material effects of sinful distortions of the imago dei.

     Spivak's notion of strategic essentialization (introduced earlier in relation to social sin) can be particularly helpful for this task. Borrowing Spivak's idea, we can say that when oppressed women concretize images of God and godliness for their particular religio-political purposes, these can at times be seen as strategic essentializations of religious agency in light of some overwhelming experience of oppression.82 Womanist readings of Hagar as an oppressed slave can be seen as strategically essentialized interpretations of Hagar's identity, meant to bolster African American women's struggle to survive in today's racist society. Similarly, we can see strategic essentialization at work when womanists name Sarah's behavior as sinful oppression, using the story allegorically to draw connections to "white slave mistresses who abused their female slaves" in American history and holding up Hagar today as "an inspiration to black mothers living in a society that would deny them access to power and material provisions for their children."83 By essentializing the status of Hagar rhetorically as more victimized than victimizer, one can make ethical judgments about Sarah's actions so that the gravity of Sarah's participation in the interpersonal and structural sinful oppression of Hagar comes clearly to the fore. One can also highlight the extent to which Hagar's identity performances carry less hegemonic power than Sarah's. Yet, by seeing Hagar's essentialized victim status as provisional and strategic, one can still acknowledge Hagar's agency and hence her performative sin in relation to God and Sarah.84 If Hagar's allegorical positionality as oppressed black slave woman were to be seized upon as a definitive identity politics, that would surely result in an unproductive, statically essentialized view in the long run.

     Combining the poststructuralist notion of discursive identity performance and the postcolonial notion of strategic essentialization helps to conceptualize the shifting positionalities of Sarah and Hagar, the nature of their sin, and the degree of moral culpability of each one's actions. One can affirm, poststructurally speaking, that identity is produced and performed in shifting discursive relations. However, in order to draw ethical distinctions between the actions of individuals with differing positions of power, the feminist theologian may be obliged to freeze-frame the identity performance, so to speak, in a strategically and provisionally essentializing way and name the specific sin for a specific ethico-political purpose. In a situation of both injustice and moral ambiguity such as that depicted in the Sarah and Hagar story, this approach to conceptualizing sin seems a particularly apt way of naming evil and making ethical assessments of human behavior.

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