Our Bodies, Ourselves as the Agents of Love

Excerpts taken from Beverly W. Harrison (1981), ‘The Power of Anger in the Work of Love’ in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi, pp. 41-57, a key article in feminist theology.

Part 3

… embodiment … A moral theology must not only be rooted in a worldly spirituality but it must aim at overcoming the body/mind split in our intellectual and social life at every level. … Ironically, no dimension of our western intellectual heritage has been so distorted by body/mind dualism as has our moral theology and moral philosophy, which is why a feminist moral theology is so needed… However, fewer men in the field of Christian ethics have grasped the connection between body/mind dualism and the assumption many moral theologians make that we are most moral when most detached and disengaged from life-struggle. Far too many Christian ethicists continue to imply that “disinterestedness” and “detachment” are basic preconditions for responsible moral action. And in the dominant ethical tradition, moral rationality is disembodied rationality (p. 48).

… all our knowledge, including our moral knowledge, is body-mediated knowledge. All knowledge is rooted in our sensuality. We know and value the world, if we know and value it, through our ability to touch, to hear, to see. Perception is foundational to conception. Ideas are dependent on our sensuality. Feeling is the basic bodily ingredient which mediates our connectedness to the world (p. 48).

… A feminist moral theology enables us to recognize that a major source of rising moral insensitivity derives from being out-of-touch with our bodies. Many people live so much in their heads that they no longer feel their connectedness to other living things. It is tragic that when religious people fear the loss of moral standards, they become more repressive about sex and sensuality. As a result they lose moral sensitivity and do the very thing they fear-they discredit moral relations through moralism.

By contrast, a feminist moral theology, rooted in embodiment, places great emphasis on “getting clear,” on centering, on finding ways to enable us to stay connected to other people and to our natural environment. Unless we value and respect feeling as the source of this mediation to the world, we lose this connection. To respect feeling is not, as some have suggested, to become subjectivistic. To the contrary, subjectivism is not the result of placing too much emphasis on the body and/or feeling. Subjectivism and moralism derive instead from evading feeling, from not integrating feeling deeply at the bodily level. This is not to suggest, however, that feelings are an end in themselves. We should never seek feelings, least of all loving feelings. Furthermore, the command to love is not now and never was an order to feel a certain way. Nor does the command to love create the power to feel love and it was never intended to do so. Action does that. Feelings deserve our respect for what they are. There are no “right” and “wrong” feelings. Moral quality is a property of acts, not feelings, and our feelings arise in action. The moral question is not “what do I feel” but rather “what do I do with what I feel?” Because this is not understood, contemporary Christianity is impaled between a subjectivist and sentimental piety which results from fear of strong feeling, especially strong negative feeling, and an objectivist, wooden piety which suppresses feeling under pretentious conceptual detachment. A feminist moral theology welcomes feeling for what it is—the basic ingredient in our relational transaction with the world (p. 49).

… It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because anger has been understood as a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is – and it always is – a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed. … We must never lose touch with the fact that all serious human moral activity, especially action for social change, takes its bearings from the rising power of human anger. Such anger is a signal that change is called for, that transformation in relation is required… we are reluctant to face the cause of moral escapism in the church- namely, the fear of feeling, and more specifically, fear of the power of anger …Rather, in interpersonal life it masks itself as boredom, ennui, low energy, or it expresses itself in passive-aggressive activity, or in moralistic self-righteousness and blaming…. The important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden, or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies (p. 49-50).

(Part 4 appears on the 6th of May)

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One Response to Our Bodies, Ourselves as the Agents of Love

  1. Pingback: Annunciation and Denunciation: Doing “Public Theology” in Authoritarian Times | sbthistle.org

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