Radical Orthodoxy’s Cure for Misogyny

Call me nostalgic, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of Radical Orthodoxy.

I’ve recently been writing on the controversy between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ (my specific interest is how they disagree about the importance of Kierkegaard and the nature of paradox). In the process of reading the book again, I was stopped short by Milbank’s accusation that that Žižek ‘favors essentially gnostic thinkers (Boehme, Hegel and Schelling) for whom birth implies alienation and the involvement of evil, thinkers for whom birth must be painful, through ontological necessity and not mere ontological lapse. But it is just such metaphysical misogyny which Catholic orthodoxy alone has always challenged’ (194; my emphasis).

The implication is clear: Milbank accepts the literal sense of Genesis 3, in which childbirth is only painful because of the Fall. Originally, ‘in the (unreachable and untraceable) prelapsarian golden age . . . in which human beings took full part’ (171) there was no such pain. For Milbank, to argue otherwise is to give in to ‘metaphysical misogyny’, to present an ontology in which pain during childbirth is fixed in the nature of things.

This is a fascinating exercise in contemporary Catholic apologetics. It outbids feminism by claiming a higher form of feminism. In this ‘higher form’, all trauma and pain can only be seen as alien, and ultimately empty, intrusions of irrational evil. Ontologically, the only reality is a peaceful and harmonious one, in which women have babies without murmur. To suggest otherwise is to inscribe ‘hatred’ of women into the nature of things.

This is bizarre on a number of levels. First, it depends upon the pure fantasy of an Arcadian golden age, which stands in wilful denial of human evolution. Secondly, it attributes pain in childbirth to an ‘ontological lapse’ – to sin, basically. Rescuing us from the supposed spectre of a woman-hating pagan nature, it delivers us into the comforting thought that ‘if it hurts, it’s your own fault really’.

Finally, it ties in with a general orientation of this kind of thinking: secular feminism, it asserts, is predicated on the war of the sexes, upon the need to fight a positive evil. The radically orthodox feminist, by contrast, sees salvation in recalling the world back to a proper, harmonious ordering of things. In other words, this ‘higher’ feminism denounces fighting feminism as a symptom of the problem it seeks to cure, one which further fragments and traumatises the world. This is the line of Sarah Palin: secular feminism turns women into whining victims.The only alternative, then, is to remain within the hierarchical structures of family and church and to reorient them to their proper calling. A woman’s salvation can only lie in and through a restored patriarchal order. And, if we look beyond childbirth to issues of domestic violence and rape, we might wonder how this differs from the recommendation that an abused woman sticks with the abusive partner in the hope of redemption. The logical extension of this perspective is that the solution to women being made to feel like victims is to deny the process of victimisation exists. If you say rape is a reality, you are ontologising rape, and you are therefore a misogynist!

I am not attributing this kind of absurdity to Milbank. However, the logical structure of it is not far from what he actually says about childbirth. And I am tempted to see in this not merely an unfortunate symptom of contemporary conservative apologetics, but its constitutive core. Peace is proclaimed, but only via the myth of the pure, Edenic virginal mother who never was; the finite material world is celebrated, but only by dematerialising the female body; creation is liberated and healed, but only in and through women who keep their place – in silence.

3 thoughts on “Radical Orthodoxy’s Cure for Misogyny

  1. It is funny. When I went to that ex-gay speaker event the woman, a former secular atheist, said she thought she could just be a biblical feminist but then she saw that male headship was in place prefall and so it’s a protection for women. All this to say, the prelapsarian golden age stuff does really lend itself to these anti feminist moves. Also the gender essentialism in this view is just gross.

  2. ‘But it is just such metaphysical misogyny which Catholic orthodoxy alone has always challenged’ – I literally had to read that three times. Is he talking about *the same* Catholic orthodoxy that exists in this universe or is there some other parallel universe where Catholic Orthodoxy isn’t a synonym for explicit and sustained, outright misogyny? I’m confused.

    My got.

  3. It occurred to me that I was – in one respect – being unfair to Milbank. After all, he could respond that by applying the logic of what he says about childbirth to domestic/sexual abuse, I am making a category mistake. The pain of childbirth is not inflicted by a human agent; sexual violence, for instance, is a human evil to be resisted in a way which (in our postlapsarian state) cannot be applied to childbirth. In this way, the radically orthodox feminist could still name and oppose such violence without ‘ontologising’ it, since it is a contingent human sin.

    However, on reflection, I still hold to what I posted, because the effect of Milbank’s position is to make the pain of childbirth itself a contingent effect of human evil, which has no place in creation. In effect, the logic is not to make rape into something as ‘natural’ as childbirth, but to make childbirth as experienced by women today into something ‘unnatural’, an evil inflicted upon them (for which they share the guilt). As you can probably guess, I hardly think this makes matters any better for radically orthodox ‘feminism’.

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