Pamela Sue Anderson has just published her second full-length book on the feminist philosophy of religion and I would argue that it has been well worth the wait! The ruling metaphor of the book is taken directly from an essay by poet/feminist Adrienne Rich (“When We Dead Awaken,” 1971) who wrote about the necessity of ‘re-visioning’ the past. Re-visioning indicates the vital life-giving work of looking back at the traditions of the past, ‘seeing with new eyes,’ entering from a new critical – in this case, feminist – direction. Only by confronting powerful past assumptions about women contained within their styles and stories can we hope to move on from the distortions all of us – men, women, the transgendering – have suffered on the account of sexist or misogynistic structures and systems.
In this spirit of re-visioning Anderson provides us with a range of meticulously worked through examples. Feminists of course have been discussing the issues for a while – in 1998, the year in which Anderson’s first essay into this area – A Feminist Philosophy of Religion phil, Blackwells – was published, another feminist philosopher of religion, Grace Jantzen proposed her own solution – Becoming Divine, Manchester University Press – to the problem of sexist or misogynistic structures in ‘religion’ by suggesting that what women needed was a parallel concept of the feminine divine, that could contest the violent, death-obsessed stories of masculine divinity in the Christian west. Now as then Anderson resists this path on the grounds that divinity is not a free-floating concept, but one already caught up in a web or gendered interpretation. Yet for those who think the issue is ‘over and done with’ Anderson’s book shows clearly that she thinks a kind of scepticism and complacency about gender still very much exists, not the least in discussions that take place under the heading of the academic study of the philosophy of religion. It is a kind of scepticism or complacency made apparent, for example, in the words of a theologian like, T J Mawson, who claims that ‘“no sensible theist has ever thought that God really does have a gender”’ or in the view that provided one is ‘clear-headed’, patriarchal bias can be avoided (Anderson, 2012, 176). As Anderson patiently but quite relentlessly, persists “the point is to question whether ‘clear-headed’ thinking can avoid any gender-bias in the traditional philosophical arguments for Christian theism, especially when such terms as person, action and love, along with adjectives like personal, incorporeal, loving and the pronouns he, his and him are all applied to God’ (Anderson, 2012, 176). There are also many references in this book to the work of French philosopher, Michèle Le Doeuff and to her idea – the ‘philosophical imaginary’ – that whilst gender bias and sexism are not very often on display in plain sight in our civilised western society, they invariably inform the spaces behind or inbetween, where we find ‘stories about men and women, myths about divine and human, imagery and asides about male omniscience and female humility’ (205-206). In other words, the fact that someone like Mawson can afford to ignore his own ‘epistemic locatedness’ has as much to do with the philosophical imaginary that is sustaining his unacknowledged privilege as a male academic theologian – the assumption of male neutrality – as it has to do with any genuinely universal validity to his argument, philosophically interrogated.
And this is what Anderson dares to do in a field that is notoriously challenging for women, defying in a spirit of love and justice, any suggestion that women cannot be philosophers of religion or that they cannot enter and offer insight to any philosophical discussion they might choose. She is rigorous, tenacious and undaunted, equally at home with the broad traditions of analytical and continental philosophy and always ready to challenge, on reasoned grounds, the implication that ‘here at least’ there is no ‘gender issue.’ So for example, in citing a discussion held in 1999, between the ‘continental’ philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Oxford ‘analytical’ philosopher, A.W. Moore on the ineffable – already a rich and lively philosophical debate touching on knowledge, truth and the infinite – she does not dismiss the discussion but neither does she flinch from making the point that these considerable thinkers do not make reference to gender when it would be philosophically appropriate to do so:
There may be a common core concern in the variety of masculinist, feminist and other philosophical attempts to show what is ineffable. Yet when we add gender to the mix it suddenly becomes clear that values are added to the task: philosophy is called to be serious or playful, sense-making or nonsense-producing, effable or ineffable, rational or corrupt; the values of these terms and their gender seem initially arbitrary; but they matter when it comes to ethics and justice, if not a sort of truth, that is worth having. Certainly, if we follow Moore an urge to orientate our finiteness, in knowing how to be finite, exists and it seems most valuable. However, to exploit this urge, in order to establish a (more) common concern: to better orientate our finiteness, we do perhaps need to admit the gendering of our relations. (Anderson, 2012, 85-86).
Critically speaking, whatever ‘religion’ might be in this philosophical context – and Anderson recognises other kinds of assumptions about the use of the term, aside from those relating to privileges of gender – this re-visioning or rich philosophical probing of epistemic locatedness in relation to traditional so-called ‘religious’ stories about love, reason and truth, provides us with an impressive model of how to ‘come at’ the philosophical imaginary, not simply destroying or dismissing the texts and discussions of the past, but having the courage to take them on from new perspectives – and therefore being able to ‘live afresh’ (“When We Dead Awaken’’).