In the last few weeks of 2012, a sister parishioner recommended I read Transforming Knowledge by Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich. Many in academia perhaps have already read this book, but I am just getting to know the world of scholars and have found this book refreshing. It puts its finger on the messy entangled core issues that we grapple with on this blog site.
Minnich enumerates errors prevalent the way we think, suggesting that we need to restructure knowledge traditions that privilege the few and create “higher/lower” thinking, categorical “kind” thinking, and hermeneutical circles of presuppositions that only get reinforced time and again. Such circles are never broken into by any other thoughts or ideas because they are believed to be epistemologically and ontologically normative.
Imbalances that start in academic disciplines and then trickle down to and through society at large in all areas, not just religion, must be brought into consciousness so they can be corrected with new thinking that no longer oppresses those outside these circles, but brings them into the dialogue so that new more creative thinking happens. The point is to level the playing field, but not to relativize knowledge. The goal is create a new way of thinking that is a diverse and pluralistic.
Much that currently passes for reasoning is based on four errors in thinking that Minnich identifies as:
- faulty generalizations – thinking that uses the few to create maxims about the many;
- circular reasoning – thinking that reinforces its major premise over and over again without evolving even in the view of new information that might refute the original thesis;
- mystified concepts – thinking evolving out of circular reasoning by surrounding the idea in a mythical membrane of illogically, believed legends that endure;
- partial knowledge – one-sided thinking that refutes impartiality never considering the whole picture.
We, “thinking” women, are already actively rethinking thinking and have been doing so for the past fifty years with feminist hermeneutics. We continue to interrogate the cages of privilege that ostensibly build impenetrable walls dividing the self- appointed elite from those deemed “lesser than,” “not equal to,” “lower than,” “incapable,” or even “‘evil.” Yet those who are privileged remain ensnared behind their own deceptive walls enclosing themselves in a false authority and fake hubris that leads them to dictate the defining maxims to those of us on the outer limits deemed “not as knowledgeable or without the [conviction] or [strength].” (Here I replace the words “authority” and “power” with “conviction” and “strength” because the language of this prescriptive privilege needs to change — here and now.)
In religion, normative conventions have been used to control and oppress marginal, excluded groups–“women, other males, those that work with their hands and the disabled,” as Minnich names these groups. In the past these groups have lacked the convictions and strength to counter those who have traditionally ruled and made their convictions and strengths the only real, viable ones. Those of us involved in wanting reform androcentric religions need to be aware of the systematic shut-out of all those deemed not included by “hierarchical monistic” norms, another apt Minnich-invented term. Such norms were developed almost at the inception of written history, a time when scientific knowledge was not available, and a privileged few “Men” sat around thinking about the world in Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and a few other cultural regions. They began creating the hierarchical monism we live with today.
Time has made us forget that this set of “norms” may not always have existed. However, they go back so far that collective humanity has forgotten the alternatives. The normative “Male” has spoken with Power and Authority ever since. This needs correction. What women or others “supported” the likes of a St. Thomas, for example, allowing him to be able to sit, reflect and write all day long without having to worry about a roof over his head and food in his stomach? He was part of a clerical elite system put in place in the middle ages.
I wonder how much of a “vow of poverty” St. Thomas–and even St. Francis–really took? Both came from very privileged economic backgrounds, were educated, and did not have to make a living to support a wife or children. Why do we glorify these men? Is religion the hubris of the male ego–men glorifying themselves and creating a mystified existence that removes them from the responsibilities of the world under the guise of “divinity”? While the women work in the trenches doing the work that supports this “divinity”? Nuns, wives, mothers, sisters, and others have rarely had the privileges to just sit and “think.” What about the women working in ministry today in the Catholic Church for example? Most are doing this work voluntarily and without pay.
Knowing the history of inherited thinking, we can now begin to deconstruct and reconstruct a new knowledge in all disciplines as we attempt to create an equal world. New thinking is especially needed where religion is concerned. We must piece together a new quilt of all colors, not a mono-tonal one of a privileged male or solely female communities–but of religious communities where all are welcome. Once a Jesuit told me that women would never be “allowed” into the Jesuit order, but then I read somewhere that there were women Jesuits. If one feels the call of Ignatius, should not one follow that call without regard to sex or gender? (Come back tomorrow for part II of this essay!)
Janice Poss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University in Religion and Women’s Studies, holds MA.Th. from Loyola Marymount University and BA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and sits on the parish council at her church. Her interests are in theological, philosophical and spiritual aspects of religion as they are expressed aesthetically in the visual arts.