What Does Exclusivism Feel Like? Part I by Janice Poss


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.

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Categories: Academy, General, Herstory, Women in the Church

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18 replies

  1. Thank you Janice! Great food for thought – phenomenal, in fact. The way we think has profound impact on women, those at the margins and even more so in politics. As long as we play our ‘predetermined’ roles, all is well.

    Well, all is not well, and we see that – not only in traditional religions – but across the world in our democracies, economies, the Arab Spring and endemic corruption. And our physical and mental health – too many people dying from their addictions. As you say, this circular thinking is creating tragedies in every single generation. It feels like, and is, a prison.

    We CAN choose not to be bound by this limited and condemning thinking, and that’s the path I’ve chosen. i fight back through words, and actions. I always have. From standing up for blacks in apartheid South Africa – and leaving as soon as I had to funds – to calling out work bullies, (men and women), sexual harrassment and discrimination and financial irregularities, I’ve stood up. I did this at a time when it was easier to find another job – it’s tougher for young people today to be true to their values.

    It may take another generation, or two, to create a more equitable and equal society, but fight we MUST, and be prepared to die, if necessary. It is the only way, to lift this very oppressive yoke imposed on us for too many centuries. This is Christ’s way too – and a man who flaunts the rules is even more condemned than a woman……

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    • Thank you Annette,
      Thank you for your brave thoughts. Yes, it is very difficult to be ‘healthy’ and stand for what you believe against those normative structures that have stood for so many centuries an d still stand as normative, but I believe it can and is changing and if we stand in solidarity it is can change for the better. Hang in there.

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  2. Great! I would just note one thing: knowledge or social structure never flows from academia into wider society. If we take an example of Ancient Greece, that was a Patriarchal society, where a privileged few (Greek men) enjoyed a life of leisure at the expense of women, slaves, and foreigner. Then they started philosophising. It was not like philosophers all of a sudden said: “Oh, yeah, let’s found this unjust society”. They already lived in it. And this is why Plato wrote his abhorrent Republic with all its caste system and eugenics, and this is why Aristotle considered women dirt. It is the same in any society. First you have a feudal system of oppressing women, people of other faiths and serfs, and then arises spirituality fit for it – Roman Catholicism. At the moment, we have imperialistic capitalism, and spiritualities that fit it: fundamentalism (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, recently – Buddhist – in Burma). Imperialistic capitalism is too unsustainable, it calls for unimaginable rape of peoples and environment. So, in order to carry on, it needs a suitably scary ideology to keep everyone under control.

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  3. Good article! This is why I wrote my first book, “I Will Love Unloved” and my recent eBook, “A Gender Neutral God/ess.” In them I attempt to deconstruct many of the religious ideas that have contributed to the second class status of women. As one can see by the current religious furor over the Pope’s washing a couple of women’s feet (gasp!!!) religion is still all about us and it needs dealing with. Just walking away from current religions isn’t really going to change things.

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    • I just heard this evening from one of my super sympathetic male parishioner friends that the new Pope washed the feet of a Muslim woman. That’s a huge message to male Muslims that women have value! My deacon Friday evening washed my feet! I did not wash his, but I would have done it because we all take turns serving each other as it should be.

      These are big actions in little ways as Theresa would have said. Little actions one on one is what changes dynamic and transforms lives! Relationship-one-on-one is the reality of what we have as Church.

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  4. 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?

    I attended a Jesuit university in the sixties..women couldn’t live on the campus because of Jesuit rule. That obviously changed. Basically we could be in the School of Education or Nursing. That too has changed.

    There is a long way to go in all areas, despite the changes that have occurred. The Church always seems to move at a snail’s pace.

    Thank you for this article.

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    • You are most welcome. Yes, God does move snaily!! But God moves and I do see change. When I do I just get all fuzzy inside, but I still have those thoughts that arise when I say, ‘I need to get out of here’, but then I look at the faces and speak to the people I have touched and that have touched me and I’m right back in the thick of it all. It’s where I’ be been called and I can’t change that because it took me a long time to get here.

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  5. This is a particularly good observation: “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…”

    I have similar questions/thoughts about Eastern mystics/gurus. Wonder what Buddha’s wife thought about his “non-attached” enlightenment as she was left home to care for their son…

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    • I think seeking spiritual paths is innate to most of us. I became a born-again Christian 10 years ago, and my husband and son saw it as very disloyal, especially as both had addiction problems and are both agnostic. I’ve helped homeless people, refugees, have friends all over the world, and travelled 60,000 miles (all self funded.)

      I donate to food banks, and help wherever I find myself. My husband and son will never understand it. It’s my path, and I’m true to it. If I’d stayed at home, I would have had a nervous breakdown. Addictive families are very, very negative environments – I grew up in one.

      So, I ‘get’ the journey of St. Francis, St. Thomas and Buddha. If that’s disloyal, then so be it.

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      • Good point, my family was extremely co-dependent–same thing, I gone off on my own finding my own path. So who am I to say; however, then one needs qualifiers to explain why one left the family in the first place, then one can make an informed choice. Yes, I question Augustine’s and Buddha’s choices because if the relationships were ‘healthy’ there would have been no need to leave and there are many healthy families who thrive, yet we do not read about them when it comes to Roman Catholicism even though it exists. A dichotomy exists then between those who espouse a singular spiritual path, but preach family values.

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      • I didn’t mean to sound like I think a spiritual path isn’t a worthwhile one, just that it always strikes me as pretty nervy to make pronouncements about the nature of reality, while simultaneously leaving your wife (or the women around you) to hold together the fabric of “attachment,” family, and the rest of life. It isn’t the spiritual seeking that bothers me—I spend a lot of time on that myself—it is the demotion/devaluation or dismissiveness or even disdain for women’s work/roles/attachments that comes along as an unpleasant subtext in the writings and philosophies of some “holy men,” including the Buddha.

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  6. As Francis used to say, ‘Preach the Gospel, but when necessary use words.’ Super profound, but as example–speaks volumes, because I think women have been doing this all along, to our credit!!!

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  7. Hi Jan,

    I usually don’t participate in blogs, but I thought I would contribute something here. It sounds like Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich has focus on not only sexism, but also what I think has been the crux of our world problems and the current political separation between the parties today here in America. Certain powerful people promote this exclusivism either because they believe it themselves or because they know it sells newspapers and television programs (Yes, I’m talking about Fox News). But in a broader aspect. it sounds like Minnich’s book would help us change our thought processes into a more open minded outlook about people that are different than ourselves.

    For example, when I was 22 and first started my missionary work at the Order of St. Jude (Not affiliated with the Catholic Church) or mission was to help the helpless which was St. Jude’s mission. So we volunteered at a home for mentally challenged adults. Those adults who’s families had abandon them, or who simple did not have the capacity to take care of them anymore. When I first walked into the St. Mary’s Square Living Center where they were located, the residents looked very different and scary to me. They were severely dishevelled, physically challenged, developmentally challenged, but those challenges also led to severe mental problems as well. These truly were the hopeless, and our mission was not only to help teach them basic skills and shave them, served them their meals but to talk to them and become their friends and to give them hope. In the end, all they really wanted and needed was understanding, love and attention and that is what we tried to give them. It was difficult at first, but soon I discovered that the more that I gave, even more came back to me. They soon couldn’t wait for us to get there, because we treated them differently then many of the staff. They felt that difference, and as soon as we came in they swarmed us, tugged at our robes and called our names over and over. In there giving, I know for the first time I experienced unconditional love, otherwise known as God’s love. In the end, I think we helped changed how the staff perceived them and treated them. We tread to instill an attitude that we are all in this together, it’s no longer exclusively the staff (us) and the residents (them) and just a job. They became more like our family, and we hoped that the staff and especially the administration began to see it that way too.

    Perhaps to truly understand someone outside our exclusive group or comfort zone, we have to live among a different group that is outside our own group for a while. Kind of what Jesus did coming down to earth in the Gospels. But for some that is not enough. After reflecting on this for 30 years after the mission, I realized that one has to do even more than just that. One has to go into the “different” group with a open mind that has thrown out pre-conceived ideas and is focused on understand. What I felt was our success in this is that we tried to live by the example set by Jesus himself. Our order focused on Jesus teachings in the four Gospels, which taught us how to think about and treat one another…with love as if they were part of our family, which they are. It still amazes me that when most people talk about the Bible they concentrate on everything but the Gospels. I believe the four Gospels contain the closest thoughts we have of God herself. All the rest is just hearsay and interpretation.

    Love,
    Jeff

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    • Jeff what a moving story. Really touched by your words, your actions, and the difference it made. We need many more millions of people like you in the world. But let’s start with us, first. You have really inspired me! God bless. xxxx

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      • Hi Annette, Jeff is my brother and I am so proud of what he said because it is so true. His sensitive compassion is rare, but solid and I also am touched by his story because I never knew it.
        As he says, it is so simple to practice washing each others feet, but so many do not know how to do it! It does take courage and it can be uncomfortable inthe beginning, but the rewards are amazing!!
        We are truly here to serve each other as John’s Gospel states, so fitting that it’s Eastertime,
        Thank you for your words, Jeff! Love you!

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        • This meant a lot to me. Spent yesterday with my twin brother whos dying of cancer. He’s so stoic and funny. We can share memories and he keeps looking forward into the unknown positively. We lived in Ethiopia for a while and when I returned to research a book, I had my feet washed at an orphanage by one of the servants Initially I felt embarrassed but then I saw the love and humility in it. What a blessing! I hope to do that for my brother too. ♥♥♥

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          • I just got an email from my best friend whose husband is going through chemo now for cancer in his leg. It’s early so I am hoping he’ll be OK.
            Life is funny, I am a twin also, my sister is totally agnostic and I am the one pursuing theology. Having shared the womb and have this life partner is a rare, and beautiful experience. I always tell people that I am never alone because she and I share the same genes.
            My first foot-washing was one year at our parish and they asked the choir to participate. One of our priests washed mine and it was a transformative experience. Yes, it is a very humbling expereince on both sides. As part of a Gospel of John class I had at LMU, all the students had to make a report on a particular passage and I actually did a foot-washing because I knew how it had changed me, plus I have to work on humility. The professor said ‘go for’it’. It was very interesting because even our professor who is a Presbyterian minister allowed me to wash his foot, but 2 of the Roman Catholic priests would not!! I should have cited the Peter passage, “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Jn. 13:8, to them, but I couldn’t react fast enough I was hurt, but just dropped it. Just another example of exclusion that harms people by its very action.
            My prayers are with you and your twin brother. Jan

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