(Presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, May 2004)
‘I may behold with the eye of Faith’:
Feminist Hermeneutics and Early Modern Women’s Writings of Faith.
When Virginia Woolf first wrote about the sad plight of ‘Judith Shakespeare’ – William’s fictional sister who was created by Woolf to illustrate her argument that women did not and could not write prior to a supposed golden age of women’s writing in the nineteenth century – the absence of early modern women from the androcentric English literary canon certainly seemed to support this assumption. However, over the past three decades, the feminist critical project of (re)discovery and reclamation has not only revealed that early modern women did, in fact, write, but has also signalled a significant shift in critical assumptions about literary production, readership, and even literacy that is ongoing even today as the traditional canon continues to be reconfigured and transformed.
The recovery of early modern women’s texts has also continued to challenge historical and critical expectations about the silence of Renaissance women and the obstacles that confronted any woman who dared to put quill to paper, much less to publish. Many feminist critics have written about the early modern ideal woman who was chaste, silent, and obedient – an ideal that was continually reinforced through education, economics, political and social institutions, and, above all, religion. Yet despite all these factors, early modern women did write and, for the most part, they wrote for much the same reasons as their male contemporaries. Inspired by the heady mixture of purpose and ideal in the philosophical and religious arguments of humanists and reformers from Erasmus to Luther and Calvin, and particularly by contemporary discussions on the role and function of women and the validity of individual religious experience, writers such as Margaret More Roper, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Aemilia Lanyer responded to the dynamic changes in religious thought and spirituality and explored their own changing roles in society. It was, in fact, the Reformation which provided the most significant opportunity for women to write. With its emphasis on individual salvation and the reading of Scripture, the Reformation presented women who would write with a purpose, a variety of literary models and contexts, and even a certain legitimacy. The piety and virtue which were attributed to the Renaissance ideal woman became the path by which women could approach contemporary literary discourse. Thus, by embracing the terms of their own culture, early modern women writers were able to create for themselves a niche within the literary establishment as the authors of pious works, texts through which they were able to wrestle with the problems of self-expression and self-definition.
Many feminist critics have attempted to claim early modern women writers as their own – sisters in the struggle against patriarchal oppression – yet inevitably anachronisms arise as postmodern readers search for signs of resistance and subversion within a literary and cultural context that is far removed, not only historically but socially and even psychologically, from our own. The problems inherent in approaching early modern women and their texts from a postmodern feminist critical stance become particularly apparent in discussions of women and religion and early modern women’s writings of faith as contemporary attitudes of secular scepticism clash with a Renaissance Christian frame-of-reference. In light of the vital role that religion played in early modern English society – not only in the form of an institutional church that maintained its control over many aspects of life, both public and private, but also as an often devoutly-held personal faith – the importance of studying the impact of religious beliefs upon the lives and writings of early modern women from an informed, and even sympathetic, perspective is clearly evident. Feminist critical studies have repeatedly characterized women’s writings of faith as the refuge of the weak, a submission to the socio-political demands of an androcentric hegemony that sought to consolidate power through the establishment of a clearly-defined, male-controlled hierarchy that located women as the new vassals to men’s social, political, and economic interests. What has been missing from the debate is a balanced and knowledgeable discussion of women’s writings of faith from a perspective that privileges spirituality and personal faith as legitimate expressions of an individual worldview, and recognizes, without rejecting outright, the vital role that Christian beliefs played in the formation of individual women’s perceptions of themselves and their society. To ignore or belittle the great significance which Christianity held for these women is to deny them an important element of their self-identification and to take their works out of the spiritual and social context in which they were written.
While the postmodern, post-Christian perspective of feminist literary critics fails to adequately address the issue of women and religion, the feminist biblical scholar’s task of reclaiming women’s spiritual experience and religious roles, which have continued to provide women with strength and comfort within the oppressive confines of patriarchal social and ecclesial institutions, offers a model for the rediscovery of early modern women’s writings of faith as part of a continuous spiritual tradition and community. Although critics such as Betty Travitsky and Elaine Beilin have pointed to the absence of a female literary tradition as a serious obstacle to Englishwomen’s literary production, biblical scholars point to the long-standing Western tradition of women as interpreters of the Bible, a tradition within which many early modern women found their literary expression. The dependence of feminist biblical scholars upon the voices and experiences of women, past and present, builds upon the tradition of biblical hermeneutics as a theoretical and critical reflection on texts and the process of interpretation and reflects the subjective and experiential nature of interpretation. Thus, feminist hermeneutics not only consider how texts mediate God to us, but also explore how that process of mediation affects our relationships with God and with each other. This recognition of interpretation as a subjective process highlights the dominant quality of women’s interpretive work: the embracing of the personal and immediate experience, both in the individual’s understanding of the text and in the exegetical representation of that understanding as a direct response to the text=s apprehended meaning.
Feminist biblical scholars such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rebecca Chopp frequently point to a certain commonality of method and purpose in women’s interpretive works. These common elements have been drawn together into a feminist hermeneutics of praxis, in which women’s experiences and narratives are identified and confirmed to form the basis of a feminist religious discourse which seeks to discover the meaning within biblical texts in order to help regenerate renewed relationships which would benefit not only women but the Christian community as a whole. By drawing upon scholars’ observations of common threads running through the tradition of women’s biblical interpretation, as well as contemporary expressions of women’s spirituality, it is possible to construct a hermeneutical model which provides a theoretical template within which to examine women’s writings of faith. I would suggest that, insofar as a generalization can be made about women’s interpretive texts across historical and cultural contexts, it would be that women’s biblical interpretations have engaged in a hermeneutics of experience, an act of interpretation which involves equally a personal knowing and understanding of the text – that is, an embodied experience of faith in which one’s own self as a spiritual being is apprehended and affirmed in relation to the revealed meaning of the text – and a subjective response to the text – that is, an enacted experience of faith in which that knowledge and understanding of both the text and one’s self are portrayed in active relationship to one=s social and temporal context. Thus, in a hermeneutics of experience the biblical text is translated not only as a lived faith but also as a shared faith; that is, it is not simply a personal meditation on a text that is purely an exercise of private spirituality, but a search for meaning that has a direct impact on the individual’s response and interaction with the community as a whole. This hermeneutical model is not intended to impose an anachronistic world-view – with its embedded social, cultural, and religious assumptions – upon historical texts, but rather to acknowledge the gendered nature of both experience and expression within the text while recognizing the specific context within which the text was written and read.
A female hermeneutic of experience is predicated upon two primary principles. First, the need to take gender into account in any discussion of religious thought, experience, practice, or language. As Ursula King notes, religion has not only been the matrix of cultures and civilizations, but it structures reality – all reality, including that of gender – and encompasses the deepest level of what it means to be human. Thus, the study of religion, as the study of all creative activities of human beings, involves one’s own subjectivity as reflexivity. Second, the recognition that the Christian community as a whole has derived its identity throughout its history as the people of the book. The close interrelationship between gender and text has, of course, been the cornerstone of modern Christian feminism as theologians such as Phyllis Trible have recognized, asserting that the language and symbolism of faith cannot be assumed to be objective and value neutral: as Mary Daly points out in Beyond God the Father, the inherent, yet unacknowledged, patriarchal biases and assumptions of both the original biblical texts and the traditional interpretations of those texts have resulted in the construction and perpetuation of specific gender roles which reflect inequitable and oppressive social and ecclesial systems.
Identifying oneself as a woman and a Christian has been of vital importance to women biblical interpreters. The act of self-identification through the interpretive task represented a response to the absence or negation of their gender within the patriarchal ecclesial hierarchy, in its text, interpretations, customs, and language. The gendered nature of religious discourse as it relates to personal identity is exemplified in the doctrine of the imago Dei, an image which Kari Elisabeth Børresen describes as fundamental in theological anthropology, being a primary example of interaction between the concept of God and the definition of humanity. The imago Dei is portrayed in Genesis 1 as the unique nature of the newly-created humans, that quality which separated them from the other creatures, their creation in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Phyllis Bird points to this creation as the signification of the humans’ direct and unmediated dependence upon God… the exalted, isolated position of adam within the created order, as one uniquely identified with God and charged by God with dominion over the creatures. Despite the ungendered and plural reference to adam, as the human species, in the original Hebrew text, in interpretation and practice, the passage was understood by the patriarchal church to designate adam as singular and male. The unique relationship between human and Creator, therefore, was restricted to man and God. Thus, for a woman of faith to read and write as a self-identified Christian woman was problematized by the context of the patriarchal tradition which had prescribed how she read the text and how she perceived herself.
Nevertheless, women biblical interpreters did establish for themselves an identity and a role within the Christian tradition by adopting a hermeneutics of experience which privileged personal experience and emphasized a subjective response to the text as the first principle of knowing and understanding. By embracing the authority of subjective experience over supposedly objective doctrine and tradition, women were able to discover and name their vision of divine truth. In her extended narrative poem on Christ’s passion and death, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Aemilia Lanyer modestly denies any personal claim to literary skill or theological knowledge, yet she appeals to divine grace and revelation for her inspiration:
A Matter farre beyond my barren skill,
To shew with any Life this map of Death,
This Storie; that whole Worlds with Bookes would fill…
I may behold it with the eye of Faith…
Yet if he please t’illuminate my Spirit,
And give me Wisdom from his holy Hill,
That I may Write part of his glorious Merit,
If he vouchsafe to guide my Hand and Quill (313-315,318,321-324)
This self-identification within and through the text, however, does not remain individual and private. The Christian community has always proclaimed itself to be the ‘people of the book’, whose identity is determined through its relationship with God, and apprehended in the revelation of that relationship in scripture. The exegetical task of interpretation presupposes the close relationship between the interpreter and the community; as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes, biblical interpretation is concerned with the divine presence dwelling among the people of God in the past and present. The interpreter, acting as a member of the community and conditioned by a common historical and cultural context, mediates the text to the community as revealed meaning. Lanyer prefaces her Salve Deus with a series of dedicatory poems that appeal to a community of learned and pious noblewomen. While ostensibly these letters follow a standard model of courtly requests for patronage and favour, Lanyer particularly recommends her volume to each woman as a spiritual guide, pointing to Christ’s specific relationships with women, and the prominence of women in the Crucifixion and Resurrection narrative:
‘…it pleased our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, without the assistance of man, beeing free from originall and all other sinnes, from the time of his conception, till the houre of his death, to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed woman, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, even when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also in the last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious resurrection to the rest of his Disciples.’ (‘To the Vertuous Reader’)
Lanyer presents her text to her women readers as an expression of the revealed meaning of God=s relationship specifically to women, a meaning that has ramifications, not only for women’s own perceptions of themselves and their relationship with God, but also for the interrelationships of the whole community: as she says, ‘this have I done, to make knowne to the world, that all women deserve not to be blamed… All which is sufficient to inforce all good Christians and honourable minded men to speak reverently of our sexe, and especially of all virtuous and good women.’ As a female interpreter of scripture, Lanyer apprehends the text as embodied experience, envisioning a personal relationship between the individual and God as revealed in the text, and then shares that vision with the community as an enacted experience, the active and practical expression of faith. Thus, through a hermeneutics of experience, women writers of faith engage both the text and the community in a discourse which privileges not only the personal experience of faith – faith that is lived as self-realization rather than as imposed dogma – but also the concrete and practical manifestation of faith – faith at work within the community rather than faith as a theoretical construct.
While feminist literary scholarship has broadened the range of contemporary critical discourse through the introduction of interdisciplinary studies as a means of opening up new forms of interpreting the literature and understanding its contexts and significance, the academic disciplines that have become integral to critical dialogue – history, gender and cultural studies, social and political theory, anthropology, psychology – tend to be very indicative of postmodern critical secularism. Perhaps it is not surprising that theology is not widely considered as an avenue for interdisciplinary dialogue, as it has become so distant from the rest of the academic community in the postmodern university. It is, however, both pertinent and necessary to draw theology in the discussion of early modern women and their writings of faith in order to address the issues of faith, identity, and culture from a perspective and understanding that is capable of representing that of the women themselves. The adoption of a feminist hermeneutical model provides a critical counterpoint to the current feminist literary debate, filling in some of the crucial gaps surrounding the subject of women and religion in the early modern period, and revealing how those Renaissance womanly virtues of chastity, humility, piety, constancy, and obedience, were redefined and reclaimed by women writers of faith, and transformed from the attributes of weakness and subordination into ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory.’