This post is the second – and final – part of my request for help to decide which topic would be the best choice for my undergraduate thesis. (You may have noticed that I started off talking about three topics, but luckily even just the process of writing an outline has allowed me to eliminate my least favourite!)
This final idea is the one I have done the most research into previously as it is part of a much broader project of feminist theology and issues of social justice with which I am interested. The less positive result of this research is that I have ended up with far too many questions to be answered in a single extended essay, and so part of my job with this would be to narrow down a specific question for a dissertation topic.
My interest in this particular area stemmed initially from an article I read entitled ‘Reorganising victimisation: the intersection between liturgy and domestic violence’ by Marjorie Procter-Smith. In this article, Procter-Smith asks what about Christian liturgy fails to stop domestic violence among the participating couples and she concludes that we should remove all symbols of submission from liturgy on the basis that this promotes the idea of women’s submission to men who are then violent.
At the time this struck me as an important observation, but one whose conclusion was more extreme than necessary. It seemed to me that not to draw any distinction between different types of submissive behaviour was far too crude.
As luck would have it, counter evidence which supported my feelings on this came from an unlikely source – a book by Marie Keenan on the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church (Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture). One thesis, laid out in the latter part of the book, was that the driving force behind this abuse was not a deliberate attempt to exploit those who were less powerful than themselves, but stemmed from their own identification with loss of control and vulnerability which led to a lack of recognition that the children they were exploiting were in fact less powerful than themselves in the relevant respects.
What I took from this was the realisation that problems can arise from a lack of appreciation or appropriate recognition of power differentials, meaning that we cannot simply ignore the possibility of power dynamics or indeed act as though there were none – removing symbols of submission will not solve our problems.
The question which most powerfully connects these two points of view to the question I am investigating is one posed by Rachel Adler: whether disparities of power and authority are inherently oppressive or whether it is the abuse of these disparities that is unjust.
If the former is correct, and it is the existence of power dynamics that is problematic, then clearly we must say that this applies only to some power relations and not others. The relationships of parents to children, of teachers to students, are important and essential for healthy development but nonetheless do contain a relation of power which those at the higher differential are compelled not to exploit.
If this is an accurate representation, then, of course, we would want to class the relationship between ourselves and God in this ‘healthy’ category and the investigation would be able to go no further; though of course it may still be interesting to discover where to draw the line between the two categories, and to consider whether this relates to whether they are reflective of the nature of the individual or socially constructed, or if perhaps it is a reflection of the psychological or otherwise effect on the participants.
On the other hand, perhaps rather than considering simply a relation of two people we need to think about this in terms of what kind of relationship they are involved in. Power relations are more complex than a simple binary of ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ – a theme which I will return to shortly. In this case we should ask what kind of submission God is looking for from us. How we might attempt this is another question beyond the purview of this post.
If, however, the correct approach is the latter – that it is the abuse of power relations that are problematic – or indeed if it is some combination of the two, then we need to find out how we should or shouldn’t act on or within those power relations.
This issue links to my overall investigation because a major part of this is about what are appropriate actions to symbolise and cultivate that relationship, i.e. how we express our submission or dominance. As far as we are concerned, these two issues come together because we are trying to determine what kind of submission we are required to have in relation to God in order that we may act according to that relation and express it in our worship of Him.
Thus came my interest in discussing power dynamics at the dinner table (and any other contexts that I could work this topic into conversation). I have been particularly interested in the prevalent reaction of those I talk to: the assumption that I am discussing the sexual sphere.
I believe that human sexual relations are paradigmatic of the wider pattern of power dynamics in relationships as sex is such an obvious example of an action fundamentally tied to the gain and loss of control. I also believe that lessons learnt in this area can and should be translated to other areas of life.
The greater impact that this had, however, was to make me intensely aware of how dissociated sexual dominance and submission was in many people’s minds from other relationships, and to make me wonder whether this was not in fact quite a dangerous oversight.
In discussing this with a friend, she said that her experience of dominant-submissive relationships was incredibly similar to the conservative Christian model of ‘headship’ for heterosexual relationships. In fact, we concluded that the main difference between the two is that an enormous amount of work has been done by certain factions of the BDSM community to create safeguarding practices to protect the interests and well-being of those involved in so-labelled ‘dominant-submissive’ relationships, something which the conservative church has systematically failed to do.
This topic raises many questions, not least of which the concern that dominance-submission is not an appropriate model for human relations, sexual or otherwise, and that to impose this model upon all relationships is to disregard the possibility of equality.
This may be supposed to be a direct equality or a more complex understanding of ‘mutual submission’ but nonetheless, as interesting as these questions are – and I can admit to having planned on a full exposition of this area before I realised quite how long this post was already going to be – they are ultimately non-essential for the question I am attempting to investigate which is: ‘How should we understand the demand for our submission to God?’
The one thing I will say is that I am a firm believer that it is nonsensical to talk about a relationship which does not have a power dynamic. All relations between people, and in particular human sexual relationships, have aspects of power and control about them – be that control of the self or of another, or even the loss of control which comes with making yourself vulnerable to another person – and the question we need to ask ourselves is how those power dynamics are balanced, not whether they exist.
Regardless of whether or not we should be submitting in any way or in what way to each other, we are definitely called to submit to God as Christians, and so in this sense the question becomes, rather than ‘Should we submit to God?’, ‘How should we submit to God?’
We have a responsibility to relate to God, not just to have God relate to us, and this becomes incredibly important when we begin to discuss what our relationship with God should be.
The relevance of this point was highlighted most strikingly in a conversation I had with a guest visiting Oriel last term. She was a GP, and at one point, whilst commenting on an issue regarding Domestic Violence, remarked that it was incredible to see the difference that was made as the notion became de-stigmatised, insofar as victim-blaming was reduced; authorities became more sensitive, such as police treatment of those making accusations; and awareness campaigns made more and more women (and children) aware that they did not have to put up with that kind of violence.
Clearly, it is important not just for the person at the higher differential to understand that an abuse of power is going on, but also the person at the lower differential, so that they can seek to relate differently. Similarly, we need to be aware of healthy and unhealthy ways that we could submit to God so that we can prevent the harm caused by those who teach us to relate to God in an unhealthy way. If we can understand what healthy or unhealthy models of submission to God would look like then we can relate to God in a way which reflects what we need, not simply what we may have been told.
One way in which we may discover what is healthy is through adopting the BDSM safeguarding practices of examining what we need from a relationship. Surely, it is not controversial to suggest that God, as the ultimate towards whom all of our desires are truly aimed, will be exactly and perfectly what we need, even if this truth isn’t always obvious to us. Sarah Coakley has written in detail on the divine ecstatic yearning of Trinitarian spirituality and how the gap that we feel can only truly be filled by the infiniteness of God.
In utilising this practice we have to ask of ourselves how we need to relate to God, to submit to God; in what way is God utterly necessary to us, in what way can this submission be healthy, even life-giving, conforming to an appropriate power dynamic. Thus, we may find the exact way in which we need to submit ourselves, to give over control of ourselves, and that God is exactly the right ‘thing’ for us to submit to.
Before the criticisms can arrive, pointing out my assumption that we all have a need to submit ourselves in some way, I would just like to comment briefly on one area in which this kind of thought has been challenged.
I should first point out that it seems far too simplistic to rely on a binary model of ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ labels. These may be terms used in describing BDSM culture, but they are generally accepted to be rough labels – assigning a particular role or particular aspect of the self, not a proclamation on the totality of the individual being.
That is to say: someone who identifies as a ‘submissive’ in BDSM practices is not submissive in every aspect of their personality or in every part of their life, nor are they necessarily practising this all of the time. These terms begin to break down at a more detailed level of analysis.
Secondly, there is a real problem in using these terms due to the difficulty in defining them. What actions or more-easily recognised qualities do these labels translate into? For instance, is submission equivalent to obedience? But in many circumstances the one who chooses to obey has the power to stop obeying, at which point the one being obeyed cannot force their will to be carried out. The submissive then has a certain power over the person they are obeying – they are choosing to fulfil their wishes – is this still acceptable then as a definition of pure submission? Is this to be regarded as submission at all?
It seems that relations of power and control between people are much more complex than such a false binary would allow, and this is due in part simply to what makes us human – our autonomy, our wills and ability to consent, to decide, and to involve ourselves or not.
This becomes relevant to the point I’m trying to make by comparing this understanding to arguments made by other eminent scholars. In the work of some thinkers, some social groups (e.g. women, black people, those living in extreme poverty) are seen as consistently oppressed and in need of liberation. This may be used to argue that they should not be told to submit – a fair and important point. However, it seems crazy, given the issue just discussed, to argue that what one particular person needs is entirely to submit (or indeed entirely to dominate).
This suggestion, that models of submission should not apply to a particular social group, is often supposed to be a compensatory gesture: they have already submitted too much/are so prone to submission/submit so much in x aspect of their lives, that they should not submit any more.
But submitting to God is about each individual’s relationship to God and what they need from it. Even if all that someone needs from the human sphere of interactions is not to submit any longer, the relation between self and God is primary, basic and more compelling than anything in the broken human world, or at least it should be if envisioned correctly.
The writers such as Serene Jones who propose alternative models of relation are making interesting and valuable points in terms of how we should be called to live our Christian lives and how oppressed people survive in the human world of guessing-games about God. But ultimately, many of her concerns should fall into the questions of how we relate to God, how we submit to God in a way that does not shatter the fragile remainder of our selves but makes it whole again. And this is something which can be true only for each individual, it cannot be defined or distributed on the basis of the social classes that one is part of.