Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation
“…[T]he depths of anger and alienation to which some women point are not inappropriate. It really has been ‘that bad.’ Unless one is willing to take the journey into that deeper anger, even to risk going a bit mad, one really will never understand the depths of the evil of sexism. The great importance of a feminist thinker like Mary Daly is precisely that she insists on taking herself further and further into that journey and insisting that others who wish to be honest follow her. She lays before our eyes the ‘passion drama’ of female crucifixion on the cross of male sexism.” Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, page 187
Mary Daly’s book Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (1973) is often considered one of the classics of feminist theological literature. The book is essentially a critique of Christian religion as the exemplary force behind patriarchy. Even almost forty years after being written, I find the book to be just as shocking, revealing, and challenging as it probably was for the original audience, and, even more, I find the book to be just as important and necessary.
Daly writes that the purpose of the book is to be, at least in a sense, a theology and philosophy (both “torn free from [their] function of legitimating patriarchy”): “For my purpose is to show that the women’s revolution, insofar as it is true to its own essential dynamics, is an ontological spiritual revolution, pointing beyond the idolatries of sexist society and sparking creative action in and toward transcendence. The becoming of women implies universal human becoming. It has everything to do with the search for the ultimate meaning and reality, which some would call God” (Daly, 6). Not only does Daly create a beautiful and powerful attempt towards an ontological understanding of universal human becoming, but in so doing she reveals the very harmful connection between patriarchy and Christianity—indeed, she would argue, the two cannot be separated.
What then follows is an attempt to both legitimatize an argument for a “theology” of feminism but also legitimatize the need for feminism to confront Christianity. Daly uses Tillich often in her argument, particularly his notion of ontology, which Daly claims can be potentially liberating, but stops short of being so for failing to confront sexism.
Perhaps most enlightening is Daly’s humorous take on Christianity: the idea of a male God sending down a God-Man. She claims that if God is man, than man is God. Daly then calls for a castrating of this male deity, and the patriarchal androcentric religion and culture that springs forth (ejaculates) its way into the world, prohibiting and cutting off true religion and androgynous society from taking place. While I describe Daly’s take as humorous, as I believe it is intentionally meant to be taken with good humor, I do believe that the points she raises are very serious (and also intentionally so). Is a male savior able to save women? Even if the God-Man’s ministry was proto-feminist, does that really matter since the God-man has been utilized by Christianity as a legitimization of patriarchy? These are questions that cannot be answered lightly—as often has been and continues to be done in theological circles—and, I believe, for Daly, the answer to both the questions after profound thought is ‘no’—the God-Man is relevant only insofar as he represents a broken deity that must be overcome by universal human becoming.
Daly then goes on to speak of the death of God the Father, and the subsequent ability to participate in God the verb as community. She also has a chapter on Eve, in which she reinterprets the Fall of Eve as a fall into freedom, a fall into being. She also writes of a phallic morality that is entwined with God the Father and what she calls "Christolatry," and rejecting them, calls for a feminist ethic to be made. She ends with a reinterpretation of the telos, the Final Cause, freeing it from a static-Aristatilian understanding and instead interpreting the final cause to be a continually changing state of becoming.
Daly’s work clearly falls in the radical feminist camp, as she readily admits, so her work is certainly controversial among those on both sides of the argument—those who believe Christianity can be saved from patriarchy (or those who feel Christianity is fine as is), but also among many feminists who believe that God-talk is irrelevant to the feminist becoming. I believe that both criticisms should be heard and considered, but I also believe that Daly is on to something important that also must be heard and considered.
Daly has also been criticized by third-generation feminists for not taking into account the roles of culture in what it means to be woman. Certainly this can be seen with Daly’s criticism of black liberation theology and others for avoiding confronting patriarchy within their own communities and the larger society as a whole. As a radical feminist, Daly stands clearly in her view that patriarchy is the root cause of oppression, and all other movements to end oppression—ecology, the civil rights movement, etc.—have to confront patriarchy if they hope to be successful in moving towards human liberation and becoming. Even so, I did not see Beyond God the Father to be at fundamental odds with third-generation feminism—while Daly speaks of an androgynous community and of women binding together and sharing a sort of community, I do not think that either of these are at the expense of cultural and ethnic traditions. However, this is also the first book of Daly’s I have read and I can definitely see those threads being spun out to an unfortunately more exclusive distinction between what it means to be woman and what it means to be of a specific cultural, ethnic, social, or creedal context (as opposed to a more holistic approach).
I end this review by lifting up the quote from Rosemary Radford Reuther’s book Sexism and God-Talk that I began with. Many people—primarily those who do not consider themselves feminists, but also those that do—find a book like Beyond God the Father to be full of a deep anger that they find very uncomfortable. Like Reuther, I feel that the anger expressed by Daly is not only appropriate, but necessary to understand the depths of the hurt that patriarchy causes, particularly the hurt that Christianity causes. The anger is part of the journey, but it need not be the end. But it is nonetheless important to be able to immerse yourself in the anger and alienation, to “go through a certain level of truth” (Reuther, 188), before taking the next step. “To skip over this experience is to become ‘reconciling’ in a way that is basically timid and accommodating and not really an expression of personal freedom” (ibid). In other words, Daly’s work is important, and has a lasting importance, because it takes us where most of us are reluctant to go: to confronting the beast for what it is and not backing down. Only after the separation can new growth begin.
Post Script: You will see a new page go up on this blog in the next few days! This page will be a book recommendation page. Basically, it'll be a list of books important to my growth and understanding in the areas of feminism and ecology simply offered in the hope that they could be of some help to those who are seeking/exploring/finding/becoming/being found in those areas =D